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Little Johnny Doesn’t Care, You Say? Not So Fast, Parents

thoughtful child on playgroundBy 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jim

    October 1st, 2014 at 9:26 AM

    I think that all too many times parents set these very unrealistic expectations for their kids, things that many of us would have a hard time achieving as an adult much less a child! I think that when you do this you are not only setting the child up to fail and not succeed but also the whole family is going to feel like a let down. You cannot let one misstepp discourage the journey. If that was the case then I specualte that there would be thousands of people who would have never gone anywhere in life!

  • carmen

    October 1st, 2014 at 3:42 PM

    Alright so maybe the kid does not care anymore because he is zoned out because all he ever hears from the parents is negativity and criticism anyway so he wonders what is there left to care about if they already think this poorly of him

  • Hollis

    October 2nd, 2014 at 3:42 AM

    The child might not exhibit the type of care that you wnat hm to, but you also need to remember that the child may not yet have the words to use yet that will express exactly what he is feeling. I know that it gets easier when he can actually articulate what he is feeling and what is going on but until that time you have to look at the other clues that he is giving you. And I complteely agree that there are so mnay times when we get too caught up in how well he is doing instead of what kind of progress that he is actually making. A small step is a small step, but then again again it is a step forward and as a parent or care giver you should be proud of that forward momentum.

  • Jaxon

    October 2nd, 2014 at 1:33 PM

    You sort of get the feeling in some instances that it is not about what is best for the child but the parents thinking about how this reflects on them and makes them look to others :/

  • clarke

    October 3rd, 2014 at 1:43 PM

    I happen to think that children care far more than what we may give them credit for, but it is often very hard for them articulate that soo they internalize everything that is still going on around them. It affects them but perhaps not in a way that is blatantly obvious to most of us. And those are the hardest ones to treat becasue you may or may not actually know that there is something bothering them on the inside! Yes kids are kids but they have thoughts and feelings too just the way that we do and what they are feeling or how they are expressing them should not be discounted just because they are young.

  • Derek D.

    October 4th, 2014 at 4:57 AM

    WE give children way too little credit in that we think we know what is going on in there when in reality we only get to know what they are willing to share with us. Give them some time, they will get there, but they need your love and support and understanding, not the vitriol and criticism.

  • nana j

    October 6th, 2014 at 3:48 AM

    We are often so busy looking at the big picture that we fail to stop and see the little steps that are getting us there along the way.

  • Scott

    October 6th, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    What makes this so hard for some of us is that there are those of us who start to take things very personally and even though we rationally know that our child is not doing something that will mess up our day it is sometimes hard to not feel that way when you have a terrible day and nothing is going right.
    You can’t point the finger at the child because goodness knows that he is dealing with a lot of expectation and this increases their worry and anxiety about making you happy. You still have to show them that this is OK and not the end of the world even when nothing feels like it is going well.

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