"You are so pathetic," yelled the teenaged son to his mother outside the shopping mall, within earshot of dozens of strangers. "I can't stand walking around in public with you."
This boy then let loose with a sailor's string of vulgarity and verbal abuse on his mom. "You're ridiculous!" screamed the boy. "I hate you."
For parents of children and teens with emotional and behavioral special needs, such situations are all too real. "He seems to pick the worst times to do this to me," says the mother. "In the car, out at the grocery store -- He knows when I have the least control," she continues. "I can't do enough for him. I can't fill up the hole inside. I'm always failing and falling short."
As a psychologist working with parents of children with emotional and behavioral special needs, I watch the looks of helplessness clouding their faces. They've been through enough berating and public lashings with their kids that now all they can do is shake their heads weakly. "I've tried every therapy and therapist under the sun. I've pumped a pharmacy of meds into my kid. Nothing works. I should just give up."
I view myself as more of a coach than a therapist. Coaches help those in their charge hang in and face adversity. That's just what these parents need most. More than mere information, these parents need "muscle memory." They need to know how to do what will actually help their child.
In talking to parents, I sometimes like to step outside the realm of kids behaving badly and talk about animals. I ask parents if they've ever watched the National Geographic Channel show, "The Dog Whisperer," and many say they have. In the show, the "whisperer" -- an animal expert named Cesar Millan, trots the globe teaching dog owners how to reign in bad pooch behavior. I tell parents that I'm not suggesting that their kids are animals -- they are indeed kids, with uniquely human needs. Some principles about change are universal, however. Whether we're talking about an aggressive chiuahua or an out-of-control child, both need a strong, attuned presence from their caregivers. And parents seem to resonate to this. Instead of being offended at the analogy, they tend to agree that with dogs, it is so crucial how the owner carries themselves. It helps them see that they too need to take a look at their "presence" with their kids. Instead of expecting their child to "snap out of it," or "just realize that what they're doing is wrong," they see that they need to shift themselves first -- that they are the real coach. They have to coach their kids in how to better manage themselves.
And there's no higher calling for a parent.
One of the more notable strategies in the coaching curriculum is called "active ignoring." In this approach, parents are taught to identify a disruptive action their child exhibits that is provocative in nature -- one that is clearly focused on hitting parental "buttons" and generating a reaction. Many of the kids I work with are professional button pushers. They know their parents hate embarrassment, rejection, threats of safety, and loss of both face and financial wellness. "I hate you . . . I want a new mom . . . I wish I was never born . . . You suck as a dad . . . Yeah, I broke the stereo, who cares? . . . I don't care if the whole world is looking" -- and let's not forget the incessant whining and crying. "Mom, you don't love me!" And they say and do these things because -- simply put -- it works. Eventually they get a reaction, and sometimes even a negative reaction is ample reward. A tug-of-war commences between parent and child, often with the child getting their way (or at least a delay in their homework, the trash-taking, or whatever it is they don't want).
For parents who hang in, who make the commitment to change themselves as much as they are trying to change their kids, significant progress is possible. Coaching works, but in my experience, only with this commitment and the follow-through it generates. It's the "three C's" of effective coaching: caring, commitment, and consistency.
This was the case for one teenage boy and his mom. The mom told me that instead of flipping out and reacting to her son's outlandish behavior with knee-jerk yelling and empty threats, she decided to hang in with the use of active ignoring. "It took about five minutes of me standing there letting him rant, and letting people stare," she said. "But eventually he did, and then he did something really incredible -- he broke down crying right in front of me." She looked at us and with some energy in her voice as she continued. "He told me that he just gets so freaked out when he sees me struggling after I've had my chemo. That he worries about what will happen down the line." I remember clearly the smile on this mom's face. "I rarely see this side of him," she said. "And I never would have if I snapped at him like I wanted to."
I tell the parents I work with there is no "cure" for the behavioral problems they face with their kids. There is no single pill or silver bullet strategy that hits the sweet spot and changes things permanently. While there is no cure, it's important for parents to know there is a path toward greater connection and positive change for their kids.