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Posted: Oct 3, 2005 11:14

THE PROBLEM CHILD AT HOME: Coaching For Logic In An Emotional Environment

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Coaching For Logic In An Emotional Environment
By: Bill Valentine, PsyD, CC
Redmond, Oregon

Most admissions counselors or referring professionals recognize the following scene: A distraught parent calls to report that her son is unmanageable and out-of-control at home. She needs a residential placement - now. After the necessary papers are expressed to the home, days of silence follow. A follow-up call from the consultant or admissions counselor reaches a calmer, albeit more uncertain, parent. Over the last few days, her son is "his old self" again and Mom just can't bear the thought of sending him away "for someone else to parent."

A week or a month later the call comes again, and again the need to have Junior out of the house is urgent. Still, the process is slowed or halted once more by a wavering parent unable to convince herself that she knows what is right for her child and family. This pattern may continue for a year or more as Junior's behaviors grow more resistant to short-term intervention or even longer-term residential placement.

A child spiraling out-of-control - his parents' and his own - is a frightening thing to witness. The effect of this dysfunction on the family dynamics is usually profound. Siblings are caught in the maelstrom; spouses find themselves fighting over whom to blame; the "identified problem child" is angry and hurt; the single parent is overwhelmed and no one can assess the situation clearly. Significant decisions made in this emotional turmoil are often quickly regretted and second-guessed. The heart and the head are at war.

In an earlier essay, we discussed the emerging role of the family coach as a partner for families of struggling youth, referring professionals and short or long-term therapeutic or emotional growth programs. The above scenario of a family in crisis illustrates a time when a family coach could provide a bridge between all entities.

A coach's first task is to provide a calm, rational voice aimed at counter-acting the shrill drama of the warring household. Some of the calming occurs when the parties find out the coach is not there to assign blame or impose painful solutions for the family's problems. Instead, the coach's first focus is to bring the family to the kitchen table to discuss what each member needs out of their relationships. All family members are heard and respected. By moving verbal interaction from blame and defensiveness to basic agreement on the kind of home each wants to live in, the emotional stakes are lessened.

Our coaches, employing the Next Step For SuccessSM process, utilize the Home Contract to facilitate this shift. This Contract is one of the most effective tools for clarifying a family's values and holding the individuals accountable to those values. The Home Contract clearly describes the family members' behavioral responsibilities and the consequences for non-compliance. Most consequences are spelled out in a general manner, thus allowing for situational flexibility and amendments. One area of the Home Contract is not negotiable; the ultimate consequence for major or repeated violations is an out-of-home placement.

The importance of not placing blame for past conflicts cannot be overstated. Blame only results in defensiveness, guilt or both. Neither is helpful in recognizing logical consequences for one's actions or reaching clear-headed decisions in an emotionally charged atmosphere. By establishing the Home Contract as a foundation for future behaviors and actions, all family members are given the chance to start over with a clean slate.

If the family values are clearly articulated and all members sign the Home Contract, a substantial shift may occur in the perceived family power structure. Parents no longer need to be the unilateral enforcers of arbitrary rules and regulations. They can substitute the logic of the contract for the emotion of their feelings. Both children and parents have clearly defined roles, rights and responsibilities. Children begin to make choices with foreknowledge of the consequences of their actions.

Will a Home Contract preclude the need for outside placement? Sometimes. A lot depends on how long the anti-family behavior has been going on, the severity of the child's emotional and/or psychological problems and the family's skill in applying the terms of the contract, among other factors. The real power of the Home Contract, and the coaching philosophy behind it, is its ability to take much of the raw emotion out of a parent determining what a defiant child needs. The Home Contract empowers both child and parent. Choices become apparent and actions determine consequences.

For the referring professional, having the option of a family coach means that eventual clients do not have to be lost because parents are unable to make the wrenching decision to place their child. Instead, parents are directed back to the professional by the coach when and if the Home Contract experience clearly demonstrates the need for the child to leave the home. These parents will still mourn their child's departure, but they will know they gave the child and themselves the best chance at preserving the in-home family structure.

For the receiving program, the coaching and Home Contract experience results in parents more committed to the program's support and success. The most inhibiting factors in building a strong program/parent partnership are parental guilt and doubt. Guilt-consumed, unsure parents are very vulnerable to the manipulations of children begging for "one more chance."

And speaking of manipulations, an awareness of the family coaching and Home Contract process that preceded placement allows program staff to quickly move the child past the normal denial period of, "I don't know why I am here", and begin reinforcing the lesson of personal responsibility for one's choices.

Next Essay: Coaching The Parent Of The Child In Program.

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