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Can Counseling for Kids Improve Their Behavior? Does It Last?

Raising children can feel like a full-time job. My mother once referred to the process as “the civilization of little savages,” which isn’t far from the truth.

We start out all id and ego, needing, wanting, taking, and it is largely due to the intervention of our primary caregivers – who provide the much-needed correction and moral framework – that we are ever fit for society. When our best efforts aren’t enough, when our children persist in unacceptable behavior and all the carrots and sticks have failed, sometimes it’s necessary to get help from a professional.

How We Are Formed

Arguments have raged for centuries over the question of whether we are most formed by nature (our biology) or nurture (our environment). The fact is brain chemistry is something we are born with, but brain chemistry can be altered. Parents can do everything right and still have a child who has discipline problems.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. A child with a predisposition toward aggression may learn to control it or end up in an institution of one form or another. It is a terrifying thought for any loving parent, which is why we need to remain hopeful and keep looking for solutions when confronted by issues regarding our children.

Diagnosis is Often a Process

Imagine for a moment you are a parent to a 10-year-old boy named Jimmy. The presenting issue is his behavior in class. Lately, he has been disrespectful to his teacher, getting into fights on the playground, and resistant to doing his homework. You’ve tried to correct his behavior with rewards and punishment, with no luck.

The important thing is to be curious and kind as you approach the problem. Shaming or brow-beating Jimmy is not likely to produce any positive result.

There is a hierarchy of things we want to check to assess Jimmy’s situation:

Historical factors

You may know that Jimmy has a history of similar behavior under certain conditions, or that something traumatic happened in the past which continues to influence his current behavior. Sometimes, we find out that our ancestors struggled with similar behavior, so congenital factors may be in play.

I struggled for years with depression, then heard about my great, great, great, great grandfather who used to move a pile of dirt from one side of the basement to the other when he would “get in his moods.” This sounded a lot like depression to me at the time, and it was helpful to know that, at least in part, I might have come by it naturally. Historical factors can be significant, but they are not usually the only influence in operation.

Environmental factors

Look for influences that may be affecting his behavior. This will likely require conversations with Jimmy. Be sure he knows you’re on his side and just want to help. The first place to look for environmental factors is the family unit.

Has either parent been leaning on him more than usual, pressing him, so he feels like his only value to the family is if he performs well? Have the parents been fighting more, is there terminal illness in the family, or is there some threat to the family’s well-being like loss of a job, legal troubles, or other disruptions?

Most children are like little emotional sponges, soaking up whatever is around them. If the mother or father is depressed, the child picks up on this, absorbs it and doesn’t even know it’s happened. We are connected limbically (via our mid-brains) to each other, which is what allows us to feel empathetically what someone else is feeling, or to be calmed by the purring of a kitty.

Things we have not processed emotionally are hidden away in our psyche out of our awareness, but these things have a way of being communicated subliminally to our children just by our being with them. If I had a rough upbringing and there’s a part of my internal emotional structure that believes “It’s all gonna burn, so why care for anyone?” my son sitting next to me on the couch may pick up on that, even if I’m not aware of it, depending on how sensitive he is.

Each child is wired differently, which is why diagnosis can be tricky. Having ruled out possible triggers in the family system, it’s time to look at other indicators in the child’s environment. Suppose you find out that one of the older kids has singled out Jimmy and is waiting for him along the road when he walks home every day, to bully him.

Or maybe there’s a girl he likes who doesn’t like him back and it makes him angry every time he thinks about it. Or maybe he’s been drinking syrup out of the bottle in the pantry and is reacting badly to the extra sugar. Or he’s finally really realized he’s going to die someday, and he’s scared and angry about it. Or, or, or… Be patient as you try to rule out environmental factors, and don’t make yourself frantic about it. Be curious and kind to yourself as well.

Professional diagnosis

Sometimes a child’s behavior doesn’t change despite our best efforts, or they are clearly upset about something and refuse to talk about it. At whatever point you decide the issue is probably going to need professional help, you have many options open to you. If recommendations from friends or safe associates are not available, there are places to search online, but probably the best place to start is www.psychologytoday.com.

As of this writing, psychologytoday.com has a “Find a Therapist” field where you can type your zip code and a list of therapists in your area comes up on the screen. If you then click, “Child or Adolescent” the list shows therapists that work with young people, and you can read about them, their approach and experience to try and make an informed choice.

Remember when picking a therapist, it is up to you to decide whether it is a good fit or not. Just because someone has letters after their name doesn’t mean you have to stay with them if it doesn’t feel like the right situation.

Once You Have a Diagnosis

Don’t be surprised if you experience a broad range of emotions once you have a diagnosis. It’s a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you know what the problem is and hopefully have a plan to begin treatment. On the other, this is your child and an expert is telling you there is something wrong with him or her. Usually, along with a diagnosis, your professional will give you options for treatment.

You will have to make hard decisions, and depending on the diagnosis, be ready to be in it for the long haul. This can be very disruptive to families, and it is important to keep in mind that counseling for mom, dad, or brothers and sisters may be a good idea to help everyone adjust, again depending on the diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

Can Counseling for Kids Improve Children’s Behavior?

Three primary factors will determine whether a child’s behavior is likely to improve with counseling for kids: the willingness of the child, the nature of the diagnosis, and the ability of the therapist to build a rapport with the child.

The willingness of the child

There’s a saying, “you can’t push a wet noodle through a straw.” If a child is dead set against seeing a therapist and persists in that position, they are not likely to make much headway. Resistance is to be expected, even tantrums sometimes, but if the child can be calmed and is willing to stay in the room, there’s a good chance the therapist and the child are going to be able to work together.

Most therapists will want to meet with the parents or parent prior to meeting with the child. He or she will likely ask a lot of questions about the child’s environment, diet, home life, and so forth, including questions about the child’s demeanor.

After gathering the information, the therapist can assess whether or not they will be the right person to try to help the child, and either give you a recommendation for another therapist or agree to continue. If you agree, then you are on your way, hopefully toward growth and healing for your child.

The nature of the diagnosis

As with physical disorders, the severity of the problem bears a direct correlation to the success of treatment. The key indicator here is the impact of symptoms on the child’s ability to function at home, at school, and in a social setting.

Sadly, some behavioral issues are indicators of a more serious psychological condition, and some of these are life-long and while there is no cure, there are usually ways to manage symptoms.

If a child’s behavioral issues are based on historical or environmental triggers, there is a good chance that counseling can make a real difference in the child’s ability to cope and make different behavioral choices.

If the issue turns out to be a more significant biological or cognitive disorder, often there is medication that can help with symptoms, and with the right medication, a patient can usually be helped with counseling.

The ability of the therapist to build a rapport with the child

The first time you meet with the therapist, you will be in the room with your child. This is your opportunity to see how the therapist interacts with your child. Their demeanor may be different than you expect, but the key here is how does your child seem to be responding?

Whatever the method, if by the end the child seems to feel safe (enough) and at all engaged, this is a good sign that they may be a good fit for each other. The therapist is there to collaborate with you on your child’s health and wellbeing.

Will it Last?

Here again, there are a number of factors in play. The persistence of behavioral changes will depend in part on your child’s demeanor and commitment to the process, but mostly it will depend on your capacity as a parent to keep up with the prescription for supporting the positive changes in the day to day.

Some parents don’t like the idea of giving their children medication, and so find that they are sometimes forgetful about keeping up with a prescription, or making sure that they are taking it when they are supposed to.

Some parents don’t want to admit to themselves that their child has a mental disorder, and so are reluctant to be diligent in making the environmental changes intended to support the wellness of their child.

Depending on the age, temperament, and diagnosis of the child, you will likely have your own list of action items, whether getting medication, patiently correcting unacceptable behavior consistently, asking questions of the child or the teachers to monitor progress, and preferably all without losing your temper and berating or getting into a shouting match with your child.

Again, there is no shame in getting individual counseling for yourself if you are embarking on a path of treatment for your child. The emotions can be a huge burden and make it difficult to hang onto an adult position from which to parent firmly and kindly. Many children respond well to therapy and experience lasting results. As with all such things, you won’t really know what is possible until you try.

Closing Thoughts

Caring for our children is often a deeply emotional experience that can have a huge impact on the parents involved. When a child’s behavior is out of line, and we as parents are unable to change it, it is easy to escalate to rage or panic. These are good indicators that it is time to ask for help, get a fresh perspective, and decide if maybe it might be a good idea to get a professional opinion about our child’s behavior.

Remember, we cannot save our loved ones from sorrow, pain or death, and we are not responsible for the outcome of our attempts to help them, but if we remain calm and determined to systematically try to find the help we need and see it through, being willing to ask for help and get professional help for ourselves if necessary, we have every reason to hope we and our children can move together toward growth and health.

Photos:
“Off to the Park,” courtesy of Robert de Bock, tookapic.com, CC0 License; “Little Lady,” courtesy of Ciprian Silviu lonescu, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Girl in Window,” courtesy of John Christian Fjellestad, Flick CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Rockport,” courtesy of Bonnie Kittle, unsplash.com, CC0 License


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