When children struggle, their parents may find it hard to help them. With so many challenges facing young people today, it can be scary for both parents and children.
Part of the natural developmental arc for growing children is separating from parents and learning to be independent. It may involve the children distancing themselves from their parents as they come into their own. Complicating this process of separation are difficulties like drug use, developmental disabilities, social and emotional problems, and mental health issues. Fear from both sides that the child may not be able to become independent adds tension to the relationship. Sometimes this tension can even erupt into a crisis.
The mechanics of these situations can be very difficult, because the underlying motivations are very strong. The parents are often motivated by wanting to make sure their children will be able to survive in the world. The child is motivated by a desire for independence. The “shadow” sides of these motivations can become “I will look bad if my child doesn’t turn out right” and “I can do whatever I want.” To avoid getting stuck in a situation where these reactions turn into a power struggle, consider these suggestions.
Listening is one of the most important things that parents can do for their child. If parents can overcome their need to fix or correct their child and simply listen to what it’s like for them, it can be a great help. A wonderful resource for learning this type of listening and communication is the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. He also has some good videos online.
The agendas that parents have for their children can also eclipse their ability to communicate effectively. Thoughts like “They should be happy, they should be able to succeed in the world, they shouldn’t struggle, and they shouldn’t fail,” although appropriate, can interfere with the ability to listen and connect. On the children’s side, as they try to establish their independence, they may be vulnerable to feeling shamed by criticism and may not hear objectively what the parents are saying.
Stay in the Present
One important thing to keep in mind when you’re in a crisis is to stay in the present. When there are difficult problems, it is easy to project them into the future and make them bigger. For example, a child’s bad grades may get projected into “My child will never be able to earn a living.” Try adopting a softer attitude about these worries. A good question to ask is, “Is this something that’s happening now, that I need to deal with immediately, or am I projecting into the future?” Finding solutions to small, present-moment difficulties is often more helpful than trying to tackle longe-range problems.
Notice the Details
If you’re listening with an open mind and staying present, it’s easier to notice the details. Looking at the particulars of a situation is very valuable, especially when tensions are running high. What exactly has happened? What exactly is the impact? How important is it? These small, step-by-step details contain information that can be helpful when trying to understand how serious a problem is.
Not surprisingly, interacting with struggling children can be a major trigger for parents. Even if parents are doing their best to keep an open mind and communicate, the challenge can be fraught with difficulties. Support from others who have been through it can be immensely comforting and reassuring, with the added bonus of providing useful strategies and information. A good resource for mental health issues is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org).
Know the Value of Waiting
Crises create a sense of urgency. Resist taking this too far. Remember that these situations will not stay in crisis forever and will eventually get worked out. Sometimes parents have to let children experience the consequences of their actions and simply wait. Circumstances that feel so overwhelming in the present can be effectively dealt with in time, little by little.
Finally, because these issues are happening in a family, naturally the parts are interconnected. Unresolved issues in parents sometimes get expressed by the children. For example, when there are anger issues in the child, one might find experiences from a parent’s childhood that have not been resolved yet. If you’re a parent struggling with a child, take it as an opportunity to look inside and put some attention on your own unresolved issues.
For severe mental health issues, contact the Jefferson County CPC office at (641) 472-8637. Al-Anon Family Groups offer good support for families dealing with substance abuse. RockingTheSpectrumInOttumwa.com is an autism support group with great resources.
David Seagull, LISW, is a therapist in Fairfield. See DavidSeagullTherapy.com.