Q: Until recently, I centered my entire life around our son's needs, wants, etc. Then, when he was 14 months old, I was in an automobile accident and was forced to hire caretakers. Our son's honeymoon--and catering service--was over.
What followed was a nightmare. For 1 1/2 years his behavior was out of control. He climbed book shelves, grabbed pictures off walls and constantly teased and tested us. When he joined a nursery school for 2-year-olds, his teachers were unable to control him.
Finally, we entered a program for "oppositional children" (3- to 8-year-olds) at Children's Hospital. At last we got the help we needed.
We learned to set limits, demand time for ourselves and focus on our marriage. All this was possible, we learned, while showing constant respect--not necessarily attention--for our son as a human being.
A: You were wise to seek help early and lucky to find the clinical research project at Children's.
Its director, Karen Wells, chief psychologist at Children's in-patient psychiatry unit, is centering the study on the stubborn, non-compliant, defiant child--the one who opposes for the sake of opposing. Seventy percent of all children referred to mental health and child guidance clinics in the country, she says, have oppositional or other conduct disorders, rather than emotional problems. This is why she believes they respond better to family therapy than to individual psychotherapy.
To refine the treatment even further, she has divided the program into two sections, each lasting 8 to 12 weeks. One is a training group for parents, where they learn specific skills to handle day-to-day discipline. The other group is given structural family therapy to help parents put their family into its natural hierarchy, with the parents in charge. The lines in the family are untangled, and the skills are secondary. Wells' conclusions will be reported at a future American Psychological Association convention.
Meanwhile, there are many fine family therapy programs and support groups available in the area--some run by professionals and some by parents--which can change the dynamics in a household.
Some readers disagreed with our recent advice: that a parent should answer a child's calls again and again if necessary in case something is wrong, but shouldn't stand by like a soldier waiting for the sergeant's next command.
The needs of a child change and parents must change with them. The attention they give so freely to the 1-year-old, because he needed it, usually has to be tempered for the 2-year-old, whose need is not attention but the chance to prove himself. If parents don't draw back then, the whole angry minuet can start.
And for many, it never really goes away.
This is the intimidated parent--the one who is challenged to give more, do more, swallow more. It is a cycle, for the more she gives, the more unsure she feels of herself as a parent and the more the child feels lost with such wide boundaries. He then makes more demands, hoping for the security that limits bring, only to have them extended instead. The child who gets a privilege, without deserving it, knows he's taking advantage of his parents and feels guilty about it.
You can bet on this: Even an egocentric (and all young children are egocentric) knows when he is being unfair. The guilt makes him angry and even more demanding; he's got to justify his misbehavior somehow.
This is when you see a family turn topsy-turvy. Although parents accept physical, legal, moral and financial responsibility for their child, they let him take emotional charge of the household. In time he decides how and where to spend his time and often their time too, as well as their money, as if no one else mattered.
Parents respond with pain and anger, often taking strong stands over some silly business, simply because the real issues are so overwhelming. This undercuts their authority still more and their self-respect. And when this goes, so does their respect for their child. Now they're fighting for survival.
The lines that once were drawn in the dust now seem engraved in stone. This is sure to warp the marriage and sometimes even dissolve it. But the relationship with the child remains as painful as ever until parents run the family again, by giving so much respect to themselves that they also can respect their child. And they do it, not by constant attention to him, but by expecting him to be as self-sufficient as his age permits.
The longer this is postponed, the harder it is.
Most parents feel out of control--about 5 times a day, in fact-- when they're dealing with a child of 2. Occasionally they feel this way when he is 4 and 13 and 15, but if this is commonplace, every day and every year, and if parents feel they must surrender to have any peace, then it is time for intervention.
And sometimes it takes an outsider to remind parents that they have as many rights as they have responsibilities.