What if She Grows up Like Auntie Agnes?

December 10, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

costumeMany of us have a “black sheep” in the family. Sometimes that person has a mental illness and sometimes not.  It might be someone who caused you or your parents great unhappiness in your childhood.  At any rate, you know someone fairly close to you who caused havoc in your life.  That relative provides a model of what you do not want in your child and a model of what you fear.


When you have just gone through an angry, out-of-control episode with your child, you might think of Auntie Agnes and fear the worst.  You panic.  You might over-react.

Jumping from the Past to the Future

Family history is a burden to many parents.  We start to work on particular behavior problems.  It might seem to be fairly straightforward to me, but I find that the parents are very, very concerned.  This is one reason that it is essential for a psychologist to get a good family history.  When I learn about the relative or parent with bipolar disorder or substance abuse, I can begin to understand why this parent is especially alarmed.

Back to the Present—The Only Place You Can Work for a Better Future

My job at this point is to bring the parent back to the present.  The present might be that this is a ten year old with a brittle disposition who is quick to anger.  Temper tantrums have hung on much longer than usual.  Clearly this is a problem, but it does not predict major mental illness.  I re-orient parents to the problem at hand, a child who needs help managing strong feelings.  I reassure them that we cannot predict the future.  I can further reassure them that they are doing a very good thing for this child by getting help for the family now.  In fact, getting help early makes it less likely that the child will have major problems later.

We know that untreated anxiety and difficulty managing emotions can lead to serious behavior problems, such as rage attacks and substance abuse, later in life.  The young person who learns to understand his emotions and to manage them is much less likely to develop such problems.

Yes, Genetics Count—But So Do Treatment and Good Parenting

Of course, we know that some mental illnesses have a genetic component.  This is true for alcoholism, mood disorders, and anxiety.  But genetics are not the whole story by any means.  Children who learn to manage their feelings and make better decisions will be less likely to become addicted or to be driven to poor choices based on strong emotions. Remember, the frontal cortex (the part of our brain that helps with mature decision-making) does not fully mature until the early twenties.  I have observed a big change decision-making during the college years.

Stay in the Now Where You Can be Effective

So, pull yourself back into the present.  If your child is ten, remember that she is not yet a teenager.  You have time to help her cope better before then.  If your child is fifteen, remember that he is not yet a young adult.  He has time to learn to be less impulsive.  And brain development is on your side.  Try not to focus on the terrible things Auntie Agnes did.  Focus on your child now.


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Photo credit:  Ghostlygavin on Flickr

Helping Your Rigid, Anxious Child with Gift Giving and Receiving

December 5, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

openinggiftsIs gift-giving stressful at your house?  Do you try to find things that your child would like, hoping to surprise her, but then learn that it was not what she had in mind at all?  Gift giving for children who are inflexible in their thinking can be a disappointing exercise in miscommunication.   It takes some careful communication ahead of time to have a happy gift-receiving experience. If you want to surprise you child with a gift, you probably should let go of that.  Children on the spectrum simply don’t do well with surprise.  (I apologize to those who celebrate Hanukkah that I thought of this too late for you.)

Here are some ideas about how to preserve some fun while decreasing the likelihood of a super meltdown upon unwrapping the gift.

  1.  Ask your child to make a list.
  2. Go over the list with her and talk about what is realistic.  Perhaps some of the gifts are out of your price range.  Even if your child  believes in Santa, you could say that Santa won’t be able to pay for that.
  3. Be realistic about how many gifts Santa (or you) will provide.  I once worked with a boy who made a very comprehensive (pages long) list for Santa and was very angry when he didn’t receive everything.  His parents thought that was understood.  The message is, “Leave as little as possible to chance.”
  4. You might need to explain that Santa knows that you won’t allow certain video games in the house.
  5. Perhaps you have thought of something that isn’t on the list, but you are pretty sure that your child would like.  Check it out.  You might say, “Some kids would like the _____.  Do you think that’s a good gift?”  Perhaps your child will see through this, perhaps not.  Even if she does, you can have the conversation, and likely you’ll find out if you just had a bad idea.

The holidays can  trigger a major case of the “gimmes,”  an unattractive focus in your child on what she or he wants.  The best way I know to help with that is to engage your child in giving.  Perhaps you can give your child some money (or he has some money of his own), and you can take him shopping for other family members.  Perhaps you are a crafty family and you can engage your child in making something for family members.  Thinking about what someone else would like to receive is a good exercise in perspective taking.

Lastly, there are other activities around most holidays that children can participate in.  One big one is helping with cooking and baking.  Is there a simple part of the holiday meal that your child can make?  This is a great way to give your child a role that others can honestly appreciate.

I hope that these suggestions can help you and your child enjoy the holidays a little more.


Click here to sign up for my newsletter, Parents’ Corner, and receive my free report, “Living With and Loving Your Disorganized, Impulsive, Forgetful, Yet Delightful, Funny Child.”

Photo credit:  Daniel M. Hendricks on Flickr