Many parents have children who are really hard to spend time with. I know because I see these kids interact with their parents in my office. And—I get an earful from parents who have children of all ages who have serious problems like severe ADHD, bipolar mood disorder, oppositional—defiant disorder, personality disorders and different types of addictions. Parents of children with any of these really struggle communicating positive messages to their kids because they’re just tough to be around. So what’s a parent to do? Are they off the hook when it comes to making sure that their kids feel loved and accepted? Unfortunately, no. Parents need to find a way to cope with their child’s illness AND give the child a sense that they are lovable, likeable people. This is no small feat.
Children who suffer from difficult disorders still have deep feelings and struggle with all of the same issues that otherwise healthy kids do. They, too, need to have a healthy self esteem, to know that their parents love them no matter what and to learn while they are growing up that their parents always accept them. The struggle for parents is twofold. First, how do you cope with bad behaviors and second, how do you communicate to the child that you still love them regardless of those behaviors? These are tricky but I’ve learned a few helpful things over the years by watching some good parents.
First, parents must separate the illness from the child. Many times parents see the child as the problem but when they try to see the child as an individual who lives with an illness, it’s easier for them to love the child. I tell kids with severe hyperactivity that they have something—hyperactivity, bipolar mood disorder, etc., —that has moved into their bodies and we need to get it under control. More importantly, the disorder is not who they are, but something they live with. If we help kids see that they are not their illness, they feel enormous relief. Just as a boy named Justin may have a broken leg who needs a cast, the same boy named Justin might also have bipolar disorder that needs medicalhelp. This technique also helps parents put the blame on the illness, not the child. And when a parent does that, a child feels less like a bad kid. This is very important because problem kids are frequently in trouble and they begin to feel that they are bad and no one ever wants to be with them. This would be a painful way to live.
Second, parents must identify specific behaviors that the child does and name them. They may see: hyperactivity, temper tantrums, outbursts of anger, anxiety or defiance, for example. Once a parent identifies specifically what gets under their skin, then they come up with a coping strategy for that behavior specifically. For instance, if a child is really hyperactive, a parent can come up with a survival plan for bouts of unusual intensity. They can go into another room, make the child spend an hour outside, recruit a high schooler to come help out after school if the child is young. In other words, life feels less stressful once a parent has a plan for dealing with specific tough behaviors, even if they don’t feel completely successful. Having a strategy is very important to a parent’s mental health.
Parents should also watch for patterns of certain behaviors to see if any have a rhythm. This helps them understand that the illness sometimes has a “life of its own.” Anxiety and depression, for example, cycle. A child—even if he is treated for either of these—will have periods of calm and happiness and then out of the blue become irritable, anxious or depressed without prompting. This is simply the rhythm of the illness and if parents can identify it as such, coping with it becomes much easier. They learn to wait the period out rather than scramble and try to figure out what they did wrong, how to fix the problem, etc.
Third, parents need to intentionally find times when they can be with a child and try to communicate love and acceptance. It can be hard on a day to day basis because the child’s behavior is stressful, so it’s important to plan to do it. They can plan a Saturday afternoon bike ride, dinner out together or something else that the child will enjoy. When the time comes, mentally gear up to leave hard feelings at home and make the time as positive as possible. Tell the child a few really positive things about himself during that time. Sometimes a parent may plan a time like this and then the afternoon blows up. If it does, just move on and try another time. Don’t get mad, just try again.
Fourth, parents can write letters. This is very special to all kids and none of us does it enough. The great part of letter writing to a difficult child is that you can write any time and he can read it any time. You don’t have to tell him positive things to his face and have him argue because he can’t argue with a letter.
Fifth, pray for your child and yourself. When parents pray for their kids, remarkable things happen. Prayer allows us to ask God to help out and take over. This invites God to do what He wants with the child and importantly, it changes those who pray. Prayer is profoundly mysterious and it works. It doesn’t unleash our will on our kids through God’s hand; rather it unleashes God’s will and helps us learn to accept it. When this happens, everyone wins. Ask God to give you the strength and patience you need to live with the difficulties. Remember, your child has to live with those same difficulties but doesn’t know how in the world to change them, so let them know that you are praying for her/him. Don’t tell her/him that you want God to change her (she’ll feel terrible about herself) but that you are asking God to help both of you get her difficulty under control.
Finally, never allow the illness to become an excuse for the child. While troubling disorders do interrupt life for kids and their families, the goal for the child is to ultimately learn to take charge of it. Adult children with severe hyperactivity need to be able to own it, treat it and succeed in spite of it. Once we let kids say that they can’t succeed because of their disorder they become crippled. It is a disorder, not the child. When kids begin to understand that they can be in charge of it, that they can succeed with it, they feel more hopeful and a have a much greater chance of success in life.