Some time ago, I met with a couple who was concerned about their son. The boy, Andrew, was, at 9, the oldest of four children. There was a sister, 6, and twins, 3. The sister, Emily, was described as “happy-go-lucky, pleasant, easy to please” and the twins, Michael and James, due to several developmental problems, required many therapies both in and out of the house. Dad had a full time job, while mom worked part time in a health service field.
So, what was going on with Andrew?
Well, at one point an eager and avid student, he was now seemingly uninterested—not paying attention in class, resisting both daily and long term assignments and no longer participating in class discussion. At home, the once respectful and helpful young man had become belligerent to the point of not only yelling at, but cursing his mother and had even, on several occasions, reached out to strike her. He had begun defecating in his pants, causing what had already become troubled peer relationships to deteriorate even further—to the point, in fact, that none of those in his previous substantial circle of friends wanted to be with him. And, in addition to all of this, he had become a chronic liar, lying to both teachers and parents in regard to homework, chores, behaviors, etc.
What, his parents wanted to know, had caused these changes in their previously sweet boy and what could be done to get that Andrew back?
Well, to begin with, Andrew was exhibiting what is commonly called “acting out” behaviors. The term acting out is really only a half-statement. The complete statement is “acting out his feelings.” In other words, when people cannot verbalize what they are feeling, the feelings, still being very present and requiring expression, are acted out instead of being stated. And the guide is, “every action is saying something—what is it saying?” It certainly appeared that Andrew was saying he was very angry, probably feeling neglected, somewhat worthless and despairing.
The neglected and at least part of the anger piece was almost to be expected. There were great demands put on both his parents’ time and energy in tending to the twins’ needs, but particularly his mom. Primarily responsible for the arrangements for all their therapies and for most of the special attention their needs required at home (and this in addition to her job outside the home), she was an exhausted, physically and emotionally depleted parent.
However, the most crucial element in Andrew’s “deterioration” was the dynamic between him and his father. Andrew’s dad, Mr. L., was an emotionally distant man, rarely expressing—either verbally or physically—affection or warmth. But more significantly, he was demanding and very difficult to please. Andrew, a fairly good athlete who had loved baseball and always enjoyed playing with his friends, had joined a Little League team. Mr. L. did not see this as a fun, learning experience building up baseball playing skills, teamwork and fair play, but as something highly competitive. Thus, Andrew faced every game with dread, knowing that afterward he would receive a lecture from his dad about everything he did wrong and extensive details on how he should have played.
Every now and then, dad, who really didn’t spend much one-on-one time with Andrew, would invite his son into the backyard for some “catch.” At first enthusiastic to be invited for “man-to-man” time, these experiences also became painful for Andrew, as his father critiqued every throw, every catch, with speeches on what Andrew had done wrong and explanations on how to do things right.
Once, being unable to attend a school performance due to work considerations, Mr. L. went out of his way to attend the rehearsal early in the morning. It sounded great. Except, on his way to work, he called his wife to give her detailed instructions on what to tell both Andrew and Emily in order to correct all the things they had done “wrong” so that they could do them “right” for the performance.
Mr. L. took the very same tack with Andrew in regard to school work. Whatever grade Andrew got that was less than an A or 100 led to a lecture on having to do better and questioning why he wasn’t doing his best.
In fact, this was Mr. L.’s explanation for all of his actions and interactions: “I only want him to do his best.” Well, I had several reactions to that statement, but the first is: “How does one know what his son’s ‘best’ is?” Who says Andrew’s best is 100? Maybe, just maybe, Andrew’s best is 87 or 75, even, perish the thought, 68. It’s totally unfair to demand 100 of him. Maybe Andrew’s best is getting up at bat and trying really hard, concentrating and applying all the technique he knows, but never hitting the ball.
I’m reminded of an experience I had once as camp director at a resort hotel. Having only eight days of camp to prepare a performance, the staff did a yeoman’s job preparing each group’s part. One of the younger groups got up and, while the rest of her group sang and danced, one little girl stood, terrified, with her hands at her side, staring out at the audience. When the group got down from the stage, this little girl’s mom ran to her, put her arms around her, kissed her and exclaimed, “You were wonderful; you were terrific; I loved seeing you up there.” And the truth was that this little girl was “the best she could be.” She was so scared to be up there, but she withstood it and held out. And her mother understood. And, because her mother understood and supported her and loved her for what she could do instead of criticizing her for what she couldn’t and didn’t do, she was given the courage to try again.
What children need to know is that their parents love them for themselves—not for hitting home runs or getting 100’s or singing the best in the performance. Because if that’s what they are loved for, then it stands to reason that if they don’t reach those highs, then they are not loved. Children also need to know that they are appreciated for trying, even if they don’t achieve whatever goal the parent has set up for them—or they for themselves.
One more story: I was part of a child study team evaluating a young man who was a senior in high school. At the Planning Meeting, his parents spoke most fondly and lovingly of him and described how he put great time and effort into his school work. His father described his son’s particular love of and interest in history, reporting that the senior trip that year was to Greece and that if his son earned a certain average, he would be allowed to go on the trip.
Working with him, I was very impressed. Particularly courteous, well-groomed and earnest, he worked very hard during the evaluation. A similar experience was reported by the Learning Consultant. When we conferred over our results, we both said how we wished he would be allowed to go on the trip regardless of his GPA because of his determination to work hard and do his best, even though his best may not reach the standard his father wished for and had pre-determined.
When we re-convened for the Final Meeting, we expressed our impressions of the boy— what a fine boy, how hard he worked and the effort he was willing to expend. We had also discovered that he had some legitimate learning disabilities and that the grades he achieved had to be earned with much more effort than another student who did not have to negotiate those hurdles. We offered our opinions that this boy should be allowed to go on the trip as he was working to his capacity and because it would be so appreciated. It was wonderful to learn that his mom and dad had decided their son had earned the trip after all.
The bottom line is: Children need to know that their parents love them; that they enjoy spending time with them; that they bring them joy, and that they need to be rewarded for efforts made.
Andrew was being deprived of validating, satisfying attention. Because baby brothers had to have more than what would normally be their share, he was frequently asked why he couldn’t be happy and easy like his sister. In addition, all his efforts were criticized and he was told they (meaning he, in effect) weren’t good enough. This boy was failing to live up to expectations that had nothing to do with him or his abilities, but, instead, his father’s fantasy of what his son could and should be capable of, a “superboy.” How does one have the will to keep trying when he knows in advance that he will never make it? Why does one want to participate when he knows in advance that however he does, he will be criticized and told he should have done better? How does it feel to get into bed at night knowing you are a disappointment to your father? The behavior that Andrew was exhibiting in dirtying his underwear was expressing how he felt about himself and the world he lived in.
Children need to be supported and encouraged. They need to be rewarded for their efforts and given help when it’s needed and/or requested. They need to have fun and have activities where there are no grades, no scores, just the pleasure gained from the doing. And, again, they need to feel secure in knowing they are loved…just because.
(Names and family description have been changed for confidentiality).
By Nancy Silberman Zwiebach