Most of the parents we encounter genuinely love their children, even if they are sometimes frustrated with them. That love drives the therapy to successful outcomes.
Sometimes children are driven to difficult behaviors that are out of the norm in severity or caused by issues outside of our ability to change them.
In such cases, helping parents learn how to handle the behaviors and how to support their child can make a huge difference.
When a child had a serious mental illness, parents frequently need not only training but support. Dealing with a chronic condition from which there is little or no hope of a cure is extremely difficult.
We often meet parents who grew up in troubled homes. When they did not see an example of effective parenting they sometimes need help with it.
These parents usually love their children but need to know how to manage them. Coaching makes a great difference in these cases.
The Boy Who Wanted a Cell Phone
A family arrived at our office one day. There were the mom and dad, well dressed and well groomed. There was the thirteen-year-old little sister, also well groomed – the over-achiever.
Then there was Austin (not his real name), the fifteen year old boy. Mom, dad and sister all sat upright and made good eye contact, but Austin, well, he was trying to dig a fox hole in our overstuffed couch.
"Who wants to start? Who can tell me why we are here,” we said? Austin dug in a bit more.
Mom spoke up. “Austin is bright, but he’s failing school. He cuts classes, he doesn’t do his homework and he is mouthy and disrespectful to me.”
We looked at Austin and said, “OK, that’s your mother’s take on it. What’s yours?
“She’s rides my butt all the time. She never lets up. I’m sick of it,” he said.
Little sister, with a bit of encouragement, offered the observation that “they do yell a lot.”
We also learned that Austin was an excellent athlete, popular at school, and that he wanted a cell phone. (His parents had offered one if he would get straight A’s for a year.)
We also learned from Dad that Mom was ex-military.
We excused the children with the promise that things were going to get better sooner than later. Little sister looked hopeful. Austin looked disbelieving.
We set up a program for Austin to earn the cell phone of his dreams by increasing his next two-week grade report by any margin. To keep it his grades had to go up by any amount every two weeks.
When he first got his phone he spent all his free time calling and texting his friends. His grades went down and he lost his phone. Two weeks later he brought home a report with a slightly higher GPA. He got his phone back.
He soon figured out that to keep his phone, he had to apply self control and begin acting responsibly -- which he did.
The instructions to his parents were to stop getting angry with him and let the phone do their work for them. That way, their relationship could improve.
Dad had no trouble with that, but Mom found herself unable to interact with Austin without anger. It was obvious that her son was triggering her own unresolved childhood experience. We recommended individual therapy for her.
At one point in the therapy Mom asked why I didn't talk to Austin more.
To that Dad replied,"He explained that our son is only reacting to our parenting style. He is showing us how to change so we can get different results from our son. Besides, wouldn't it be so much better if he could teach us how to fix the problem instead of doing it himself?"