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A Psychologist's Thoughts on Clinical Practice, Behavior, and Life

 Parent Behavior and Children's Safety

A basic human tendency is to consider other people as being rational. Disagreeable perhaps but rational nonetheless. Except for those who commit such unspeakable acts as the Utah father, Michael Haight, who recently killed his mother-in-law, his wife, and their five children ranging in age from four-years through seventeen-years. This occurred two weeks after his wife filed for divorce. He had earlier removed guns from the house apparently so his victims couldn't defend against his planned attack.
Two-years before his oldest daughter, Macie, then fourteen, reported to the police her father's multiple assaults and the extreme abuse she suffered which made her, to quote a news article, "very afraid that he was going to keep her from breathing and kill her." Which he did.
This raised the significant question of why nothing was done by the police. The possible answer, that the wife refused to press charges, isn't sufficient since Macie had clearly been harmed. Had an adult behaved similarly toward another adult they would have been jailed (hopefully, though this is not certain in these odd times). Yet the testimony of youth even older than Macie tends not to taken as seriously as an adult's.

Another possible answer for why children aren't removed from an abusive family is the belief that children are best raised by biological parents despite aberrant parental behavior. This, even in states where judicial decisions are required to be "in the best interests of the child," is hardly ever done. Only rarely are parental rights abrogated with children being freed for adoption.
Not that foster care is always better: a recent news item descirbed foster parents who not only sexually abused their two young wards but prostituted them.
Clearly, more sophisticated evaluations are needed of both criminals and foster parents, and greater education of police and judges too in the hope that, finally, decisions are made consistent with the safety of children rather than hoary philosophy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Parenting, School Achievement, and Standardized Testing

Parents should read first to their toddlers and then with them, this enabling most children to induct the nature of reading as they do the grammar of the language of the country into which they are born (thus a toddler in Germany learns to speak German, a child in Argentina learns to speak Spanish, etc.) and reading simple books by kindergarten. Parents should also explain rather than say "Do it because I say so," since this depresses the development of the critical capacity for abstract thinking as psychologists have known since the 1960s. Which is not to say that public schools don't need improvement since, with exception, they tend to be clueless in helping struggling children. But schools shouldn't be expected to remedy absent parent involvement or act as parents for children who haven't been socialized (as teachers complain). Standardized testing is critical too since a child's poor scores says something important which need be investigated and remedied.

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Parental Reluctance to Confront Their Child's Emotional Problems

Years ago a mother brought her child to my office. While speaking with her alone, I referred to her son's "emotional problems." "My child does not have emotional problems," the mother insisted, and stormed from my office. Had I been given the chance I might have asked, "Then why are you here?" but already knew the answer: to gain reassurance that, despite having observed his bizarre behavior, her child was perfectly fine.
This illogic, when a parent's emotion-based reality clashes with actual reality, is understandable. Though unwise, it reflects the parent's feeling of shame from the belief that they failed as a parent. Which is undeserved since children are not born with instructions nor have all parents experienced a "good enough" parenting during their own childhood. Once a parent gains help for their troubled child they have no reason to feel guilt and it is counter-productive to the success of their child's treatment. But not seeking treatment for their child, especially when it leads to harm, is inexcusable.

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On Deserved and Undeserved Parental Guilt

While it is best for a distressed child to receive mental health treatment as soon as possible this is not always done. Babies are not born with instructions and parent guilt is often a factor, they not wanting to accept their role in their child's problems. While parents don't blame themselves for a child's physical illness they often do so with their child's emotional problems. Feeling responsible, and with justification since early life experiences are the bedrock of adequate functioning. But parenting mistakes derive from their own imperfect life experiences so, after gaining treatment for their child, parental guilty feelings are undeserved and counter-productive in helping their child. And though children will readily forgive parental mistakes they never forget having been ignored.

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Good Common Sense Isn't Always Good Parenting Sense

Some child interaction guidelines, which have long been followed by both parents and teachers, derive from the popular notion that reward and punishment effect behavior. Thus if a child is punished for misbehaving they are less likely to do so in the future. A belief which sounds reasonable but is not.


As psychologists have long known, behavior modification work with dogs but not cats, with those of severely limited intellect (since it simplifies their environment) but not those of near normal and above intelligence, and for inhabitants of tightly controlled environments such as prisons. It does not work with others since humans are a thinking species.


Moreover, children are reasonable and want to develop into adults. Thus if asked to do something by their parent or teacher they usually will though being less likely to do so if they are hungry or tired or ill or troubled, or unable to do what is asked for a reason which may make sense to their immature mind but not to others.


Thus, apart from emergency situations involving harm or danger, explaining why a child should do something will usually gain their cooperation. If not it will be for one of the above reasons in which case they will be behaving like similarly afflicted adults.

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The Inexaustable Strength of Mothers

My experience with treating mothers has long impressed me with their strength. Despite their continuing daily tasks of tending to wandering-about youngsters, seemingly incomprehensible teenagers, difficult husbands, and an occasional sickly rabbit or other pet, they cook, clean, negotiatate with school officials, provide transportation to appointments, and cope with such intermittent crises as helping with children's homework and arranging for home repairs. All while trying, and often failing, to care for themselves.


Part of this is inevitable since, in most families, the mother is the emotional center of the family, which also makes her the major recipient of children's complaints. If a child is unhappy, it's HER fault. Is this fair? Of course not but that's how it is.


Which is not to say that the father's role is unimportant since, though the mother (or mothering figure who can be a male) is the most important figure during the first two years of a child's life, the father becomes equally important during their third year, serving to pull the child from the symbiotic relationship with their mother into the larger world and, ultimately, independent adult functioning.

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Why Your Child is Sometimes Impossible

While all children are sometimes irritating, occasionally they're completely impossible. I've joked with parents that the business office next to mine has a Saturday swap meet where children are exchanged.


But troublesome behavior has meaning since when a child is unhappy they don't spontaneously speak of their distress but instead act difficult. This is why Oppositional Defiant Behavior is the most common mental health diagnosis of children.


When asked to do something by their parent a child will usually comply since they want to grow up, to be an adult. Resistance thus indicates their inability to do what is asked because of illness, exhaustion, emotional upset, or an unspoken reason making sense to them but isn't logical. Then, speaking with the child is more productive than yelling, which should only be done when confronting a potentially dangerous or harmful situation. Otherwise, frequent yelling by a parent will cause warnings that a child should respect to be ignored.

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The Unavoidable Stress of a New Parent

While a child's birth is joyously anticipated, their parents' initial reaction is stress. This, even with a child who is generally considered easy to parent since this pain is both universal and unavoidable.


Beginning at birth, a newborn makes unceasing demands of their parents to become a more effective caretaker. Demands that are critical since a child is dependent on their parents for survival. But the adult mind is conservative and resists the rapid personality change that is needed. This clashing of demands and wills creates parental stress but, slowly, a melding of the needs of both.


An added stress is that a newborn is inserted into an ongoing (family) social system that has developed over time, and must now transform itself to incorporate this unselected newcomer.

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Becoming a New Parent and Then Changing Again

Becoming a parent involves not only bearing a child but adopting a new identity, an expected identity, and new behavior. If soon after birth one asked a mother or a father if they felt like a parent they would say "no," and likely give the same answer several months later since they had not yet fully incorporated parenting into their self-image and range of behavior. The young parent must battle to safeguard an area of "self" against the demands of their baby-intruder.


Then, years later, the opposite happens when the parent must re-discover and re-mold their sense of who they are when their child leaves the home, depriving them of the caretaking role.


Slowly, throughout life, multiple behaviors and new functions are added to the expanding sense of who one is: the being as sexual, the being as worker, and the being as parent, all intertwined, similar to how the biological body metabolizes food to make it usable before incorporating its nutrition within itself.

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Psychiatrists’ Families Aren’t Healthier Than President Trump’s!

In a well-received book some years ago, a psychiatrist described his mother’s naked body being used as a card-playing table by his father and cronies. In a paper by a psychoanalyst-psychiatrist (Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, “The Sad Soul of the Psychiatrist,” early 1970s), it was stated that clinicians who treat children do  Read More 
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