The other night I had a mini family therapy session with my own family. It was a wee problem I had noticed with the way the kids were talking to each other. There was starting to be a bit of rudeness and name-calling. Although it wasn’t a huge issue yet, I decided to ‘nip-it-in-the-bud’ before it became one.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with parents recently around when is the time to get help for their children, or parenting. It’s an important question and something that has driven my work for many years.
It doesn’t make sense to me why parents would wait so long to get help. If we leave sick children for too long without medical intervention, we can be charged with failure to seek, or obtain medical help. It’s child abuse. Yet with children’s psychological or family problems many parents do not seek help.
Years ago a colleague and I formed a Charitable Trust and started a free counselling service for children and parents (Queenstown Lakes Family Centre) for this very purpose. We wanted parents to be able to get help for problems with their kids, or their parenting, before things got so bad that they would be harder to deal with. This idea had come about for me after some years working in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health service where we worked with children and young people at the other end of the spectrum. By forming the Family centre we were trying to encourage families to seek help for their kids earlier.
To handle emerging problems straight away and with strength and confidence is important. Show your children that you mean business and that you take it seriously, and that you are there to help them.
The idea is that when things become even slightly difficult, head it off at the pass. Anticipate when problems may occur, decrease risks and intervene with confidence to assist your child to take charge of the problem – rather than the problem taking charge of them! We do it in business, why would we not do it in the business of our family?
A very simple example that you all may be able to relate to is getting kids off the computer (or TV would be the same).
This can be a real challenge for many people.
When my kids were younger and had to turn off the tv or computer, they would get very oppositional, very grumpy and growly and generally not nice to be around. Often it would take me quite a bit of asking, then escalating to demanding and then perhaps even yelling and stomping, storming around – that’s me and the kids!!!
I have worked with families where this very issue has become so escalated and violent that it is scary. Other parents might just avoid potential escalation by letting kids stay on as long as they like, or leaving the battle until they have their parental back-up around etc. Any which way it is a problem, and problems tend to be a bit like a festering wound. They don’t always go away by themselves and in fact most often will increase or get ‘infected’.
So with computers and TV I set it up in the early years that they could only watch tv or go on the computer if they come off it/turn it off when I ask them to. I would remind them of this each time they asked to watch or go on the computer. And in exchange for their compliance I undertook to let them know a few minutes before I wanted them off and also to understand how long was needed in case they were at a point in a game that was detrimental to their points to finish. Kids do appreciate you trying to understand and then they try more for you. This pretty much works for us now, although of course there are always going to be times it doesn’t, then they know I will revert to the consequence of no screen tomorrow.
Anticipating problems and risks can be a good skill for children to develop. But I don’t want it to be at the expense of them becoming too anxious about life and not doing the things they may like to do. It’s a recipe for life, in which I tell my kids that there will always be little (and sometimes big) problems or difficulties, and the challenge is to overcome them. It’s what keeps life interesting and, like a politician, I try to put a positive spin on this negative issue!!
After all, how do we know how to bounce back after difficulties if we never have to overcome difficulties? If you do it for them or just let them truck along until they hit the wall, they will never learn the skills they need.
I think we would all agree that prevention is the best intervention.
Most parents are doing ’prevention’ a lot in their everyday parenting. It is one of the many tasks of parenting. But many parents do not intervene early enough or know when they could intervene. It may be worth evaluating your tolerance of problems, difficulties or bad behaviour!! It’s good to notice when you are letting things slip.
Doing something when you notice a problem is definitely way better than doing nothing. Many parents I come across think that maybe it’s a “phase” and to wait and see what happens. I recommend taking more control of the situation before it starts to control you! And then you give a clear message early on.
I have spoken to a lot of Mum’s recently about this and the main confusion is around – “When do you intervene?”
The answer is, “before it’s a problem”. This requires you to be alert. My previous post around taking care of yourselves wasn’t just for fun. In order to stay on the ball you have to be mostly well rested, balanced as much as possible and healthy. Often when things are out of balance with a parent then they are played out through their children. Sorry parents but this is true. I know when I am really tired my kids fight more. If I work too much on of them will somehow develop some problem that requires my attention a bit more than usual. These are all symptoms that tell us we need to attend to our self-care a bit more as the kids feel it.
Intervening in action – example:
I see my youngest head out to the trampoline after school. I see my middle child in the kitchen getting something to eat and then look around for something to do. Experience tells me to be on the look out for a problem escalating here as both love the trampoline, have a tendency to fight and the chances of middle child miraculously finding something else to do when her brother is on her beloved tramp is slim.
So, I watch, wait…and see if she starts heading that way (while still doing something else). I watch as she talks to him about wanting to go on the tramp (letting them have a chance to work it out rather than intervene too early). If that doesn’t work I see one of their faces scrunched up in anger and I know it’s all go…here is where I intervene.
How I intervene is also important: I do not rush in guns blazing! I do not yell, or tell anyone off.
It has taken me a bit of practice, as my default was to raise my voice and be growly. But I have learnt that it is so much more effective to pretend I don’t know what’s going on and divert.
By this I mean, as in the above example – that I go closer and ask them both to come here as I want to talk to them.
“Hey guys hop over here so can I talk to you”
“Yep” they do because it’s both of them and they don’t risk losing the tramp to the other.
Then I think of anything I could use some help with, or do with them like practicing times tables, cutting vegetables for dinner, harvesting vegetables from garden, folding the washing, making biscuits etc.
“I want you both to help me just with one thing each then you can play. So how about if youngest (who was on the tramp) helps me first with cutting up carrots and then middle goes on tramp for 30 minutes. Then swap over so youngest goes on tramp for 30 minutes and middle helps me fold the washing?”
Usually with my kids that works because it is fair and part of their jobs anyway, and an added extra is that they have Mum to themselves for a bit too! This works only up until about 11-12 years old I think.
Try things that you know your kids like doing. If this fails you could choose who goes on first based on some good behaviour or achievement you have noticed, like going to bed last night when I asked, or eating that new food yesterday etc.
The key is to intervene well before it escalates, but not before they have tried to work it out for themselves. Sometimes you may see a child going in with intent to escalate and no intent to resolve, so you’ll need to intervene earlier.
I’d like to hear any examples you have yourselves. What works for you and what doesn’t?
Of course I haven’t talked here about other types of interventions like when your child has problems with school, bullying, anxiety and such issues.
Knowing when to seek professional help is another topic I can do more on in future posts.