Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ten Things I Don't Know How To Do

As a psychologist working in public schools, I often get frantic referrals from parents or teachers who need help dealing with a child's disruptive or concerning behaviors.  Sometimes, it's a parent of an adolescent who has recently started acting rebellious, running away, using drugs, or having sex.  Or, it can be a teacher of a kindergartner who is disrupting class with extreme behaviors such as sexual acting out, threatening other students, running from class, or throwing uncontrollable tantrums.  Of course, I always want to help with these type of requests.  That's my job.  But, I sure would like to give parents and teachers this short list of disclaimers when I take on their troubled child.

  1. I don't know how to talk your child into behaving properly.  "Can you just talk to them!?"  Well, sure I can talk to them, but my words aren't magic.  A little chit-chat with the psychologist isn't going to change your child's behavior.  Some talk therapy can be quite successful, but only with older children and only after rapport and trust have been established.  I'm not in the business of giving kids a "quick scolding."  (Plus, who needs yet another scolding by an adult?) Therapy takes time and talk is often not the best path to behavior change.
  2. I don't know how to change an adolescent's behavior if they don't WANT to change.  I can't force behavior change on anyone. A child (or adult) has to really be invested in therapy in order for it to work.  I can be quite motivational and encouraging, but in the end, they have to make a decision to try something different.
  3. I don't know how to make major changes in a child's behavior without changing the environment first.  As I alluded to earlier, talk therapy doesn't really work with young children.  The best way to change a child's behavior is to manipulate the variables in the environment that are maintaining that behavior. In layman's terms, parent or teacher, you might have to change YOUR behavior and the way you interact with the child before you see a change in behavior. 
  4. I don't know how to magically fix the problem.  Once in awhile there is a quick solution to behavioral problems, but I find it to be rare.  I really need to gather a lot of data, spend some time with the child, work carefully with caring adults, and try different interventions before something works.  And, even then, it's hard to say what exactly worked!  Sometimes, it's a serendipitous combination of efforts and interventions that finally does the trick. There is no magic wand.
  5. I don't know how to prescribe medications.  Don't be confused.  I'm not a psychiatrist.  I may have "Dr." in my name, but I am not a physician.  I can not walk the halls of the school handing out Ritalin.  Sorry.
  6. I don't know how to tutor your child.  Teachers, please stop asking me to read with Bubba.  I'm much too qualified for that.  When I ask, "How can I help?" I'm not referring to literal help with academics.  (You'd be surprised how often this comes up.)
  7. I don't know how to help if parents aren't involved.  Quite frankly, I might be able to help, but without parent consent, a psychologist can not deliver psychological services to a child.  Teacher/principal, don't expect me to have secret counseling sessions with a child who's parent hasn't consented.  I'm not quite ready to lose my license.  Plus, the most effective work really is done when the parent is on board (see #3).
  8. I don't know how to answer all the "Why's?"  Sometimes, we may never know why a child acts the way they do.  We can spend hours and hours hypothesizing the origin of the problem, but the real help for your child begins when you start focusing on solutions.
  9. I don't know how to work with a child who isn't present.  If your child is constantly truant from school and I can't find them in class, I can't help them.  Surprisingly, I don't do therapy telepathically.
  10. I don't know how to remove scars from the past. On my own, I am powerless to heal your child's past abuses, hurts, abandonments, and traumas. I can help them by giving them tools and a space for healing, but past hurts never completely go away. The good news is that God can provide healing, and I can provide empathy and path toward that healing.
Okay, now, how can I help?

Have you noticed this is my first post in a REALLY long time? I've needed a little writing inspiration lately. My mind has been on hairbows, ruffles, and heartburn instead of thought-provoking writing material. So, once again, I've turned to Mama Kat from Mamma Kat's Losin' It for the perfect writing prompt.  Click on the button below to learn more!
Mama’s Losin’ It


  1. So what do you do again? LOL! So you can't tell me why my 8 yr old over reacts to everything. God or Bad. Like it's either the best day of his life or the worst day of his life. And when he gets in the slightest bit of trouble everyone hates him and life is not worth living. And if he makes anything less than perfection he loses his mind and mine goes with him!? Okay, nevermind.

    1. Haha!
      Well, it does sound like there is some options for your little guy! He sounds like a perfectionist - which is a trait often driven by anxiety. And, there is definitely hope for little ones who have somehow learned that "happiness" is dependent on their performance/ability. Try being very intentional in praising his efforts and even his failures (say something like, "I know you didn't get that quite right, but I'm so proud at how hard you worked! You kept trying and trying!")

  2. This is great. I followed your post from Mama Kat's and appreciate your psychological point of view on not having quick answers to parenting issues. As if there ever were any quick answers to anything! Yet we all still look for them, don't we?

  3. I love this list! So articulate and non combative and I think a lot of parents could use the reminders. So glad you come to me when you're at a loss for new post ideas!! :) Thank you!


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