Children who are responsible and fun to be around!

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Cleaning Up Your Mess*

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

Every parent wants a child that is “responsible and fun to be around”. Children will enjoy being this way too. Unfortunately, traumatized children forget who they are and believe a lie instead. Trauma introduces the belief that “the world is a scary place, caregivers can’t be trusted and I am broken and damaged goods”. In addition, they believe that “no one could love me…People will get rid of me just like everyone else…I am stupid…I can only trust myself…Life is not safe”, and on it goes.

A big lie is that it is not ok to make a mistake. This is because a life of shame makes mistakes feel like a reminder that “I am a mistake too”. Fortunately, if we have believed a lie, we can also choose to believe the truth. This doesn’t always come easily. Attachment research calls this cycle “rupture and repair”. Every family has a rupture in a relationship. The healing for traumatized children comes in the repair. In that respect, a rupture is desirable. It allows the attachment relationship to be rebuilt. New Positive experiences can replace negative experiences from their past. A simple strategy is for parents to ask children: “How are you going to clean up this mess?”

A mess is a metaphor for a problem that children create in their relationships and daily living. For example, Hitting their sibling over taking a toy is a mess. Not following through on doing chores and forcing mom to repeat herself several times is a mess. Throwing a tantrum and refusing to brush their teeth is a mess. Forgetting their homework and getting a failing grade is a mess. You get the idea…

Our job as parents is to teach children how to clean up their messes and be more responsible and fun to be around. Instead of nagging, complaining or lecturing, trying asking how the child plans on cleaning up the mess they have made? This is also a way to increase leverage. At some point a child will want something from the parent. When they do you can simple refer the child back to the need to clean up their mess before you give them what they are wanting. This reinforces the concept of working together. You help me and I help you. This is how we do things in this family…

A typical response to the question is “I don’t know” to avoid taking responsibility. Don’t engage in a fight. That is how the child distracts you from the problem in front of them. In reply a parents offer some of their ideas on how the child can clean up their mess. The best idea from mom and dad are the tough, most undesirable ones. Children don’t want to do the tough ones. They want to do the easy ones. Offering the tough idea will force a child to engage in the discussion and present a better idea. This will get their thinking brains online so that they start to consider better ways to treat others and make family life more fun.

MESSES are Mom’s LEVERAGE:

Sometimes (OK, often) children will not follow through on their plan to clean up their messes. That’s fine. Parents now have another opportunity for “rupture and repair” by waiting until the child wants something from them…and you know they will.

Son: “Hey mom, can I go to Johnny’s house to play.”
Mom: “Oh wow, Johnny has that new video game you have been talking about, right?”
Son: “Yeah, it is so cool. Can I go?”
Mom: “It really would be cool but it is soooo sad!”
Son: “Sad?”
Mom: “Yes, there is still this mess you made with that tantrum yesterday and all those toys are still all over the living room. Remember how you made that plan to say you were sorry and clean them up?”
Son: “Kind of…”
Mom: “So take all the time you need to clean up that mess and then you can go to Johnny’s.”

You can only imagine the type of negotiation that the son might try at this point, right? He might even choose to get angry and throw another tantrum. More opportunities for rupture and repair. This is where mom MUST stand her ground and stay as cool and empathic as possible. Empathy has a way of keeping everyones brains level and focused on the problem on not in a heated game of “whose to blame”. With practice on how to clean up their messes, a child will learn to be more “responsible and fun to be around”.

  • Original concept for this tool is from the book “Love and Logic”

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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!

Sustain Your Families Successes

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

Parents want to know how to sustain the successes they have in the home. They want the temperature in the mood and attitudes in their children to stay constant. It is frustrating to have a good day and then have it follow with a week of anger and defiance. In order to sustain the good times, it is important that parents consistently put in what they want to get out of the family. For example, if you want kind children, keep putting in kindness to the children in your word and deeds. If you want joy, put in joy and fun activities. If you want respect, don’t just demand it, give it! This is why research demonstrates the power of modeling in social relationships. 

What do you want “out” of your family members? How can you put more of that “into” your home? 

Take back control of your home: 101 Parenting Tools: Building the Family of Your Dreams

Using Your Families Momentum
By Ron Huxley, LMFT

There will come a day when you and your family are not in crisis or feeling stuck. Perhaps it is already here. Whenever it comes how will use the momentum you have gained? Most families want to rest and do nothing. They have been in so much turmoil that all they can think about is taking a break. This might not be the time to pause for long.

When you are stuck all you think about is how to get unstuck. You are in survival mode. Now that you are unstuck it is time to take new ground, focus on left behind dreams, build new family skills. Take your well deserved break and then huddle together and move forward. Use that momentum strategically and with excitement.

Dream Parenting: Act/React or Act/Counteract?

Parenting can be considered a dance where two people, one big and one little, move in response to one another. Usually, there is one person in the lead and one person who follows. In families, it can be unclear who is leading. At times it is alright if a child leads but in the long run, parents must be in charge if the family is going to get the most out of their relationships. In order to do this, parents may need to redefine how they choose their dance steps. 

Try this new step: Instead of act vs react, try act vs counter act. Parents tend to react toward a child’s mis-reaction and this almost always ends in frustrated dancers. Don’t react to a child’s actions. Plan a counter action. Problems are predictable in that they will come up day after day after day. If what you tried to do (react) today doesn’t work, you can plan a counter act for tomorrow because the problem will be ready for you again. Parents can have a lot of practice with their new steps until it feels comfortable and natural. 

Parents don’t like the idea of act vs counter act because it sounds like a lot of work. It can be but it isn’t as frustrating as dancing the steps of act vs reaction. Parents will dislike that outcome even more. The key to dancing successfully is to be consistent with your counter action to your child’s action. Don’t fall back into the reaction with yelling, threatening or giving in. Try questioning, letting natural consequences be there own teacher or redirecting the child’s misbehaviors. There are many ideas available for counter action. Be creative. Do the opposite of what you usually do. Let the other parent cut in and take the lead in the dance when on is too tired. Sing your request, say nothing at all or whisper instead of lecturing. Do time in instead of time out. Or, just go walk the dog. 

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!

Parents need to stop thinking about how to “fix” their children’s behavior problems and begin to look at how to “re-source” them instead. Stop trying to stop tantrums or talking back and start re-connecting them to the source of the problems. What is your child needing that he or she cannot get or getting that he or she doesn’t want? Decode and recode your children to add social skills, self-soothing, understanding, competence, attention, love, affection, security that is driving the behaviors in the first place. 

It is time to put away punishment and use discipline which is to disciple or teach/guide a child to appropriate behaviors. The goal is not “stop irritating mommy” today but learn to live life successfully tomorrow! You can never deal with a negative by using a negative and expect a positive outcome. 

Visualize who and what your child is becoming and connect them to that source of choice-making, problem-solving, character. 

“He Never Acts This Way At School!”
By Ron Huxley

“The energy which makes a child hard to manage is the energy which afterward makes him a manager of life.” – Henry Ward Beecher"

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

Have you ever heard a parent say this or perhaps said it yourself? Why do some children misbehave at home and not other settings, like school? While the opposite situation might be true, where the child misbehaves at school and not home, let’s look at this common parenting frustration.

Teaching is a good definition of balanced discipline. In fact, the word discipline comes from the root word “disciplinare”, which means to teach or instruct. Most parents understand discipline as reducing inappropriate behaviors (punishment) instead of helping children achieve competence, self-control, self-direction, and social skills. Of course, all parents want this. But reinforcing appropriate behaviors seems like a luxury or fantasy when parents are having problems with their children. One reason for this may be the act of juggling work and family that so many contemporary parents find themselves performing. In this situation, only the most annoying or irritating behaviors are sure to get a parents attention. Children quickly learn that good behavior or even quiet, self-directed behavior rarely gets the attention of overloaded parents. Good behavior is one less thing a parent has to deal with while bad behavior guarantee parents attention. This is what educators and therapists call “negative attention” – a powerful reinforcer of children’s misbehavior.

So when parents say their child doesn’t misbehave in school, perhaps we should investigate the school/teaching model a little closer to see what frustrated parents can use when disciplining their children. Of course, as any teacher will admit, perfect behavior from children never occurs at school or anywhere else. But, let’s compare school behaviors to home discipline and ask a few questions.

Schools are learning environments. Discipline requires a learning environment characterized by positive, nurturing parent-child relationships. Is your home a learning environment or an entertainment center? Are their books, activities and private spaces for children?

Teachers use a curriculum. Discipline occurs when a plan or structure is in place for children. Do you know what you want to teach your children? What values or ideas do you want your children to believe? Is there a set time or routine for learning these things? Are you available to the child for help and instruction? Do you have materials available to educate you about topics you want to teach your children? Are there regular discussions about daily responsibilities, spiritual ideas, personal dreams, and problem areas? Grades are used to evaluate a child’s progress in school. Discipline can be both an instruction and a measurement of children’s behavior. What grade would you give your child in hygiene, social ability, responsibility, etc.? What rewards (physical or verbal) are given for “A” grades? Are parent-child conferences held to discuss strengths and weaknesses and make a plan for improvement? Do children get regular feedback from parents on how they are doing at home?

Teachers are in charge of the classroom and model appropriate behavior. Discipline is most effective when parents remember that they are the leaders of the home and “practice what they preach.” Are you firm and consistent in your discipline with your children? Do you model appropriate behavior for your children? Do you give the things, to your children, that you ask for, from your children, such as respect? Do you say what you mean rather than threaten or bribe children? Do you have a list of rules posted where children can see them? Do you allow children to “raise their hands” and ask questions? Do you listen attentively to those questions and give an appropriate answer?

Children, in schools, are given opportunities to explore and understand the world and themselves. Discipline is about internal control and not just external control. Do you give your child choices that require him or her to think about consequence? Are children recognized for behaving in an appropriate manner? Are there any “field trips” that children go on to inspire, instruct, or experience appropriate behavior? Are children give opportunities to act in a responsible and trustworthy manner? Are children encouraged to help their siblings and work as teams? Are there any parties for celebrating hard work?

Classrooms have rules that children must follow. Are their assigned seats at the dinner table or car? Are there any rules about waiting, talking, and seeking help? Do children get to “line up first” or “pass out the snacks” for exemplary behaviors? Are consequences given for inappropriate behaviors? Do children get warnings about misbehavior? Do children get to go to recess when they misbehave? Are the rules discussed with the children, posted where everyone can see them, and frequently reviewed?

Schools have recesses, school holidays, and summer breaks. Discipline is about doing nothing as much as it is about doing something. Do you allow your child to make mistakes and decide difficult (but not dangerous) situations on their own? Are there healthy balances between fun and chores, rest and responsibilities, work-time and playtime? Do you allow your child to simply be a child? Are developmental expectations appropriate to the age and abilities of your child? Do you allow yourself to be off-duty by having other adults to watch over your children? Are plans made, in family meetings, for fun as a family? Is quality time a regular part of your time with your children?

While this may not cover all aspects of school routines or discipline practices, it does ask some very reflective questions. It is possible we missed the most basic reason for children’s different behaviors, namely, novel situations and conditional love. Novel situations refer to a phenomenon that affects a child’s behavior, for good, when in a new environment. A new environment is unpredictable and may require a child to be on his or her best behavior until the child learns what the rules and consequences are or what they can get away with. Home is often predictable. The child already knows what they can or cannot get away with.

Conditional love refers to the communication of worth a child will get from another individual based on their behavior. A teacher may only consider certain behaviors to be worthy of his or her love and care. At the root, this is a good strategy. It advocates reinforcing only positive behaviors and ignoring negative behavior. But the fruit of it can have devastating consequences for children’s self esteem. A child’s sense of self should never be based on conditions. A child is worthy of love, dignity, and worth regardless of what they do. Reinforcement and even approval can be placed on a child’s behavior to communicate what is appropriate or inappropriate. A child may not feel this conditional love at home, knowing that mom will always love him or her and so manipulate this to their advantage.

Take a few moments to review these questions. If you are one of those parents who have said, “My child never behaves this way at school?” maybe now, you can finally find out why, and be able to say your child behaves appropriately at home as well as school.