Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Parenting and Mental Health - be careful of what you say!

The young student was sure he was a bad kid. ‘How do you know that?’ I asked. ‘I make my mum angry all the time’ he said. ‘Tell me about the last time you made her angry’ I enquired. ‘The other day when I wouldn't brush my teeth. I wanted to watch the TV longer and she got madder and madder. It’s my fault. She said I made her mad. My mum would be happier if I was a good kid.’
I'm a bad kid!
This is typical of this student who believes he’s bad based on the evidence he has had before him. What evidence might that be? What sense (or non-sense) has he made from his experiences to date? What conclusions has he drawn about himself, others and the worlds (life)? Not very helpful or healthy ones it would appear!

Constructivist theory would say that our young subject has constructed some unhelpful ‘habits of thinking and believing’ and he has concluded:
  • He is bad because he does bad things (I don’t like me)
  • He makes his mum mad (She doesn’t like me)

Where do you start, counselling wise with this young and intelligent student? What thinking/believing rules does he possess that accounts for his ongoing anger and depression?

Let’s consider the ‘I am bad’ theory. He has made and makes poor choices. We can call those choices bad if we like but he is not bad as he believes he must be. He will feel depressed about this unless he learns how:

For the child
  • His thinking is connected to how he feels and behave
  • Some thinking rules are not helpful (irrational)
  • To dispute/challenge those habits of thinking

Knowing this and believing it i.e. ‘I am not my behaviour I am OK but my behaviour isn’t’ takes a bit of effort and he can’t do this by himself. He needs help.

Let's think about this
For the parent
  • Stop telling him he is bad/naughty/a pain – he is none of these
  • He does not make you mad. Take responsibility for how you feel and behave - you make you mad!
  • Start using feedback that is behaviour specific and avoid global rating terms like naughty/lazy/bad/good
  • Work on your own self-worth and tell the child what you are doing e.g. ‘I am practising my helpful thinking rule of I’m OK even if I make a mistake. I am reminding myself about this.’
  • Tell him that your love for him is unconditional and never at question

The kind (quality) of language used in interactions between parent and child is critical as briefly outlined above. Be warned that children will start to rate themselves good or bad if they conflate behaviour with being – they are not what they do!

I am not what I do. I'm OK!

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