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dayne-topkin-86785.jpgDisobedience.  Back-talking.  Not being responsible.  Having to be asked repeatedly.  Feeling entitled.  Drugs.  Alcohol.  Sex.  Sneaking out.  Being lazy.  Failing to do homework.  Rules violations.  These are the key issues that immediately surfaced when I sat down with a seasoned counselor to talk with him about the problems parents are currently facing with their kids.

Matthew Frederick has a thriving clinical practice where about 50% of the clients he sees are children or teens.  Seven of his fifteen years of professional counseling were spent exclusively with youth and until a couple of years ago that percentage was still at 80%.  So his hours spent helping kids and their parents resolve issues number in the thousands.  He’s a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and is also certified in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a form of therapy which facilitates the accessing and processing of traumatic memories and other adverse life experiences to bring these to an adaptive resolution.  So while he has lots of letters of the alphabet following his name:  (LCSW, EMDR), what I wanted to talk with him about was the ABC’s of helping frustrated parents.  As we talked, those first three letters of the alphabet fell into place quickly for me.

A. Parents need to AGREE on how to address a child’s behavior.  When parents don’t have a plan, chaos often ensues. Frederick says he sometimes asks parents to tell him what the last book was they read on parenting.  On marriage?  Often they have read none.  Interestingly they’ll read up on several other subjects of interest but will neglect to educate themselves on how to better navigate their most important relationships.

Sometimes one parent becomes the good guy and the other the bad.  This develops tension not only between the parents but within the family as a whole.  Frederick stresses that the myth of identical parenting is simply that. . . a myth.  Parents don’t need to parent exactly the same as long as they do it in agreement with the same core philosophy.

Even in divorce situations, if parents can agree on how to discuss and handle the subject of divorce and not put kids in a “loyalty bind” (feeling forced to choose one parent over the other), kids will have a much easier time adjusting.  He emphasizes that because someone is a bad husband or wife does not necessarily mean he or she is a bad parent.  Agreeing on a code of honor and respect for the other parent in front of the child is paramount in maintaining the child’s sense of security.  Yes, it’s hard to do when you’re angry, frustrated and feeling betrayed but it’s an essential element of a child’s well being.  Kids still need both their mom and their dad.

B. BIGGEST Parental Mistakes.  These tend to often include anger issues.  Learning to neutralize anger is key to a parent’s effectiveness.  Often when a child has acted out, the parent will rant, rave and lecture so the consequence of a kid’s behavior becomes the parent’s anger rather than a consequence the child experiences himself.  

To counter this, Frederick suggests responding with empathy rather than anger, stressing there should still be consequences to inappropriate behavior.  For example, a parent might say, “Buddy, I’m really sorry that you chose to play ball near the house when I asked you not to because now you’ve broken a window and you’re going to have to pay for it.”  When the child complains, argues, whines or becomes upset, simply agree with him that “Yes, it is awful to have to use $50 of your savings to pay for that window and I know it hurts.  I’m sorry about it but it’s the consequence of the decision you made and our decisions always have consequences.”

Following through with the appropriate consequence which the parents have already agreed upon is huge.  Anger, name calling, yelling and sarcasm will only escalate tension and damage the parent child relationship.  One of the books Frederick often recommends is Parenting With Love And Logic by Foster Klein MD and Jim Faye.  Keeping the relationship as the key priority, parents can still discipline and consistently enforce consequences of inappropriate behavior. Matt Frederick sees this basic theme of parenting as the same one repeated throughout the Bible with God the Father and His own children: that of innocence, tragedy and redemption.  

Another frequent mistake parents make is not giving kids choices as often as they can.  We need to teach them how to think as well as how to obey.  When the choices given are reasonable and ones parents can live with, he says it’s better to allow a child to learn by doing rather than by just always being told.  Giving a child choices within parameters often avoids the power struggles which can easily ensue and aids in the child’s decision making skills.

C. CONSISTENCY.  As a therapist, he couldn’t stress enough the importance of consistency in good parenting.  When parents have no consistent strategy for addressing behavioral issues the child often learns that persistence pays, nagging wins and that catching mom or dad in the right mood can be like winning the lottery or catching them in the wrong one can be like Judgement Day!  This leaves a child feeling confused and without healthy boundaries.

Not only do parents need consistent disciplinary actions, but they also need to be consistent in what they are modeling in front of the child.  If they have a “no yelling” rule between siblings and yet they yell at each other or at the children themselves, their instructions are negated by their actions.  It has been said that “virtues are caught, not taught” when it comes to children.  Being role models of the attributes, habits and values we hope to instill in our offspring is a must.

This even applies to topics such as technology.  If we want to teach our children moderation and balance in their use of tech toys yet most of our hours are spent glued to our iphones, ipads or the television, our message becomes clouded.

They may test limits and push against restrictions, but ultimately kids respect and respond to consistency modeled and enforced by their parents.

Although I’ve covered the ABC’s, there’s a “D” I threw in the conversation when I asked which things are most “Detrimental” to kids today.  The list was lengthy and sobering.  It included: Anxiety (80% of teens and adolescents experience anxiety.  It’s the #1 mental health issue in this age group).  Depression.  Sexual Acting Out.  Suicide.  Self mutilation.  Drugs and Alcohol.  Sexual Abuse.  Underachievement. Panic Attacks.  Obsessive Compulsive Behaviors.  High Conflict Divorce.  Custody Battles. Sexual Identity Issues.  Emotional/Behavioral Disturbances.  

With availability of a multitude of technical gadgets, kids’ exposure to content which is sexual in nature comes at an earlier age.  Sexting, snapchat, instagram, even X box, ipads, iphones and VCR’s are all possible sources of input.  This is forcing parents to start having sex talks earlier than ever with their kids, for their own protection.  Family Life has excellent materials which start quite young and progress at age appropriate levels, ending in a Passport to Purity program for teens.

The important thing, of course, is keeping the communication lines open between parents and kids so they feel comfortable and safe coming to parents with any topic, question or confession.  And conversely parents have to be willing not to freak out when their kids do come to them with issues of a sensitive nature.

When I asked him about the most positive trait he saw in the next generation, this therapist found hope in the fact that they want to improve the world.  They’re less worried about stuff and not as materialistic as the generation preceding them.  In fact, 70% of the kids he sees say they want to be a therapist when they grow up.  Who knows, I may be interviewing one of them some day!

Matthew Frederick’s clinical practice is currently located in Maumelle, Arkansas, with an additional office opening soon in Conway, under ReNEW Counseling and Wellness Services.   You may contact him at 501-687-0488.

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Matthew Frederick, LCSW, EMDR