“Every time you disconnect from your child by communicating a message that says, ‘Go away, I don’t care how you feel,’ you chip away at the relationship,” Kurcinka said. When your child refuses to do a homework assignment, for example, rather than jumping to the conclusion that she’s fresh, lazy or trying to bait you, consider that she may be “scared, anxious, stressed out, bullied, disappointed, frustrated or not understanding what she needs to do,” Kurcinka said. “There can be lots of feelings and needs here, but punishments don’t address them.”
In fact, said Severe, who is also the principal of a Phoenix, Ariz., school for children with difficult behavior patterns, “I’ve been working with kids who have behavioral problems my whole life, and I’ve never helped one by figuring out a creative way to punish him,” Severe said. “Punishment really doesn’t change behavior. You might get their attention, but that’s all it does.”
By the time a child is an adolescent, many of the difficult behaviors have been brewing for years. But that’s no reason for parents to go on a guilt trip, said Carol Maxym, co-author of “Teens in Turmoil: A Path to Change for Parents, Adolescents, and Their Families,” (Viking, 2000, $23.95).
The only thing that guilt does for you as a parent is center your attention on “me, me, me” and help you ignore the independent self of the child. Your real emotion, terror about what’s happening to your child, goes unacknowledged. “Guilt trips never work for solutions. They entrap you, as you go around and around on the same old tape,” Maxym said.
Maxym, a psychotherapist and educational consultant, recommends taking a hard look at your teen instead — straight on and straight up, she said. “My experience with teens and families has taught me that seeing a situation clearly is 85 percent of the way to the solution,” she said. “When you let yourself know what you know, you find you know a lot.”
There is no litmus test to tell you whether your child is just transitioning or whether he’s headed for trouble — or already in it. “The closest thing to a foolproof test is for parents to look into their own feelings,” Maxym said. “When you get that feeling inside that something just isn’t right, when you say to yourself, ‘I don’t know this kid anymore and it doesn’t make sense,’ that’s about as close to foolproof as a parent can get.”
From tots to teens, kids can learn how to explore their sense of self and the ways of the world with the comfort that comes from knowing the reasonable boundaries for doing so. Here are some of the techniques parents can use in learning how to guide them.
None of this is easy, said Gorski. There’s a lot of stress today, especially on parents who are often isolated in their attempts to set boundaries and develop opportunities for children to explore safely. “It really does place a heavy burden on a few shoulders,” Gorski said. “We take on so much more ourselves and we don’t have enough loving people who share love, concern and support for our children.” What we need, he said, is more community and less competition.
But for any parent, or member of a larger support system, who does want to take on the challenge of listening to and guiding their young, “It’s never too late,” said Kurcinka.