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Problem Child: A Solution Bill Knell

Several years ago I watched a movie called Problem Child. The film was a comedy about adoptive parents who bring a Charles Manson-like kid into their home. The young boy's Hero is a serial killer and the kid lives up to the motto, "Don't get mad, get even!" It was a comedic version of the Bad Seed film made years before. But unlike the Bad Seed film, this movie featured a boy who could be redeemed. He had problems, but unlike the young girl in the Bad Seed, wasn't some sort of Ted Bundy-like sociopath lacking the conscience to make rational decisions.

Problem Child was a sort of laugh therapy for anyone with children. We've all been through times with our kids when we've been certain they had been implanted in our family by evil space aliens. But I doubt the film was very amusing to those who really do have problem children. For many parents, life is a daily struggle between themselves and their kids. And the problem seems to be growing both in size and severity. Children are not just misbehaving, but committing very adult crimes. In the last few years we have seen more then a few thirteen and fourteen year olds charged with murder. Kids kill other kids for the fun of it. Teens that aren't allowed to stay out late shoot their parents. Young adults bring guns to school for revenge against teachers and other students. What can be done?

In some cases the answer is as plain as the nose on your face. People have kids, ignore them, let them run wild, shift them from person to person and then are shocked when they lash out and do something really crazy. I recently saw two good examples of this on the news. I live in Phoenix where a five year was found wondering the parking lot of a mall at ten o'clock at night by himself. His home was less then a mile away, but his parent was an alcoholic who often passed out and took no preventative measures to keep her young child fro wandering out the door. Having gone without two meals that day, the child went to a place where he knew food was available. Would anyone be surprised if this child ended up with serious psychological problems?

In another case, a Gilbert, Arizona, Teenager was arrested for plotting a Columbine-style massacre at Gilbert High School. Notes were found indicating a plot to kill teachers and students. The teen had been involved and obsessed with the gothic lifestyle. Her mother often left her with Grandparents. It was obvious that this girl didn't have much of a home life. And that's the key. It's the dreaded, "I've had children, now I actually have to do more work by raising them," scenario. But before I get into dumping on imperfect parents, let's assume that none of us are perfect and most of us have less then ideal situations for raising kids. Under those circumstances, there are still some things that can be done to help out children make it to adulthood without a rap sheet or too many bumps in the road.

Most bad behaviors that children exhibit are in response to their situation. Kids are understanding, but don't understand. A ten year old will say to a friend who wants to come over and play, "I have to stay in by myself until my parents get home and nobody can come over." Personally, I would never leave a ten year old by themselves, but I don't want this to turn into a morality lesson. People sometimes do what they have to do. That ten year old understands the rules, but is going to replace time spent with friends or parents with something else. It might be time online with a stranger who wants to abduct them or time spent with a friendly neighbor who offers to baby sit and wants to molest them. If you don't spend time with your children, someone or something else will.

All children want attention. It's more then just desire, it's hardwired into their brain. They require role models to learn from. They want to watch you, talk with you and understand the things that you do so they can copy your behavior. It's how they become who they are. If a child's role model becomes the TV set, you might have a problem. I limit the number of wild or violent children's programs my kids watch so that they don't end up bouncing off the walls. I don't eliminate those types of programs altogether, because the idea isn't to try and shield your kids from life, it's to teach them how to live it. But bad behavior isn't always the result of too much television or clueless parents.

Unacceptable behavior in children sometimes has little or nothing to do with parents. It can be the result of a number of complicated issues that are out of everyone's control. A few years ago I was an in-studio guest on a radio station in Pennsylvania for the purpose of promoting one of my seminars. The radio personalities encouraged people to phone in their questions, but one young Caller really upset them. During a commercial break, they told me that a young boy, probably ten or eleven years old, called their station every morning to taunt them. He would say disturbing things and sometimes use foul language. This is not a unique situation and the cause may be frustration.

Frustration is a powerful force in children. It's the only outlet they have for situations they feel powerless to control. The child who is frustrated will re-direct that frustration into negative behavior against perceived enemies. A child who is bored because they lack the intelligential stimulation needed for their individual level of intelligence will lash out by exhibiting creative, but also delinquent behavior. The kid who calls a radio station to taunt people does so to get attention and show that he or she can exercise their own kind of power over adults. The child who has become the object of bullying, discrimination or taunting at school may strike back by planning to attack or even kill what they perceive as enemies.

Most children experience three types of frustration, mild, severe and dangerous. Mild frustration is a step above annoyance and can be seen in a child when they refuse to obey or rebel against authority of any kind. Severe frustration is usually the next step up from mild and involves physical violence. In a such a state, a child may hit their parents, a teacher or simply shut down and refuse to do anything regardless of the consequences. Dangerous frustration involves a kid who has become so frustrated that they feel only a desperate act will end their pain. Many children who are dangerously frustrated got there without the other two steps. Under constant pressure from all directions, they simply decide to strike back. Remember, most adolescents and teens don't look at adults as people who can or would help them. They are unlikely to call a help line or ask anyone at home or school for assistance.

There are several ways that parents can fight frustration in their children:

1. Understand your child's mental state. If a child seems moody, try and find out what's bothering them. Ask about their day at school. Keep track of their activities and reinforce the fact that you are able to help them with problems they might think are beyond your expertise or grasp. When you discover a problem in their life, try your best to solve it.

2. Don't antagonize your child. We see it all the time. Parents under pressure or with their own set of issues say NO to kids just for the sake of saying NO. And they say it with undue severity. If you get a rise or some authoritarian high out of bossing your kids around, it might be a good idea to place them in foster care and buy some dogs. Then you're only problems with be with the animal rights folks.

3. Don't be the cause of their frustration. Parents involved in constant on-going conflicts like a divorce, remarriage or custody arguments create a lot of problems for their kids. If your plan is get back or revenge, the biggest victims are likely to be your children.

4. Follow Through with Behavior Correction. If you say they'll get time out, make sure they do. Always follow through.


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