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The Anxiety Balance: Acceptance and Change

Anxiety vs. Fear

A lot of people confuse anxiety with fear. We use the words interchangeably without much thought about the difference. Understanding the definitions will help us find the anxiety balance between acceptance and change.

Imagine you are on a rollercoaster and as you start up the hill you are starting to get tense and gripping the rail in front of you in anticipation of the drop that will come on the other side. This is anxiety. As you make the sudden plunge downward you are screaming in joyful terror and feel out of control. This is fear.

Anxiety can be described as the “fear of the fear.” The experience of fear resides in your imagination about an event in the future. It could be a real event or it could be false. Fear is the experience of terror in the present as events are actually occurring. This is important because, in anxiety, the future has not happened yet. We are anticipating a stressful event and creating our own physiological symptoms, sweating, tension, heart palpitations, in our minds. The actual events, however, justified they appear to be, have not taken place. Knowing this would suggest that we can control what we think and imagine to manage anxiety.

This presents us with a key strategy used by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. in her program called Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Dialectical simply means “tension” between two equally valid concepts such as acceptance and change.

 

Acceptance & Change

While it appears that acceptance and change are opposing forces, they are actually compliments of one another in the process of managing our emotional states. Applying them together facilitates a greater sense of mastery in our lives.

For example, if we are scheduled to give a public presentation and feeling anxious about it, we simply accept that we have these feelings while also recognizing that we only have to speak for a few minutes and then it will be over. You also know there are supportive people in the audience who would never humiliate you and in fact, you are very well prepared.

You might worry about your health and while you accept that you may find out bad news and get a poor diagnosis, you also know that modern medicine has a lot of treatments, medications, and know that you trust.

This paradox creates space for skill building. If presentations are part of your work and can’t avoid doing them, you can build skills like getting a coach, go to Toastmasters, read books or watch Youtube videos to increase your confidence and abilities. If the idea of asking someone out on a date terrifies you, you can just hang out with your peers, go on group dates, find a matchmaker to help you find your true love. If you are worried about your health, because your family has bad genes, you can get a trainer, talk to doctors, develop a new eating routine, and so on. The more you build skills, the less anxious you feel about some bad event occurring in your future.

Get more information on this topic and how to build mind-full-ness into your life to balance anxiety by taking the complete “Freedom From Anxiety” program >> Click here!

W.O.R.K. With Your Teen’s Brain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A particular area of interest for me is the teenage brain. It is one of the most rapidly changing periods of brain development. This is no surprise to parents who are trying to understand the rapidly changing personality of the teenager.

Perhaps the most dramatic area of development is the area called the prefrontal orbital brain. It is called this because it sits directly behind our eyeballs and it is responsible for abstract thought, moral reasoning, self-control, planning, judgment and so many other areas commonly associated with adults. This area is in constant flux, causing radical shifts in mood and attitude. This formation and reformation of the brain continue into young adulthood (the mid-20’s). I often joke with parents that while their child has the hardware upgrade, the software has not yet been installed. This is why the teen is capable of getting pregnant, driving a car or doing algebra but they don’t mean that they are completely ready for the adult world of intense responsibility or raising a family.

This poses significant challenges to parents who want to navigate the raging waters of adolescence, therefore, I am going to list four basic reminders to help parents stay sane when their child actions appear insane. I am using the acronym WORK to guide parents:

W = Remember that your child is still “wondering” about how the world works. He or she might try to convince you that they already know how it does but they don’t. They haven’t had enough experience yet for this to be possible. They need you to help them by asking “what if” questions that will explain some cause and effect relationship and assist them in planning out their day and making better judgments. Because their brain is still developing they use their “will” to fight you and cover up their inexperience. Don’t shame them. Train the “will” to find positive rewards in daily interactions. “Wait” for them to get it. It will take them longer than you as they haven’t traveled some of these morally sticky situations in life yet. Allow them a little more time to “wake” up to a new world of responsibilities and schedules.

O = Be “open” to “opportunities” for your teenage child to share some wisdom about the world and how to survive in it. Don’t preach at them as this will shut them down completely. “Occupy” the same space and look for openings when you are both in a good mood. The relational approach will be more effective and allow more “objective” conversation between you. Remember that “obedience” at this age is really about natural consequences or trial and error for the teenager. The will learn more about doing then lecturing. Being a good role model will help them understand how to use the “operators” manual called their brain more than lots of words at this time of life.

R = “Relationship” is one of the toughest things to have with the teen but one of the most important tasks a parent can do for their child. You may only have a split-second when the door is open wide enough to have that former intimacy but use it when you can. It will pay huge ‘rewards” for both of you later in life. “Recognize” that the teen is in process. They are still not fully cooked and need more time in the oven of life before they can be expected to make better decisions. They will “reflect” their peers and “respond” more from other inexperienced teenagers over their own, more experienced parents. This is not a true sign of his “respect” or “rejection.” The teen is just trying to find their own way. Don’t take this personal. “Rebelliousness” is the other side of the “readiness” coin of maturity.

K = Be “kind” to your teen as they developmentally, socially, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Turn the proverbial other cheek and smile when they growl. Reach out again when they slap away your hand. The “key” to relating to the teenager is a long-term vision. This isn’t just about today. It is about the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years of your life together. The cold response you get from that teen-child today will “kindle” into a stronger fire connection later in life. Work with that end in mind. Keep in mind this is your “kin.” They may be more like you than you care to admit. They share your nature and your nurture and need your “kudo’s” for every positive effort and the end result you can give.

Trauma Can Shock You to Your Core (video)

When you go through something really horrible, it can shock you to your core. Trauma can take many forms. All of them have one thing in common: Feelings of Helplessness, Anger, Fear, and being Overwhelmed.

Watch the complete video on how trauma affects our lives and how you CAN heal…

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> Take our FREE Parenting Course: The Full-Proof Family Meeting when you sign up to our Family Healer Newsletter…Click here now!

NeuroResilient Play Therapy ©: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Healing

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The goal of therapy with traumatized children is to help them learn to regulate and develop the executive functioning skills of the prefrontal center of the brain. I call this the state of being NeuroResilient.

All children are born emotionally impulsive and need to learn how to manage their moods, initiate and stick with tasks, plan and organize, and learn from past mistakes. This is nothing new and neurological studies of the brain suggest that the prefrontal areas of the brain do not completely develop until people are in their mid-twenties.

The challenge with trauma is that it can set a person back socially and emotionally so that while they are 15 years old chronologically, they react to the world as if their were 5 years of age. We call this, in the field of trauma-informed care and attachment-focused research, “age vs stage”. The individual’s chronological age doesn’t line up with their stage of development causing problems in relationships and daily functioning.

Many parents and professionals believe that an emotionally regulated child is a calm child which would be nice, even understandable, but not realistic for a child who has been traumatized. Consequently the goal of therapy is to build resilience, not calmness.

Resilience refers to ability to “spring back, recoil back into shape” or “recover quickly from a difficult situation”. It literally means to “leap back” to a place of safety and security. Who wouldn’t want to have more of that in their lives or the lives of their children?

Children have to build resiliency in their neurology so that behavioral strategies will stick. Parents and teachers get frustrated when their behavior charts and modification tools don’t have any effect on their hurt children.

NeuroResilient Play Therapy © models, to parents, how to integrate the various physiological and mindful parts of the child so that they can function optimally. It is based on identity focusing on the strengths of who the child was created to be instead of forcing the child to fit into a mold made by adults who believe the child has no motivation or seeks only to manipulate.

For more information on how to be NeuroResilient for children and adults, contact Ron today about speaking opportunities or schedule a session in his Avila Beach, Ca office (skype services are available).

Discovering your love road map and dealing with conflict

road map

How do you get from point A to point B? You can put in your own destinations for each point… The answer is simple. Look at a road map or in our modern technological society, tell your phone to pull up the map.

The “point” is that if you want to get anywhere you have to have a road map (or in the case of our phone, a GPS). In relationships, we need a love road map. When it all hits the fan, and it will sooner or latter, we need to know how to get back to a place of love and trust.

The research of John Gottman, PhD, shows us that the road to relational stability requires this type of emotional guidance system. In order to be a master of relationships and not experience the disaster of it, you can start building this map today. According to Dr. Gottman, you have to know a lot about your partner or child to navigate through difficult times and moments of disagreement. The process to build this map is asking a lot of questions that search the soul of the other person. Questions like what do you think about injustice or what countries you would like to visit or how do you feel about your career in life? These are open ended questions that go deeper than did you do your homework or pay the electrical bill?

How does your partner feel about their role as a mother or father? Does your child enjoy his or her friendships? After these heart-probing questions are asked, you have to remember the answer because this is what you will use to work through conflicts. The intensity of our fights with our most intimate companions aren’t really about an “F” on a test or dishes in the sink. They are really about our hopes and dreams and desires. They can also be about our disappointments, fears and losses. The more deeply connected you are with the former, the better you will find your way through the latter.

When people ask you these questions they show their interest in you. It makes you feel valuable. Conversely, scanning for mistakes, even with the motivation to help the other person be better in life, destroys intimacy and trust.

It has been said that a joyful life is created in the little details, conversations and moment to moment interactions. This is exactly how you build a love road map that will help you deal with conflict. Conflict is part of the human relationships and can’t be avoided so be prepared and get to know the inner world of others.

Action plan: Ask some deep questions of people who are closest to you in the next 7 days. Take notes of their answers. There will be a test! 

 

 

8 Traits of Powerful People

Source: http://lovingonpurpose.com/blog/rq-8-traits-of-powerful-people

If you heard someone described as a powerful person, you might assume he or she would be the loudest person in the room, the one telling everyone else what to do. But powerful does not mean dominating. In fact, a controlling, dominating person is the very opposite of a powerful person.

So what exactly is a powerful person? Here are 8 traits of a powerful person:

1. THEY DO NOT TRY TO CONTROL OTHERS.

Powerful people do not try to control, convince, or manipulate other people or their behaviors. They know it doesn’t work, and it’s not their job. Their job is to control themselves.

2. THEY CREATE A RESPECTFUL ENVIRONMENT.

Powerful people are able to consciously and deliberately create the environment in which they want to live. They don’t try to get people to respect them; they create a respectful environment by showing respect. They deliberately set the standard for how they expect to be treated by the way they treat others. As they consistently act in responsible, respectful, and loving ways, it becomes clear that the only people who can get close to them are those who know how to show respect, be responsible, and love well.

3. THEY REFUSE TO BE A VICTIM.

Life does not happen to powerful people. Powerful people are happening. They are happening all the time. They are not controlled or infected by their environment. Powerful people refuse to play the victim by shifting responsibility for their choices onto others.

4. THEY REQUIRE OTHERS AROUND THEM TO BE POWERFUL.

When powerful people encounter a powerless person, they are not tempted to dive into any unhealthy emotional ties or attachments. They hear a victim’s sob story and ask, “So what are you going to do about that? What have you tried? What else could you try?” These questions confront powerless people with their responsibility and their capacity to make choices and control themselves. This is the only option a powerful person will offer to powerless people: become powerful, make choices, and control yourself.

5. THEY MAKE DAILY DECISIONS THAT ALIGN WITH THEIR VISION.

Powerful people do not simply react to whatever is happening today. They are able to take responsibility for their decisions and the consequences of those decisions–even for mistakes and failures. They can respond to today and create tomorrow. Powerful people have a vision and mission for their life, and can use the events of each day, whether positive or negative, to direct themselves toward that vision.

6. THEY LET THEIR “YES” BE “YES” AND “NO” BE “NO.”

Popular opinion or the pressure of others does not sway the language of powerful people. They know exactly what they want and how to communicate their desires. A powerful person says, “I will. I do. I am.” Powerful people can say both “Yes” and “No,” and mean it. Others can try to manipulate, charm, and threaten, but their answer will stand.

7. THEY LOVE UNCONDITIONALLY.

A powerful person’s choice to love will stand, no matter what the other person does or says. When powerful people say, “I love you,” there’s nothing that can stop them. Their love is not dependent on being loved in return. It is dependent on their powerful ability to say “Yes” and carry out that decision. This protects their love from external forces, or from being managed by other people.

8. THEY CONSISTENTLY DEMONSTRATE WHO THEY SAY THEY ARE.

Powerful people can be who they say they are on a consistent basis. And because they know how to be themselves, they invite those around them to be themselves. Only powerful people can create a safe place to know and be known intimately. They say, “I can be me around you and you can be you around me. We do not need to control each other, and we don’t want to control each other.”

We all have room to grow in becoming powerful people.  No matter what, know that every step on the journey to getting free and being a powerful person is worth it. Choosing to say “Yes!” to a life of responsibility will be one filled with adventure and joy. Do not let powerlessness and a victim mentality steal from you any longer. You are a powerful person who can make powerful decisions. And more importantly, you are a powerful person who can choose to love–because He chose to love you.

Don’t Let Depression Destroy Your Life

Don’t Let Depression Destroy Your Life: A Special Report on Treatment

Edited by Ron Huxley, LMFT

Since the end of the Second World War, the rates of depression around the world have soared. Depression is an illness that can destroy lives ad families. Many people try various forms of treatment before any improvement is realized. Many are not so lucky and end up paying the ultimate price. Drugs and medication are one way to treat depression. However there has been a lot of criticism in recent years over the amount of medication we are taking. Depression can be treated naturally and the natural approach should be attempted first if possible.

Natural Treatments:

Getting good nights sleep is essential. Sleep and mood are closely linked. When we are tired we react to things differently than we do when we have had adequate rest. Remember to sleep well and regularly.

Caffeine and other stimulants should be avoided. They do give you temporary energy but have been known to deplete your serotonin levels. Low serotonin levels are a prime cause of depression.

Take a multi vitamin everyday. This is especially important if your lifestyle causes you to skip meals. Low vitamin deficiency has been linked to depression.

You may want to try getting in touch with your spiritual side. This can be done in a variety of ways. If you enjoy going to church, this is a good opportunity. You may want to look at prayer and meditation as well. You do not have to be overly religious to be spiritual. There are many ways to get there.

Finally, you may want to try getting more exercise. This doesn’t mean marathon training. Start out slow and build up if you feel the need. Exercise helps release endorphins which make you feel more empowered. There is also the health benefits attached to more activity.

The natural approach may be effective. It can also have other positive influences on your overall health.

The natural approach isn’t always the best or most effective. However, if the depression isn’t severe and the person isn’t suicidal or incapacitated, then it is recommended to at least give the natural way a chance.

There are many natural remedies that can be tried before trying drugs and medication. Some have tried that natural remedy known as St. John’s wort. This has been known to improve the mood of some depression sufferers without any side effects.

Those that suffer from depression should avoid excessive alcohol intake. Alcohol is a depressant so it will slow your body down. It could react with your body’s chemistry and make your condition worse. Alcohol is also a toxin that they body does not need.

Try to eat a well balances diet. Loss of vitamins and minerals are directly linked with depression. Make time to eat despite the type of lifestyle you have.

You may want to consider cognitive behavior therapy. This will help you refocus your thought and generate a more positive feeling. Your thoughts have a direct bearing on your mood. The more negative they are the more likely you are to become depressed.

Stress Management:

If you lead a stressful lifestyle, then some stress management training could be for you. Stress can be the cause of all kinds of ailments, not only depression. Keeping your stress levels low and learning to deal with highly stressful situations can go a long way in helping your depression.

You may want to try helping others. Sometimes doing volunteer work and helping those less fortunate will help. It can be quite rewarding and can negate some of those negative thoughts about yourself.

If the natural approach does not work, you should not feel bad. It is fine to take medications if this is what will help. You can at least be pleased for giving the natural approach a try.

Family Members With Depression:

If someone you love is suffering from depression, it is only natural to want to help. Family members can provide an incredible amount of support for someone suffering from this illness. However, you must know how to be effective. If not the family member could end up doing more harm than good.

The first thing you should do is read everything you can about depression and its treatments. Being forewarned is being forearmed. By making yourself knowledgeable, you can help make decisions when perhaps the loved one isn’t in a fit state to do so. You should also read up on how your loved one will feel. Getting as much insight as possible as to what depression will do to this person will help you cope with the worst days.

You have to keep in mind that caring for a depressed person is very braining both physically and emotionally. You need to set aside time for yourself. You won’t be any use to your loved one if you are tired and stressed out. In fact you may make things worse. Talk about what you are going through with someone who understand or even join a support group. Take some time to enjoy yourself as well. Don’t let your loved ones depression takes over your life as well.

Depressed people do need lots of love and support. You don’t want to smother them but you need to be there when they need it most. Knowing they can rely on you will help them get through some of the darkest moments.

Don’t deny your own feelings. There will be times when you’re feeling angry and frustrated. You need a support network to help vent these feelings out. A good friend or a support group again can be a great source of comfort. Keeping your feelings bottled up can lead to your own illness.

Dealing with depression is difficult and draining. It puts stress and strain on the life of the depressed person as well as those close to him or her. Many types of therapies may have to be tried and tested before any improvement is seen. One such possibility is talk therapy.

Talk Therapies:

Talking therapies can be of a great help when it comes to treating depression. It involved various types of counseling with a psychologist, Psychiatrist or therapist. Talking therapies allow the depressed person to get their feelings out. They also allow for the two people to work together to try to find the root cause for their depression.

Talking therapies do vary but most involve the same key elements. First there is the listening session. The therapist listens to the person’s problems. Over time the person develops a relationship with the therapist where they feel they are understood. Next there is the emotional release. This is helpful but cannot be done to often. Letting the emotions out too often can have the opposite effect and lead to further depression. Next comes the advice and guidance. The patient may be able to seek the answers on their own through session and homework. Finally, there is information provided. They are giving information in small bits but as progress is made it can be increased. Depressed people can sometimes have poor concentration and memories so information is given carefully.

Talking therapies can be very effective in treating depression but they do take time. Several sessions may be required and the patient’s family may have to be involved. Talking therapies can help mild to moderate depression greatly; however severe cases of depression will usually need a combination of talk and medication.

Inner Healing:

Inner healing is a faith-based approach to dealing with depression. Traumatic events in our lives can interpret our reality and cause us to believe falsehoods about ourselves, our relationships, and our faith in God. Replacing the lies with truth will set us free but it is a battle to renew our minds. It can be done and life can be lived in abundance and not with victim or poverty mindsets.

Need help with Depression? Let Marriage and Family Therapist Ron Huxley assist you and your family members.

Call today at 805-709-2023 or email at rehuxley@gmail.com for an appointment in Ron’s Shell Beach, California office.

Children who no longer live with their birth parents must go through their own version of grief…

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

In 2014, Child Welfare Services checked up on 3.2 million children reported as abused or neglected, in the United States of America*. Many of these children are removed from their birth parents and enter foster care. Some return to their parents while others are adopted by loving families. The goal is always permanency for children but the issues of grief must be addressed regardless of the child’s placement.

What is Grief?

Grief is the state that individuals experience when a significant loss occurs in their life. The loss might occur as a result of death, divorce, and/or abandonment by a family member. It might be said that nontraditional families, like foster and adoptive families, are born out of grief as they are formed as a result of a loss. This is confusing due to this is a time for both celebration and sadness.

Grief is a profound loss for children that is not always recognized by parents and professionals. One reason is that children do not grief in the same way that adults do. Young children often act like nothing happened at all and adults wrongly assume they are not grieving. Later, when they erupt in anger and aggression towards others, adults are surprised by their behavior. Misunderstanding the behavior will lead to incorrectly managing it and parents miss an opportunity to address the loss and create a healing bond.

Stages of Grief

Despite the confusion, grief has predictable stages of development. This is beneficial to the nontraditional parent as they attempt to make sense of their child’s grief experiences. Most importantly they know that the most negative feelings of grief and loss will not last forever, at least not in the same intensity as when it first started.

Perhaps the best known framework for grief and loss are the stages listed in the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote the book On Death and Dying (1969). Her stages of grief include:

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

These stages can manifest differently depending on the child’s developmental stage. As a child matures, their ability to understand themselves and their world changes, allowing for deeper levels of grieving. This is why young children can act like they don’t grief or care about their past. They may not want to talk about their past or have any questions for adults. When they are older, however, they may “suddenly” have questions and this can be perplexing to adults.

Another way grief can affect children is creating a division between “age and stage.” A child may be 16 years of age chronologically but act emotionally and socially like a 6 year old. Would a parent allow a 6 year old to take care of his or her younger siblings? Of course not! A 16 should be responsible to watch their younger siblings for a short time. A 6 year old would not have the cognitive ability. A 10 year discrepancy between age and stage can cause grieving children to look like they are on an emotional roller coaster ride. One minute they are responsible and calm. Then next they are reactive and impulsive. Parents can easily make the mistake of dealing with the child’s age and not their stage.

Close the gap between the child’s emotional and chronological stage by creating a space for them to grief past losses.

Waves of the Ocean

A useful metaphor for understanding grief are the waves of an ocean. When you are way out in the ocean, the waves are large and frightening. They pull you under and twist you about, creating a sense of hopelessness or fear of your future. This is similar to the stage of Denial or shock at the reality of the loss. When the waves pass and the ocean feels momentarily calm, this is called the stage of anger or bargaining. The shore represents the stage of acceptance. As nontraditional parents and children swim for the stage of acceptance, waves continue to crash over them, sometimes threatening to pull them under in denial and shock and at other times settling down and letting anger and bargaining propel them forward to the shore. The closer you come to the shore the less intense the waves. But even small waves, when standing on the edge of the ocean can unsettle and cause you to lose your balance.

Parents can use this metaphor to help themselves and their children find emotional balance. Because they are in the ocean and not on the shore they cannot compare their children’s action to others. In addition, rather than live up to society’s expectation of what an ideal family should look like, parents need to concentrate their energy on helping their child swim for the shore, in their own timeframe, even if it must be developmental stages.

Art and the Heart

Expressive arts can open the heart of the child who is grieving by allowing them to freely process thoughts and feelings that have been trapped in her heart and possibly . Parents have to set an atmosphere of acceptance to help the child “swim to shore”. Parents who avoid talking about sad or angry feelings communicate that it is unsafe or unwise to share. You don’t have to be an art therapist. Just get out the crayons and paper. Pull out paints and use your fingers. Play with legos and dolls. Make believe and role play. As adults we can interject healing ideas and allow grief and loss to work naturally. 

Talking about Birth Parents

It can feel rejecting for foster or adoptive parents to talk to their children about birth parents. Ironically, opening up conversation and allowing children to grieve will create a closer, more intimate attachment. Not talking about them will reinforce shame in the child and idealizing birth parents creating a vicious cycle or hurt between parent and child. The loss has already occurred. Avoid it doesn’t make it go away. It stays buried until it comes out in more painful ways. 

If parents need help in this area, consult with a child therapy and spend some time working through the age and stage of grief. 

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Sources: 

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/07/in-a-year-child-protective-services-conducted-32-million-investigations/374809/

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (1969).

Ron Huxley, Love and Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting (1998).

We live in a broken world, full of broken families and broken hearts, resulting in anger, depression and anxiety. When people come to see a family therapist, they want change but they want other members of the family to change, not them. How much pain do we have to go through before we are willing to do something different than we have always done before? Listen to Ron Huxley, Family Therapist, as he shares some insights on how to create love and honor in the home to have real, permanent change in the family. 

Be sure to share this with a friend…

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!