By Dr. Nathaniel Strenger
The sparkly days of last June gradually dissolved into the dog days of summer. By August you counted down until the day you could once again hand off your little Bundle(s)-of-Joy so he or she could be someone else’s problem for 6 hours a day. Though for many of you, lofty expectations of academic elegance will soon be dashed by a single word.
The very syllables make you shudder, and they likely do the same to your Bundle(s)-of-Joy. With them come images of self-inflicted hair pulling and hand-to-forehead exasperations.
I am not about to solve all your problems. I am not a psychologist who devalues tribulation so much that I believe it must (or even can) be obliterated entirely. But I do work a lot with children and families, and I have found that what is often most helpful is imagination. When parents open themselvesto the possibilities of what might be going on when the little Bundle of Joy acts up, they are better equipped to handle the trials effectively. So, to that end, let us review some common scenarios and get imaginative. For each we can review first what me might automatically assume is going on and then stop ourselves to imagine other possibilities.
Scenario One: Whenever you check in on Bundle-of-Joy, the Legos are out instead of the math.
What you might think: Either she thinks she can outsmart me or she has some undiagnosed ADHD.
Of course I do not intend to belittle benefits that therapeutic interventions can lend to bona fide cases of ADHD. But, very often, behaviors commonly associated with ADHD are instead the byproduct of a child’s efforts to shore up a sense of self-confidence. Your Bundle-of-Joy may feel anxious, stressed, or insufficient to handle math, but knows that she feels a lot better about her own skills with a box of Legos. Her constantly drifting back to the toys may be an attempt to recharge her confidence. If this is the case, maybe you give a designated Lego break and be sure to praise her creations. Then help her to generalize her skills back to the math homework (e.g., “Wow! You truly impress me with your Lego creations. In five minutes it is going to be time to use that brain of yours to practice getting better at math.”)
Scenario Two: Bundle-of-Joy has a loud case of “I can’t!”
What you might think: If he thinks he can out last me in a shouting match…
Increased volume is not always some calculated attempt to out-will you as a parent. Often it is instead the emotional spillover of thoughts and feelings the child does not yet know how to handle. Homework is hard, in no small part because it challenges your child’s mind to think in new ways. In these scenarios, raising the parental volume will only dysregulate a child further. Instead, calm empathy and hopeful speech are helpful tools. You might reflect, “Oh, I can understand how angry you’d feel if you thought you were incapable of doing this. No wonder you don’t want to. But here’s what I think. You feel like you can’t. You can’t…yet. Doing the hard practice will get you there. And even though you are angry, you are going to do it tonight. So what do we need to do to calm down?”
Scenario Three: The 30-minute, after-school X-Box® break lasts until midnight.
What you might think: Oh great. I have a COD addict for a child.
If you are honest with yourself, you probably wanted to play whatever the cultural equivalent of X-Box® was instead of complete your homework too. And—hopefully—you didn’t develop an addiction. In this scenario structure is helpful, and the keys to developing structure are consistency and predictability. Many families will set boundaries around the video games, allowing them as a de-stressor onlyafter homework is finished. If you are limiting the time spent in front of the screens, “forecasting” can be a nice strategy (e.g., “Ok, in 20 minutes it will be time to shut the X-Box® off…Ok in 5 minutes it will be time to shut it off…Alright, time to shut if off. If you can shut if off now without me asking again you are choosing to have the same amount of time tomorrow.”
So there you have it; a little exercise in imaginative parenting. Stay strong and dig deep; you are only nine months away from another sparkly June.
Nathaniel Strenger, Psy.D. is the postdoctoral fellow in
psychology at the Pastoral Counseling Center in Dallas, Texas. As a provisionally licensed psychologist,
under supervision, he provides psychotherapy, psychological evaluation, therapeutic
supervision, and educational training for parents and professionals alike. He is particularly interested in
psychodynamic theories of development and their impact on the therapeutic
process, work with struggling young males, and the integration of spirituality
in psychological conversations. He holds
a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Fuller Graduate School of
Psychology and a master’s degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary,
both in Pasadena, California.
 Gnaulati, E. (2013). Back to normal: Why ordinary childhood behavior is mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Boston: Beacon Press.
 Siegel, D., & Bryson, T. (2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Bantam Books.