Out Of Control

When you have a difficult child living in your home.

With the increased numbers of children in homes who have experienced divorce and other domestic problems, parents today are endlessly searching for answers to the challenges presented by troubled children. Some of these children can make parents crazy, because parenting approaches that work for other children don’t help at all; and even worse, what worked with the child yesterday, doesn’t work today. Sound familiar?

I know what you are thinking, “another one of those articles about being a good parent— with an expert saying: be consistent, stay calm and make sure the child gets plenty of tender, loving care.” Not so fast. In some cases this advice is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

What works is a combination of staying focused on the goal for each child, and knowing what you need to be doing more of and less of. Your goal is a progression of having each child experience safety, security, acceptance, belonging, trust, relationship, self-understanding and personal worth, and doing so in the correct order. These critical components of being a successful human being must come one at a time, as in stair steps, and rely on the foundation of the step that came before it. Without safety you can’t have security, without acceptance you cannot feel like you belong and without trust you cannot have a successful relationship.

I ask myself what step I am on with each child I am working with and focus on getting to the next step— one child and one situation at a time. Here are some guidelines:

  1. Translate the child’s behavior and energy to understand what is going on inside of him (don’t get sucked into his words— words are seldom helpful).
  2. Give attention to things you want to see more of (don’t spend your day giving most of your energy to misbehavior, because what you give attention to, you get more of).
  3. Lead with thinking and not with emotions (don’t let the child decide how you are going to act or feel; remember that feelings are easy targets for children who want to wound others).

So what about being consistent, staying calm and showing tender, loving care? I find consistency overrated. This does not apply to responsive children; they need your consistency. Troubled, angry and/or manipulative children will use your consistency against you. To disrupt a child who gets stuck in the same negative behavior habits, I suggest creative inconsistency. What this means is that you must first disrupt the cycle between you and the child. He is used to doing his thing (misbehavior) and waiting for you to do your thing (correcting the behavior). You don’t like this cycle, but your child does because he feels in control. If you are tired of this dance, then change it.

First, short circuit the behavior pattern and then intervene more effectively. For example, if your bundle of joy has a habit of not liking dinner each night and colorfully sharing her culinary review, then start the dinner by saying, “Jessica, you only get dessert tonight when you have found something wrong with every aspect of tonight’s dinner.” After the child looks up at you wondering, “Has she finally lost it?” she then has a dilemma (that I love to put children in)— do I follow directions and criticize, or do I refuse to cooperate and break my pattern? You win either way. We call this prescribing the symptom, and it can also be called putting the child into a therapeutic bind. The goal is not to frustrate the child, but to frustrate the behavior.

Most parenting classes will tell you to stay calm. That is fine most of the time. However, when I am ignored by children, or if the child wants me to repeat essentially everything I say, I might try yelling my thoughts and directions. I don’t do this in an angry way, just in loud way. Troubled children do not like yelling in the house if the yelling isn’t coming from them, so they always ask me, “Why are you yelling?” I say that I am saving us both the time of either repeating everything or having them miss what I have to say. When they ask me to stop it, I offer them a deal that I don’t need to yell if they listen and don’t need things repeated. Welcome to the world of reciprocity.

As for tender, loving care, the quickest way for a child to put a parent in the funny farm is to reject every overture of care and love. Love may have been all the Beatles needed, but they were not raising troubled children. Difficult children need love, alright, but it needs to come in the form of teaching the child the lesson that life and relationships are two-way streets; what we put out to others has a lot to say about what we get back. So scrap tender, loving care until the child has moved beyond manipulation, self-hate and perpetual rudeness. In the meantime, give them a different type of TLC— Translating what is going on with them, Learning from every situation to be a better parent to this child, and staying in Control of your behavior, your emotions and the energy in your household.

Did I forget to say that parenting a difficult child can even be fun? Happy parenting!