When you Need Help…
John M. Shanken-Kaye Ph.D.
Being a parent is probably the most challenging, rewarding, frustrating, engaging, difficult job most of us will ever have. In spite of this fact, most of us face the role of parents with no clear idea of what is effective or ineffective in helping our children to become happy, fulfilled and responsible adults. In general, people parent as they were parented or in direct opposition to how they were parented but, except for a few self-help books and well intentioned albeit occasionally annoying advice from friends and relatives, we all sort of muck our way through. Because children are incredibly resilient, this is often good enough. Sometimes, however, we get stuck.
You know you’re stuck when both you and your child (children) have been unhappy for a prolonged period of time. How long a period is too long depends upon several factors, but I would suggest that conflict or anger lasting more than two weeks and/or recurring frequently without resolution should tip you off that there is a problem.
There is a saying I’m found of; “If you keep doing what you’ve done, you’re going to get what you got.” That is to say; when something doesn’t work, it’s liable to continue not working even if you do it harder, louder, longer. When you and your family are locked into patterns of conflict, one certainty is: things must change. Since you are the parent and the adult, the changes are orchestrated and begun by you. Some tips include:
- Look at your rules and expectations. One sure fire way to eliminate misbehavior is to have fewer rules. In general rules ought to protect the health, safety, and well being of your child. Some rules go far beyond this into attempting to control or micro-manage all of the child’s behavior. Children need to have choices that are real in order to learn responsible behavior. Failure often teaches more than success. Don’t be afraid to allow your child to make the wrong choice.
- Make the consequences predictable and consistent. A child is helped in making appropriate choices if she knows what the consequences of a decision are going to be prior to making that decision.
- Consequences are not punishments. Punishments are emotional and focus the thoughts of the child upon you. (i.e. Mommy is mean. I can’t wait until I’m bigger so I can hit her. I hate you!) Consequences are the predictable outcomes of choices and focus thinking upon the child’s behavior. Consequences, whenever possible, ought to have something to do with the misbehavior (e.g. breaking curfew leads to reduced curfew or grounding).
- Control yourself. The best teaching a parent can give a child is to model appropriate behavior. Screaming at a child who is impulsive or not exhibiting good self-control will not encourage better behavior. It is a cliché but true; children emulate what they see. If they are treated with respect they tend to be more respectful.
- Don’t blame yourself for your child’s choices. This disrespects both your child and yourself. People have choices (even children). Just because they don’t make the choice we desire, does not make us bad parents. The only control we really have is over ourselves. We constantly strive to alter our behavior to increase the likelihood that our children will alter their behavior. Remember, when you are angry and frustrated, your child is probably angry and frustrated too. Successful strategies take everyone’s needs into account.
Okay, so how do you know if you need professional help? Well, there is no hard and fast rule but certainly:
- If anyone is being physically or emotionally abused. Hitting and yelling are not likely to increase your probability of success.
- If there is substance abuse on the part of anyone in the family (known or suspected)
- If you feel “at the end of your rope”.
- If you or your child is exhibiting signs of depression (i.e. a change in habits or mood lasting more than two weeks could be depression. Children who are depressed do not always appear sad.)
- If, in spite of all your efforts, your child is failing academically and/or socially.
- Anytime you feel an objective third party can provide fresh insight.
Remember, counseling is just another tool you can use to help your family. Good counseling often includes all family members and is focused on solutions not just problems and history. Counselors for adolescents are bound by law in PA to maintain a young person’s confidentiality. This does not mean that you cannot provide them with information about your concerns. Most experienced counselors will find ways to encourage young people to include their parents when the counselor feels it is important. Even if you have been to counseling before and found it not to be effective; try again. There are many different counselors with different styles and personalities. When you find the counselor that meshes with your child you will be amazed at the progress your family will make. Don’t worry if a spouse or child says they refuse to participate. Make the appointment and trust in the counselor to help engage the absent or reticent family members.
There are many sources of good referrals for counselors. Friends are possibly the best, with school guidance counselors and teachers a close second. Call two or three counselors and speak to them briefly over the phone. If you cannot speak with the counselor, they have significant information about their experience on web pages. Include your child, when appropriate to find one who appeals to them and you and make the appointment. Just making the appointment often helps people feel a sense of improvement because they know they have taken a step to a new way of doing parenting and being a parent.