Posted by fxckfeelings on May 27, 2009Share This Post
Protecting one’s children is a powerful instinct, but it’s important not to become so blinded by that instinct that you can’t see if your protection is doing more harm than good. The two kids in these cases are particularly vulnerable, but their parents might be so committed to fighting for their kids that they can’t see how they’re actually declaring a larger, futile war.
My son is in 5th grade, and my wife and I were recently called into a meeting with the vice principal to discuss my son’s behavior. We were told that he routinely disrupts class, talks back to teachers, throws balls over the wall at recess, and, overall, “refuses to behave.” His school work is terrible, I admit that, and she says that this is because it’s nearly impossible to teach him since he won’t focus or really do anything but act up. Her recommendation was meeting with a school-appointed psychiatrist, and that that doctor would likely prescribe medication for ADHD. My wife is OK with that plan, but I think the situation is crazy, not my kid. He’s 10 years old, of course he’s acting like a brat, and I’m sick of people throwing drugs at every child that doesn’t sit still. I don’t want my son turned into some Ritalin zombie. My goal is to get him to get him in line with his school without putting him on pills.
You’re the parent, the tough decisions are always your responsibility, and the decision whether or not to medicate your kid is a hard one. What you and any right-thinking teacher or doctor would prefer, first and foremost, is a non-medical way of helping your son control his behavior.
While the common perception (yours included) is that shrinks like myself are eager to put people on the pharmaceutical bandwagon, that simply isn’t an infallible truth. Medication is never entirely safe, and is certainly less safe than most non-medical interventions, like behavioral treatments. Just because doctors can prescribe medication doesn’t mean it’s always our go-to answer.
That said, don’t let your worries about medication, no matter how well deserved, tie your hands before you decide how desperate things are, and how much you realistically do or don’t control. In other words, don’t run to medication first, but don’t rule it out before thoroughly assessing the alternatives.
The trouble is that some kids are so impulsive that even the best parents and teachers can’t get them to control themselves, and their impulsive behavior, over time, becomes increasingly unsafe, even more unsafe than the risk of medication side-effects.
They can injure themselves, fall behind academically, and get into trouble with drugs and the law. So while you have reason to worry about medication turning your child into a zombie, you may have more reason to worry about his becoming Mr. Hyde without it.
If you’ve got a kid heading for that kind of trouble, who doesn’t seem to benefit from good behavioral treatment, then it’s time to realize that your control is limited and that no one knows what, if anything, is going to work. If you don’t accept this unfortunate reality, and instead say to yourself, “there must be an answer,” then you’ll fight with everyone you think should have the answer and doesn’t, including wife, teachers, shrinks, and yourself, and after all that fighting you still won’t have an answer, but you will have alienated anyone who might have supported you.
Other people who want to help your child may have trouble accepting their lack of control, and may be sure that you should try medication or some other treatment. You can’t be distracted by anyone’s strong feelings, however, be they yours or someone else’s. Follow your usual procedure for making tough decisions, working with reality instead of against it.
Review the list of recommended treatments along with their possible risks and benefits, give priority to what’s safest, accept the fact that some options haven’t worked, decide whether it’s time to try higher-risk options, and, regardless of what you decide, try to make everyone on your team feel appreciated and listened to, whether or not you agree with them. They may anger or threaten you, but there’s nothing much you can do about your negative feelings except keep them to yourself and prevent them from disrupting the morale of your son’s treatment team.
If a lack of good alternatives forces you to consider the possible benefits and risks of medication, be aware that many psychiatric medications have a relatively low risk of causing harm (despite what the newspapers say) and trying them for a brief period of time is even less risky (which is all that you’re committing to until you see whether they work).
Remember, you’re the leader. Whatever you think about the risk of medications or the inadequacy of the school’s efforts to help your son, don’t disparage their motivations or suggested treatments unless you want to get the same back at you, doubled. Being a parent is tough; don’t make it tougher by limiting the options to help your kid.
To block fear and helplessness from your decision-making, compose a statement. “My son’s behavior presents a tough problem to all of us who want to help him. Maybe we wouldn’t worry as much if we lived in the Little House on the Prairie and he could expect no more than a few years in a rural schoolhouse followed by years of learning by doing, rather than today’s prolonged, high-density, distraction-sensitive education. But it is what it is. I can’t protect him, but I can do my best and try to give everyone who is committed to his well-being a chance to try anything reasonable, as long as I think the risk is worth it. Regardless of my anger or fear, I’ll credit my efforts and theirs and take responsibility for nothing that I don’t control.”
Unfortunately, my 8-year-old daughter has become the main target for the queen bee bully in her grade at her new school. My daughter is tall for her age and wears glasses, and that’s enough material for this bully to make my little girl’s life a living hell. I didn’t know this was going on until my daughter finally admitted that some bruises on her legs weren’t from soccer, and I felt so terrible, seeing her cry and realizing that she’d been going through this torment for months without any help. So of course my husband and I went directly to the school the next day and spoke with anyone in the administration who would listen, demanding they do something about the situation and suspend the monster. They investigated, and the version they got is that there was minor verbal abuse and that the bruises had been an isolated incident that the bully insists was an accident. Come on! If my girl were an adult woman who got bruises at work, you could call the police, but an innocent child gets no protection? My husband and I can’t afford private school, nor do we want to sue the school board (at least not yet), so I want to know what I can do to protect my daughter and make sure her tormentor is punished and/or stopped.
The problem with trying to protect your daughter from bullying when you really can’t is that your efforts can cause her more pain than the bullying ever could. To protect your daughter effectively, you need to select occasions for intervention that are likely to work out and actually protect her, and this isn’t one of them.
It’s the same whatever age you are, if you’re bullied and hurt when there are no witnesses. Your efforts to seek protection or justice from law enforcers can cause many negative consequences, including a legal or un-witnessable counterattack and/or criticism or skepticism from the people whose help you need.
You will become obsessed by a conflict that deepens your trauma, and this is the dangerous vicious cycle that always awaits those who thirst for justice and protection and do not yet have a “good case.”
Because of this danger, your goal should not be to protect your daughter or punish those who bully her, regardless of how strongly you yearn for those results, but to protect her as much as you can, while teaching her skills necessary for her survival.
She might well complain that what’s happening is unfair. And, while agreeing, you can explain that life isn’t fair, and while you hate the fact that you and the school can’t make it fair, you’re going to try to make it less unfair while teaching her how to survive its unfairness and continue to be a fair person herself.
If you accept this sad, helpless feeling, you’ll be more effective at developing strategies for helping your daughter avoid conflict while also enlisting the sympathy and assistance of staff. You’ll steer her away from a “now I’ve got you” confrontation and towards positive activities that offer bullies less opportunity to do their thing. And maybe one day, you can take her to get contacts.
Compose a statement to guide you as a parent while protecting you from your protective instincts and anger. “I value nothing more than my ability to provide my daughter with a good, safe education, but there’s only so much I can do. And, as much as I hate to see her suffer, perhaps she needs to learn about bullying now, while I can help her deal with it, because it’s an issue that can surface in any adult personal or business relationship. It’s hard to watch her experience pain and helplessness without feeling that I’ve failed; but I’ll try to remind her, and myself, that good people are often bullied and that doing a good job consists of pursuing our original goals without being deterred by fear, helpless feelings, and anger, and that’s what we’re doing.”
More advice from Dr. Lastname