Whose the Black Sheep of the Family?

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

Some people call them the “black sheep” of the family and are content to let them stay that way. Others try to change them and take them to psychologists and doctors. A few give up on them all together. This child is the “identified problem child” and many homes spend a lot of time and energy dealing with the member of the family. This rebellious, acting out child is most often seen in dysfunctional homes, where substance or physical abuse is taking place. The identified problem child serves a very important role in this type of family by balancing out the imbalance and protecting the abusive parent from outside interventions. In a lesser degree, even nonabusive families have children who cause more stress and trouble than other children in the home. This child resists parent’s efforts at discipline, is constantly mischievous, and appears to enjoy the attention that getting into trouble provides.

Family therapists have determined that the symptoms of the “identified problem” child are often a reaction to the family’s state of imbalance.  This imbalance can be anything from severe abuse to a mild family stressor, such as the illness of a parent or the loss of fathers job. The negative behavior of the “identified problem-child” may be an effort, albeit unconsciously, to alleviate the families pain.  The child becomes a stabilizing force to reduce stress and thereby return the family to its previous state of balance, even if it is an imbalanced one. A teenagers acting out, a school-age child’s poor grades, a young child’s temper tantrums — all may be efforts to stabilize an unstable system.

Thomas was an “A” student up until his parents announcement of their divorce. Suddenly, he began getting failing grades on his school report card. Fortunately, his parents recognized this behavior as a reaction to their devastating news and brought him in for therapy. After some time, Thomas’ bad grades were more than his depression over mom and dad’s split. They were also a way for him to save his parent’s marriage by forcing them to focus on him and away from the pain of the divorce.  He overheard his parents saying that they would have to come to the school together to talk to his teacher. This was a glimmer of hope, however feeble and small, that he could influence his parent’s decision.

Many parents react to the behavior and not to the underlying family system issues that might be taking place.  This is because, for many parents, it is easier to use the child as a scapegoat then focus on their own issues and problems.

Susan was an overly aggressive child.  She was kicked out of several preschools and was finally referred to a therapist when she viciously bit another child, drawing blood. The doctor recommended medication, but at 4 years of age, the parents felt something else might work.  Over time, it was found that Susan hurt other children to express her own feelings of being hurt.  Due to her poor communication skills, she demonstrates her own internal state by aggressively acting out the role of “I hurt, therefore I will hurt others.”  Her biological father had abandoned Susan when she was just a baby and her mother had recently married another man that Susan didn’t like. Her mother never saw the rejection as a reason for her behavior because she was so young when the biological father left.

When children are misbehaving they are said to be “acting out.”  What is the child acting out, exactly?  According to family systems theory, they are acting out the family’s pain.  Stated another way, when the family experiences sudden change, for better or worse, and members undergo stress, the “problem child” pops up ready to stabilize the family system.  Parents who are able to read their child’s behavior in this way will be able to help them express it in a more positive manner and cope with their “big” feelings or anger, frustration, and loss.

In some cases the best way to deal with the “child’s problem” is to include the whole family. Obviously, the child is not the real problem anyway and the whole family is affected by, and affecting, the child’s behavior. The first task of the family is to unmask the real problem and relabel it as a family issue versus a child centered one. This can be difficult, as other members of the family may have to share some of the blame and resist stepping down from the ideal child or parent pedestal. The next task is to find family focused solutions to the problem. This might involve improving family communication, adjusting family boundaries and rules, and renegotiating family activities.

In the case of Thomas, the parents did not get back together but they did increase their involvement with him and reassure them of their love for him, regardless of the divorce. It took a while for his grades to improve but with patience and cooperation they were able to get them back to normal. With Susan, the family started more family oriented activities and had the new father pick her up from preschool a couple of times a week to spend some one on one time together. This helped her feel connected to the new dad, lessening the hurt she felt from her biological father. With time, she started calling this new person “dad” and her aggressiveness completely stopped.

Not all children act out because of internal struggles but it does occur frequently enough that parents need to look for this as a possible explanation for their child’s behavior. They will have to set aside their own issues and struggles to accomplish this and that could be a difficult thing for many. Family members may need to redraw family roles and responsibilities, and change, even in the best of circumstances, is a difficult experience. The intervention for identified problem children is to look at the entire family system. Sometimes, the problem is bigger than we think!

Parenting Through the Tough Times

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

No one likes to go through tough times. Everyone would prefer to avoid extreme challenges and painful relationship encounter but we all go through them. How we endure them reveals what we are a really made of…Difficult situations reveal our parenting character and attitudes quicker than anything else in life. 

Attachment researchers call this “rupture and repair”. A rupture can be anything from a minor disagreement to a child stealing or running away to a major incident like a death or divorce. All families have them but how do they discover how to repair? It is the ruptures that tear down old strategies that didn’t support healthy communication and connection. Ruptures quickly remove strongholds in our relationships that prevent us from having the family of our dreams. This can be considered a good thing. It doesn’t feel good but it provides an opportunity to redefine our relationships. 

One way that families repair is they break agreements with lies they have believed about themselves and their family. These are often dysfunctional beliefs learned early in life that served to protect us from painful rejections and taught us our to get needs met even if it was distorted and manipulative. Fortunately, if we learned dysfunctional and distorted ways to navigate safely in relationships, we can learn new ideas and adopt healthier beliefs about how to have intimacy and connection. Most parents never stop to reflect during rough times to discover these new truths. 

Take a moment to ask yourself what did I learn about myself and my relationship during this most recent crisis? What was identified that needs to change and what am I willing to do to change it? Are you going to keep doing what didn’t work so well in the past and lead to this recent moment of pain or are you going to find a new thought and a new truth? 

Imagine you are taking a helicopter ride straight up, about a mile high, and look back down at your situation. What do you notice that you didn’t see before being so close to the circumstance? What details stand out to your now and what new directions do you need to get yourself and your family unstuck? You don’t have to know all the steps just yet. What is the first step that you feel you need to take right now to get healthier. 

The other way that successful families met tough times is to not blame one another. Even if someone else created a mess, they look at themselves to determine what messes are on their side of the street that they need to clean up. They stand on the principle of “the problem is the problem. The person is not the problem.” It can take a lot of emotional strength to stand on that thought but the truth is that you cannot change anyone, even a small child. You have to clean up your messes and your can model/teach your child how to clean up their messes. Guiding children, not controlling children is the real goal of parenting. 

Learn more power parenting tools with Ron Huxley’s parenting book: 

Love and Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting

The Identified Problem in the Family is NOT You or Your Child by Ron Huxley, LMFT

Some people call them the “black sheep” of the family and are content to let them stay that way. Others try to change them and take them to psychologists and doctors. A few give up on them all together. This child is the “identified problem child” and many homes spend a lot of time and energy dealing with the member of the family. This rebellious, acting out child is most often seen in dysfunctional homes, where substance or physical abuse is taking place. The identified problem child serves a very important role in this type of family by balancing out the imbalance and protecting the abusive parent from outside interventions. In a lesser degree, even nonabusive families have children who cause more stress and trouble than other children in the home. This child resists parent’s efforts at discipline, is constantly mischievous, and appears to enjoy the attention that getting into trouble provides.

Family therapists have determined that the symptoms of the “identified problem” child are often a reaction to the family’s state of imbalance.  This imbalance can be anything from severe abuse to a mild family stressor, such as the illness of a parent or the loss of fathers job. The negative behavior of the “identified problem-child” may be an effort, albeit unconsciously, to alleviate the families pain.  The child becomes a stabilizing force to reduce stress and thereby return the family to its previous state of balance, even if it is an imbalanced one. A teenagers acting out, a school-age child’s poor grades, a young child’s temper tantrums — all may be efforts to stabilize an unstable system.

Thomas was an “A” student up until his parents announcement of their divorce. Suddenly, he began getting failing grades on his school report card. Fortunately, his parents recognized this behavior as a reaction to their devastating news and brought him in for therapy. After some time, Thomas’ bad grades were more than his depression over mom and dad’s split. They were also a way for him to save his parent’s marriage by forcing them to focus on him and away from the pain of the divorce.  He overheard his parents saying that they would have to come to the school together to talk to his teacher. This was a glimmer of hope, however feeble and small, that he could influence his parent’s decision.

Many parents react to the behavior and not to the underlying family system issues that might be taking place.  This is because, for many parents, it is easier to use the child as a scapegoat then focus on their own issues and problems.

Susan was an overly aggressive child.  She was kicked out of several preschools and was finally referred to a therapist when she viciously bit another child, drawing blood. The doctor recommended medication, but at 4 years of age, the parents felt something else might work.  Over time, it was found that Susan hurt other children to express her own feelings of being hurt.  Due to her poor communication skills, she demonstrates her own internal state by aggressively acting out the role of “I hurt, therefore I will hurt others.”  Her biological father had abandoned Susan when she was just a baby and her mother had recently married another man that Susan didn’t like. Her mother never saw the rejection as a reason for her behavior because she was so young when the biological father left.

When children are misbehaving they are said to be “acting out.”  What is the child acting out, exactly?  According to family systems theory, they are acting out the family’s pain.  Stated another way, when the family experiences sudden change, for better or worse, and members undergo stress, the “problem child” pops up ready to stabilize the family system.  Parents who are able to read their child’s behavior in this way will be able to help them express it in a more positive manner and cope with their “big” feelings or anger, frustration, and loss.

In some cases the best way to deal with the “child’s problem” is to include the whole family. Obviously, the child is not the real problem anyway and the whole family is affected by, and affecting, the child’s behavior. The first task of the family is to unmask the real problem and relabel it as a family issue versus a child centered one. This can be difficult, as other members of the family may have to share some of the blame and resist stepping down from the ideal child or parent pedestal. The next task is to find family focused solutions to the problem. This might involve improving family communication, adjusting family boundaries and rules, and renegotiating family activities.

In the case of Thomas, the parents did not get back together but they did increase their involvement with him and reassure them of their love for him, regardless of the divorce. It took a while for his grades to improve but with patience and cooperation they were able to get them back to normal. With Susan, the family started more family oriented activities and had the new father pick her up from preschool a couple of times a week to spend some one on one time together. This helped her feel connected to the new dad, lessening the hurt she felt from her biological father. With time, she started calling this new person “dad” and her aggressiveness completely stopped.

Not all children act out because of internal struggles but it does occur frequently enough that parents need to look for this as a possible explanation for their child’s behavior. They will have to set aside their own issues and struggles to accomplish this and that could be a difficult thing for many. Family members may need to redraw family roles and responsibilities, and change, even in the best of circumstances, is a difficult experience. The intervention for identified problem children is to look at the entire family system. Sometimes, the problem is bigger than we think!

Avoiding the Parent/Teen Torture Chamber

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

Sweat streamed done his face as the heat from the lights glared on his face. His head swayed heavily forward, weary from the uninterrupted hours of questioning. The voices shot from the either side of him, out of the darkness: “Where were you till two in the morning? Why is there mud on the care tires? Whose sweater is in the back-seat? Why are your pupils dilated like that? Is that cigarette smoke I smell? Why didn’t you call?”

This could be a scene from a movie about an enemy spy being interrogated for unknown crimes. Or it could be a fictional account of innocent child tortured at the hands of sadistic tormentors. Instead, it is a dramatization of two parents questioning their teenager for coming home past curfew. At least, this is how a teenager might describe the experience. Teens often feel parents overreact or assume the worst case scenario. They don’t feel parents understand what it is like to be a teenager today. And, they feel that parents don’t give them enough freedom. No matter what a teen does, he or she winds up violating some new rule, like hidden trip wire strung about the house, waiting for an innocent victim. And the rules! Barbaric remnants from there parents generation as children, totally unrealistic for a teenager today.

Parents don’t want to torture their children. They describe their feelings of fear and horror when they don’t know where their child is late at night or early in the morning as the case might be. They know all too well the world a teenager must live in. That is what scares them, motivating their “barbaric rules.” They fear their teenager hides their behaviors and friends from them. They worry that they will be influenced by peers and fall snare to various social evils. They question their child’s ability to make good judgments and take care of themselves in a crisis situation.

So where is the middle ground? How can teenagers feel as if they are getting the freedom they need and still keep mom and dad secure? How can parents learn to trust teens, so if possible, they can meet the teenager half way? Here are some tools that may help teens and their parents avoid the torture chamber:

Things Teens Can Do:

Give parents information. They have a legal responsibility for their child’s safety and behavior, so they have a right to know a child’s whereabouts and activities. Teens who accept and acknowledge this fact can move a great distance along the road to independence. They also want to feel a part of your life, so share with them what is going on in it. They had you because they wanted a family. You need a family for survival (for a while yet, at least) and a sense of personal identity.

Take their perspective- in other words, do a Role Reversal. Take a look at the situation as if YOU were a parent- a person responsible for their child’s safety and well being. See YOURSELF from your parent’s perspective. Do YOU see someone who is responsible and trustworthy? What limits would you set for you if YOU were your parent? Next, look at the world the way a parent looks at the world. Good kids get hurt in this world too! Now, tell yourself the truth. Then, you will be ready to:

Negotiate. Accept compromise as being a reasonable tool for establishing mutually agreeable boundaries and limits. If you are unyielding with your information (tip #1), and unable to accept the fact that parents have to be responsible about their children (tip #2), you are doomed to trouble with the folks. Yielding in areas where maybe they have reasons to set limits and boundaries (areas where your choices have not been the wisest), will give you the opportunity to earn their trust. In time, those areas can get larger as you show you’ve learned to be responsible for yourself and earn the privilege of freedom.

Things parents can do.

Give teens information. Their minds are able to process intelligent reasoning, and understanding why you make the choices you do will open them to adult perspectives and responsibilities. They also need to feel a part of your life. If they have a sense of belonging at home, they’ll
be less likely to seek acceptance with an inappropriate peer group.

Take your child’s perspective. You can do this Role Reversal more easily than your child can, because after all, you’ve been there! Look at yourself through your child’s eyes. Are you reasonable with boundaries and limits? Are you intrusive or disrespectful of, your child’s growing needs for personal privacy, independence and freedom? Do you give your teen opportunities to be responsible, to demonstrate trustworthiness? Do you give them the supports they need to learn and make mistakes? Do you remember what it felt like to be that age? After being honest with yourself, you then are ready to:

Negotiate. Ask your teen what they feel are reasonable limits and boundaries. State what yours are. Then reach compromise. Be willing to “back-off” some in areas where your teen needs to grow. Be specific in what is expected behaviorally, and with what consequences for poor choices will be. Help each other clearly understand the expectations you each hold for the other and the reasons for them. Finally, be willing to follow through with consequences when necessary, both with the lowering or raising of those limits and boundaries in accordance with your teen’s choices.

Ron Huxley is a child and family therapist and the author of the book “Love & Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting.” You can order his book online or request it through your local bookstore. The ISBN number is 1-56593-936-0.

A recent article by Scientific American reviews desperate attempts to change unruly teen behavior around. One of the toughest challenges is to reach an adolescent who is angry, defiant and acting out in destructive ways. Confrontational strategies and harsh punishment, the article explains, has only short-term benefits. No studies prove lasting results from this type of “scared straight” intervention. So what does work? The article ends with this summarization: 

results show that merely imposing harsh discipline on young offenders or frightening them is unlikely to help them refrain from problematic behavior. Instead teens must learn enduring tools—including better social skills, ways to communicate with parents and peers, and anger management techniques—that help them avoid future aggression. Several effective interventions do just that, including cognitive-behavior therapy, a method intended to change maladaptive thinking patterns and behaviors, and multisystemic therapy, in which parents, schools and communities develop programs to reinforce positive behaviors. Another well-supported method, aimed at improving behavior in at-risk children younger than eight years, is parent-child interaction therapy. Parents are coached by therapists in real time to respond to a child’s behavior in ways that strengthen the parent-child bond and provide incentives for cooperation [see “Behave!” by Ingrid Wickelgren; Scientific American Mind, March/April 2014].”

What can you do to strengthen your bond with your child? How can you reach his or her heart, locked behind a wall of pain and anger? Don’t expect overnight miracles. Turning your defiant teen around will require consistency and continual micro-shifts of change in you and your child. You will probably blow it on days and be exhausted from the effort on others. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Focus on who the child will be and not on who they have been or what they are doing. Consequences are natural and necessary. Boundaries are even more important! Just don’t equate your love with positive behavior. Nothing your child does should make you love him or her any less and nothing can make you love them more. Love just is…

S.A.F.E.R. H.O.M.E. : Helping parents deal with power struggles and out-of-control children.

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

Are you in a constant power struggle with your children? Feeling a little helpless to manage the continual arguments and competition between children in your home? Tired of yelling, bribing, and negotiating to get cooperation? Well here is a 9 step plan to help you create a “safer home”:

= Stop what you are doing. Your probably reacting to the stress of the situation and making things worse. Take some time to…

= Assess the situation, environment, mood and motivations of your child(ren). What are they doing? Why are they doing it? How are you handling it? Who is involved? Just notice for now…

=Focus on one problem or priority to address. Don’t try to tackle all the issues. Try and address the core issue that affects the most people/variables. This will allow you to…

E = Empathize with your child’s feelings. State: “I can understand how you would feel this way or want to act in a certain way, however…”

= Respond (versus reacting) by offering alternative solutions or asking for responses from the children to come up with the alternatives themselves. This activates all areas of the brain through empathy development (right brain and emotional centers of the brain) and logical thought (left brain and cause and effect areas of the brain)…

= Help children with suggestions for things they could try if they cannot come up with their own or if they won’t do it. “Would you like some ideas? What if we do x or y?”…

= Offer choices. Would you rather share the toy or find a new one? Brush teeth before or after putting on your pajamas? The more choices and the smaller they are spread out through the day the more compliance you will get. Choices mean power but only offer ones you can live with and be ready to…

M = Maintain your position when they go for that third choice you didn’t offer them. If they do this, you know you are playing a game that no one will win. You may have to be a broken record and repeat the choice two choices two times (this is important to only do it twice) and then…

E = Execute the choice everyone agreed to or take action if they can’t or won’t agree to one. You chose A or B. This is “do or die” when it comes to parenting. Be ready to stick to your choice and don’t back down. If you do, you give total control back to your child. The fight might be tough today but tomorrow it will be easier and easier the day after that until finally it will be a rare day that you have to fight it at all. Won’t that be nice and safe?

Need more help with power struggles, arguments and out-of-control home situations? Contact Ron today at rehuxley@gmail.com about parenting coaching or family therapy. 

Take your parenting measurements…

image

Does your child have so many problems that you don’t know where to start? Are you so frustrated that you can’t see or think straight? Do you feel helpless about how to make changes in your relationship with your child? Perhaps the first place to start is with a few measurements. When behaviorists study people’s behavior, they start with a baseline.

Baselines:

A baseline is a tool that is used to measure the frequency and duration of someone’s specific behavior. It can be used to measure the frequency and duration of both desirable and undesirable behavior. This dual measurement can tell parents what they want to increase and what they want to decrease, all without a lot of screaming, hair pulling, or medication!

Step 1: Measure without interventions.

The first step in determining a baseline is to measure a child’s behavior when no intervention or tool is being used with the child. This way parents can get an accurate estimation of the child’s behavior. Baselines will allow a parent to measure the effectiveness of a particular parenting tool they are using. If a parent discovers that a tool is not getting the desirable results (i.e., the misbehavior continues at the same level as before or is much worse), then the parent knows to abandon this approach and try another. Parents then find a different tool to use that gets them better results. Sound easy? Actually it isn’t but with a little practice parents can use baselines to objectively and rationally approach a behavior problem and change it.

Step 2: Basic materials and picking a behavior.

The next step is to gather a few basic materials: a piece of graph paper, pencil, and daily calendar. Write across the top of the graph paper the behavior you wish to increase or decrease. For example, you might write: “I want to increase the number of times that Tommy takes his bath on time” or “I want to decrease the number of times that Mary hits her little brother.” Picking the behavior may not be as easy at it sounds. Pick one behavior to focus on and don’t get confused with other problems at home. Be very specific about what you want to increase or decrease. Don’t write: “I want Tommy to behave.” That is too general and vague. You will never achieve that anyway, so why frustrate you and Tommy. If a behavior is extremely troublesome and/or dangerous, that is a good place to start.

To get a baseline, simply count how many times a day that particular behavior is occurring for one week. Average it on a per day basis by taking your weekly total and divide it by seven (days of the week). That will be your baseline.

Let’s say that you want Tommy to take his bath, on time, every day. At this time, Tommy only takes his bath one time per week. One is your baseline. Anything you use to increase this frequency will be considered effective. Anything that does not or reduces it to zero is not effective. After you have picked the behavior, use the bottom of the paper to list the days of the week from the calendar (Sunday, Monday… Saturday). Along the left side of the paper you will write a range of numbers, starting from the bottom and going up. The range could be from zero to ten, if the behavior you are targeting is a low frequency problem or zero to hundred, if it is a high frequency problem. I would suggest sticking with a low frequency problem. It will make the process simpler and easier to monitor.

Step 3: Pick a tool (intervention).

Now comes the fun part: Picking the tool. What will you use to increase or decrease your child’s behavior? You could do what you have always done, like Time-Out or Removing Privileges. You could read up on a couple of books, ask a wise friend or teacher, or search the Internet or download Ron Huxley’s 101 Parenting Tools ebook.

Regardless of where you go for your tools, choose only one! Use the tool of choice for a period of one week and faithfully measure how many times a day that behavior occurs with the application of the tool. Be sure that all caregivers (moms, dads, relatives, day care staff, etc.) use the same tool or you will not get a good measurement. In fact, if dad is doing one thing and mom another, you could be sabotaging each other’s efforts. Get everyone on the bandwagon and cooperating. Chart the number of times the behavior occurs (its frequency per day) and the time that it occurred. In order to see if change has occurred, parents must check to see if there is any difference between the baseline number, before any intervention was made, and the number of occurrences after an intervention is made. This final number should come close to your target number.

Let’s take another look at Tommy and his bath time. Mom and dad decided to take away Tommy’s television privileges if he did not get in the bath on time each day. They did this by simply stating the consequence ten minutes before bath time to give him time to prepare. If Tommy did not get in the bath on time (they gave him a five minute window of opportunity either way) they stated that there would be no television privileges the next morning and stuck to their decision. After a couple of days, Tommy realized that mom and dad were serious about this bath time business and decided to cooperate. He was able to get in the bath, on time, three times in one week, as a result of mom and dad’s new interventions. This was a definite increase from the baseline and considered successful by everyone. Don’t worry if the change doesn’t occur immediately. Children will test their parents to see if they really mean what they say. Consistency is one of the biggest killers of behavioral control in the home. One to two weeks may be needed to witness any real results. If the behavior is still not changing after that period of time, find a new tool. Its just a tool and not a magic wand, to wave over your child’s behavior and make it magically go away. 

What if one parent is willing to cooperate but the other is not?

This makes our task harder but not impossible. Simple measure during a time that you are able to control, say, during the daytime when dad is at work. Obviously, you must pick a target behavior that occurs during that time period and find a tool that you can administer alone. Children will adapt to the different parenting styles of their parents, even if they are exact opposites. Reward all positive, behavioral changes. This will help to maintain the behavior over a long period of time. Don’t resort to bribes, such as sweets, money, or toys. This will backfire on you. Use social praise, like: “Great job” or “I really appreciated how you did that.” This is usually sufficient for children. Any negative behavior should be ignored, as much as possible.

How long should you use the baseline tool?

Use the tool for as long as you need. Once you are getting positive results from your new tool, you can go on to targeting a new behavior or put the chart away until it is needed again. Behavior tools, like the baseline, have some limitations. Very smart children see your strategy and try to go around it or do as they are asked, during the specific time it is asked, and then immediately misbehave right after. For example, Tommy may get into the bath on time so that he can watch his favorite television programs, but right after the bath, he may become rude and obnoxious to his little sister. This is a weakness in the tool, not you. Ignore the weakness for now. All you are concerned with is increasing getting into the bath on time. Later you will address, with the baseline tool, the rude behavior. The value of this parenting tool is in its ability to get a baseline measure of a child’s behavior and to test the validity of the parenting tools your are using. It allows you to cope with feelings of frustration and target behavior objectively and without negative attention to the child. This allows the parent and the child to concentrate on more enjoyable activities together.

Glancing at your problems

Sometimes the problems we experience in our family relationships can feel so large that we simple stare transfixed at them. It can overwhelm us and cause us to give up hope. We may resign ourselves to the idea that we cannot over come them and this is the way our family will always be…

The unfortunately result of this immobilization is that we often believe the lie that other people (or ourselves) are the problem. I am fond of quoting a line from Narrative Therapy that goes: “The person is not the problem. The problem is the problem." 

It is only when we partner together, against the problem, externalizing it from our person that we are able to overcome that problem. Blaming one another as bad, damaged, or toxic only intensifies shame and keeps us stuck. I am not saying that people don’t make bad choices. We all say things and do things we wish we hadn’t done that can have destructive consequences on our families. The point here is that if we are to have the dream family we deserve to have, we have to work together against the problem. 

Instead of staring at the problem, try "gazing” at your loved one and only “glancing” at the problem. It is still there but it is not where your attention needs to be glued to. Reconnect with your family, work together against the problem and start making changes, however small that will restore relationships and rebuild connections. 

Do you have a “Problem Child?”

Jill remembers the very first time Ben got called to the principal’s office. The kindergarteners were standing in line waiting for the bus home when Ben pushed a classmate to the ground. Then he encouraged a few of the other kids to start kicking. The boy wasn’t down for long before a teacher, who had witnessed the whole thing, came over to intervene. Ben, the teacher later told Jill, seemed to think it was funny. Jill was horrified.

Ben and his collaborators were sentenced to five hours each of community service around the school during recess: cleaning dry erase boards, packing up balls in the gym. At home, Jill talked to Ben about what it means to act appropriately at school and to be kind to others, and continued to talk to him in the months following. He was a smart boy; he understood, she thought. After all, at home, he was generally well behaved.

And yet, three years later, Ben remains the undisputed class troublemaker. Teachers almost seem to assume that he’ll act out. Often, Jill suspects, this is precisely the reason he does. He knows what’s expected of him.

During the elementary school years, boys tend to misbehave more than girls, though girls catch up later during adolescence, in other ways. We used to say that boys were more “active,” as if to excuse, or at least explain, misbehavior. But the truth is that the line between “active” and “disruptive” is thin, kids aren’t particularly skilled at walking it, and disruptive is a problem. Parents of kids like Ben know that once a boy has been labeled a troublemaker at school, it can be very difficult for him to shake the label. Often, that’s because he becomes the label; he, like Ben, lives up to the expectations other have laid out for him.

It’s not easy for parents to admit their son is the one causing trouble, and can be even harder to reconcile when the child is well behaved at home. It’s a natural impulse to defend kids, especially when you didn’t actually see what happened, and want to help them argue their way out of trouble – whether that’s after-school detention or a speeding ticket. It’s also natural for parents to want to intervene when their troublemaker finds himself an outcast among friends, as many often do. “Many of the boys stopped wanting to play with Ben at recess because it often meant they’d get into trouble, too,” remembers Jill. “It was heartbreaking, but in a way I couldn’t really blame them. It wasn’t untrue.”

If your child is the troublemaker, it’s important to help set him straight sooner rather than later – ideally before he gets labeled and before he finds himself losing friends. A few ideas to keep in mind:

Practice tough love (on yourself, too). Be honest with yourself about your son’s behavior. Your job is to be his champion, but not his defender when he’s behaved inappropriately. If he’s the class clown, even if he’s not “hurting anyone,” you need to acknowledge that, and respect the consequences. Learning to develop the skills needed to be part of a group is a critical part of growing up, and something your son needs to learn. Maybe even the hard way.

Cooperate. The best results come when parents can work with, and not against, teachers. When you argue with the school, his coach, or the staff at the daycare, you’re letting your son off the hook. You can support him without letting him avoid the consequences of his actions. The more you help him skirt the issue, the less likely he is to change. And if you do disagree with the way a teacher is handling your child, never discuss it in front of him. That will only further undermine her authority in his eyes. Take your concern directly to the teacher, way out of earshot of your son.

Be specific. When your son acts out at home or in school, don’t just tell him what he did wrong. Have him tell you – and then talk together about why that behavior was unacceptable. Teach him strategies to act better. One way to do this is to present specific scenarios. Set up micro-scenes and have him act out responses: What to do when he’s bored in class, angry with a friend, feeling the urge to tell a joke during quiet time. Then remind him of all his positive qualities and point out when he does something right, like helping a friend or making his bed without being asked. Being labeled a troublemaker can be difficult on a child’s self-esteem, so remember to give it a gentle boost now and again. If he thinks he only does wrong, he’ll continue to do wrong.

Let things go…  If your son is losing friends because of his behavior, don’t try to intervene, no matter how difficult it is to watch. Children have the right to decide if they’re not comfortable playing with other children. Respect their decision and know that it will be a learning tool for your son, then talk to him about why his friends may be turning away. Learning how to get along with others is an important part of becoming independent, and while you can help him understand what it means to be a good friend, you can’t force other children to overlook your son’s problematic behavior. In fact, the less you help, the quicker he’ll figure it out himself.

But don’t give up. If the pattern continues or gets worse, you may want to consider enlisting the help of your pediatrician or a counselor. Some kids have trouble adjusting to change, at school or at home. But if his behavior has been consistent over months or even years, something may be bothering him that he’s unable to articulate.

Coping with difficult circumstances

When attempting to build your dream family it is tempting to focus on right circumstances over right responses.

In your mind, when you imagine your dream family, life is happy and warm. What do you do in the meantime when things are hard and cold relationally?

The answer is you concentrate on how you respond to others as if the reality of your new family has already taken place until it actually does. Take the vision of who you want your family to be and hold on to that as you begin acting in a manner congruent to it. It won’t fit the situation but you are working to transform your family from the inside out to get real, lasting change not just outward compliance. 

Take a moment to picture what would be different in your dream family? Allow yourself to imagine how YOU would be reacting to others in your home. Start that behavior today…

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