From July 25, 2012
After spending roughly 25 years (now more like 30!) providing counseling services to children and families, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the most common questions parents have asked during the course of counseling.
1. What caused this? Is it genetic?
I think we’re taught from early on to look at cause and effect or problem and solution, so it’s natural for parents to want to get to the root of the problem when it comes to their child. However, finding the cause is not as important as directing the plan for managing the situation. Placing blame on a poor gene pool or looking into whose family has had the most dysfunction does not lead to healthy coping skills or problem management. Rather, understanding your child and meeting your child’s needs as best you can will most often take you down the healthiest path. When your child knows that you are walking with him, that you are supporting him through the struggle, and that you love him unconditionally, he will be more equipped to handle the rough road that may lie ahead. Don’t get me wrong; there are some conditions in which it is essential to know about genetics, and I encourage you to explore those as your medical team requests. But for the vast majority of behavioral and emotional concerns, beating each other up for something that is out of your control does not aid the situation. In many instances, the combination of one’s predisposition (genetics) and environment (experiences) dictate how that person will interpret his or her world.
2. How can I expect my child to do certain things, like be a good student or not drink alcohol when I made those choices as a child?
First of all, we have learned a lot since we were children about the developing brain which influence the advice we offer to parents. When we set expectations for behavior we want in our children, they know what to reach out and achieve. They will make mistakes – we all do. And we teach them about consequences for those behaviors just like we show them the rewards of good choices. When we were younger, there were no seat belts so we did not wear them. Does that mean we don’t need our children to wear them? Of course not. We have learned that seat belts are a necessary safety feature, so we teach our children to use them even if we did not. Underage drinking? Drinking and driving? When we were younger, there were less cars on the roads and there was very little known about the effects of alcohol on the young brain. Now with stricter laws, more crowded roads, and the experiences of deadly car crashes resulting from teen drinking, we teach our teens to make smart choices when it comes to alcohol. We don’t need to share experiences with our children to guide them appropriately. We have adult brains with adult common sense and our children rely on us to help them in guiding them to make good decisions for themselves.
3. Why doesn’t my child act his/her age?
Most likely, the behavior you are seeing IS age appropriate. Part of development is in making of mistakes, failing, falling on our faces, and misbehaving. So much learning can take place when consequences occur that teach children about the logical or natural cause and effect in life. So often, parents try to derail disappointment or give in to tantrums that we miss out on the beauty of life’s most natural lessons – acting his or her age and managing the consequences or privileges that follow.
4. How can I make sure my child will go to a good college if he/she is not doing his/her homework?
One of the things you can do is to let your child NOT do his or her homework, and see the consequences. Certainly, the young child, under third grade, needs a lot of coaching in homework skills, work habits, and focus. As the child gets older, as a parent, you take steps backward each year to help your child gain independence in managing his or her work. This will mean homework gets left at home or work gets turned in incomplete. Rushing the papers to school doesn’t teach your child the independent skills to manage at college, now, does it? Bribing, nagging, and cajoling your child to do his or her homework doesn’t mirror how students learn to do their work at school. You can insure your child will make it into college by allowing him or her to own his or her work and be responsible for it, complete or not. Better to watch failure in junior high or high school, when lessons are not as costly as a $25,000 college year.
5. My spouse and I don’t have the same views on parenting. How confusing is this to our child?
One of the neatest things to observe in children is their adaptability. They know what to expect at school, from grandma and grandpa, and how each parent responds to different situations. While the best way to manage parenting issues when two parents are available is to co-parent – communicate about discipline and guidance away from the child, present a united front to the child, and work together to manage the issues – when it comes to the day to day events, each parent’s creative approach actually helps teach flexibility to your children. For example, I had a certain bedtime routine with my children. Bath, jammies, brushing teeth, stories, and a kiss goodnight, all by a certain time, worked well for me. My husband, on the other hand, had this unique song and march, his own creative stories and plays, and maybe a little less rigidity on the exact bedtime. Our children cooperated with both – but, truth be told, I even loved my husband’s style on this more than mine! When it came to cleaning up the toys, we had different styles again. But the common theme was that we both believed in some routine for each, and had the children participating in these events. So the discussions about what we wanted as our goal was done, and then each person allowed the other to develop his or her own style for carrying out the message. Your children will learn to adapt to each of your styles, but the consistency of the message will make their development as smooth as possible!