By Tamara Parnay
People talk about the “problem child,” but I’m not really sure what a problem child is.
According to the MSN Encarta online dictionary, a problem child is “a child who requires a disproportionate amount of attention or correction.” This definition leads me to ask a couple questions:
- Disproportionate to what? Both of my children sometimes need more attention than other children, and the intensity of their need for attention varies from one moment to the next.
- What is “correction”? Is this punishment and/or persistent behavior management and feedback (e.g. rewards) for acting “properly”? Correction implies there is something wrong with children. Is there? Or is there something wrong with our view of children?
Happy, confident, caring children grow up in an atmosphere of flexibility and trust, supported by respectful, empathic, and realistic parents who do not see challenging behaviors as indications that there is a problem with their children.
Adults and children share many of the behaviors considered to be problems when exhibited by children. Why, then, is there a “problem child” but not a “problem parent”?
The “Problem Parent” Self Assessment
Here is a light-hearted questionnaire designed to help you decide whether or not you might want to consider a “problem parent” label for yourself. If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, you could label yourself, at those times, a “problem parent.”
Do you ever…
…talk with your mouth full?
…skip the broccoli but eat the ice cream?
…have trouble choosing what to wear?
…forget to say “please” or “thank you”?
…stay up past your bedtime?
…prefer not to sleep alone?
…forget to brush your teeth?
…break a bowl or plate?
…get food stains on your clothes?
…cry when upset?
…fidget when bored or nervous?
…become irritable when tired or ill?
…decide not to share your things?
…not come promptly when called?
…leave your clothes and things around?
…prefer playing or relaxing to doing chores?
…need repeated reminders?
…have trouble buying only essential items when shopping?
…speak too loudly?
…feel annoyed at being told what to do?
…have trouble getting along with others?
…avoid eye contact during heated moments?
…seek others’ undivided attention?
…become withdrawn when not getting the support you need?
…feel indignant when people don’t take your feelings or concerns seriously?
…enjoy having others serve you?
…need support when upset or scared?
…forget where you put something?
…forget to bring along your jacket?
…tell little lies to protect yourself from disapproval?
…get frustrated when not being given the benefit of the doubt?
…become frustrated when you can’t figure out how to do something?
…become adamant about doing or learning things in your own way, and in your own time?
…feel upset when you can’t meet others’ expectations?
…have trouble controlling your emotions?
…become irritable for no apparent reason?
…reject cuddles and kisses?
…walk away when lectured to?
…have difficulty saying “I’m sorry”?
…become uncomfortable when others talk about you in your presence, as if you were not there?
…feel stressed when rushed?
…react negatively to threats, bribes, or other forms of manipulation?
…get overwhelmed by complex instructions or explanations?
…become sad when you feel misunderstood?
…complain when you don’t get your way?
…complain when you have to sit in the car for a long time?
…complain when the weather isn’t cooperating with your plans?
…need reassurance that you are loved and valued?
I must confess to you that many of the above behaviors are sometimes true for me. If I am going to use the “problem child” label for my children, then if I am honest with myself and fair to my children — and if I have a sense of humor — I will also refer to myself as a “problem parent.”
Perhaps those self-acknowledged problem parents among us will be willing to share a label with all the “problem children” of the world? We can refer to ourselves, young and old, as “problem people.” Anyone care to join me? Or, better yet, let’s just agree to do away with the “problem” label. The label’s the problem, not the child.
After all, children and adults are very similar in so many ways. Dr. Seuss in Horton Hears a Who put it best: “People are people no matter how small.” True, parents are much older and have accumulated learning and life experiences, while children are fresh to the world and have so much to learn. But for us parents, the learning hasn’t stopped, and our children can offer us so much through their innocently insightful perspective. Parents can be there alongside their children as learning partners.
People of any age can be labelled as problems, but only if we choose to perceive them that way. So, I wonder, why create problems for ourselves?
Take This Self Assessment A Step Further
List your child’s behaviors that are of concern to you. Include any of those that you feel need to be corrected, whether they evoke a strongly negative response in you or not. Put a mark next to those behaviors that evoke a strongly negative response in you. Compare this list with your self assessment. Which behaviors do you share with your child? Do you share some of your child’s behaviors that you marked?
Other people, especially those closest to us, act as a mirror for us. Sometimes, we see in them things we like about ourselves. Sometimes, they reflect back to us aspects of ourselves that we don’t like. Thus, I need to ask myself: When I see what I like about myself in my child’s “mirror,” how do I respond to her? When I see what I don’t like, how do I respond to her? And I need to ask myself why I respond the ways I do. What can I learn about myself? Because our own children can be our most powerful mirrors, they offer us our greatest opportunities to learn and grow.
“If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.”
~ C.G. Jung, psychiatrist, in Integration of the Personality