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Opinion & Essays - Mar, 2002 Issue #91 

By Lon Woodbury, C.E.P.

Every parent whose teen has seriously struggled has asked, “What Went Wrong”? It is when they rephrase the question to ask, “What did I do wrong?” that parents can become guilt-ridden and virtually paralyzed with doubt. This form of questioning is a nonproductive dead end that can interfere with finding a solution.

Many professionals have shown that although parents are extremely important in a child’s life, it is virtually impossible to predict how a parent’s particular action or non-action is going to be internalized by any specific child. By the time a child is out-of- control or seriously floundering, assigning blame is worse than useless. In addition, this emphasis on blame only encourages parents to delay seeking the help their child needs because they wish to avoid the anticipated criticism.

It is much more important to focus on learning “what went wrong?” rather than being judgmental about one’s potential contribution to the situation. By seeking instead to discover the nature of problem, there is a chance that something effective can be developed that will help. Determining the right interventions depends a great deal on analyzing the nature of the pathology. Or, if a serious pathology does not exist, then it is necessary to understand the self-defeating attitudes that exist in the mind of the child.

We always have to remember that a correct definition of the problem is half the solution. After my initial interview with a parent, fully three-fourths of my clients admit they really don’t have any idea what is causing the negative and sometimes self-destructive behavior of their child. This can be even after numerous conferences with child care professionals and several placements.

Sure, there is usually no shortage of diagnoses and speculations as to what might have precipitated the negative behavior, but close examination often reveals those to be tentative clues at best. Unfortunately, many parents either don’t understand or don’t agree with what many psychiatrists and psychologists have offered as an explanation. It is important to remember that all diagnoses are working diagnoses. They are tentative hypotheses that need to be confirmed, denied or changed by subsequent data. In many cases diagnoses are only educated guesses that are often only helpful as a starting point.

As useful as a diagnosis might be, it is important to keep a healthy skepticism and not fall into blind faith based on what “the therapist said”, as if the mental health profession is as precise as, say, the field of engineering. In actuality, diagnoses too often are the personal opinion of the professional, and some have better track records than others. Some professionals have a pet theory they try to apply to all clients; others are stretched too thin to pay adequate attention to any one case. On the other hand, many professionals have an excellent balance of common sense, training and experience and take the time to be able to view their client as a whole human being.

The same is true regarding events that parents think might have negatively impacted their child. Parents need to remember it is their child’s internal reaction and corresponding conclusions that creates their child’s experience, which may or may not relate to specific events that the parents may identify. I’ve seen several children where after all was said and done, the precipitating events were considered so insignificant at the time that none of the parents even remembered them. But on some level, the child remembered, and those memories had a strong impact on his or her view of the world.

An evaluation of the appropriateness of professional advice is up to the parent, and parents should rely on those professionals who know their own strengths and limitations. For professionals especially, humility is an asset when dealing with a child with problems.

Guiding a child to abandon self-destructive behaviors and move towards a more productive and fairly happy future is a process that requires many steps. Each step depends on what was learned in the previous step, and the necessary starting point is the attempt to determine “what went wrong?” By developing clarity about the situation and the behaviors involved, one can logically plan interventions that have the best chance of correcting the problem. Maintaining one’s focus on the intervention, rather than ruminating about who is to blame, will be the best way to direct everyone’s energies towards helping the child.

Intervention for a child has to be a team effort. Parents usually are most qualified to be at the heart of this process. With only some exceptions, they have the best overall knowledge of their child, and are the ones that have to live with the results, for better or worse. Since however, they lack the training and experience required for some aspects of the intervention, in those areas they need to rely on the advice and work of professionals.

Parents need to find a balance between two potential mistakes. First, they should avoid blindly following the advice of whatever professional happens to be talking to them. On the other hand, they need to avoid “protecting” their child from needed interventions that might be initially perceived as uncomfortable. This requires the parents to have clear and objective thinking. Considering that in most cases nobody loves and cares for a child as much as the parents, and it is the parents who have to live with the results, usually this clear thinking is achievable.

Professionals have to realize, and I include school and program staff in this statement, that although their insights and actions might be extremely helpful and valuable, they still are only partial insights. It is the parents who can best put those insights into context, if they make every effort to see the whole situation with clarity. Integrating the experience of specialists, of course, can help them a great deal. However, it is important not to fall into the mentality of “Doctor as God”, which is can be a result of a professional’s ego, rather than a reflection of true care or concern for the well-being and future of the child, and can be very harmful.

An intervention needs to be a properly coordinated team effort, with all parties having mutual respect for the roles, strengths and limitations of the other members. When the situation is systematically approached as a problem-solving endeavor, then the chances for a successful outcome are greatly enhanced.

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