Does my child or adolescent need help?
It is natural for children and adolescents to have problems which flare up occasionally and to show emotions like sadness, fear, anger or anxiety. It is also normal for young people to have grumpy moods and bad days from time to time, just as it is for adults. It is part and parcel of being human and of our common struggle as parents and children to be off balance at times internally or in relationship to each other.
It is also normal to want to fix or change our children. We all worry about our children, this is a natural protective parenting instinct, especially when we see them struggling. However, it is somehow easier to see the problem outside of ourselves, in our child, in how they might talk back or not talk enough or be too shy or too aggressive or too anxious or depressed or not performing at school.The amount of structure we provide for our children in the form of extra curricular activities, homework and tutoring may reflect a tendency in our society to place the focus on our children. Sending our child to a child-therapist may follow this line of thinking. But is it working? This over-structuring and being overly helpful often leaves children with little time for problem-solving, for free play and for self-initiated exploration and navigation of relationship dynamics, depriving them of much needed resilience building opportunities.
It is a more difficult task to see how we might be contributing to our child’s behavioural issues or symptoms. From an individual framework, symptoms (anxiety, tantrums, depression, aggression) are viewed as belonging within the individual, in this case the child, however this is not how nature works, we now have abundant evidence based research to suggest that we are indeed effected by our environment, especially when we are in utero, and in the early years of child and adolescent development. For most of us the environment takes shape in the context of our biological or adoptive families and in the early years, predominantly with our primary carers. If family relationships are calm and harmonious a child will probably not have many issues or symptoms. Depending on the amount of stressful events which occurred in the family during the young person’s developmental phases however, anything from the birth of a sibling, a relocation, a death in the family, a divorce, a job loss or financial stress, the primary carer, the parents and the family as a whole will be more stressed and be a less able resource to the child leaving him/her more vulnerable to sympoms.
I am not suggesting parents take the blame, we spend enough hours of every day feeling guilty or wishing we could do or be more for our children. Besides, we too are affected by our own family histories -which shaped our own development and internal resources. However, when we worry about a behaviour in our child, we take the focus off us and place it on them and whenever we take the focus off ourselves we are unable to see our part in the dance. When we are concerned about a behaviour in our adolescent do we take into consideration how our own attitude or behaviour might be impacting them? Do we focus on our attitude as much as we focus on our child’s attitude? I have caught myself yelling at my daughter to have a more respectful tone and then realised I was acting disrespectfully myself. It is difficult to see our part in the pattern, especially when our focus is on the other person and not ourselves.
When I talk to parents about these issues I resonate deeply with their struggle. No one ever told me just how challenging the job of parenting would be, I only understood it when I had children myself. I understood that I was not always up for the most important responsibility I would ever have.
Family therapy aims to shift the focus from the child to the parent. We have ample research in human brain development to know that children’s brains and nervous systems, unlike most other animals are born immature, the human brain keeps developing outside of utero in direct relationship to the primary carers and family environments. So how we are parented will ultimately shape us (in conjunction with genetic and environmental variables). The job of parenting is therefore all important and the opportunity to adjust our part of the interactions with our children in a more thoughtful and mindful way is available to all of us.
Shifting the focus from improving our child to improving our parenting means understanding (in a guilt-free way) that as parents we are the best support for our children and adolescents during the course of their development. Multiple complex factors shape a child’s difficulties including genetics and their family and social environment, however parents can affect the reduction of symptoms in a child by changing how they interact with them. Changing another is outside our control, however we do impact others through how we interact with them. And we do have control over ourselves, how we mange strong feelings, regulate our stress-response and adjust our behaviour in relation to our children.
When we as parents shift our focus from changing our children to observing ourselves we are more able to move out of stuck patterns. As parents we can find ways to promote more independence and responsibility in our child, we can practice maintaining connection whilst setting appropriate limits, we can model respect and appropriate behaviour, we can set an example by staying calm, lowering our stress levels and defining what we are willing and not willing to do, we can identify patterns of conflict, of increased reactivity, understand our child’s developmental stage and respond accordingly, focus on what we may want to change in own behaviour rather than automatically seeing what is wrong in our child.
When we modify our behaviour to align with thoughtful ways to engage with our children, rather than reacting out of knee jerk responses, children will respond in kind. Calming ourselves down helps calming our children down. We all know the difference between angrily screaming at our children to have a ‘respectful tone’ versus calmly and respectfully asking them to respond appropriately. When we are congruent in our behaviour, when we ourselves do what we ask our children to do our behaviour makes more sense to our children and they become more motivated and willing participants in a harmonious family life.