“I just don’t know what to do with him. No matter how often I ground him, how many times I take away privileges, his negative behavior never changes. All I ever hear from him is, ‘Go ahead, I don’t care.’ What am I to do?”
In my work with as a behavioral therapist, I have heard this refrain time after time from frustrated, if not defeated, parents. They try negative consequence upon negative consequence and those punishments never seem to work. The child just doesn’t care. What is a parent to do?
There is hope. Such a difficult, sullen, oppositional child can change for the better. He or she can become the happy, respectful, responsive child every parent wants. It will take vigilant attention and consistency on the parent’s part, but as the parents change how they work with their child, trust me, the child will change.
The answer begins with an understanding of how this child sees himself. Let’s call him Sean. Sean, the oldest sibling, is a thirteen year old, strong-willed kid, who tested his parents from day one. His step-father worked a lot so the parenting responsibilities mostly fell on mom. Mom’s emotional and energy tank was often on or near empty. She dealt with three demanding kids, a part-time job, a husband who she felt was there for her far less than she felt she needed. Consequently, she regularly found herself at the end of her rope. With diminished coping, she got into a pattern of yelling at Sean and his siblings. Given how challenging Sean was, mom rarely and then never said anything positive to or about Sean. As the years past, Sean digested a steady diet of hurtful negatives from mom.
Children believe their parents are always right. Part of becoming a mature adult involves accepting the truth that mom and dad can be and at times were wrong; and accepting them for who they are. Sean wasn’t there yet. Therefore, Sean believed everything negative his mother said about him. There also were little or no counter-balancing affirmations. “If mom feels this way about me, it must be true.” This steady diet significantly formed his view of himself. And this is where the problem lies.
To clarify the issue let me contrast how a person with a healthy view of himself processes negative input. This person makes a choice and gets a negative outcome with negative feedback. He thinks, “Well that didn’t turn out as I expected. I sure made a mistake this time.” He understands that the mistake he made says nothing about him as a person, except that in this instance he made a bad choice. His worth, value, adequacy and being loved is not diminished by his mistake. This person is able to distinguish between behaviors and being.
Sean took in a steady stream of negatives in response to his oppositional and increasingly disrespectful behaviors. Some of those negatives attacked him as a person. The words chosen focused on Sean being a bad boy, not a boy who does bad things. Rarely, if ever, was he told he was a good boy. Understandably, Sean came to believe he was a bad boy. His thinking, upon making a bad choice wasn’t, “I made a mistake,” but, “I am a mistake.” He could not, like most children, distinguish between behaviors and being.
Now, when someone internalizes a view of themselves that they are a mistake or that they are defective, they see this as an eternal truth engraved on the tablets of the universe, never to change. There is a wonderful truth underlying this assumption. Who we are – our being – is, at its core, an unchangeable reality. Positively stated, we all have an inherent core value that no circumstance or person can diminish. Christians say this is the product of being created in God’s image and endowed by him with eternal value. As such, behaviors can change. Being doesn’t. This is very good news.
It becomes bad news when a child assigns a negative value to their being. They come to sincerely believe that, “I am defective. I am a mistake. No one values me. Because of who I am, I can never do it right.” No child can hold such opinions and feel good about himself. Deep in their hearts they long to be a child that has their parent’s approval. They want to be a good boy or girl. They, however, are convinced that this good kid can never happen. Why, because they are not good. Their sense of fair play struggles against this hurtful reality: “Why do I have to be the bad kid who never does it right?” These result in a resentful, angry child who opposes just about everything his parents want.
His, “I don’t care,” attitude grows out of these convictions. His thinking goes like this: “If I am that defective mistake who is bad (state of being), nothing I do or don’t do (behavior) will change this hurtful reality. The cold, uncaring universe has assigned me this role and nothing can change it.” He doesn’t care because he believes his behavioral choices make no difference. Often the focus is: “Why should I try to do good? I can’t do anything to change who I am (read bad). I can never please my parents, because they are displeased with me as a person.” For these reasons he really doesn’t care. He sees himself as powerless to change who he is.
This kind of thinking is why negative consequences don’t work. All they do is reinforce his negative view of himself. This is especially true when mom or dad implements the consequence accompanied by parental frustration, anger and hurtful words. He resists the proper, teachable moment of the consequence because he sees it as unfair. He is being punished for something he can’t change. He views it like punishing someone for not seeing who is blind. He endures and, out of his anger, gets even by even more aggravating behaviors.
Sean is an extreme example of ineffective parenting. When I challenged his mom to tell me three positive things about Sean that she liked, she honestly could not name one. Her attitude toward him was totally negative and her adversarial relationship with him out in the open. I have also known parents whose negative messages were much more subtle, such as inattention, lack of positive eye contact, little appropriate physical touch, few words of praise. Though not so overt, such negatives can still cause a child to think like Sean.
Copyright 2008 G Brenton Mock