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The Acting Parent: Disciplining the Child Who is Not Yours

Matthew moved in with me when he was 6 years old, just as he was entering into first grade. I knew that he had some behavioral issues before he moved in, but he’d always been very good with me for the 4 years that I’d know him prior to our new relationship.

So as you can imagine, it was quite a shock to find myself in a new role that required new actions that neither of us was particularly comfortable with. Frankly, he was a bit of a terror. I read all kinds of books about strong willed children, what they needed, what I needed to do for him and the like. I wanted the experience to be positive, and I showered him with tons of attention, partly because I loved him, and partly because I thought that’s what he needed.

All the books said to set the ground rules and be firm. Yeah, ok.  The more rules I set, the more rules he defied. I created reward charts and bought a sickening amount of stickers.  I praised, I timed-out. I used TV programs, bought him cool books that I thought he’d like. I found movies that would teach him important “lessons” that we could talk about later. One book had a clear method for spanking, which was not likely in my thinking. But no matter what I did or what the school did, Matthew’s behavior was completely out of control. He hurt himself, damaged property, and threatened other children.  I was so new to the parenting experience, and so amazingly unprepared for the challenges Matthew sent my way, I really didn’t know how to get him to a better place. He resisted everything and was totally oppositional. It was exhausting. Despite all of the behavior problems at home and at school, Matthew got straight A’s in school. None of it made sense to me.

I continued reading everything I could find, and lucked out with a great first grade teacher who actually cared about the little holy terror I sent to her classroom five days a week. I still regard her as a saint. Really, I do.

Matthew’s first grade teacher recognized what I was too new to know. Matthew clearly had some psychological issues that were beyond my expertise or what she could do for him in her 20-student classroom. We agreed to get a psychological evaluation, which the school would pay for (schools are now required by law to provide psychological and psychiatric support for their students). Matthew’s biological parents were very familiar with these behavioral issues, and I think his behavior was part of the reason why he moved from house to house. He was difficult to deal with.  Very difficult.

The biological parents and I expected something like ADHD, but much to our surprise (and dismay), Matthew was initially diagnosed with a mood disorder (bipolar). The diagnosis was quite a shock. Matthew was moved to the resource room for half days. One of the best advantages to the resource room was that it provided for more individualized attention due to fewer students in the room at any given time (usually no more than 5-6).  His behavior at school improved almost immediately. We also worked together on a behavior plan that instituted the same rules at home and at school (and with babysitters, at church, at daycare, and everywhere else he went). We used rewards that truly meant something to Matthew, like volunteering at an animal shelter and one-on-one activities that he really enjoyed. One of the things Matthew most needed was attention. He did not have to earn positive attention, per se. In fact, I came to realize that he needed positive attention all the time’; he needed regular, heavy doses of praise for everything he did right. That was a big key to changing his behavior.

Although Matthew’s behavior mimicked symptoms similar to ADHD and bipolar disorder, it turned out that he had neither. Over time, he progressed very well, and the symptoms he originally presented are rarely, if ever, present these days. He’s still strong-willed, but now he accepts more guidance. He still wants to do things his own way, but after a while (and a few lost bets), he’s learned that I am usually right about the things I insist I’m right about. He trusts me more now, which is great. But what’s even greater is that I can trust him more now too.

One of the things I learned is that Matthew did have an elevated anxiety level. He’s never received psychotropic and anti-anxiety medication, although he did receive Omega 3’s, which is wonderful for just about everyone. If you do have a child who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I highly recommend the book, The Bipolar Child. What we did for Matthew was institute a series of actions that he can take when he gets frustrated, worried, concerned, mad or sad or just feels like he has no control (different than being out of control)… he does some of the following:

  • Breathes in and out deeply 10 times
  • Counts to 10 very slowly
  • Asks to talk to someone (me, or a designated person at the school) about what he’s feeling
  • Goes for a walk outside, usually around the house once or twice
  • Writes down his feelings, and then, if he chooses, comes to talk with me (or another designated person) about what he’s written
  • Takes a self-initiated time-out by going to his room to cool down
  • The above techniques have helped Matthew gain control of his emotions. His behavior has improved so much that the activities that used to be considered rewards are now a part of our regular routine.

Some things I learned along the way:

  • Praise. I can hardly describe how important praise is for children. They yearn for your approval, and so the more things you can find “right” about their behavior, the better off you’ll both be. Believe me when I say we had some truly dark hours, but in the end, I believe that praise was by and far the best reward I ever gave Matthew. In fact, one counselor suggested a technique called “attending and ignoring”. Attend (praise) positive behaviors, and ignore unacceptable (but not unsafe) behaviors. This technique worked WONDERS for Matthew.
     
  • One of my biggest concerns was Matthew’s self-confidence and self-worth. He had very low self-esteem when he came to live with me, and poor self-views are difficult to change if they go on for too long. I found that it was very important to enroll him in activities that he did not have to “earn” as rewards. Instead, I believe that there were other important lessons to learn in life besides good behavior. Before I signed him up for the activities, we talked about things like “commitment,” “teamwork” and “dedication”.
     
  • Keep the rules consistent everywhere. Matthew had the silly notion that the rules should be different with every adult in his life. I didn’t agree. The school and I identified specific problematic behaviors, and created a behavior plan based on those. I wrote out a summary of those behaviors, including a list of rewards and consequences. I explained the rules to Matthew, and then promptly gave copies to everyone who would be in charge of him. At first, he hated it and even once exclaimed, “Does EVERYONE have to know?!?!” I calmly said, “Yes, everyone has to know that our rules are the same everywhere you go.” Between you and me, I did NOT give these rules to his grandparents. I do believe every child needs to be spoiled a little, somewhere along the way. However, I did NOT let his biological parents off the hook. In fact, I had Matthew explain the rules to his parents, along with his consequences and rewards. He always got excited when he got to the “rewards” part.
     
  • Watch “nanny” shows on TV. These programs give an incredible amount of ideas for how to handle a variety of behavior issues at a variety of ages. At first I was reluctant to have Matthew watch them with me, which I later deemed ridiculous. When he watched them with me, it gave us a lot to talk about during and after the show. More importantly, these shows gave Matthew insight into how he might have looked when he did similar things, and there also seemed to be epiphany moments where he would understand why what he was doing wasn’t acceptable. Even if your child doesn’t “get it”, you can glean many wonderful techniques from these shows. Break out the popcorn and watch them regularly!
     
  • Mean what you say and say what you mean. Follow through on rewards and consequences the first time, every time. Do not, under any circumstances, make idle threats. I count to 3 when I want Matthew to do something and he’s resisting. If I get to three, he goes to timeout - every time. The last 3 times he went to timeout was 2 weeks ago, 3 months ago, and 6 months ago.  We’ve come a long way, baby! I promise, your consistency is the only thing that will ensure that it will get better! Stick with the program and understand that your child needs those boundaries, will actually thrive when you stick to your word. That’s how you create a safe world for them, and instinctively, they understand this. Don’t worry about them fighting you on it, that’s natural. They will still appreciate it in the end.
     
  • Demand respect and be respectful. If you allow them to walk all over you, or talk to you in a disrespectful way, then you are sleeping on the job. They need to know that respect is not optional, it’s a requirement. Likewise, kids do not need to be humiliated in order to learn, but they do learn respect when they are treated with respect. Keep your cool, and keep a straight face. You’ll need them both.
     
  • Participate in activities with your child. I coached one of Matthew’s sports. I decided to get involved this way because Matthew was clearly having issues with his peers. He didn’t fit in, and that hurt him very much. It hurt me to watch. Sometimes Matthew would act out because he didn’t want to be humiliated by his peers, and that was heartbreaking. By having me in a leadership position for an activity, I was able to create opportunities for him to have healthy interactions with his peers. Near the end of the season, we had a team party at our house, which just delighted Matthew in a HUGE way. HIS friends were coming to HIS house! It really helped! I still participate in other ways at his school, like volunteering for career day, or coming in to help with class parties. I still bring treats in for his class every year for his birthday.  The more involved you are in activities, the more focused the child becomes in those activities as opposed to the unwanted behavior that you don’t want. Don’t lay all the work on the child. Get involved in his or her life, and you will see that it will pay off in dividends!
     
  • Giggle sessions. I figured out what makes Matthew giggle, and try to find ways to work it in all the time. It’s fun, and it breaks up the monotony of constantly focusing on behavior issues. It’s important for you to find ways to bond with your child and have fun with your child. You’ll both get a lot out of it. Don’t be shy, giggle at silly things, make appropriate jokes where you can and tickle till they tell you to stop. Kids are great. Enjoy them every chance you get!

In the scheme of things, I think I have found that disciplining a child is disciplining a child, regardless of who he was born to or related to. It did take a while to figure out how to reach Matthew and bring his behaviors into acceptable levels of natural, developmentally appropriate levels of seeking independence (which children will constantly challenge you on because this is a natural part of development). I remember going to a parent class at our church and being shocked to find out how many “most terrible mothers of the year” were there with the same issues of “too tight clothing” and kids demanding later bedtimes, wanting to watch inappropriate TV shows for their age, and a host of other (as it turns out) very natural complaints. Whew! That was a real eye-opener for me.

If your child does have exceptional behavioral or emotional issues, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I looked high and low, asked for advice regularly, and considered lots of options. My parents didn’t have the internet when they raised me, but it’s here and since so many people are willing to share their experiences, take what you can from them. I strongly recommend that you first contact your child’s school to discuss ways to get on the same page. Most schools are very willing to work with parents who are willing to do their part. Don’t expect them to do all the work, though, because they can’t. Ask for resources in every area that pertains to your situation. They will be thrilled to help you help a child.

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Standing in place of the parent, or acting parent, or "in loco parentis" is a big job that comes with a unique set challenges. I created this blog to share my story and my experiences with those who find themselves in a similiar situation. I look forward to hearing your comments!

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