Couples Coping with Bad Child Behavior
DR. MARGARET JAMAL WRITES…
Many of us may remember the critical moments before giving birth to a long awaited child. But do we remember our thoughts, prayers, wishes and dreams concerning that child? We want our new baby to be healthy and beautiful. We even plan to count the toes and fingers. Yet how many of us actually hope for a child to be well behaved, obedient and full of joy? And as the child develops, we consider the education that could lead to gainful employment. Yet, we tend to ignore seeking the type of environment that would result in a well-mannered child who brings peace and joy to the home.
Perhaps the lack of emphasis on child behavior has been a great contributor the high degree of reports of unruly children wreaking havoc in homes across the globe. There are many different perspectives concerning the causes of bad behavior in children. For example, one study reports that they found evidence that children who have trouble sleeping are more likely to have behavioral problems. Another study concludes that mothers exposed to a certain amount of exhaust fumes are more likely experience bad behavior in children. Whether the problem is poor sleeping habits or the results from exhaust fumes, experts are proposing a growing number of solutions to address misbehavior in children. However, regardless of the causes for a child’s bad behavior, the solutions seldom address the adverse impact on a marital relationship.
WHOSE FAULT IS IT?
One of the greatest responses that can contribute to hurting the marital relationship- where the couple is struggling with bad child behavior- is the tendency to look for opportunities to assess blame. In too many cases, the couple blames each other (just as much if not) more than they blame the child. The father may blame the mother for poor health choices during pregnancy. On the other hand, the mother may blame the father for not affording them the access to better child development resources, such as good day care facilities, or developmental toys and gadgets.
While there are vast arrays of resources available that claim to address bad child
behavior, there appears to be few resources that offer to repair the damaged marital relationships resulting from dealing with their child’s bad behavior. The strain on relationships where bad child behavior is present may even result from underlying issues that simply had not yet surfaced. In any case, there needs to be an intentional effort to seek support and adequate counseling for the couple who may not see their own adverse behavioral issues as significant in light of their child’s.
For couples who may be experiencing the stress of having a child with bad behavior issues, here are 7 responses to avoid along with 7 responses to apply. Both 7 Responses lists below can be used by couples in order to help them to maintain their relationships as they seek solutions regarding their child’s behavior.
7 RESPONSES TO AVOID WHEN DEALING WITH BAD CHILD BEHAVIOR
1- Avoid placing blame (especially on yourself or each other) or seeing yourselves as failures and bad parents.
2- Avoid being angry and yelling at each other- especially in response to the child’s behavior.
3- Avoid misdirecting punishment towards each other.
4- Avoid telling others and declaring that you have a “bad child.” (Words have power.)
5- Avoid trying to guess what is wrong with your child. (Seek expert assessment and counsel through schools, clergy, and/or mental health professionals.)
6- Avoid going into debt through pursuing knee jerk responses to possible solutions.
7- Avoid using substances such as illicit drugs, drunkenness, etc. as coping mechanisms.
7 RESPONSES TO APPLY WHEN DEALING WITH BAD CHLD BEHAVIOR
1- Remind each other often how much you love and need each other.
2- Be a good and concerned listener for each other.
3- Take your time with discussing your options for solutions and insist on getting the clarity and understanding that you need –realizing that either of you may need to have solutions explained over again.
4- Forgive the words said by your spouse or the problem child in times of frustration.
5- Intentionally find ways to get away together to enjoy each other as often as possible.
6- Remain hopeful that your situation will improve as you continue to seek solutions.
7- Above all, pray for love, peace and divine guidance to abound in your household.
DR. AARON JAMAL WRITES…
In a world that is vastly different from the one that I remember growing up in, I am confident that the children of this age are facing far different challenges than I remember facing as a child. However, even during the times that I grew up in, it was clear that a lot of parents were not certain about how to deal with their children. The stress from feeling helpless in dealing with a difficult child can also wear on a marriage. However, the short answer to the entitled questions is “yes.” Your marriage can survive the journey of raising a difficult child.
After years of counseling couples, I have developed a number of constants but I am very careful to avoid projecting what worked for one couple on to each of the other couples as though it is a principled method for resolving their problems. I believe “Principles” should be presented as universal and applicable to every aspect of life. Similar to many philosophies, principles are like musicals. They cannot simply be performed, they must also be rehearsed in order to reach desired goals.
Please give consideration to these insights- not as life principles but as thoughtful insights -with the intent of arming you with more tools in your tool belt of resources that can help you along your journey.
DON’T MAKE COMPARISONS
1) A constant that I have learned and share often with couples is that it is far more important to learn how to love the spouse you have than to struggle with the question “Did I marry the right person?” Gary Chapman’s “Five Love Languages” is a great resource to use to discover best approaches toward satisfying and reshaping expectations within your marriage. When seeking resources to help you deal with your difficult child it is also appropriate to begin learning to love the child you have and avoid fruitless comparisons to other children within your family or outside of your family structure.
BEWARE OF COPYCAT-ING
2) It may be necessary to take an honest assessment of your marriage to determine if you have projected some of the behaviors or root causes for the behavior manifesting in your child. This assessment is not to find blame or fault, but to frame solutions.
Children are often little “copycats” that mirror their parents as they understand. “Do as I say and not as I do” strategies are conflicting and not effective for child development. Your children need to see you consistently handle stressful circumstances calmly and with restraint to learn that there are better responses to what will happen to them as well. Discuss what you feel like even when you are using restraint to validate that the emotions that your child is feeling are not weird. “That really makes me feel angry when…” should not be used as an excuse to behave poorly and the more your child sees your example of handling stress with effective coping skills, then the better the odds are for them to develop better coping mechanisms. On the other hand, if you retreat to a cigarette, profanity laced rants, or drinking as a coping mechanism then the odds are pretty good that your behavior will be copied.
LIES AND BROKEN TRUSTS
3) Avoid lying in any case but especially in front of your children. This avoids setting up a standard that lying is acceptable in certain situations. I believe it is even more important to avoid lying and breaking promises to your children. Broken trusts can be very traumatic for children and will often provoke behaviors that are reactions to those broken trusts.
Broken trusts tax any relationship and children are often acting out because of trust issues while they lack the communication skills to effectively express their feelings or to begin building that trust again. Apologies can go a long way in helping a child to learn that mutual relationships can hit the reset button and begin again on a clean slate.
DISPLAY GOOD TREATMENT TOWARDS EACH OTHER
4) Primary to the family structure is the health of your marriage. Take time out to de-stress and to build an affectionate atmosphere. If you are affectionate to each other and to your children these can develop constants that guard against negative behaviors. On the other hand, if your marriage has grown contentious where you are screaming venomous statements at each other, the children often view their family as unstable, embarrassing and insecure. Young children often thrive in affirming and affectionate atmospheres. Teens usually go through a period of adjustment where they may resist public displays of affection. However, if you give them some space and remain receptive, they often come back to what made them feel secure in your love after the adjustment.
Early in my current marriage I had a discussion with our oldest daughter following an argument I had with my wife and looked her straight in the eye and promised her that divorce was not an option and that I was not going anywhere. I saw that she relaxed with the assurance that her family was not spitting up and I apologized for exposing her to that argument. Additionally, I explained that sometimes we say things just because we were upset at the time, but we would try to do better at treating each other better because we really loved each other.
That brief exchange with her added to the importance of my acknowledging how our verbal exchanges affected our children. We have since learned a great deal more about those dynamics. However, I must admit we made mistakes and were not always as responsible as we should have been it providing the best atmosphere in our home for our family.
Our children have endorsed our model of marriage as a great one often and that is a great reward on its own. However, difficult children are not a product of genes and every family dynamic must seek what is needed for their unique set of circumstances. Professional help is often an aid and sometimes the help of great friends can also provide great support through trying times.
ENFORCING PRINCIPLES VS. PUNISHMENT
5) Principles related to consequences are vastly different from punishment and defining the difference is critical to a healthy attitude about the correction that is required in guiding a child. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is not a bad principle but I do believe that the principle has been misused and abused to excuse methods of disciplining children. Whereas I do not believe that the government has the capacity to offer “best alternatives” for children that are suffering through “abuse” I am aware that many parents mean well in their attempts to discipline their children but sometimes go way overboard in trying to use force to bring their child into compliance. In this case, it is necessary for those in authority to intervene.
Anger begets anger. Diffusing your own anger before levying consequences will avoid inflicting your child with suffering for their actions. Consequences do not have to be viewed as suffering to be effective. Suffering results more in shame and humiliation which rarely leads to positive results in the development of character. Providing consequences that target additional chores, losing benefits or money are better examples of appropriate consequences. Each of us will have to deal with consequences at some point of our lives. Facilitating suffering is not a teachable moment. Survival instincts can often drive the child into deceptive practices to avoid suffering punishment. Building trust of your parental love is still viable even in the midst of a child experiencing consequences for inappropriate behavior.
6) Affirmation that is intentional and even exaggerated for every positive behavior breeds an appetite for more affirmation and often inspires the child to provoke you to higher levels of satisfaction and appreciation for their deeds. Negative responses are usually intense and leave long lasting impressions in the mind of the children. Ideally, negative responses should come far less frequent than positive ones. However, if they must come, let them be measured and not as a life sentence. Avoid letting your negative response become as a label like “Lazy!” or “Irresponsible!” or even worse, “Loser!” Additionally, past behavior should not become a basis for each incident of inappropriate behavior. Fresh starts should truly be fresh starts.
PLAYING BY YOUR OWN RULES
7) Establish consistent ground rules that establish respect between you and your child. Require your child to be respectful and polite and avoid being rude to the child as well. Your role in the family is not a democratic role that requires a vote of acceptance. You are the parent and they are the child. Just as you are required to learn how to love the child you have, so should the child learn to love the parent they have. This love cannot be based solely on performance and should not become threatened even in the midst of poor behavior. You telling your child that you hate them or can’t stand them is not acceptable any more than your child screaming “I hate you” in response to your ground rules.
Resist being manipulated by the child, forcing you to choose sides between them and your spouse. Make it clear that you are a united front that loves them. You will not be divided nor will your union be threatened by their manipulation. Stand firm! Ask questions: “Does your mother/father know about this?” “Tell me exactly what s/he told you” should also follow along with a promise to discuss this with the spouse.
Finally, let your children hear you praying for them in a positive way. Don’t use family prayer as a platform to gossip and complain about your child’s behavior. Allowing the child to witness your humility in front of God is a great model for your child to learn from.