By the time families reach my office, things at home are often in crisis. Parents are frustrated and frazzled by their son’s or daughter’s actions and they have run out of ideas. “Nothing works!” they explain. “Johnny just doesn’t care!”
Maybe the child is struggling with an inability to focus and prioritize tasks at home or school. Perhaps he or she is guilty of frequent, emotionally intense outbursts that bring the family’s plans to a screeching halt. A lack empathy and remorse after an altercation with a sibling can result in exasperated parents, distressed about their child’s social skills.
Whatever the concern may be, the emotional collateral that is expended on these issues takes a toll on the entire family system. As I speak with parents, I am able to get a picture of what is going on, what they’ve already tried, and what their goals are for their child. We work together to develop a plan to help their child build self-efficacy and come up with progress monitoring tools to establish when we are moving toward a goal.
At times, though, parents come in after two or three sessions, repeating their initial refrain: “This isn’t working. He’s still (fill-in-the-blank)! I just don’t think he cares.”
I encourage these parents by reminding them of two things. These are relevant whether someone is engaged in counseling or if the work is taking place at home or school.
- Children DO care. Kids want to succeed. No child wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself or herself, “What can I do to mess up mom’s day?” In general, there is something that is getting in the way of his or her ability to succeed. It may be a learned helplessness, caused by repeated perceived failures. Maybe the child has some extreme emotional responses to certain stimuli that he or she hasn’t yet learned to control. Some kids don’t pick up on social cues the way their peers do. In any of these cases, though, the child needs clear and concise instructions and practice for the specific skill he or she is missing to improve behavior.
- Focusing on PROGRESS instead of perfection helps. By the time a parent is reaching out for professional help, it is clear that the concern has been present for quite a while. Parents have tried what they can at home and feel like things aren’t getting better. Just as the issue didn’t manifest overnight, the work that is done through therapy (or at home) takes time. Imagine a ladder with the goal at the top. A child must climb each rung of the ladder and learn each skill on the way up in order to appropriately build his or her ability. When parents feel like giving up on a strategy because they aren’t seeing immediate results, envisioning this analogy can help. When parents are able to focus on the small successes that a child has, both the parent and the child feel a sense of accomplishment. This leads to a momentum that propels the child toward his or her goal.
One of the mistakes I sometimes see parents make is feeling like any small setback makes the entire process a failure. Remembering that learning and growth aren’t all-or-nothing processes goes a long way. Kids frequently need positive reinforcement and an opportunity to practice the skill, as if they were learning to play an instrument or a sport. Explicit coaching may be necessary for things that feel like “common sense” to others. Building emotional self-regulation or learning appropriate perspective taking to understand how others feel can be difficult for children who do not naturally have those skills. Emphasizing even small successes goes a long way. Not only is the skill an asset to the child, but the bond between the parent and the child grows stronger as they feel like they are working toward a common goal.
As the work on the skill continues, parents begin to see the benefits of their invested time and effort. Family dynamics CAN shift, albeit slowly, making home a more peaceful environment.
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