Thursday, July 14, 2011

The "Problem Child"

My first daughter was one of those perfect children. You know, she did everything early. She said please and thank you. She waited her turn, she shared her toys. If you told her to stop, she did. She put her things away when she was finished.

My second daughter was much the same. We could load those two girls up and go anywhere. All day trips with a 4 year old and a 1 year old, no problem. They stayed in their seats, they laughed and played, everyone noticed and commented on them.

Perfectly behaved children.

Then our first son came along. I have often said that he is the child God sent to knock me off my high horse. I was going along, thinking what a great mom I must be because I had these perfect children. I sat up on my horse looking down my nose at all those bad parents with their horrible children and thinking smugly how my children never acted like that.

And then along came Jake.

Jake was my child who had tantrums in the middle of the grocery store and meltdowns in restaurants. He was the kid who unbuckled himself from his car seat and opened the door while we drove down the highway. He was the one that screamed and yelled and threw things and slammed things and hit people when he didn't get his way. He was the one who we were ashamed to be seen in public with.

He was the child that drove me nearly insane. He was the one that I sometimes just had to put him in his room and me in mine because I knew that if I tried to discipline him in that moment I was truly in danger of seriously hurting him. He was the one that never got invited back for sleepovers, not even to relatives' houses, because he was a complete and total TERROR.

He was the one that made me begin to question my stance on psychotropic drugs for children. He was the one that made me start to think that maybe an "expert" might know what was best after all. He was the one that had me in tears and pulling my hair out by the end of the day, many days.

But these days...and for the past four years or so, all has been pretty quiet on the Jake front. He's still the child that tries my patience more than any other, but it's in a normal seven-year-old-boy sort of way, not a "I think my child is possessed" sort of way.

So what happened?

I am going to share some things I did and some things I learned along the way in hopes that they might just help someone else along the way.

The first thing I did was to realize that, in a way, he was sort of "possessed." The spirit of rebellion and of disobedience was all over that boy. Anger, rage, lack of self-control, selfishness, and disrespect were wrapped around him like a cloak. He was a three year old nearly consumed by evil spirits. I know that sounds dramatic and maybe a little weird to some, but it is true. I knew, I just knew, that somewhere deep down under all that, was my precious baby boy. I just had to get to him.

I had the brilliant idea (which of course came from the Holy Spirit) to fast and pray for my son. I wrote up a list of Scriptures which addressed the issues he was having, such as Colossians 3:8 for anger, Philippians 2:3 for selfishness, and Ephesians 6:1 for obedience. I had a whole page of them. Folded into the page I placed a photograph of Jake. For three days I ate and drank nothing but some water. Every time I was hungry or thirsty, rather than eating, I would pull out my page of Scriptures and pray them over my son while looking at his picture. After the first three days, I started eating again but for another 2 weeks I abstained from drinking soda (you could abstain from anything you are "addicted" to), and every time I wanted a soda, instead I would pray for my son.

By the end of that two weeks I was literally on my face and in tears. The changes which began in my son were nothing short of miraculous. But perhaps even more amazing were the changes in myself. That's right. A lot of his behavior...had much to do with me.

I had found (and have learned over and over again) that the negative attitudes our children show us are all too often the negative attitudes we ourselves have. Partly it is genetic and partly it is environment. But in the end, much of the problem comes from us as parents.

We may not express our negativity in the same sort of actions as our children, but they stem from the same sinful nature.

So God showed me during that fasting time that the most important step in changing your child's attitude...is changing your own. For a time I had to put aside all drains on my time and energy to focus solely on my children. I had to be there every moment to stop tantrums before they had a chance to start. I had to spend my time scouting out potential distractions before they became full-blown ones. I had to devote my "free time" to keeping a three year old busy rather than letting him get bored and wreak havoc.

I learned some important lessons during that time.

I learned that giving in is something a parent should be very cautious of. For example, I'm going to let this kid watch TV for 2 hours because its the only way to get him to be quiet and stop tormenting everyone else. No! NO NO NO! All that teaches is that if they show enough negative behavior, they will end up getting their way. Yes, it is hard on the parent. Yes, it takes more time and energy and effort on your part to stick to your guns when you want to scream and give in, but in the long run it is worth it.

I learned to control my own temper. I am not a screamer or a yeller. But during that two-years-or-so period of life, my voice slowly but surely rose a few levels, to where it seemed like every time I talked to my son at all, it was with harshness. My excuse was to think that he had driven me to it. What I had to learn was that I cannot expect my child to control his temper under pressing circumstances if I cannot control mine. I had to learn to bite my tongue. I had to learn to assess the importance of certain things in the big scheme of things. I had to learn to pick my battles, and then to fight them with calmness.

I learned to stop seeing my own child as the enemy. It is easy enough to think, "He makes me this way." "He ruins my outings." "He makes life hard on me." The truth was, he was three years old and could only ruin my day if I let him. I had to grow up a little, "man up" if you will. Suck it up and deal with it.

I read once, I can't remember where, something to the effect that it is not our children's job to make us look good in public. It is, rather, our job to make them look good. This does NOT mean we are to succumb to their every whim to avoid a meltdown on aisle five! This means we must put in the seemingly never ending effort to teach and train them in the first place. This means we must be consistent in our discipline. This means we must learn not to take it personally when they have a meltdown and we must drag them kicking and screaming from the store, leaving our half-full cart behind. We must learn to be consistent with our rules and disciplines so that they will learn to be consistent in their behavior - their good behavior.

I learned to take those annoying traits and turn them around. I began to take each negative characteristic and try to see how I could turn it into something positive. My child's desire to have everything his own way could be turned into organizational skills. My child's tendency to stubbornness could be trained into perseverance. My child's quick temper could be turned into passion for things he cared about. My child's super-sensitivity to things around him could be turned into super-sensitivity to the feelings of people around him. My child's desire to be the boss could be trained into leadership skills.

And so I set out to train my child. Training a child is Biblical - Deuteronomy 22:6 is one of the most quoted Scriptures in child-rearing discussions. Training a child is also hard. It takes time and energy and dedication on the part of the parent. It is not enough to tell a child what to do. You must train them to do it, to do it correctly, to do it consistently. Sometimes this can take days, sometimes months, sometimes even years. It would be easier to throw in the towel and sit them in front of the TV, or a video game, or whatever gets them out of your hair. It would be easier to just stay home and never "risk" taking them out in public. But in the long run, dedication to true training of children is absolutely worth it.

Often times what children, especially very young children need, is simply time. Time to themselves. Time in the quiet, away from the constant noise of our technological world. Time with Mom and Dad. We must put aside our own desires and time-consumers for awhile to give them what they need.

Is Jake a perfectly behaved child? Of course not! Are my girls, really? Nope, not even them. They are certainly easier to parent than Jake, but they are imperfect little sinners just like the rest of us. Are there still occasional times when Jake has to be taken out and "talked to" or spanked? Yes. But they are few and far between. And when the moments come when he begins to act like that again, my first thought is, "What area of his training, his discipline, have I been neglecting?"

I usually find that as his parents we have become lax in one area or another. Or perhaps we just need to pay more attention to how long it's been since he last ate or got some good rest. 99% of all behavior problems our children have had have begun with us as parents slacking off in some way. Thankfully, God, as our Heavenly Father, has unending patience with us and never slacks off in His duties. He will help us through the tough times with the "problem"children if we just come to Him for help, and are willing to humble ourselves when He reveals to us that a great deal of the problem is not our children's behavior, but our own.

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