“What have we done wrong as parents?”
“Did I cause this?”
Or even worse, “Why can’t they just discipline their kid better?”
The first two are phrases I hear from parents I work with whose children suffer from a mental illness. The latter is something I hear from other people who just don’t seem to get it. Around one in five children suffer from mental illness (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/su6202a1.htm). This can be anything from depression, ADHD, anxiety, OCD, and more. Some mental illnesses are caused by the environment, some genetics, and some a combination. Too often though, I think we want to blame the parents (or ourselves).
I am a parent of children with mental illness and have worked with tons of kids with mental illness. I can say with certainty that sometimes suffering from a mental disorder is purely from a genetics. With these kids, what works for many other kids in terms of discipline, support, and rewards will not work. For example, my son has trouble with anxiety. We have tried traditional behavior charts with him but this has only led to increased anxiety. Instead of punishing him for this, we have adjusted our system. It has taken a lot of trial and error (and we’re not quite there yet). This causes embarrassment at times. When he acts out (screaming, yelling, throwing himself on the floor) in public, I know I’m being judged. The stares and whispers say it all. I also know my clients and their parents feel they are being judged as they have shared their experiences with me.
I beg everyone to think twice next time they see a child acting out. Sometimes all I can do is let my kid finish his tantrum (even though he seems too old for tantrums). Sometimes I need a smile to know that you understand I’m doing my best. Because I am. Most of us are just trying to do our best.
Recently I asked my nine-year-old daughter this question. Luckily she did not. I wanted to be the one to talk to her about it versus “learning” from friends. I’ve talked about having “The Talk” in a past blog but I’d thought I share my experience of doing it as a parent.
My daughter was in the shower when we had the talk. I felt that was a little less intimidating all around since we weren’t sitting and staring at each other. I told her I wanted to talk about something and then simply asked, “Do you know where babies come from?” As she said no, I discussed some basics about sex including correct anatomy terms and explaining eggs and sperm. I made sure to include some of my and my husband’s values. I let her know that we would prefer her to be married before engaging in sex but at least to be in love. We talked about why people would have sex when not wanting a baby. We even talked about how gay couples have babies as she had some excellent questions and guesses about how that would work.
It went much smoother than I think people thought it would go. I know that when I told my close friends and family that we had The Talk, they were surprised I did it at such a young age. But I don’t think nine is such a young age. And my daughter is young for her grade (she is in the 4th grade) so she is in class with kids that are closer to eleven. Also, I knew I wanted to talk to her about before it became embarrassing for her (and maybe me) to do so. I want her to always feel she can ask me questions about sex or anything. I believe this conversation made that easier.
“I want it now”
“What will you give me if I do it?”
“I’m not doing it for nothing”
I hear these statements from my own kids and other people’s kids. It seems the American society has shifted to start “buying” positive behavior. For example, you take your kids grocery shopping and you tell them if they behave, you will buy them candy. Your kid gets all As and Bs and you give them money. They respectfully and appropriately interact with your elderly relative and you reward them with a new game.
I would love to say some of my examples are rare but they are not. Kids should behave at the grocery store and with relatives because it is appropriate and consequences given if not. Students should work to the best of their ability at school and the expectations should be clear what that means. For example, a middle school student who has missing assignments is not working to the best of his ability. Set up consequences for missing assignments. Set up consequences for goofing off in class. Set up consequences for not engaging in studying. A fun reward can be given for excellent grades but strive toward an activity done as a family (maybe dinner at a favorite restaurant or the family goes bowling).
I believe kids can earn an allowance (commission in my house) for chores but they need some chores that are mandatory. So maybe sweeping and mopping earns money but cleaning your room is done just because it is your space. Or cleaning up after a pet is done because you enjoy the pet as part of the family and washing dad’s car earns some money.
This change can’t happen without a conversation as a family. It will be hard for the kids to shift their thinking. This means some of the behavior will be inappropriate and unpleasant (think tantrum at the grocery store). Consequences should be set and clear. They need to be enforced CONSISTENTLY! This is very hard but crucial. Don’t worry about being embarrassed (easier said than done I know). Anyone with a child should understand.
I want to add this doesn’t just happen in the home or just by parents. I recently had an incident with my son where he became violent with his sister at karate and then started yelling and screaming when I took him out of the class for the day. The staff there tried to give candy to get him to calm down. He declined, stating, “my mom’s not going to let me have that.” I replied, “he’s right.” He knew I wasn’t going to pay him with candy to be quiet. I was embarrassed and would have loved for him to stop making a scene but I had to think long term and want to teach him to appropriately cope instead. We have to start with changes in the home as parents, and then work to teach others to learn other ways too.
JENNIFER EULBERG, MA, LPC
Welcome Jennifer, our new blogger!
Jennifer is a counselor at Sandhill who specializes in depression, self-esteem, and grief & loss. Get to know Jennifer as she shares her perspectives on life, contemplates value themes, and offers gentle encouragement.
THANK YOU to Stefanie Pisarkiewicz, LPC for her blog contributions from November 2014 - February 2019!