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Opinion & Essays - Aug, 1998 Issue #53


By Cliff Johannsen, Ph.D.
Lake Oswego, Oregon 97035
(Copyright 1998 by Clifford A. Johannsen)

(This article inaugurates a series of articles written by a parent who also happens to be a therapist.)

Parents of a struggling teen will usually pause at some point and ask themselves “Is it my fault?” When parental chemical dependency, child abuse and neglect, and mental illness are present, the correct response is sometimes “Yes, I messed up my kids” or “I just couldn’t raise them.” But for a majority of average parents, the answer is inevitably both “yes, I contributed” and “no, I didn’t do anything horribly wrong.”

Many parents turn to “experts” for help answering the question, but that often makes the situation worse. Both parents and experts wish for definite answers (when in fact there are none). For much of the past century, parents have gone to experts asking, “Am I to blame?” and experts have reinforced parental guilt by blaming the parents. They over-simplified human nature and said that if children were struggling, it could inevitably be traced back to the parents’ inadequacies. Parents often wanted answers to the question “What else can I do?” but instead felt “bashed” by the mental health professional. Today, most experts are saying that a parent’s contribution to their child’s problems cannot be teased apart from other factors. 

The Greek legend of Gordius’ knot (the one which could not be unraveled) is a good metaphor for this. In this instance, the Gordian knot contains many strands or factors that influence how a child turns out. Some non-parental strands are genetic: illnesses and injuries during pregnancy; complications of birth; early nutrition; environmental stimulation; the influence of relatives, substitute care providers, teachers, friends, and neighbors; the availability of supervised activities in a community; work opportunities; and drug and alcohol use among relatives and the child’s peers. The parental strands of the knot include whether warmth and affection are expressed toward the child, whether expectations and limits are consistent, whether the home is well supervised; and whether consequences are immediate, relevant, and brief. But the strands form loops of the knot and one can never isolate one of the loops from the rest of the knot. Thus it is impossible to say that a parent’s contribution to their child’s problems has been the primary factor. 

When all those strands of the Gordian knot are summed up, youth can be roughly divided into two groups, (1.) those with average needs and (2.) those with special needs. Average-needs youth are rather tolerant of different parenting styles and the flaws of parents. They will tend to do the right thing most of the time, even if mom or dad is a little off-target. 

Youth with special needs seldom respond positively to average parenting and they are intolerant of parental flaws. Their parents have often done a fine job of raising other, average needs children. But those same parenting techniques will not work for the youth that is their “difficult child.” When the special-needs child’s lifestyle is unstructured, expectations are vague, and consequences are not forthcoming, then they begin having serious problems. What they need most of the time is better-than-average parenting. The tricky parts for parents are (1) recognizing that their child has special needs, (2) knowing what to do with such a child, and (3) overcoming their own natural hesitancy to be “mean” or “controlling.”

Perhaps a better way to state the question “Is it my fault?” might be “Did I recognize my child’s special needs and improve my parenting early enough to make a difference?” Most parents who have a difficult child will not begin providing “super parenting” early in the child’s life. It is more common for parents to persevere with their basic parenting style and hope eventually the child will turn around. Parents may also hope that the child “grows out of it” or that some special person (such as a therapist) will cause the child to behave. When special-needs children become teenagers, parents tend to rely on nagging, whining, and arguing. Then, parents are holding the inaccurate expectation that their child has the capacity to make a self- correction. In reality, special needs youth still need their parents to make the change for them. Parents who failed to use advanced techniques with their special needs youngster might answer the question in this way: “We prolonged our agony while our child was out of control.”

(Dr. Johannsen has worked in the mental health field for 30 years and has been a psychologist for the past 16 years. He currently has a private practice in Oregon’s north Willamette Valley and is the Clinical Director of Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Expeditions. He and his wife Linda have raised 2 daughters, some of it “struggling.”) 

Copyright © 1998, 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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