Mom and Dad and the Problem Child

In some of the families I see, the child is the problem—or so the parents state. When I begin to assess the family, sometimes a much more complex situation is found to exist. In these families there are typically the following elements: a child who has a tremendous amount of power in the family, one parent who is furious with the child, and one parent who is trying to appease the child.

This isn’t the way the trouble began. If one were to reconstruct what went on in the family, it might sound something like this: Mother and father chose to have child who was born the perfect baby. As the years passed, child became more and more independent and increasingly wanted things his/her own way. However, when child didn’t get what he/she wanted, he/she would act in maladaptive ways (yelling, screaming, throwing tantrums, acting defiantly, throwing objects, destroying things in the house, refusing to eat, refusing to sleep, or refusing to get dressed in the morning, etc.) Mother or father would become enraged by the child’s behavior and would react in a non-productive manner (by hitting, yelling, calling the child names, shaming the child publicly, or taking away from the child items, experiences, or privileges in a manner that was very disproportional to the misbehavior.) The other parent would immediately intervene begging or pleading with the parent to please stop, reconsider, and not be so harsh. Once the pattern repeated itself a couple of times, the child began to see this:

I misbehave. One parent (P1) starts to punish. Other parent (P2) rushes in to protect me. Aha. I have an ally. P2 now understands that 1) P1 is unreasonable and 2) I should get whatever it is I want.

As this repeats, P2 begins to forge a coalition with child. “Mommy/Daddy didn’t really mean it. You know how she/he gets.” Child goes to P2 for comfort, complains to P2 about P1 and finds a compassionate ear. In a short time, P1, even attempting the best disciplinary methods, is rendered totally irrelevant. P2 has removed all power from P1 (which in most cases just increases P1’s less than optimal behavior). Meanwhile, child has moved into a collegial relationship with P2 which allows child and P2 to talk about how crazy P1 gets and how we all need to figure out a way to live with him/her and his/her craziness.

By then, P1 has no real options for regaining any authority with the child. P2 doesn’t want to give up the special relationship he/she has with the child, and besides, he/she really believes that P1 is harming the child.

As you might imagine, the relationship between father and mother has deteriorated and neither of them is feeling very happy. All they can really agree on is that there is a problem.

When a family gets into such a situation, often the only thing that will help is the intervention of a professional family therapist. However, if this scenario sounds familiar and you are P2, know that the best thing you can do is to discuss child rearing principles with your spouse at a time and place far away from your children. Establishing a true team approach where both of you are working together and supporting each other in disciplining the child will help the child to settle back into his/her role of child in the family. The child will become disempowered as the tyrant in the family. Parents will regain control and the interpersonal relationship between the parents will improve. Their working together and refusal to be divided will display to the child a new respect of each parent for the other and will enable the child to feel safe in his/her family.

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