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Opinion & Essays - Jun, 1996 Issue #40 

IS ANYONE LISTENING? 
AN EPIDEMIC OF PARENT GUILT 
By: Lon Woodbury, Educational Consultant
Bonners Ferry, Idaho 
208-267-5550 

I work primarily with parents of teens with behavioral/emotional problems. Parents call me from all over the country seeking information on residential programs that can help their child make better decisions. When they first call, I am usually flooded with details of what has been happening with their child, often even before I have a chance to explain my business and what I might be able to do to help them. On my part, handling the overwhelming emotional release on the part of parents is one of the most intense and exhausting parts of my work. 

At first I thought this intense emotional release was simply caused by the turmoil and pain the family was in, of which the acting out of their child was simply either a cause or symptom. But as time passed and I talked with more and more parents, I began to sense that something else was also going on. There were several clues that it was not as simple as I had first thought. 

The first clue I noticed was the not uncommon comment by parents that I was the first professional who seemed to understand what the parents were going through. These comments were from parents who had been working with therapists, treatment programs and their child's school for years. This comment startled me at first, but I found that many other educational consultants had heard this same comment from many of their clients. 

Then there have been some of the stories parents have told me about their dealings with other professionals. The story that stands out in my mind is the mother who told me of a session with a therapist working with the mother and her acting out daughter. They had been talking about some of the issues and problems the daughter had been having, and the therapist put her finger in mom's face and asked what changes mom was going to make to solve the problem. In other words, the daughter's behavior was mom's fault, and the mother, not the daughter, had to change. 

The picture began to emerge that many of the parents contacting me were fleeing the mental health and education establishments. I have no idea if these parents are the exceptions falling through the cracks of the education and mental health systems, or if they are representative of the majority of parents in this country. However, one thing is clear. There are many parents who will do anything to help their child, and have not been well served by established systems. This includes enough parents to keep myself and dozens of other educational consultants around the country extremely busy. 

I began to suspect the intensity of these parent's emotional release was also a sense of defensiveness on the part of parents. I began to realize these parents were desperately trying to convince me they were good parents; they emphasized they had tried everything and nothing had worked like it was supposed to. Why so many parents felt defensive became clear after a conversation with a mother who was looking for a wilderness program for her son who had just started acting out. She recounted for me how critical her thinking was of a mother down the street who had placed her son in a wilderness program the previous year. She recalled thinking how poor a parent the other mother must have been to "have to send her son away", and felt blessed that she was not "that kind of parent." Now that this mother was facing the same irrational conduct by her own son, she said she finally understood what the other mother had faced the previous year. 

We seem to have developed a culture in our country that concludes that a child with emotional/behavioral problems is proof of poor parenting. And, that poor parenting deserves no sympathy or compassion. This might fit a small minority of parents who neglect, abuse or abandon their children. It definitely is unfair and even harmful to judge all parents with children with emotional/behavioral problems as unworthy. 

No wonder parents with acting out children are defensive and feel guilty. There is a stigma of having an acting out child that results in criticism, blame, and in some cases condemnation and legal action. This criticism seems to come at them from all sides, including many child care professionals, the authority figures in established institutions, and even from other parents. Worse of all, many parents seem to accept this unfair blame. The resulting guilt is often the major obstacle to finding an effective solution. 

So when a parent has an acting out child, is anyone listening? It doesn't seem very many are, and that's a tragedy. Because, that's the time when parents most need to be self confident and sure of their love and knowledge. They need advice, support, sympathy, and experienced mentors whom they can trust. Instead, from a culture of criticism of parents, children are being deprived of the best efforts of those very people who know and care for their children more than anyone else, their parents. 

Copyright 1996, 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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