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Opinion & Essays - Feb, 1994 Issue #26 

By Lon Woodbury 

(Part One surveyed some of the special problems modern parents must face and overcome to succeed in parenting) 

Last summer the odds caught up with me. After years of warning signs, one of my daughters passed over the edge of warning signs and into full blown, unhappy, out-of-control behavior. After ten years of professionally helping parents place their child in the appropriate Emotional Growth/Special Purpose School, I found myself on the other side. It was my daughter I had to make the hard decisions about. I had to get through the "Who's to blame?" diversions, and sidetrack the "if only " questions; if only the school officials had been more understanding instead of focusing on punishment, if only we hadn't respected her privacy so much, if only we had taken more decisive action earlier, if only we had tried harder to convince her of the love we offered, and if only we had better understood her pain. All of these are normal reactions and must be seen as dead-ends, and can paralyze a parent to where effective action is impossible. 

From my work as an educational consultant, we knew that Emotional Growth/Special Purpose Schools were very successful with children who need more than counseling, but did not have an illness needing hospitalization. When a child has the body and mind of a teenager, but the emotional level and control of a pre-schooler, Emotional Growth/Special Purpose Schools are designed to bring a child up to age-appropriate emotional level. That is the justification for their existence, and that seemed to be exactly what our daughter needed. 

After an especially loud confrontation with our daughter last summer, my wife and I looked at each other and agreed, "It's time!" Then we went through another set of emotions. After years of trying to teach her to be honest and up front and not sneaky, we had to select a program, arrange an enrollment date, and make arrangements to get her there and get her into the car without her knowing what we were doing. This was contrary to our personal inclinations and every example we had tried to set for her, but there was no other way. We reminded ourselves that a true act of love is to give a child what he/she needs rather than what he/she wants, especially when what he/she wants is self-destructive. 

Another struggle we went through was the realization that it is the dreams that are the hardest to give up. Many children are never placed, or the placement is interrupted prematurely, not because intervention is not needed, but because the parents are unable to give up the short term dreams they had for the child. These are the little dreams like the first prom, or graduation from the local school, or the first date. Holding on to unrealistic short-term dreams is a poor bargain if the long-term dreams are lost. When parents hold onto unrealistic dreams, the parents are unlikely to see any of their dreams for their child realized. We handled this by forcing ourselves to do what needed to be done. This was incredibly hard despite my years of experience helping parents through this struggle. 

Then there is the "turn-around" point. Sometimes this happens while getting a child to a placement, but usually it happens after the child has settled into a program and has made some encouraging progress. It is the point when a child has to decide if he/she is going to hang onto the old ways of thinking, or if he/she is going to take a risk and try seeing the world in a more positive way. It feels to the child like he/she is being asked to give up the very core of his/her being. The pain of the past, the fear of the future and the struggle of making a difficult decision all come to the surface. In dealing with this crisis, the staff has no room for moral relativism, nor room for "You have a right to your own opinion." The staff must be sensitive to the child's needs, have a firm grasp of what is right and wrong, and be psychologically comfortable with who they are. All this is necessary to help the child decide it is better to go through the crisis rather than run away from it. 

Parents have a vital but even more difficult and scary role. Our society tends to teach parents that their job is to make their child's hurt go away, and that saying "no" to their child might mean they are a "bad" parent. So, a child's ultimate attempt at manipulation will often be a surprise phone call. Whether from a phone booth along a road somewhere, or threatening to run away, the message is the same: "Give up and rescue me." 

This manipulation is designed to bring up the worst fears any parent can have; of losing contact with their child forever, or even a horrible death and/or mutilation. Everything invested to that point, and even the child's whole future can ride on how the parents handle this phone call. When they stay firm, and say "complete the program," 90% of the time, in my experience, the child backs down and stays. However, when the parents act out of their fears and rescue their child, they usually get more of the same behavior that caused the child to be placed in the school in the first place. The child wins, and the whole family, including the child, loses. 

The results with our daughter? She still has a long way to go, but the progress so far looks good. She is getting help in tying up some loose threads of her life that is beginning to help bring the whole family together better. We had to do some things that were hard for us, and had to give up on some short term dreams, but not only is she feeling better about herself, but we seem closer than ever to realizing some of our long term dreams for her. We think it was a good bargain. 

Copyright 1994, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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