Straightforward answers to questions about raising troubled children and teens:
You are NOT Alone.
All families experience the same struggles as you do no matter what the age of the child or their diagnosis. They come from all walks of life, all educational levels, all races, and from across the world.
It’s No One’s Fault.
- It’s not your fault. You’re doing the best you can. Forgive yourself and be kind to yourself.
- It’s not the child’s fault. He or she would do better if he or she could.
You Can START NOW.
Even if there is no diagnosis or known cause, the steps to returning order in your life and home are the same for all families, no matter what the child’s age, diagnosis, or cause for his or her troubled behavior. There are many ways to help children with behavioral problems. Most of them work very well.
Causes for Children’s Behavioral Disorders
- Family history of mental disorders
- Trauma history
- Diabetes, epilepsy, thyroid dysfunction, and other medical conditions
- Stressful living conditions (divorce, poverty, domestic violence)
- Brain damage: injury, fetal exposure to substances, environmental toxins
- Unknown causes! Research is still underway.
You CAN Handle This.
For caregivers, you can raise a difficult child while keeping yourself and the rest of your family safe, and begin thriving. Your parenting techniques will need to be very different, not the same common sense practices you would use with a ‘normal’ child. These will be different for each child, and take practice to learn, and patience.
You DESERVE Respect and SUPPORT.
This is the toughest parenting job of them all, give yourself lots of credit for trying. You probably get little credit and lots of unwanted advice. Your child has a true disability, and your family deserves the same compassion and support as any other family with a disabled child. Mental disorders are serious, with higher mortality rates than childhood cancers and leukemias.
You HAVE the COURAGE.
If not now, it will come, and it will start when you are mentally and emotionally healthy. A drowning person cannot save another drowning person. Be ‘selfish’ and ‘self-centered’ and ensure you float and that you will always float.
#1 Most Important Thing
Take Care of Yourself FIRST
The task you face now may require superhuman backbone and discipline, and saintly patience and forgiveness. You are about to run a 1000 mile marathon, row across an ocean, and climb a mountain. Set aside non-critical life demands and take care of yourself. Once you are OK, you will figure a lot out by yourself.
“At one point I realized I am the ship,
if I go down, WE ALL GO DOWN!” –Erin
Ease Your STRESS
- Do something that makes you happy, indulge in a treat, steal time away from your family.
- Talk with someone who doesn’t judge you, call or visit them when you’ve had a really bad day to share your feelings.
- Read something that helps you escape your reality for a while.
- Take a coffee break, or a vacation, even if it’s brief.
- See a therapist for yourself, to learn ways to cope and feel better about yourself.
- Get treatment, an antidepressant for a few months to help you catch up
- Practice daily “mindfulness” such as yoga or DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy)
Get a Life!
You and the others must take time out to do something you enjoy. It means setting aside the troubled child’s needs for a while and doing what you want to do. This is not selfish or neglectful. There’s only so much your family can sacrifice for a child who may take years to get better.
Make these your family priorities, and teach them to all members, even your troubled child:
- Safety First – ALL will be kept safe from pain, fear, or violence, including visitors and pets.
- Acceptance – Accept things the way they are now and move forward from here.
- Family Balance – Everyone’s needs will be met–not too much for one, not too little for another.
- Expectations that are realistic – Progress will move slowly step-by-step, and sometimes backwards. Focus only on the next step. Your child’s pace will be slow but it’s OK. Take it one day at a time.
Your life and family will not be like others. Avoid making comparisons.
Other families with a child with a physical disability or medical condition share your concerns too, and make as many sacrifices. Their lives will never be normal either.
Focus on REDUCING, not Stopping, Difficult Behavior
Trying to stop or fix bad behavior does not work. Mental health professionals use entirely different approaches and techniques. Your natural parenting instincts for raising children, using incentives and consequences, rarely work for troubled children.
Examples: modify the environment to reduce challenging behavior
- ADHD kids do not do well in a home that’s chaotic, neither do kids with autism or one of the schizophrenic disorders.
- Children with bipolar symptoms get bored easily and need something to do or they will create chaos.
- Children with depression withdraw into their unhappy heads and stay there; they need stimulation and uplifting sensory experiences to draw them out so they can function.
- Anxious children do better with reasonable attempts to minimize their stress. They should not be forced to face their fears. Ask for their advice on what works, and tell them honestly that you will do what you can, but can’t promise to protect them all the time.
SAFETY: Plan AHEAD for When things go Wrong
When your family is under intense stress because of your child, your family needs a Crisis Plan. It lists what each can do immediately to ensure safety. All family members help make this plan as a team (perhaps not your affected child) so everyone knows what to do and is supported by each other.
Definition of a CRISIS
A crisis is when someone gets hurt, or stops functioning normally and is at risk of being hurt–child can attack someone, destroy property, run away, cut themselves, attempt suicide, or make specific plans for harming themselves or others. A child can also make threats of harm, and if they have the means to harm (weapons in the home, or drugs or substances that are toxic, a history of harm) it is a crisis. Or, the child’s behavior is persistently extreme and abnormal, such as being excessively agitated, hearing voices or hallucinating, exhibiting very inappropriate behavior.
Ideas for a Crisis PLAN
- After making a reasonable attempt to reduce the crisis, call 911 and ask for the police or ambulance, or take the child to the hospital if possible. There is usually a local mental health crisis number to call for immediate advice or connection to emergency services.
- Call for back-up: other family members or understanding neighbors or friends. It helps to know that someone will show up when you’re in shock.
- Remove all means of harm or have a “lock down” plan (barricading members in a room for their safety, sending a sibling to a neighbor’s…)
- After the crisis – Talk with a friend, or get professional help such as therapy for yourself. Take a “mental health day” off to tend to your and everyone else’s well-being (go out to eat, watch a comedy, give hugs all around…).
- Few, Simple, and Fair (parents follow them too)
- No more than 3 for each person
- The best Rules are SPECIFIC and CONCRETE (who, what, when, where, why)
- Have at least one meal together at the table every day.
- Limit time on TV, video games, or computer use to a specific length, 1 hour, 2 hours…
- Settle 15 minutes in your room after arriving home from school, or after eating…
- Get 30 minutes of exercise in the backyard every day.
- Clean the dinner dishes by 7 pm.
- Show respect: anger is OK but not screaming, swearing, or door slamming.
What HELPS ALL Children with Behavior Problems
2. Adequate sound sleep
3. Good diet: lower in fats and sugars; higher in fruits, nuts, vegetables, and fish protein
A noisy chaotic home, fighting among family members, teasing or bullying at school, pressure to manage more than they can handle, lack of sleep and exercise, fast food diets, constant pressure to do better, and ignoring or denying a child’s problems.
What HELPS different Disorders (examples)
- A bipolar child might need a safe spot or quiet room to work through a rage.
- An autistic child might need a low stimulation environment, or one with rhythmic sound
- A depressed child needs to be drawn out by checking-in on them often, or providing an activity that keeps them preoccupied.
- An ADHD child needs schedules and rules, but also opportunities to be creative
- All children need a less stressful or emotionally negative environment, whatever that means for them.
- Observe their behavior without emotions or judgment. Notice when they do well and make note of the situation: in the morning? during a meal? around lots of activity or when alone? Now pay attention to what makes behavior worse, the triggers.
- Remove triggers that set off unsafe behavior. Triggers can be simple things like transitions from one environment to another, which feels to your child like “changing channels” too quickly. Example: when going to or from school; or when getting into and out of the car. Ensure they are not being teased by siblings or by other upsets.
- Look for little things that calm or improve your child’s behavior. Some children do better when in a quiet room alone (schizophrenia, autism, anxiety). Some children and teens need music and activity around them to settle their nerves and help them focus (ADHD). Some do better with rigorous exercise (depression), or some need to do yoga poses or keep their hands busy (anxiety disorders).
- Offer lots of praise! Catch your child or teen doing something good and point it out immediately.
- Negotiate. This may seem counterintuitive, but yes, you can negotiate with your child and you won’t be giving in. This technique is called Collaborative Problem Solving or CPS, and it works remarkable well. There is so much good information about CPS that this article cannot do it justice. Check out these books by the expert, Ross W. Greene.
Your Highest PRIORITIES
Your problems are too numerous to solve all at once, so limit your energies to the highest priorities in your life, in this order:
- YOU! Your well-being and health
- Then all family members
- Your income and other basic necessities
- Your troubled child
Be flexible and adjust your approach.
Trust your observations, judgment, and intuition
SUCCESSFUL Families Look Like THIS:
- A couple stands by each other and supports each other; they put the stability of their relationship first, even if they don’t always agree. If the parents are divorced, they still do this.
- The single parent or couple regularly reach out to others they trust, and avoid those who take their energy or bring them down.
- Siblings are supported and protected by the parent(s), and given attention and appreciation for what makes them special. They are asked about their feelings, and helped to take care of themselves and avoid their troubled brother or sister.
- Pets are appreciated and cared for.
- Basic needs are met: healthful food, a maintained living space, clean clothing, income, sleep, exercise.