Temperament and Parenting


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B-DI News

Children without a conscience.

School Culture: One Youth's Perspective on Secondary School.

NOTE FROM KATE: The young person who wrote the following essay has asked to remain anonymous

These are the words of a somewhat high maintenance girl whose brother is still very angry with his mother. This parent had to take a lot of cruel accusations from this daughter just six short years previously. She nearly fell off her chair when she heard this amazing statement. Her eyes filled with tears.

But for now, the bottom line is, as with any transgression, you have to take the punishment. Your child may need a lot of time, and many opportunities, to vent and express justified anger and frustration before he or she can reach a stage of acceptance. And it can be many years before your child will have the maturity to know that it takes two to communicate. A counsellor for your child can be an important part of this process and this can be painful for you, too, because the counsellor must, in some respects, take your child's side and listen respectfully to all the terrible accusations against you. A good counsellor will realise that not everything your child says is true, and that this is a version of you seen through a negative lens. But expect that the messages will still have some important meaning and that you can be asked to make some changes on the basis of them.

A separate counsellor for the parent can be very helpful as you go through the stage of facing where things have been going wrong. This counsellor is probably not going to have a lot of knowledge about high maintenance children, unless you are very lucky. I believe you have the right to educate them on this topic just as much as if you had a child with a specific disability. You should ask them if they are prepared to read a book such as "The Difficult Child" by Dr. Stanley Turecki, so that they can better understand your situation. If not, maybe look around for someone more interested in giving you reality-based, rather than theoretical, counseling. Wouldn't it be great if your counsellor and your child's could, with you and your child, get together and work out a coordinated approach to repairing the problems in your family? While we are dreaming...

All of this counseling merely lays the groundwork for your new approach to communication. The next step is to decide whether specific strategies will make a difference. This is where the letter from the parent above comes in. Sadly, the use, mis or overuse of 'artificial' strategies can be part of the problem. Your child wants an authentic relationship with you and one which is characterised by constant I-messages, active listening and neutral tone of voice can feel deadly to a perceptive youngster. Once a child is over the age of eight or so, he or she can be well aware that you are not communicating but counseling him or her. This, along with the labelling that high maintenance children receive in word or in deed (such as placement in special classes) can make a child feel very pathologized. The catch is--your child may really be different from other children. How can you help your child accept this reality without making your child feel like a "patient", as one high maintenance boy accused his mother of doing? Here are some suggestions:

Remember that the essence of communication is being able to understand someone else's perspective and to accept it as real to them. That is the point of active or reflective listening. If your child reacts to the technique because it is a technique and seems manipulative, replace it with another way of saying to your child "I hear what you are saying and I won't try to change your view of the world".

Try reflecting your child's point of view to another person whom your child respects when your child can overhear you. This can backfire with children highly sensitive to being talked about but with other children it can sound like true evidence that you have heard their messages.

State to the child over eight that you are struggling to fully understand. Ask the child to "help you get it right". You are free to state that some messages can be acted upon ("Don't make me wear a tie to church any more, Mom" but that others violate legitimate family standards and expectations. For example, you may not be willing to accept a request such as "Don't expect me to go to church any more, Mom". This is just an example and clearly there are some situations when you would be well advised to negotiate even this important issue with your child, depending on the particular circumstances.

Be clear about the "never negotiables". "You will never be permitted to go downtown alone when you are under 16. That is not negotiable." You are not obligated to discuss the reasons for rules with a pre-adolescent child. While reasons can satisfy some children and help them to co-operate, with other children your discussion is simply a way of prolonging the power struggle and the result can be a loss of authority on your part.

Tell your child you are sorry that you are not able to understand but that you are working on it. Meanwhile, suggest that your child's counsellor seems to be the person who does know what is going on and that you are willing to learn from the counsellor.

Follow through on legitimate changes asked for by the child alone or through a counsellor. Actions, not words, demonstrate that you really have been listening.

There are further suggestions on communicating with 'high maintenance' children in the interview with Dr. Sean McDevitt below.