Have you ever wondered what happened to your little baby who was always happy to see you? Do you even remember what it was like to have a child who cried only when something was actually wrong? What about all those sweet hugs and cuddles? Even a single word of sweetness would be nice from a teen, but those are about as rare as $100 bills laying around in the street. As a father of 5, I fully understand how difficult it is to look at your teens and remember that they were once perfect little babies, and because of that, it can be difficult to conjure up the patience and compassion needed to deal with their emotions. It’s difficult to feel compassion for someone who argues with everything you say and yells at you uncontrollably after a simple request to take out the trash. In spite of this, there is hope for teens, and chances are that if you love your teens and do your best as a parent, they will get over their teen struggles at some point, and you will have a good relationship with them, and they might even surprise you and turn out quite well. My wife and I have had our struggles as well, and while we are still in the thick of it (3 teens and 2 on deck), we have seen tremendous progress over the years in spite of our obvious shortcomings as parents. I may be a therapist, and I may treat teens and their families for a living, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not human, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t make a lot of mistakes. The wonderful truth is that even when, not if, you make mistakes, you still can, and definitely should, repair those mistakes, and the future may yet still be very bright for you and your teens. Keep reading as I lay out 3 solid tips that just might make all the difference for you and your teens.
Repair Damage Immediately
Repairing emotional damage immediately is probably the most important habit you can form for your relationship with your teens, and it can lay the foundation for healthy, life-long relationships. Emotional damage attacks the soul like cancer attacks the body. Cancer begins with a DNA damaging event, which can happen due to things like experiencing traumatic events and consuming harmful substances. These events are not uncommon, but our immune system is very effective at destroying any cells with damaged DNA so they can’t replicate. Cancer itself begins when the immune system fails to prevent these cells from replicating, and the result is that the cancer spreads, and this often leads to a life-threatening crisis within the body. Now let’s apply this analogy to emotions and relationships. We suffer trust damaging events or connection damaging events in any relationship we engage in. These can be words that are spoken or actions that are taken that do damage to us emotionally. As with damaged cells, we need a similar immune response in our relationship to prevent the spread of the emotional damage, which can grow like a cancer and cause long term damage to the relationship, or even destroy it. If we act quickly to repair the damage, the likely result is that the damage will be repaired, and the relationship will stay strong, and trust will be gained. If we do not repair the damage, it sits in the gut and festers, the emotional equivalent of cancer spreading. Keep in mind that it is often impossible to repair during an altercation. It is usually much more effective to allow time for each person to calm down and think rationally. For example, if, in a bad moment, you say something you regret, like calling your teens stupid, follow this formula: wait for them (and yourself) to calm down, ask for a private meeting, identify the hurt (in this case calling them stupid), apologize for the hurt, explain that you don’t actually believe that about them. This last step is the most important of all because what will fester within them is the belief that their own parent thinks they’re stupid (or whatever else you may have called them). After that, allow time for healing.
Explain How Your Actions Are Motivated By Love
The teenage brain may be more developed than that of a small child, but teens are still very egocentric, and they have a difficult time thinking rationally when situations affect them and get in the way of what they want. This egocentricity has a way of making them feel that the actions their parents take are unfair and are meant to cause them harm. Because of this, they naturally begin to question how their parents truly feel about them. My advice is to emphasize often the love behind the actions you take. They may not understand it at the time, but since you have emphasized it, when they question how you feel about them in the future, they will already have your answer, and they may be spared the pain of dealing with the idea that their parents don’t care about them.
Meaningful time with teens is time doing things with them that are the most important to them. This may not always be interesting to you, but it is very important to them. I have spent countless hours playing videos games, watching shows, being taught to draw, taste testing, learning new facts, taking walks, listening to music, shopping, and much more with my kids, and much of the time, I had no interest in doing any of those things, but the time spent with them meant something to them. If you think your teens would not want to do anything with you, you are most likely dead wrong. Your teens may not want to spend night and day with you, they may even want to be away from you a lot, but that is part of being a teen, and it doesn’t actually mean that they don’t want to spend time with you. They might just not want to play peek-a-boo anymore. Find the things they are most interested in and the things they want to share with you. Don’t be discouraged if they resist your first attempts. Keep trying. They may need time to come around to the idea, but your attempts will communicate to them that they are important to you, and there are few things more important than knowing that.
Teens are difficult to raise, but remember that being a teen is difficult for them as well. They usually don’t know why they do what they do either, and they greatly appreciate patience and forgiveness, even though they rarely express it. Also keep in mind that sometimes they are going through things that require professional help, and you may even want to seek counseling yourself to help you become a better parent and better connect with them. Whatever you do, remember that the best thing you can do is love them and do your best, and despite your mistakes, and as long as you don’t give up, there is a good chance that you are building a foundation for a healthy relationship with your teens that will last a lifetime.
Over the last few years the health care community has been forced to take a hard look at the prescription medications that providers have been putting out into the community. The rampant misuse of doctor prescribed opiates, stimulants, and benzos has compelled clinicians to re-evaluate their methods for treating patients. But as encouraging as this trend has been, it is still important for us as patients and consumers to take an active role in our treatment. A balance must be struck between relying on the expertise of providers and being conscious of what we choose to consume.
I want to preface this by saying that the correct medication can do wonders for your mental health. The difficulty stems from (1) thinking that ONLY medications can help and (2) not taking the time to figure out the true nature of the problem before deciding on treatment.
Rule out other causes
It may be tempting to want to get your child on an ADHD medication at the first sign of problems in the home or school. The presence of inattention, difficulty concentrating, irritability, excessive activity or aggression can all be disruptive to your child’s academic success and relationships with family or friends. But, like most endeavors, mental wellness must be built on a solid foundation that cannot be rushed. And the best place to start, is with a proper diagnosis.
This is often easier said than done. For example irritability, increased sensitivity, sleeplessness, temper tantrums, and difficulty concentrating can all be seen by your clinician as signs of ADHD. However, these symptoms are also what you might expect to see with DEPRESSION, as it presents in children. Taking the time to ensure a thorough diagnosis may save you years of chasing your tale with minimal benefit (not to mention money).
Who should I have diagnose?
First and foremost, a diagnosis of ADHD has to come from a health care professional. Resist the urge to self-diagnose! While no one would argue that you aren’t the expert on your child (you almost certainly are) there are clinicians out there who are experts in mental illness, which is what you need. If your child’s school is lucky enough to have a school psychologist, try reaching out to them to discuss options. In the community, the primary clinicians diagnosing ADHD are psychiatrist. These are medical doctors, with expertise in treating mental illness, and they are the only providers (at least in Kansas and Missouri) that can prescribe medication. A Licensed Psychologist may also be a good person to reach out to for an initial diagnosis. Although they cannot prescribe, they can help you create an optimal treatment plan for your child.
With all respect to teachers out there, teachers should not be diagnosing. A well-reasoned recommendation from your child’s teacher may be worth taking into consideration, as they do spend a significant amount of time with your child in a structured environment. But teachers should never diagnose. I would also strongly encourage against letting your primary care physician prescribe psychopharmaceuticals to your child. While they may have had some training in the past on mental illness, that does not mean they’re still well versed in the subject (you likely wouldn’t let your pediatrician perform an operation on you right?). It’s far if your PCP suspects your child may be suffering from a mental illness, to just ask them for a recommendation to a good psychiatrist or psychologist.
What goes into a GOOD diagnosis?
As I previously stated, there is no definitive test for ADHD. I am fond of saying things like, there’s no thermometer for depression or blood test for inattention,. but that does not mean we should be taking shots in the dark hoping to hit something; especially when it comes to prescribing medications to a developing brain. There are some ways for you to know that your child is receiving a good, well thought out diagnosis. A thorough evaluation should include the following:
- Extensive history. Any thorough diagnostic intervention is going to include a detailed history going back to infancy or earlier. You never know where important diagnostic information may pop up, so having as much information as possible is a plus.
- Multiple settings. An often overlooked aspect of ADHD is that it appears in multiple settings. You would normally expect impairment to be fairly global, with signs of hyperactivity/inattention appearing in multiple areas of life. If you only see symptoms in one area (at school, at home, out with friends, etc.) then it would be a good idea to explore other diagnoses.*this can be accomplished through testing discussed below*
- Areas of strength, aside from the difficulties, children with ADHD almost always have tasks or topics for them that are considered strengths and aren’t impaired by symptoms of hyperactivity or inattention. When interviewing parents of children with ADHD, you almost always hear, Little Johnny just can’t focus on anything, except when it comes to ______ . With that he’s focused in. It’s important to focus on these areas (reading, video games, sports, etc.) and take them into consideration during diagnosing.
- Psychological testing. I know, I know, I said there’s no DEFINITIVE test for ADHD. But there are assessments that can lend some measure of objectivity to the diagnosing process and help rule out other issues besides ADHD. These tests include the Conners 3, BASC-3, or Brown ADD Scales and should be administered and interpreted only by a qualified professional. A good psychological assessment should include 1) a developmental history, (2) a parent rating scale, (3) a teacher rating scale, (4) a self-report, and (5) observation.
Now, clinicians certainly don’t HAVE to go through all of these steps before giving an ADHD diagnosis. In fact, there are plenty out there that will give your child a diagnosis and prescription after one, 50 minute interview. But like any treatment, you want to be sure your provider is treating the correct thing. Just like you would want testing done to confirm lung cancer, rather than asthma for example, before starting chemotherapy. Before your provider prescribes your child stimulants, it’s worth taking the time to rule out other causes; like depression.
There are plenty of good and effective medications and treatments available to help manage ADHD symptoms in your child. But, there are ZERO shortcuts. Before you invest the time, energy, and money into your child’s treatment, it’s crucial that you insist your clinician take the time to ensure an accurate diagnosis.
School refusal is becoming and evermore common concern for parents of children and teens. School anxiety effects 25% of school aged children, with 2-5% refusing to attend school altogether. With its short- and long-term consequences being particularly concerning, parents often feel unsure about how to address the problem.
For our purposes, school refusal should be considered separate from general truancy, due to the presence of emotional distress (specifically around attending school) and an absence of antisocial behaviors. School refusal is a psychosocial problem, meaning it can be considered the result of both psychological and environmental issues. This may manifest as complaints of physical symptoms shortly before it is time to leave for school or asking to the nurse, but once allowed to stay home, the symptoms quickly disappear. Common physical symptoms include headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or diarrhea with behavioral symptoms manifesting in tantrums, inflexibility, separation anxiety, avoidance, or defiance.
The emotional distress that is frequently associated with school refusal often manifests as fear or anxiety, with about 50% considered to have anxiety disorders. However, while it is often characterized as anxiety driven avoidance of school and school-based activities, there seems to be no absolute-uniformity in the development of these behaviors. Depression has also been shown to be associated with poor school attendance. And although mood-related issues are often centered around school or school related activities, that is not always necessarily the case. For example, the presence of depression often manifests in symptoms that may result in poor attendance yet not be directly related to school, such as general lethargy and/or loss of interest.
The question then becomes, what can be done to help combat school refusal problems? Most of the research done on school refusal interventions has centered around Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), behavioral interventions, and psychopharmacological interventions. A 2016 study that examined the effects of combined intervention of CBT and fluoxetine (Prozac) showed significant improvement in school attendance and mood concerns; with the improvements showing stability at 6 and 12 months. Behavioral interventions often draw upon principles of operant conditioning, focusing on how school refusal has become reinforced; either positively or negatively. Graded or In Vivo exposure both have a long history of use in anxiety management and can be implemented to help re-acclimate the child to being in school. Parents can also help support consistent attendance by emphasizing the positive aspects of school, helping to develop a support system within the school, meet regularly with teachers/counselors, encourage distractions such as hobbies and interests, and talking with your child about their feelings/fears about school.
4 Ways to Help Encourage Your Children to Attend School
Although it can be scary and troubling when your son or daughter starts refusing to go to school, it’s important to remember there are things you can do to help.
- Don’t panic! It’s tempting to interpret refusal as disrespect, rather fear or distress. Keep your cool.
- Intervene early, as it will improve outcomes.
- Utilize outside support; spouse, teachers, counselors, therapists, etc. You don’t have to do it on your own.
- Be supportive.
For more information about helping your child or teen manage their anxiety reach out to Armstrong Family Counseling, (913) 204.0582 or at ArmstrongFamilyCounseling.com
As we’ve recently celebrated Father’s Day, I was reminded that the purpose of Father’s Day is to acknowledge all fathers and celebrate their special day. However, if your family has been impacted by divorce, it may not seem like a celebration. If this sounds like your situation, it may feel extremely stressful for you, your ex, and your children. If you are a mother, please remember you are normally the first person your child bonds with. Therefore, you can assume a positive role of modeling how to respect their father, no matter how you may feel about him (unless he was abusive and safety is a concern.) I would ask the same type of respect from him on Mother’s Day.
By having an open dialogue with your ex, your communication models how you have set aside any negative feelings toward the father(s) of your children because you know that is best for your child or children. Depending on the ages of your child/children, volunteer to take them to a card store so they can choose a Father’s Day card. Or, if that isn’t in your budget, suggest that they make a card.
If your child/children express an interest in giving dad a gift, again, follow through with their idea. If finances are an issue, once again, encourage them to make something for dad. Even if you have negative feelings toward their father, by helping them with these tasks, you are modeling for them how to care for another human being.
Allow your children to spend Father’s Day with their dad on his special day. Try to do this no matter what is outlined in your parenting plan (if you don’t have a parenting plan or need to revise it and don’t want to pay for an attorney or the cost of going to court, consider contacting a mediator to help you resolve any conflicts or to assist you in making changes to the plan.) Flexibility and mutual consideration as co-parents makes your children much healthier emotionally and mentally.
If geography or travel logistics are an issue in bringing together your children and their father, suggest using social media so they can see each other. Depression, loneliness and isolation are common in divorced or estranged parent(s.) If you experience these things frequently, please contact a therapist and /or seek help. I can help you. Your children need you in their lives.
Fathers, you need to ask your ex-spouse and/or the mother of your children for what you need. Maybe you (father) would really like your child/children to spend Father’s Day and an additional day since school is out for the summer. If you and your ex can communicate and practice being flexible, you are less likely to feel resentful.
For both parents, even though you are divorced, remember to stay focused on the needs and well-being of your child/children. It is crucial to plan ahead for holidays or other special days so your child/children see that even though you are divorced, both of you are co-parenting in healthy ways.
If you are struggling with co-parenting, or other issues, mediation may be something to consider. Mediation is a more peaceful, economical resolution to resolve conflict. Please contact me. I am a therapist and a Kansas State Supreme Court Approved Mediator. Let’s start rebuilding your relationships today!
Remember the song “Danger Zone” from the movie Top Gun? I loved that movie, and the Kenny Loggins song is a must for any retro fan. In the movie, the song was the perfect soundtrack for those flying scenes, as the pilots pushed their aircraft to the limits and beyond, into the danger zone, where the engines could stall or worse. It was a perilous place to be.
Serious mountain climbers know about the “death zone.” On Mount Everest and some of the other highest peaks in the world, once a climber reaches about 26,000 feet, the amount of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life. Many climbers have died because they weren’t properly prepared or didn’t have enough oxygen with them.
Most of us will probably never climb into a fighter jet cockpit or attempt to summit the world’s tallest mountain, but there is another danger zone where we dads often find ourselves with our families: the comfort zone. I like being in the comfort zone. It’s free of stress and the craziness of life that is so often around me at home. Some might call this my “happy place.” There are times that we need an oasis where we can drown out life around us and find peace and serenity. But if we want what’s best for our families, the comfort zone is a place we are never meant to stay for very long.
When I first got married, I married not only my wife but also her family, which included two boys in their mid to late teens. For a while I had a hard time building a relationship with them. I’d get home from work in the evening and they’d usually be in the living room, watching a television show I didn’t get or couldn’t care less about. It was much easier for me to get my dinner and retreat into the more comfortable sanctuary of my bedroom. I could read a book or watch TV and I didn?t have to engage with them unless it was on my terms.
At the time, I thought: What was the point? I couldn’t relate to them and they certainly couldn’t relate to me, at least on the surface. Clearly, I was missing the point. I was off in my comfort zone, and I wasn’t going to be intentional about being a dad to them.
My wife LeeAnn was so patient with me, and every now and then she would enter my serene hideaway and remind me that I didn’t marry just her, but also two boys she loved deeply. If I wanted to develop a better relationship with them, I had to leave the Comfort Zone. I had to engage them.
That word “engage” has transformed who I am as a father. This didn’t happen overnight, and there were starts and stops as I kept fighting off selfishness and the desire to go back to the Comfort Zone. But then one day my father-in-law gave me advice on how to be intentional as a dad. He said that if I wanted to become closer to the children, I had to drop the labels, quit thinking of them as my stepsons and foster daughters but rather as my sons and daughters. I had to stop labeling myself as a step dad and foster dad, and just be dad. He said the labels that we use often create distance and give those of us that are not biological dads an excuse to keep that separation.
I had to stop labeling myself as a step dad and foster dad, and just be dad.
He was right. While an attorney might say that, from a legal perspective, step and foster kids are the correct wording, I have grown past that and see them as my children, for as long as God allows them in my life. Several months ago, we decided after 5 years of fostering, to take a break. It was good for our marriage, and last year, I discovered a whole new zone: The Grandparent Zone. Our youngest son and his wife gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Now I get to learn to just be grand-dad!
Being an engaged dad means being hands-on and enthusiastically involved in your children’s lives. It’s getting to know them on their level and being consistent in letting them know you are there. It also means that as they get older you are coaching them and modeling how to live by your actions and how you live. An example of this is how they see you handle conflict or adversity and perhaps more important, how you treat your spouse or their mother. Believe me, your young ones are watching.
You can’t do these things by being in your comfort zone. That sends a whole other message that says “Leave me alone,” or “You’re not worth my time.”
That sounds cruel, doesn’t it? Yet our country is full of disengaged fathers. I see it in the neighborhood we live in, and as a foster dad, I see it in the families of the girls we work with. Many dads are physically absent, others are present but emotionally distant, and some have hurt their kids so much that they aren’t allowed to be around and in their life.
Engaged fathers and father figures really do make a difference. Since I have left my Comfort Zone as a dad, my relationships with both of my stepsons are vastly improved. Things are far from easy, but they can see that I’m more interested in them and many more activities and conversations have had positive results.
Do your relationships with your children need a transformation? Be an intentional, hands-on dad. You will make mistakes here and there, but you will also learn from them. Embrace your role as a father and make a difference in the lives of other kids. Close up shop on the Comfort Zone.
Even now, I have days when the comfort zone is awfully tempting. But I rely on my faith, my patient and loving wife, and other dads who encourage me.
Just Get Out of the Comfort Zone. Just Be DAD.