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Monday, April 1, 2013

Motivational Mondays: How to Parent When A Child Makes You Feel Incompetent

Thought for the Day: Last week, I told Daniella's story to a parent who was frustrated with their 10 year old child. Daniella made her mother feel totally helpless & incompetent. Today, I share how I helped Daniella & her mother. Daniella was an extremely challenging child, but all children at times can make parents question their ability to parent. What do you do when you feel like a failure as a parent? Have you ever felt frustrated like Daniella's mother? I would love to hear what things have helped you with these kinds of challenges.

I hadn't thought about Daniella (not her real name) for many years. Daniella was a child I worked with early on in my career as a psychologist in a day unit of a psychiatric hospital in Israel. The children in the program ranged from autistic to learning disabled to behavioral disorders. They often were simply too much for the public schools to handle. Children stayed in this intensive program for a year to three years. All children were in individual, group & family therapy. Their parents participated in family, individual, couple & group therapy. I had worked as a school psychologist before coming to the hospital, but was a beginner as a therapist with adults.

I inherited Daniella's family from an Israeli therapist who felt she was unable to work with them. I was shocked when I learned from Daniella's mother, Ruthie, that the previous therapist had told  Ruthie she had "diarrhea" of the mouth. Given the lack of empathy the previous therapist had for Ruthie, I knew it would be hard to gain her trust. Ruthie, a Canadian immigrant, was happy to be able to conduct therapy in her native tongue. Daniella had serious behavioral problems & was unmanageable at home. She would run away for days. Usually, Daniella went to the beaches of Tel Aviv where, using her charm & her knowledge of English, she would get elderly tourists to give her food. Ruthie was frightened that harm might come to her daughter on the empty beaches at night. She could not understand why her daughter would run away from home following simple requests to clean her room or clear the table.

Week after week, Ruthie came to therapy & shared her frustrations with Daniella. She would report all of Daniella's unacceptable behaviors at a mile a minute pace. Daniella refused to follow any of her parents' rules. Ruthie rarely gave me time to get a word in edgewise or to comment. In supervision, I would tell my supervisor, Dr. Garb, how hard it was to sit with Ruthie & listen to her berate her child. Dr. Garb, a psychiatrist & a recent South African immigrant, encouraged me to listen & try to guess the emotions beneath Ruthie's nervous, frustrated presentation of life with Daniella. Since Ruthie was not in touch with her feelings, it was difficult to identify anything other than anger & frustration. Slowly, I began to make some headway & would reflect on the emotions I felt she were beneath the anger. Finally, after months in therapy, I was able to say to Ruthie that, "When Daniella makes you feel helpless, I think you try to speak more & faster to cover up your shame & sadness." Ruthie's eyes teared up & she admitted that it was true. She began to speak more slowly, to listen & allow me to speak in sessions.

Not long after that breakthrough, Daniella ran away from home again. In the past when they had found her daughter, Ruthie she would angrily chastise Daniella. This time was different. She told her daughter that she was scared to death when she did not know where she was & that she wants to keep her safe. She told me that she realized, "Daniella is my daughter & I will be her mother for the rest of my life. Somehow, we will get through this & I will love her no matter what." Daniella began to sense her mother's caring & steadfastness to help her daughter overcome the demons that plagued her & she too began to improve.

I told my current client Daniella & Ruthie's story to give them hope. In the midst of raising children, there are multiple frustrations. Daniella's story was an extreme example, but the lessons we can learn from their challenges Ruthie had to deal with are applicable to children with less problems than Daniella. Some children take longer to learn than others, but when they know we are in it for the long haul & that we will not give up on them, they too learn to believe in their ability to overcome their struggles.

All parents feel like Ruthie from time to time. even when their children are less challenging than Daniella. What do you do when you feel overwhelmed while parenting a difficult child? What has helped you when you have felt helpless or incompetent as a parent? Feel free to share your experiences or ask questions about how to get in touch with your feelings so that you can handle the challenges raising children present.