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Feelings are the true F-word.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Parental Advisory

Posted by fxckfeelings on June 13, 2013

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Parents can be responsible for making sure their kids are clothed, bathed, and fed, and even the bathing part is a stretch if your kid is a teenaged boy. After that, almost everything is out of a parent’s hands, especially behavior. Under normal circumstances, there’s lots you can do to help a kid control his bad behavior, assuming you stay positive, provide him with effective limits, and encourage him to endure whatever internal demons and nasty frustrations are flipping him out. Under abnormal circumstances, however, you may well do everything, accomplish nothing, and find it’s better redirecting your energies to where they’ll do more good, even if it’s just making sure they have some soap.
Dr. Lastname

My twelve-year-old daughter can be difficult with her father and she’s not always respectful to her teachers, but she’s basically a good kid and I can count on her to do her homework and be reasonably nice to her sibs. Lately, however, I’ve been getting more complaints than usual and I’ve noticed that she looks pretty irritable and unhappy most of the time. I don’t want to come down too hard on her, but I don’t want to ignore the fact that I’m responsible for how she behaves and she hasn’t been particularly nice to people. My goal is to figure out how to take her problem seriously without making her feel I’m too critical.

When you feel responsible for your child’s behavior—or your dog’s, or even just your own weight or success—then you feel obliged to get it under control. Unfortunately, responsibility and control do not go hand-in-hand; if your kid is spoiled, needs a talking-to, and has the ability to learn from it, then a conversation might work. Otherwise, think again, because you’re trying to control what even she cannot.

In this case, you’re suggesting that your daughter already knows what she should be doing but that something is bringing out the worst in her. A serious talk about her behavior may help her stop, but there’s a danger, particularly if you sound too angry or moralistic, of worsening her mood, provoking self-hate, and stimulating defiance or self-harm. You both want the same thing, but frustration will make it even more impossible.

So, by all means, set limits, but don’t assume she should be or will be able to control herself, and don’t lecture her on irresponsibility until you have a better idea of what’s going on. Also, don’t assume that you need a therapist to tell you what’s wrong. Therapists can help, but you can usually gather most of the information you need by asking the right questions and keeping your assumptions and emotions in check.

Start by avoiding asking her why she’s feeling bad as if she should know the answer (if she does, that’s great, but she may well not). If she doesn’t give you an explanation, ask her the same question you would ask an adult friend who sometimes gets depressed or anxious for no apparent reason; has she been feeling bad all the time, even when she thinks she should be feeling happy, and doesn’t know why she’s feeling bad? Let her know that feeling angry and irritable are often part of having a very bad mood, even when people have nothing to be angry or sad about.

If she admits to having a bad mood that just won’t go away, ask her about problems that go with it, like feeling sad, angry, draggy, nervous, hopeless, and mad at herself. Don’t fool yourself into feeling responsible for causing bad feelings by asking about them, because no one has that much power. Even though it feels like you could be harming her by asking whether she wishes she were dead, the opposite is true, as long as you don’t assume that her suicidality is someone’s failure. If she says yes, it doesn’t mean she’s a bad kid or that you’ve failed as her parent, just that she’s really depressed and in need of help. Now you do need a professional, maybe from the nearest emergency room, to tell you whether she’s safe to stay at home.

Frequently, of course, kids who behave badly aren’t depressed, but seldom, even when you know what’s bothering them, do you get to solve their problems or ease their worries with a good talk. So be prepared to feel helpless and don’t take too much responsibility for your daughter’s bad behavior or hit her with too much guilt. Instead, let her know that good kids (and adults and dogs) sometimes go through bad periods when their self-control is weak, and that you’re there to help her toe the line by watching her closely and doing what’s necessary to stop her when she’s bad and encouraging her when she’s good.

As you said, you think she’s a good kid and you’ll get through this together, but parenting, like adolescence, involves a certain amount of helplessness, so even if there’s much you can’t control, you can help each other get through it.

“I hate to see my daughter misbehave and I don’t like people to think I condone her behavior, but I know she usually has good values and reasonable self-control, so I won’t bear down on her too hard while I try and figure out what’s bothering her and help her get her control back.”

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that pushing my schizophrenic daughter into treatment just makes her more paranoid, and that it’s better to wait until her symptoms are quiet and then try to enjoy her company. I’ve got a good working relationship with our local police, so when I get calls about her doing something scary they know where to take her for an evaluation or commitment. When she tells me I’ve ruined her life, I leave the room. What’s hard to do, however, is leave town on a vacation knowing that I might get a call about her at any time and I dread what she’s like when she rings the doorbell and tells us she’s decided to live at home. I’m worn out and wonder whether my husband and I are doomed to live our lives in fear of phone calls, doorbells and relapses.

You know well that schizophrenia—not your neglect or your daughter’s immaturity, selfishness, or ill will—is what causes her bad behavior, and you’ve gone a long way towards not feeling too responsible for controlling it. You don’t regard her treatment refusal as a failure and you don’t make her worse by fighting about it. You’ve helped the police understand what needs to be done (and not tried to do it yourself). Overall, you seem like a seasoned veteran of what can be a horrible disease.

The only unreasonable responsibilities you continue to place on yourself, even if they don’t seem that way, are providing shelter and emergency services. So think rationally about whether you’re doing what’s necessary, or just satisfying a parenting instinct that will actually make you less helpful in the long run.

Finding a professional clinician to respond to emergency phone calls shouldn’t be harder or more expensive than curtailing your vacation, and finding a safe house that doesn’t have your home address will be necessary sooner or later, so start training your daughter now. She may feel rejected or neglected if you’re not the one to pick up the phone or open the door when she’s in trouble, but that’s her illness talking.

Rely on your own judgment and reasonable preparation to assure yourself that the system you’ve created is better for her in the long run, while allowing you to go on with your life and focus on something other than illness. Don’t add to its damage by becoming her 911 emergency schizophrenia responder.

Don’t just ask friends and professionals how you can help her; ask parents who have learned to accept their limits and seek out professionals who are comfortable managing chronic mental illness. Many people, including mental health professionals, shy away from these issues, but if you have the courage to face them, you’ll quickly find support from good company.

You’ve accepted most of the limits of your ability to help your daughter and, as a result, you’ve become more helpful. Now resign from your jobs as master of emergencies and shelter-giver of last resort and become a better manager. Give your daughter a system of help that does not depend on your health and energy so you can use that health and energy to do things that are more useful and rewarding, both for her and you.

“If I’m not there when my daughter gets psychotic, I feel like the worst parent in the world, but I’ve learned what helps people with schizophrenia and what doesn’t, and I will use that knowledge to develop a stronger system of help that doesn’t depend on me.

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