So how are you doing in your difficult parenting job? Score your parenting skills on a test designed for parents of children ages 11-15. This is intended for parents of ‘normal’ children, so you may skip 5, 6, and 7. (If you are brave, have someone else score you too and compare results.)
Don’t be hard on yourself if you score low. Only a “perfect” parent will have an excellent score… and they wouldn’t need to read this blog!
What did you learn? What are the skills where you scored lowest? Focus on them. Troubled kids need to be parented differently. What you’ve learned by watching skilled parents may not apply to you. You might be thinking: “I agree these are good parenting skills, but practicing them is impossible with my child. They hate/defy/scream/fill-in-the-blank constantly.” Suggestion: Work on one skill at a time, and take the test again in few weeks to see if you’ve improved your score.
Be and kind forgiving of yourself if you score low
When my child was young and I was stressed, I would have had a low score and fallen in the “Keep trying” group. My child’s mental health so poor, and she was so at-risk, I could only focus on safety and live one day at a time.
Why 3 of the items don’t apply for parents with mentally ill children, IMHO
#5 “I let natural consequences do the teaching whenever feasible.” In my case, natural consequences could always be serious and unsafe. This would have been very unwise.
#6 “I am confident my child has everything she/he needs to make good decisions.” No way. They cannot make good decisions when they are irrational–that’s the problem.
#7 “I allow my child to do his/her chores without reminding.” I gave up on chores. It was one battle I didn’t have to fight. It was much easier doing them myself and knowing they’d be done.
Please add a comment if you have found other skills to be effective,
You need peace and calm in your household, and you can provide the touch that supports all other approaches: Therapy; disciplined meditation and yoga, anti-anxiety medications (don’t be afraid to use them), but they’re not the best long-term solution. There are proven techniques for calming yourself, your stormy child, and all other family members.
1. Calming yourself in the tension-filled moment
Become consciously aware of your tension and ask: What are my options for coping with my tension right now? Brainstorm options ahead of time and create a list because you won’t be able to process in the moment. For example: take a very deep breath, then silently count to 10 backwards. Another idea: eliminate distractions. Turn off the cell phone, send others out of the room, pull the car over, turn off the music… You must strategically choose your response to a common situation.
Ways to calm your child in the moment
Note: the techniques are different for each child depending on their disorder and its characteristics. Experiment to find out what works with your child’s typical patterns at home, in school, with others, and in other situations that are stressful for them.
In a steady voice, give them directions or requests to calm down. You will need to repeat yourself periodically as they struggle with their inner storm. If you ask them to move to another space or use their own calming, skills, use your body language to initiate the act. If you ask them to take a deep breath, do it yourself. If it helps them to punch a pillow, punch it yourself and hand it over.
2. Be your own cheerleader.
Silently think, “I can handle this;” “I’m the one in control;” “I am the calm upon the face of troubled waters…” Have fun with it.
3. Give your child a calm place to go.
There’s nothing like a kid cave, or a blanket fort, a special garden spot, or other time-out space, even the car. My personal favorite is a tree house.
4. Give them extra time to “change channels”
An anxious child or teen is stuck in a fear loop, and has great difficulty moving from one environment to another–something called “transitioning.” Some typical transition problems occur when: coming home from school; getting out of the car after a long ride; going to bed after a stimulating activity; and waking up in the morning. Plan extra time for transitions. If they are too wound up but not hurting anything, wait them out.
5. Redirect their focus to physical action.
Draw attention to something to distract them in the moment (this is a useful kind of channel-changing). A young child could be directed to a physical activity (draw, grapple with clay, throw a Nerf ball against the wall), a teen can be allowed to play their favorite music (if you hate it, have them use headphones, or you use earplugs, seriously.); shoot baskets; or take the dog for a walk.
6. Other supports
Animals heal, but strategically pick the best animals. See “Animals that make the best therapy pets.” Think of a calm smiling dog, a calm affectionate cat, or a little mellow animal like a hamster or turtle, and you’ve got pet therapists. Energetic or barking dogs or scratchy kitties probably won’t work.
A big squeeze. People and many kinds of animals are comforted with enveloping physical pressure, like a full hug. I’ve completely wrapped anxious children and teens in a blanket or coat, and they quickly calmed down. Teach your child the self hug… and hug yourself often, too!
You may be able to stop things before they start. Once a situation has passed, ask yourself what happened just prior to your child’s episode. Was there a trigger? Did they just transition from one kind of place to another? Do you have options for removing the trigger? Triggering events can be so small or elusive that you miss it. The child’s sibling could have sniffed or rolled their eyes without you noticing. An object your child or teen reached for (like a remote control) could have just been unintentionally grabbed by someone else. If you can identify the little frustrations that send them to the stratosphere and address them immediately, it will reduce the length of distress.
Calming your home for the long term
Calm your emotional self first and think Zen. If you can take 5 minutes during a day, even a stressful day, sit quietly and breathe, and consciously work at eliminating all thoughts, ALL THOUGHTS, you would calm down. Not thinking anything is the hard part of meditation, yet it is the skill that makes it work, and there’s proof.
Maintain bodily calm with the big three: exercise, sleep, and healthy diet. I know you’ve heard this a million times already, but there’s good reason and proof. If you can’t simultaneously maintain all three habits in your family, take one at time and you will still see benefits.
Calm the sensations that exist in your home environment. Reduce noise, disorder, family emotional upheavals, and the intrusive stimulation of an always-on TV and other screen time, etc. Create a place for quiet time in your home where anyone can go that’s contemplative, where people agree to behave as if they’re in a library, or a place of worship, or a safe zone. Or create a time period for settling in, such as right after school, or right before dinner.
Did you know that psychiatric hospital units are designed to keep patients calm? I’ve toured a number of psychiatric hospitals, and the best ones I saw had these elements.
Soothing visual environment: they had windows and lots of light, plants, beautiful aquariums with gorgeous fish and lots of bubbles, and a TV screen with a film or a burning log. All great for relaxation and brain-calming.
Soothing sound environment: besides the bubbling aquarium, there was low-energy music of various styles.
Soothing physical environment: soft furniture, a large table where people could gather in the comfort and buzz of a group, and nooks where people could remove themselves from the group buzz to avoid over-stimulation or listen to music on headphones.
1. Do not communicate strong emotions in your voice. What you say absolutely does not matter as much as how you say it! Negative tone of voice is the only thing an upset child or teen will hear. Yes I know, this is hard to control when you are excited or under stress! (Later on, after the incident, apologize for how you said something, but don’t apologize for an appropriate direction or request you made.) Practice vocal neutrality. Take a deep breath and an extra 2 seconds to squash the urge. Which is better: “Will you please let the cat out?” versus “Will you PULLEEEEZ let the cat OUT!!!
2. Don’t pressure the child to calm down when they’re not ready—it takes time for anyone to unwind. Wait patiently while a child or teen works through ugly emotions and finishes spewing their ugly stuff. Let them have their catharsis. We all need to release our stuff, and we all need others to patiently listen and endure.
In my support group, I’ve observed that very stressed parents need at least one solid hour to vent and cry before they’re calm enough to benefit from other parents’ supportive words and sympathy. They start out with ugly or devastating emotions–things they might not say to anyone outside the safety of the group–and eventually calm down and come to peace with their situation. That’s when they are able to listen to the support and advice from other members.
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ABSTRACT – Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density Britta K. Hölzelab, James Carmodyc, Mark Vangela, Christina Congletona, Sita M. Yerramsettia, Tim Gardab, Sara W. Lazara Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging,Volume 191, Issue 1, Pages 36-43 (30 January 2011)
Summary in plain English: Meditation causes structural changes in the brain associated with memory, empathy, and stress, according to new research. Researchers examined MRI scans of participants over a period of 8 weeks. Daily meditation sessions of 30 minutes produced measurable changes in subjects with no previous meditation history. The anxiety and stress region of the brain, the amygdala, produced less gray matter. In a non-meditating control group, these positive changes did not take place.
“Therapeutic interventions that incorporate training in mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular, but to date little is known about neural mechanisms associated with these interventions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre–post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR program. Anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images from 16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8-week program. Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared with a waiting list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.“
I have yet to meet one family with a troubled child that has not felt blamed or judged by close people in their lives: best friends, family members, a religious community, co-workers, even medical and mental health providers. Nothing could be more wrong or more hurtful to the family’s well being. Blame adds emotional burdens on top of what they already face, and can undermine an already shaky hope and faith.
Parents like us are aware that many people are not comfortable around a child with bizarre or extreme behaviors, like our child. We understand this. After all, who else knows more about the stress they create? But it is unacceptable to be blamed or judged by others on our parenting, our character, our child, and/or presumed to be abusing our child. This is simply not true for the overwhelming majority of families with troubled children.
These are some things that have helped caregivers cope with, and overcome, the debilitating effect of judgment and blame.
First, resist defending yourself; it will only attract more unwanted attention and disagreement. You don’t have the time or emotional energy to teach someone who resists and challenges everything you say with countless questions and misinformation. Avoid people like this (even friends and family!).
Second, actively seek out supportive people who take the time to listen, just listen. You need as large as possible a network of compassionate people around you. Stop and think about this, you have many around you already. They may be waiting in the wings, at a polite distance so as not to interfere or add to your stress. If you think you can trust someone, ask them to be your friend. You will be surprised at how many people are out there who have a loved one with a mental or emotional disorder, and how many are willing to help because they completely understand what you’re going through.
Third, politely and assertively say thanks but no thanks. If judgmental people ask why you haven’t contacted them or returned calls, tell the truth, also without blame or judgment. “Our situation is not good, but we are getting the best professional help, and we have been pulling back to take care of ourselves. Thanks for showing interest, and thanks for your understanding and for giving us space.” No apologies.
There is a curious phenomenon where craziness seems to attract “crazy” people. You must block them from your life.They might be obsessed with a religious, medical, or philosophical belief and want to make your child’s life their cause. If this happens to you, don’t hesitate to end contact with anyone that wants to entangle themselves in your lives without your permission. You are never responsible for meeting another’s needs or fitting their beliefs!
I once had a co-worker who had strong feelings about “natural” health care, who offered a steady stream of articles and comments about what could help my child. I had to firmly insist that if she could find one piece of research proving that her preferred treatments helped even one person with schizophrenia, then I would listen. This ended the unsolicited advice.
Fourth, be prepared to grieve lost connections.
A single mother with a 16-year-old daughter sought help in a support group: “Can someone help me? I need someone to call my sister or mother and tell them that I and [my daughter] are not criminals or sickos. They’ve stopped calling, they refuse to have us over or visit for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I just want someone else to tell them that she’s fine now because she’s taking meds, and that her behavior is not her fault or my fault.”
Let go of those who blame, and move forward with your priorities. Very often, they eventually turn around and make an effort to understand. Many really do change and apologize for their insensitivity. I’ve experienced this and observed this, but it is not your job to make this happen.
Your criteria for friendship will change. You will find out who your real friends are, and they may not be family members or current friends. Real friends let you talk about feelings without judgment or advice, they are always around to listen, they help out with little things: go out for coffee; call to check in on you; or watch your other kids in a crisis. They may be people you never felt close to before but who have reached out to you with compassion. Accept their help. Don’t be too private or too proud to accept the offer of support. Someday, after you have turned your family’s life around, find another family who needs your support. Make a promise to help others in need, and to give back to the universe.