Category: irrational children

The Dysfunctional Family and the “Black Hole” Child

The Dysfunctional Family and the “Black Hole” Child

Many families living with the proverbial “black hole” child start to cope in unhealthy ways. Everyone gradually alters their normal behavior to avoid stress, frustration, anxiety, or anger, but these behavioral accommodations actually make things more chaotic. It’s unintentional, but parents, siblings, extended family and friends take on psychological roles, and the resulting dynamics are harmful. This is the “dysfunctional family,” and these are some common roles:

    • Protector is the emotional caregiver and defends the child regardless.
    • Rulemaker wants Protector to stop enabling the child and set boundaries.
    • Helper smooths over conflict, calms others, and sacrifices for others.  They become “parentified,” and miss important childhood experiences, like play.
    • Escapee stays under the radar for safety, and finds ways to stay away from home to avoid the stress.
    • The Neglected shows a brave face but hurts. They need nurturing but don’t ask for help because the parents are so distracted.  They become depressed.
    • Fixer has all the answers and keeps trying to make everyone do things ‘right’.  They repeatedly jump into everyone’s lives and stir up chaos.
    • Black Hole Child devours everyone’s energy, and gets trapped in their own black drama. For complex psychological reasons, they learn to manipulate, split family members against each other, and blame their disorder for behaviors they can control. Due to insecurity, they act out repeatedly to test if those they depend on still care.

If this is your family, it’s not your fault. Forgive yourself and everyone else. Families living with an alcoholic or addict behave similarly, but they have specialized 12 Step programs like Al Anon and Narc Anon to help them become functional again.  Their 12 Steps would help you too!  I’m not aware of a similar 12-Step approach specifically for families living with mental illness, but I strongly recommend a support group.  Look for one near you (in the US or Canada) at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org) or the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health (www.ffcmh.org).

For a child to be well, each person around the child must be well.

First:  A stress relief meeting.  Meet together without the “black hole” child present… now is not the time to include them.  Meetings might be held with the guidance of a family therapist or support group to keep emotions safe. The goal is to ease everyone’s fears by bringing them out into the open. Each member vents their true feelings.  Brace yourself.  You may hear upsetting things, but once feelings are out in the open people will feel better.  There will be more problems to solve, but now everyone knows what they are.  No more secrets.  All everyone needs is to feel heard and understood.  Clearing the air helps people move on.

It is a relief to tell your story and have someone listen and understand.

Check in with family members (perhaps not the troubled child yet… use your best judgment).  Ask everyone how they‘re doing. What is working well? and what isn’t?  Be prepared to hear more complaints and venting.  Just listen and ask clarifying questions until they get it out of their system. (It’s like vomiting, and feeling so much better afterward.)  Brainstorm solutions together.  Ask for ideas on what needs to happen differently.  You don’t need to agree or comply, just listen.

At some point, the troubled child’s own opinions and needs need to be woven into the new family system.  This can be very tricky.  If you feel things will get out of control, get help from a therapist or counselor for yourself or for your family.  The methods for doing this are too lengthy for covering in this article, but you can find out more by exploring books or websites on family interventions for an alcoholic or addict.

Warning:  Once family teamwork improves, prepare everyone for an explosive defiant backlash. This is actually a good sign, so plan for it in advance.  It is a sign you are regaining your authority.  Visualize standing shoulder-to-shoulder to keep everyone safe while the child explodes.  Stick together.  The child may blow-up multiple times, but stick together.  The explosions fall off over time.  This article explains the reasons for these explosions, called “Extinction Bursts” by psychologists. They are the  final act of defiance when limits are firmly enforced and the child loses power.

Ultimate goal:  The child’s behavior improves!  The child stabilizes; they are surrounded by a caring but firm team that locks arms and won’t be shaken by chaos. Surprisingly, this actually helps the child feel more secure and less likely to cause distress.

How it might unfold:

  • Protector steps back; cares for themselves; and accepts that Rulemaker has some legitimate reasons for boundaries.
  • Rulemaker steps in to help Protector as needed and gives them a break. Rulemaker and Protector work out acceptable structure and make two to three simple house rules for everyone that are fair and easily enforced.

Rulemaker and Protector also make two to three simple agreements between themselves.  Number one:  no fighting or disagreements in front of the child.  Next, checking in with each other and agreeing on a plan or strategy.  Ideally, their relationship improves, and trust and safety is reestablished.  This can happen between parents who are divorced too.

  • Helper gets a life of their own, accepts they are not responsible for everyone, and is encouraged to spend time with supportive friends or doing activities they really like.
  • Escapee and The Neglected need lots of support and comfort and emotional connection to a nurturing adult. They are at risk of mental health problems in the future, especially depression and addiction.  They may suffer from PTSD as adults, from enduring years of emotional distress or neglect. Both may need mental health treatment such as therapy and relaxation skills.
  • Fixer: withholds judgement and realizes there are no simple answers. Their education or experience does not necessarily apply to this family. They should ask how to help instead of trying to make people change, and they should be gracious and supportive.

Helping a troubled child means helping the family first, and family teams are the best way.  As each member strives for a healthier role, each gets support from other family members and hears things like, “Atta girl!”, “You rock!”, “Go Mom!”. Teamwork creates therapeutic homes and strong families. Research proves that strong families lead to better lifetime outcomes for the child.

–Margaret

Your comments, questions, and stories are encouraged because they help others


If you would like to get ongoing updates on the latest news and research in child & adolescent mental health, follow my Facebook Page.

Outlook for schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia

Outlook for schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia

How Schizoaffective Disorder compares to other disorders

There is little information about schizoaffective disorder in children, which usually starts around puberty.  As a parent, you know how seriously it affects your child, but how does it compare to depression and bipolar (manic and depressive states) and schizophrenia?  What is the course of schizoaffective disorder, and how can you help your child’s future?

Schizoaffective disorder is not as serious as schizophrenia,
but more serious than bipolar/depression.

Research conducted in Britain* studied young people who received typical treatment for schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar/depression who were between the ages of 17 and 30 (average age was 22).  Over a 10 year period, those with schizoaffective disorder improved slightly, better than those with schizophrenia.

Outlook for schizoaffective disorderBehavioral functioning over time for schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia and affective disorders (depression, bipolar) at four consecutive follow-ups.  (This scale goes from 2 (good) to 6 (poor). A “1” would be the level of a person with no symptoms and who is considered normal.)
*M. Harrow, L. Grossman, Herbener, E. Davies; The British Journal of PsychiatryNov 2000, 177 (5) 421-426

Behavioral functioning is measured by how well a person does in five areas:Russian brain diagram

  1. Work and social functioning
  2. Adjustment to typical life situations
  3. Capacity for self-care
  4. Appearance of major symptoms
  5. Number of relapses and re-hospitalizations.

Your child will struggle with these, but there’s good news according to a recent landmark study:
Family support improves a patient’s outcome.

Life with a schizoaffective teen,” tells my story, and what steps I discovered which worked to improve my daughter’s functioning and behavior.  This article also provides insights into how children with schizoaffective disorder think.

A new treatment program was developed that altered some well-established practices.  A set of schizophrenia patients received the following support and were later compared with those who had the usual medication approach.

  1. Dosages of antipsychotic medication were kept as low as possible
  2. Help with work or school such as assistance in deciding which classes or opportunities are most appropriate, given a person’s symptoms;
  3. Education for family members to increase their understanding of the disorder;
    (“Efforts to engage and collaborate with family members are often successful during an acute psychotic episode, whether it is the first episode or a relapse, and are strongly recommended.
    Family Involvement Strongly Recommended by the American Psychiatric Association)
  4. One-on-one talk therapy in which the person with the diagnosis learns tools to build social relationships, reduce substance use and help manage the symptoms.”

Patients who went through this for of treatment made greater strides in recovery over the first two years of treatment than patients who got the usual drug-focused care.  More here.
New Approach Advised to Treat Schizophrenia, Benedict Carey, New York Times, Oct. 20, 2015

“..if you look at the people who did the best—those we caught earliest after their first break with reality—their improvement by the end was easily noticeable by friends and family.”

beautifulbrainThe longer psychotic symptoms stay in an extreme phase,” in which patients become afraid and deeply suspicious,” the more likely the person will be vulnerable to recurring psychosis, and the more difficulty they will have coming out of it and adjusting to normal life.

How to help your child

Be very realistic about what your child can handle in school.  They may be extremely intelligent–but maybe can’t handle too much homework; or class disruptions; or lack of empathy from the teacher.  A parent or school counselor should help your child find low-stress classes or activities, and consider limiting the number of classes per day.  They can only hold it together for so long!  I found it helped my schizoaffective child to take later classes, starting at 10 or 11 am.

Get the whole family on board to make his or her life easier.  Your child might be stressful and a source of irritation for everyone, but family members can help reduce this by taking on the chores your troubled child would ordinarily do; avoid pressuring them about something, or anything; and allow your child to say oddball things without confronting them about how irrational they are or arguing with them.

DIY talk therapy – Here are some ways to guide your child out of their troubled states.

Anxiety

  •  psychosisSchizoaffective kids may express anxiety in a tangled web of seemingly unrelated things, and spike them with paranoia about what they mean. Listen carefully, and conduct a gentle interview to explore what truly is bothering them.  It may be as simple as the room being too cold.
  • Give them plenty of time (if you can). A venting session is sometimes all they need.
  • Diplomatically redirect a negative monologue with a comment about something else more positive. This is where it’s useful to hand them a cat or call over a dog, offer tea or juice, or briefly check email.  The point is to break the spell.

Run-on obsessive thoughts

  • Voices and thoughts can be angry, mean, and relentless. Your child may not tell you this is happening, or may simply assume you already know what’s in their head.  Ask him or her if thoughts or voices are pestering them.  If so, show indignation at how wrong it is for them to mistreat your child, “that’s not right that this is happening to you; this is so unfair to you; you deserve better; I want to help if I can…”
  • Encourage your child to ignore the voices/thoughts and they may go away, or encourage them to tell the voices/thoughts to leave them alone. “I refuse to listen to you anymore!”  “Quit pestering me!”   “Back off and leave me alone, you jerk!”  Negative thoughts and voices are just bullies.

Help your child stand up to thought/voice bullies the same as
as you would help any child dealing with a bully.  Seriously, this works.

Life with a schizoaffective teen,” tells my story, and what I discovered that worked to improve my daughter’s functioning and behavior.  It also provides insight into how people with this disorder think.

Take care and have hope.  You can do this.

Margaret

Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?

Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?

girl in rear view mirrorA high percentage of teenagers go through a rebellious or ‘crazy’ phase that is normal for their age and brain development. The difference between normal teen-crazy and truly troubled behavior is when the teenager falls behind his or her peers in critical areas.  At a bare minimum, a normal teen will be able to do the following:

  • Attend school and do most school work if they want to;
  • Have and keep a friend or friends their own age who also attend school;
  • Develop a maturity level roughly the same as his or her peers;
  • Exercise self-control when he or she wants to;
  • Demonstrate basic survival instincts and avoid doing serious harm to themselves, others, or property.
  • Enjoy activities that interest them.

boy in baseball capIt is normal for many teens to be inconsistent, irrational, insensitive to others, self-centered, and childish.  Screaming or swearing is normal–regard this the same as a toddler temper tantrum.  Outlandish imagination and ideas are normal in the adolescent phase too. These are behaviors that crazy teens grow out of unless something else is holding them back.  What you’d call troubled behavior, the kind that necessitates mental health treatment, is a matter of degree.

This is your challenge:  How do you tell the difference?  Troubled teens with mental disorders have the same challenging behaviors as ‘normal’ crazy teens… How do you know if they need serious mental health treatment?  Look for pervasive patterns of social and behavioral problems that stand out against their peers, patterns which persist or occur in different settings Look back at how long these patterns have been occuring.  Are the patterns repeating themselves, or are behaviors increasingly worse? Do you You your troubled teen is slipping behind and won’t grow out of it.

screaming boySigns of abnormal behavior

A sudden change in behavior.

  • An abrupt change in friends and interests, and loss of interest in things your teenager used to enjoy.  This might indicate the onset of a serious mental illness or drug use or both.
  • Unusual ideas, or obsessive beliefs, or unrealistic plans, see:  “Unsettling: what psychosis looks like in children and young people.”
  • Others think there is something abnormal about your child.  (e.g., your child’s friend comes forward, their teacher calls, other parents keep their children from your child, or someone checks to see if you’re aware of the nature of his or her behaviors).


Unsafe behaviors
 (“Unsafe” means there’s a danger of harm to themselves or others, property loss or damage, running away, seeking experiences with significant risk (or easily lured into them), abusing substances, and physical or emotional abuse of others.)

  • If a troubled teenager does something unsafe to themselves or others, it is not an accident, but something impulsive, intentional, and planned.
  • They have a history of intentional unsafe activities.
  • They have or seek the means to do unsafe activities.
  • They talk about or threaten unsafe behavior.


How psychologists measure the severity of a child’s behavior 

“Normal” is defined with textual descriptions of behaviors, and these are placed on a spectrum from normal to abnormal (or “severe emotional disturbance” – SED).  Below are a few examples of a range of behaviors in different settings.  These descriptions are generalizations and should not be used to predict your child’s treatment needs, but they do offer insight into severity and the need for mental health treatment.

School behaviors

Not serious – This child has occasional problems with a teacher or classmate that are eventually worked out, and usually don’t happen again.

Mildly serious – This child often disobeys school rules but doesn’t harm anyone or property.  Compared to their classmates, they are troublesome or concerning, but not unusually badly behaved. They are intelligent, but don’t work hard enough or focus enough to have better grades. They could use help from a school counselor, teachers, and possibly a therapist for themselves or the family.

Serious – This child disobeys rules repeatedly, or skips school, or is known to disobey rules outside of school.  They stand out in the crowd as having chronic behavior problems compared to other students and their grades are poor even if they’re very intelligent.  This child needs mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – This child cannot be in school or they are dangerous in school.  They cannot follow rules or function, even in a special classroom, or they may threaten or hurt others or damage property.  It is feared they will have a difficult future, perhaps ending up in jail or having lifetime problems.  If they cooperate, this child requires intensive mental health and or substance abuse treatment.

Home behaviors

boy looking right

Not serious – This child is well-behaved most of the time but has occasional problems, which are usually worked out.

Mildly serious – This child has to be watched and reminded often, and needs pushing to follow rules or do chores or homework.  They don’t seem to learn their lessons and are endlessly frustrating.  They can be defiant or manipulative, but their actions aren’t serious enough to merit intensive treatment, though a school counselor or private counselor would be very beneficial.

Serious – This child cannot follow rules, even reasonable ones.  They can’t explain or take no responsibility for their behavior, which can include damage to the home or property, or harm to themselves or others.  They need mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – The stress caused by this child means the family cannot manage normally at home even if they work together.  Running away, damaging property, threats of suicide or violence to others, and other behaviors require daily sacrifices from all.  Police are commonly called.  This child needs intense psychiatric treatment and/or substance abuse treatment, and likely residential treatment.

Relationship behaviors

somber boyNot serious – The child has and keeps friends their own age, and has healthy friendships with people of different ages, such as with a grandparent or younger neighbor.

Mildly serious – This child may seem extra immature.  They will argue, tease, bully or harass others, and most schoolmates avoid them. They are quick to have temper tantrums and childish responses to stress that always require extra attention from parents and caregivers.

Serious – The child has no friends their age, or risky friends, and can be manipulative or threatening. They can have violent tendencies, poor judgment, and take dangerous risks with themselves and others.  They don’t care about others’ feelings, or may readily harm others physically or emotionally.  This child needs therapy and psychiatric mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – The child’s behavior is so aggressive verbally or physically that they are almost always overwhelming to be around.  The behaviors are repeated and deliberate, and can lead to verbal or physical violence against others or themselves.  This child needs intensive psychiatric and/or substance abuse treatment.

Pay attention to your gut feelings.

If you’ve been searching for answers and selected this article to read, your suspicions are probably true.  Trust your intuition. Most parents have good insight into their child.  If you’re looking for ways to “fix” or change your child, there just aren’t any easy methods or medications or therapies to do this except over time.  Treatment means multiple life changes in addition to medication and therapy, and these can include help for insomnia, a change in diet, treatment for digestive system problems, and household changes to reduce stress.

Mental illness is serious and recovery is a long slow process.  It is  understandable if you want them to recover quickly–your stress can be intolerable.  Avoid pushing for recovery because it will only stress your child and lead you to disappointment.  Instead, cooperate with professionals (teachers, treatment providers), and prepare yourself for a parenting marathon.  What’s the best way to prepare?  Work hard on your own mental health and wellbeing.  Lower your expectations for steady progress.  This advice and wisdom from other parents may help you face this daunting task.

boy in plaid shirtEarly treatment, while your troubled teenager is young, can prevent a lifetime of problems.  Find a professional who will take time to get to know your child and you and the situation, and who will listen to what you have to say–a teacher, doctor, therapist, psychiatrist or other mental health practitioner.

–Margaret

Your comments are encouraged.  Your story helps others who read this article.


If you would like to get ongoing updates on the latest news and research in child & adolescent mental health, follow my Facebook Page.

Solid Wisdom for Parents of Troubled Children and Teens

Solid Wisdom for Parents of Troubled Children and Teens

 

Other parents have gone before you and faced the challenges that come with a very troubled child.  Get a jump on your task and learn from other’s experience. Wisdom is out there.  You can avoid common mistakes and the stress they cause everyone.

First things first:

You are not alone. All families experience the same fears no matter what the child’s challenges: guilt, anger, frustration, failure, and mental and physical exhaustion.

There is a way. The steps to finding peace in the home are the same for all families and all children regardless of diagnosis

You can start now. You can improve behavior without having a diagnosis, and the techniques work for the majority of difficult children.

There is reason for HOPE. Your child has the capacity to do well . With your support and treatment, difficult children improve.

Have realistic expectations: They may need extra support into their 20’s… but that’s OK. There’s time to catch up with their peers on education and life skills.

Plan ahead for a crisis, brainstorm options for an effective response and create a checklist. You can’t think clearly in a crisis that you didn’t see coming.

What helps your child in the long-term

Pay attention to his or her STRENGTHS not weaknesses. Always find something great about them.

Guide them to their gifts. Give them ample opportunity to do what they are already good at.  They may not be able to be well-rounded, so don’t force them.

What helps you day by day

  • Be your own cheerleader. Silently think, “I can handle this;” “I’m the one in control.”
  • Regularly talk through your feelings with others who understand and won’t judge.
  • Get a life, maintain personal interests, and occasionally set thoughts of the child aside without guilt.
  • Commit to doing the best you can, and accept that this enough – plan to let go someday.

You’ll know you’ve done a good job when your child is able to take responsibility for their own care. This is a monumental personal achievement!

How to calm down a tense situation 

In a neutral patient voice, give directions or requests. You will need to repeat yourself, calmly, several times. Your voice should not communicate strong emotions. Tone of voice, not words or volume, is what creates a bad response.

Don’t rush calm. Give the child plenty of time to unwind and settle. Calm is more important than quick.

Ensure there’s a calm place to go – a time-out space, even for you.

Bring in help – a therapy animal or another person who can calm your child if you are not able to calm down.

Reduce sensory chaos in your home:  noise, disorder, family upheavals, the intrusive stimulation of phones and excessive screen time.

Ideas for managing resistance or defiance

You want your child to be resistant to the negative things they’ll face in life. It represents willpower, and is a strength to cultivate… but only certain defiance.

Be quiet and LISTEN. If you respond, address how they feel underneath, not what they say.

Use reverse psychology–ask them to do something you don’t want them to do, so they can defy you and do the opposite.

Choose your battles. Let them think they’ve won on occasion.

For an ODD child, give multiple instructions at once, including things they do and don’t want to do. It becomes too much work to sort out what to defy and your child may do as told.

Actively ignore – for a child who demands inappropriate attention, stay in the vicinity but don’t respond, look away, act like you can’t hear. They can eventually give up. Works best for ages 2 – 12.

Mix it up – Be unpredictable. Give a reward sometimes but not all the time. Try new ways to use incentives or set boundaries and structure.

9 common parenting mistakes

If you’ve done any of these, don’t worry.  Forgive yourself.

1. Treat your household like a democracy. Your child should  have an equal say in decisions.

2. Find fault with them and tell them about it repeatedly. If they do something positive, it’s not good enough.

3. Pretend your child has no reason for their behavior. Ignore his or her needs or challenges. Are they being bullied? Are they having a hard time sleeping? Is your home too chaotic?

4. Make rules and only enforce them once in a while, or have consequence come later.

5. Treat your child like a rational mature adult.  Make long explanations to a 3-year-old about your reasoning. Assume a teen wants to be just like you.

6. Expect common sense from children who are too young (5), or from young adults with a long history of not showing common sense.

7. Keep trying the same things that still don’t work. Repeat yourself, scream, show how frustrated you are with them.

8. Jump to conclusions that demonize your child. “You are manipulative and deceitful,” “You don’t listen to me on purpose,” “I’m tired of your selfishness…”

9. Make your child responsible for your feelings. If you lose your cool, insist they apologize.

Not problem children, but problem symptoms 

When you observe these behaviors, remember that many of them are normal for children from early adolescence into adulthood. For troubled children in particular, expect these and don’t be frustrated by them.  What you focus on instead are things pertaining to their safety, education, and physical and emotional health.  If these are going along OK, you can work through the other problems with immaturity later.

Problem symptoms

Does not show common sense and is not influenced by reason and logic (irrational because are thinking is driven by: chemistry, neurological issues, past trauma…)

Has no instincts for self-preservation, and poor personal boundaries (brain disorders delay or limit their capacity for social learning and awareness)

Has no well-adjusted friends, or has friends who lead them in risky directions (they’re being bullied? good friends leave because of their behavior? risky friends share and understand their problems? risky friend are using them?)

Doesn’t respond to rewards and consequences (rational thinking competes with mental noise in their head: paranoia, anxiety, panic, fear, depression. ADD, ADHD)

Has limited character strengths of honesty, tolerance, respect for others, self-control (social learning is delayed or nonexistent)

Seems lazy or apathetic or lacking in willpower (clinical depression, marijuana use, or the result of taking their phone to bed)

Does not make plans they can realistically achieve, hangs on to fantasies (“magical thinking”, mania or hypomania, anxiety, ADHD…)

Acts younger than their peers, they will not be ready for adulthood by 18  (common to many normal children, your child may grow out of it or improve with treatment)

Lives in the here and now; doesn’t think about the past or future (also common to many children, they may grow out of it or improve with treatment) 

Does not notice or care about their effect on others.  (self-absorption is normal to some degree, but not in excess, instead it could be from:  depression, schizophrenia or psychosis, autism spectrum disorders, narcissism, or many other disorders)

Make these your priorities, in order

1. You and your primary relationship(s)

2. Basic needs and responsibilities: housing, clothing, food, income, health

3. Your challenging child or teen.

Ineffective:  This is often how parents end up spending their time when a child has a mental illness. Make the slices equal in size–not too much for one, not too little for others.

 

Good:  The really important foundations in your family need adequate time.  Don’t let your child dominate.  Everyone will do better when your household is stable.

Lean in.  One day at a time.  Deep breath.  Hope is. 

 

–Margaret

 

What to do about screaming teenagers

What to do about screaming teenagers

When their screaming starts, you brace yourself.  You armor your gut to protect it from the verbal pummeling.  Their cruel words pierce your heart.  When it’s over, you want to strangle them or abandon them in a wilderness.  In his  play, King Lear, William Shakespeare wrote, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”  That was 500 years ago and little has changed.

BUT THIS WILL PASS.  Your teen will quiet down and apologize someday… it may take a few years, but someday.  Until that bright day, remember that you’re tough enough to take it, and tough enough to persevere in the face of high drama and lots of noise.  You are not failing as a parent, but proving you care enough to be a good parent.  Paradoxically, your screamer appreciates your engagement because it’s reassuring to them.  Screaming teens are horribly insecure, and need you to prove you care for them.  This isn’t rational, or fair, but don’t take the screaming personally.  And don’t take it seriously unless the behavior is new or out-of-character, or unless your screamer makes threats of harm.

Difficult teenagers are inconsistent, irrational, insensitive to others, self-centered, childish and…  should I go on?  It may have nothing to do with a disorder per se.   Screaming teens are as normal as screaming babies.  Regard their screaming as you would a toddler temper tantrum.  It is a phase that most teens grow out of unless something else is holding them back.

The way to handle a screaming teenager is to handle yourself first, because you are the king or queen, holder of all power in the parent-child relationship, and you must use your power wisely.  Don’t scream back. Don’t reward screaming by losing your cool. Don’t get hooked.

When the screaming starts, do a personal check-in on your thoughts and feelings

How am I doing?
I am handling it.  This isn’t as serious as it seems.  It’ll be over in less than 10 minutes.

How am I feeling?
I choose how to feel and I won’t let this bother me.  I will rise to the occasion and come out stronger.

What are my options?
I will be persistent until I regain power over our household.  I will live within my values.  I will take care of myself when it becomes stressful.

Keep your expectations realistic

  • You don’t need to be in total control, just one step ahead of your teen.
  • Be prepared for screaming to worsen before it gets better.
  • If you get an apology, accept it, even a weak apology.
  • Don’t expect to hear that they love you, or that they appreciate what you’ve done for them.
  • They will not give you credit for being the good parent you are, yet.

Two simple demands:
1. lower the volume,
2. clean up the language.

Set the boundary on the loudness of screaming and the use of mean-spirited, foul language.  Remind your teen that it’s OK to be angry; it’s not OK to assault with screaming and ugliness.  Give them an example of what you’d rather hear, for example:  “You are not being fair to me;”  or “Don’t say that about my friends…”

If they can’t communicate themselves in a straightforward non-screaming manner, then restate what you think they mean, using different words so they know you got their message: “You think I’m being unfair to you,”  “You don’t like me criticizing your friends.”  Ask them if you are correct.  Make it clear you got the message even if you disagree with them.  It becomes awkward to scream once you’ve shown you heard them.  It will take them off guard as they think of some other thing  to be upset at you about.

Until a teen can manage basic communication with you, they are not ready to discuss the substance of their complaint.  Make a sincere effort to look deeper and try to understand what’s bothering them.  You will often get this horribly wrong and upset your teen immeasurably, but they will realize on some level that you are aware of  their deep pain and seething rage… and feel more secure.

This mother should be texting her daughter instead

Use technology and avoid screaming altogether.   Get on your cell phone and text your child, or use email.  This works surprisingly well because you’ve entered their virtual world where they feel safe from your presence, and have time to contemplate and cool off.  Writing/texting is slower, and that’s the point.  Therapists often direct feuding parents and children to communicate only by email for a while.

Listen to what they need and feel, not to what they say.

Most teens have similar needs: to feel heard, to be loved, to make one’s own choices.  Take these away and you have an angry screaming teenager.  But teens also struggle with emotional distress:  family instability, problem with a love interest, or something else they don’t want to share with you because they’re afraid of how you’ll react.  Teenage years are emotional hell, remember?  Ugly rumors on social sites, bullying, grade worries, frets over appearances… would you want to go through your teens again?  Does the thought make you want to scream?

A teenager may be a screamer because of genuine physical discomforts.  Physical things make people irritable, and teens more so:  lack of sleep, dehydration, lack of exercise; excessive sugar and fat; constipation; the monthly period.  A change in the length of daylight affects mood, whether going into the spring or into the fall.  Don’t forget to assess the home environment.  Has there been a significant change in family life?  a traumatic event?  Always consider drug and alcohol use.  If their behavior is unusually or uncharacteristically aggressive or violent, or if it’s changed for the worst recently, get a urinalysis and look for methamphetamine or marijuana. UA kits are available at drug stores or online.  Go through a  medical diagnostic checklist when the misbehavior starts.  Sometimes a few glasses of water is all your teen needs to become human again.  Have a glass yourself.

What if you, the screamee, are the problem?  Are you too strict?  lenient?  picky?  Do you nag without realizing it?  You might be the one who needs to change.  If so, admit when you’re wrong and be the first to apologize and set the good example.  My first apology to a recalcitrant child was awkward and defensive, but I had to swallow my pride and apologize for something I said.  Over time, it got easier, and apologies happened normally and easily in the family.

Self care, find a way to let yourself down easy

Leave people and chores behind for a while, go scream in a pillow, and pull yourself together.  Talk to someone who can listen or provide a point of view that’s helpful.  Set aside a dollar after every screaming fit, and treat yourself to something special later.  Let your screamer know that you’re looking forward to their next screaming episode so you can save more and get something nice.

Humor heals

Don’t forget to laugh.  Any parent who’s survived the teenage years will understand that we all need a sense of humor.  It may be a little twisted, but I find these bumper stickers funny.

“Mothers of teenagers know why some animals eat their young.”

“Grandchildren are God’s reward for not killing your own children.”

“Few things are more satisfying than seeing your children have teenagers of their own.”

 

Do you like this article?  Please rate it at the top, thanks!

–Margaret

Are you trying to reason with an irrational child?

Are you trying to reason with an irrational child?

I regularly speak with parents with children with a brain disorder and a history of serious behavior problems. Many are truly at the end of their rope.  The parent is so exasperated by their child’s relentless acting out, they start repeating themselves to exhaustion. and wondering why the child isn’t getting it.

They plead for answers: “Why does he keep doing this?, or, ” Why doesn’t she stop after I’ve explained things over and over.”  Then they answer their own questions:  “It’s because he always wants his way,” or, “She’s doing this to get back at me.”

The parent then lists all the ways they’ve tried reasoning with their child or disciplining with consequences.  As they tell their story, they continue to ask questions and provide answers, going around and around and around:  “He does this just to make me mad;”  “She manipulates the situation because she wants more (something) and I won’t give it to her.”  What’s interesting to me is that these children can be quite young (4 or 5), too young to expect reasoning in the first place, or they can be young adults (early 20′s) who have a long track record of doing things that don’t make sense.

Saying something a 1000 times doesn’t work. Your child tunes you out.

Parents’ stress and frustration vanish if they accept that their child is not ready to reason or control their behaviors.  It’s not their fault, and not the parents’ fault. Irrationality is the hallmark of brain-based problems, and chronically challenging behaviors are the evidence.

If you feel you have run into brick walls over and over again, and your child is not learning what you’re teaching, do both of yourselves a favor and stop trying the same things that still don’t work.  Stop assuming they will  listen, or that they even can listen.  Your child or teen does not have an evil plan to push your buttons and control your moods like a puppet.

When you find yourself trying to reason with a troubled child or teen (or young adult), step back and calm yourself this way, and ask what your child needs in the moment.  Then change your whole approach.

  • Try different ways of communicating, such as softening your tone of voice.
  • Pay attention to whether they respond best to words or images, and use what works most naturally for them.  Try using touch to communicate, or withdrawing touch if that’s threatening to them.
  • Post (polite) signs and simple house rules in the house as reminders for things they need to do every day.
  • Show instead of tell. Your child or teen may not be able to learn through their ears.  Or they tune you out.  Demonstrate how instead of telling them how.
  • Avoid explaining how their behavior will hurt them in the future.  Children and teens often cannot track how pushing one domino leads to all the dominoes falling.

If you’re nagging and harping and chiding your child, forgive yourself.

It’s so common one might call it normal.  You are still a good parent who wants the best for your son or daughter.  Over the many years I’ve facilitated parent support groups, I’ve heard so many regret how they’ve treated their child once they begin to understand that it won’t work.  You are not alone.  Raising a child like yours is tough, but you’ll move on and figure things out.  Don’t give up.