As a therapist, I spend a lot of time with children who are misbehaving. Some don’t go to school, some use drugs and alcohol, some are verbally and physically aggressive towards peers and/or parents, while some punish themselves through self harm. Many do some or all of the above.
For parents the children’s behavior is heart breaking, confusing, rage inducing, and stigma creating. Arguably parenthood is the most judged role in society, and children’s behavior becomes a label for parents.
Often parents are disillusioned when they finally get their child in to see a counselor and/or a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication and the child’s behavior/emotions do not improve. Discipline and consequences may be put in place; it can be a piece of the puzzle. However, one of the first things lost when children’s emotions/behaviors are negative is the love between parent and child. The parent turns critic, both of themselves and their children. I believe this is often born out of love, to help the children improve through strict discipline and close observation.
With therapists, medications, and an eye on diagnosis, it is easy to lose sight of children as people who need encouragement and nurturance. Many parents grew up in an age when the belief about children was that they should be seen and not heard. Also predominant was that children should be grateful for a roof, clothes, and food. This is true, they should be grateful for these things. However, we have seen time and time again that the thing that children need and want the most is acceptance, love, trust, and guidance.
Children are not necessarily going to show gratitude until later in life. In fact they may verbalize hatred towards their parents from time to time. Hatred is not the opposite of love. Apathy is the opposite of love. To expend the energy to hate means that children care.
What is not ok is for the parents to express resentment and contempt towards their children. When children say mean things, it is ok for a parent to be upset. It is not ok to fire back with resentment and contempt. These feelings must be worked through.
The most sure fire way to see a child improve over time is for the parents/guardians to undergo their own improvement (this does not mean blaming parents). At first, children will not believe that things will change for the better, and their behaviors will continue. However, when time goes by and parents/guardians win the children’s trust, life will invariably get better for all.
Parents can ask themselves: Is their trauma in this family that has not been dealt with? Is there something I don’t like about myself that my child keeps reminding me of? What do I resent about my child? Am I stuck in the belief that my child has to change, but I don’t? What can I talk to my child about in a sincere way? What am I afraid to talk to my child about? Does my child remind me of their other parent in a negative way?
Children have a way of bringing out what's below the surface. Often what's below the surface is not fun to look at and/or deal with. However, when families take on this challenge together, relationships deepen and children blossom.