I work with many parents who expect quick solutions to complex problems. They get frustrated if the wait for fast food is more than a few moments, and complain if it’s more than 30 minutes for a pizza to be made, cooked, and delivered to their home. They expect an immediate response to their text messages, and get annoyed by the seconds it takes for their iPod to power on.
I caution parents that bad behavior that developed over years won’t typically be resolved in a few weeks. Even so, significant progress can be made when parents and therapists do the following.
- Clearly define the problem. I advise parents to avoid global descriptions of inappropriate behavior and carefully define specific areas of concern. “Poor school performance” gets replaced by non-completion of homework. “Poor attitude” becomes defined as sarcastic comments during dinner. We don’t discuss “aggressive behavior” but rather the number of times a child hits his younger brother.
- Focus on a few issues. Once a problem becomes clearly and specifically defined, it’s easier for parents to focus their attention and energy. Many parents feel overwhelmed, frustrated and incompetent in managing their kids’ problems. These are usually good parents with wonderful intentions, but they get emotionally exhausted by their kids’ relentlessly bad behavior. I ask parents focus their energy and commitment to change one troublesome behavior rather than complain about their child’s overall problems. When parents focus, change happens very quickly.
- Consistently follow through. You are wasting your time taking your child to therapy if you are unable or unwilling to follow through with the treatment plan. Here are the types of things that therapists hate to hear—“I was too busy this week,” or “something came up and I wasn’t able to…” I terminate therapy if that pattern continues. Parents are welcome back when their child becomes a higher priority than their work, hobbies, or other interests.
- Strong involvement by both parents. The success of therapy is directly related to the involvement of both parents. I rarely require the attendance of both parents at our sessions, as I understand the many practical problems of trying to take time off from work. However, I do require that parents talk with each other and implement our agreed upon program.
There are special issues with divorced parents, live-in companions, and kids raised by grandparents. If these adults are actively involved in raising your child then they’ve got to be involved in the treatment plan. You’ve got to put the love for your child above any animosity you feel towards an ex-spouse.
Therapists can’t fix your child as quickly as you get a hamburger and fries at a drive-through restaurant. However, you will experience substantial progress in your child’s behavior by paying attention to those factors listed above.