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Handling A “Problem Child”

In my 20+ years of clinical practice, I’ve discussed children acting out with hundreds of parents. What often surprises even well-informed moms and dads is to hear that if their son or daughter goes through a radical personality shift seemingly from out of the blue, the cause might not be the usual suspects (school or friends); instead, it might be an issue at home. Parents are the main influence on a child’s feelings and actions, and the problems one or both parents are having can have a much stronger effect on children’s behavior than you’d think.

Stressful situations like a parent losing a job, an illness, marital discord, or even conflicts about day-to-day issues may be troubling to a child without the parents even being aware of it. And often children go about trying to solve the family problem in the only way they know how: they manufacture, subconsciously or not, a problem of their own that serves to distract the parents from the more serious issue at home.

So, strange as it may seem, your “problem child” might begin acting out in order to help you. Although it feels like junior is driving you crazy and making your life miserable, there could very well be a benevolent meaning behind his tantrums, inattentiveness at school, or mood swings. Here are some real-life examples I’ve come across:

  • Six-year-old Jerry’s father was having an affair. His parents did everything possible to keep the affair hidden from their two children, but Jerry couldn’t help noticing his mother’s tears. Out of the blue, Jerry became aggressive with other children, hitting, kicking and even biting them. Parents of the other kids were complaining, and Jerry was about to be kicked out of school. Jerry’s behavior problem, and all that his mother did to help him (including visits to the pediatrician, the therapist, and the school counselor), refocused his mother’s attention away from her deeper sorrow about her husband’s affair. In this way, Jerry’s misbehavior was protecting his mother from fretting about the real problem threatening the family.
  • Five-year-old Gordon started to misbehave in kindergarten a few weeks after his father was laid off his job. Gordon wouldn’t sit still during circle time, hit other children, and even threw a paper cup at his teacher. He wandered around the classroom instead of sitting at his desk and completing his assignments. Gordon’s concerned parents took him to their pediatrician and then to a psychiatrist. They had heated discussions about whether or not to put him on ADHD medication. Gordon’s mother was willing to consider medication because it had helped her friend’s son get over a similar problem, but his father was staunchly opposed to medication because he had read about the potential side effects. Their son’s problem deflected the parents’ attention from the much more serious problem of Gordon’s father not having a job.
  • Eight-year-old Kitty heard her parents constantly arguing about where to spend the Christmas holidays. Her mother wanted them to visit her parents, while her father thought it was his parents’ turn. Kitty suddenly began having severe anxiety attacks whenever the family took a car trip. She became so anxious in the car that she vomited if the excursion lasted more than five minutes. By Christmas, Kitty’s anxiety attacks had become so severe that her family had to stay home for the holidays. In this way, Kitty helped her parents resolve their argument.
  • Four-year-old Cheryl had a dramatic personality change a few days after her father was injured in a car accident. Cheryl was frightened when her father came home with his head and neck covered with bandages. From being a sweet, wanting-to-please cherub, now Cheryl wouldn’t mind her teacher’s simplest request and had daily tantrums at home and at school. As long as her parents had to go to the school to meet with Cheryl’s teacher, talk with Cheryl about what was bothering her, and consult a therapist, they couldn’t dwell on her father’s painful injuries and the financial hardship of his being off work. When her parents finally figured out the connection, they were able to reassure Cheryl that daddy would be fine and avoided discussing the financial strain when Cheryl was home.

If your son or daughter undergoes an abrupt change in personality – whether misbehavior at school, mood swings, anxiety or distractibility-ask yourself honestly if there is something in the family environment that may be stressing your child. Children are very sensitive to tension between their parents, whether the parents argue out loud or allow their disagreements and resentments to simmer beneath the surface. Even if parents think that their disagreements are normal and manageable, to a child’s ears things might seem very different. Children, with their vivid imaginations, tend to magnify parental problems. In the mind of a young child, overhearing parents bicker in raised voices may conjure up the fantasy that they are on the brink of divorce. If a child abruptly becomes hostile toward his schoolmates, he may be literally “acting out” the unspoken hostility between his parents.

Children also subconsciously learn that when they have a problem, it can make the parents feel closer, giving them a common goal toward which they must work together. Parents of a “problem child” must have frequent conversations about their child even if their own relationship is strained, and they must cooperate to help their child overcome the problem. This subtly encourages children to have problems as a way of trying to mend their parents’ relationship.

Unfortunately, the child’s problem is only a distraction to parents, and it can prevent them from facing their own issues (except in the lucky scenario where the child’s troubles bring the parents to family therapy where they eventually air out their grievances).

So what can parents do to keep their child from internalizing family problems and acting them out in unexpected ways? First of all, parents should not get defensive and blame each other (or themselves) for their child’s troubles. Stressful events occur in the life of every family, and no matter how much parents try to shield their children from life’s difficulties, little ears and little eyes pick up on more than is necessarily good for them.

Instead, strive to have a healthy communication style around your child. First, don’t argue in front of the kids (if you must blow off steam, have arguments in your car with the windows rolled up). This doesn’t mean that you and your spouse must always be on the same page about everything, but problem-solving in a quiet and respectful manner provides a good role model for children. Name-calling and raised voices do not.

Second, work on keeping your marriage happy. Date nights help partners stay connected, and expressing appreciation with cards, notes, or small gifts can make your partner feel loved. Listening carefully to your partner’s feelings and reflecting back what you hear goes a long way toward making your spouse feel understood. Finally, it is important to say only kind things about your spouse and your spouse’s extended family in your child’s presence, even if your mother-in-law is Mrs. Godzilla.

Take time to reassure your child about a parent’s health issue or work problem that the child cannot help but notice. You can always find something positive to say about life’s hardships. Keep in mind that being truthful with our children does not mean that we should tell them every last detail about the family finances or a parent’s stressful work situation. A spoonful of reassurance goes a long way in keeping worrisome fantasies away from children’s minds and preventing many childhood problems.

But perhaps the single most important way parents can help a troubled child is to remember that a sudden change in your son or daughter needn’t signal a “mental disorder” such as ADHD, school phobia, or an anxiety disorder, but could instead be a result of changes or transitions with your child’s school, friends, or family. More often than not, these are the places where you will discover the root of your child’s troubles. Look there first, and if you aren’t sure of a potential source of the difficulty, then seek out professional help.

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