Dr. James Sutton, Psychologist
Much defiant and difficult behavior in children and adolescents comes from their reactions to circumstances and situations in their lives. The burden cast on parents to play the guessing games happens when youngsters, for whatever reason, don’t talk about what’s bothering them. They often suffer through, with their behavior being the expression of that suffering.
Although there can be many reasons why youngsters don’t talk about what troubles them, three reasons cover most of the bases:
1. They don’t know HOW to talk about it.
2. They are afraid that expressing themselves and how they feel will only get them into yet MORE trouble.
3. They feel that talking about their troubles only makes them bigger.
Fear: The Big Silencer
By way of an example, let me share about a time when I was convinced I had only a few days to live. I was nine years old.
It’s not difficult for a few third-grade boys to get into trouble. One day we played war at the pencil sharpener, sword fighting with freshly sharpened pencils. I was stabbed in my right hand. The lead broke off, leaving a good-sized chunk of the point deep my palm.
“Too bad,” one of my friends lamented. “That’s lead in your hand. You’re going to get lead poisoning … and DIE.” The other boys concurred with his diagnosis. I was terrified. (To be totally accurate, I had been wounded by graphite, not lead. But just try to figure that out while your friends are dividing up your stuff.)
I wasn’t certain they were right, but I was certain that I didn’t want to tell my teacher or the school nurse about it. I wasn’t up to hearing an adult confirm what the boys had told me.
I just suffered in silence until it was time to go home.
Eventually, I knew I had to tell my parents. I remember watching my father one evening before supper, wondering just how I would tell him his only son was dying. The poor man was trying to read the paper when I blubbered out the whole story.
Dad didn’t tell me my fear was silly or foolish. He validated it, and then promised he had something that would fix the whole thing. He went to the bathroom medicine cabinet and came back with a small bottle of what he called Monkey Blood. He wisely told me this cure would hurt, but that the pain would be a sure sign the medicine was working. He then dumped half the bottle into the palm of my hand.
I was never so grateful to feel pain (a lot of it). I was going to LIVE! I still carry a small graphite tattoo deep in the palm of my right hand, a reminder to be a bit more understanding of the fear and concern of another human being.
When Anger Shuts ‘Em Down
This story is about fear; other stories are about anger. Depending on the circumstances (and it seems families today have plenty of them), a youngster can “stew” in an issue months before behaviors surface. Encouraging a son or daughter to talk about it is critical to managing the behavior effectively. Here are a few suggestions for accomplishing just that:
1. Always try to exercise patience. We live in a society that wants instant cures and instant answers, but haste will cripple communication.
2. Let the youngster know that talking with you about their problems doesn’t make them larger and unmanageable. Just the opposite, talking about them helps cut problems down to size. Suggest to them it also brings additional resources for managing the problems.
3. Realize that some youngsters have trouble handling direct questions when they are scared or upset. “Why did you do THAT?” will bring few, if any, answers you can use. Instead, focus on finding the issue by offering a small “menu.” Here’s an example of a simple two-part menu:
When you screamed at your mother earlier, were you really angry at her, or were you still upset that Grandma is in Intensive Care?
Parents are pretty intuitive, they can generally get very close to the issues and open the door to discussion.
Dr. James Sutton, a nationally recognized child psychologist and former Special Education teacher, speaks, trains, and writes about emotional and behavioral issues of young people. His latest book is The Changing Behavior Book: A Fresh Approach to the Difficult Child. Free resources for parents and teachers, including an ebook on resolving conflict and a monthly digest on ideas for improving behavior and communication, are available at thechangingbehaviorbook.com.