When Pamela Lick’s adult daughters were small, strangers would comment on how polite and well-behaved they were.
She has not had the same experience with her sons: Justin, 14, Jacob, 10 and Javon, 7. Justin alone was sent home from school several times a week last year for fighting, the DeKalb mother of five said. Lick knew her boys were not bad kids, but they clearly needed something to stop their bad behavior. After several people, including her therapist, suggested a parenting class, she reluctantly agreed.
“I thought I didn’t need a parenting class. I’m a good parent,” she said. “I thought it was enough to love your kids and do your best. But it’s not always enough.”
The adolescent years can be trying for any parent, but some children are simply more difficult to raise than others, DeKalb County court services juvenile supervisor Alice Elliott said. They require a different skill set than one that may have worked even for older siblings.
“There is never any doubt parents who have troubled kids absolutely love their children and want the best for them, even with all the turmoil and conflict,” Elliott said. “They just don’t know how to stop the insanity and communicate.”
When Ashley Gable of Genoa was about 10 years old, her mother, Dee, noticed her becoming sassier and more difficult to deal with. By the time Ashley was nearing her 15th birthday, she had begun getting into trouble and running away from home, and her 10-year-old brother, Alan, was also getting cheeky, Dee Gable said.
“I wanted my daughter back. I felt like I was losing her, and like I was in danger of having another kid giving me a hard time,” Gable said. “I never felt like I was a bad parent, but I knew in my heart I had to do something to understand why she was doing what she was doing.”
In a six-week parenting class at Ben Gordon Center, Gable and her husband, Gary, learned how to talk to their children without yelling and how to set boundaries the kids would respect. Among other things, the children had never had assigned chores before, Dee Gable said, and there were no clearly defined household rules or punishments.
But children of overly permissive parents are not the only ones who act out, said Ahna Holzinger-Young, youth and family crisis intervention therapist at the DeKalb County Youth Service Bureau. Parents who are overly strict and don’t give their children enough trust and independence are also likely to have their hands full.
A healthy relationship comes from finding a balance in the middle, Young said. Parents need to set and enforce rules and consequences, but also be able to talk to and laugh with their children.
Though the Gable home has been calmer since Dee and Gary began implementing the tools they learned, the road is not always easy. There are still conflicts, but there are also rewards for positive behavior. The family designates one night a week family night, when all four sit down to play cards or a board game together, even if it’s only for an hour.
“I feel like I’m on my way back into her life now and into her trust. She didn’t trust me, and that was my own fault,” Dee Gable said. “I blamed her. I thought, ‘Why is she such a rebel?’ I tried to scare her. ... I would scream everything, and kids don’t hear you when you’re yelling.”
Often, parents of difficult children want to excuse their child’s behavior or ask a therapist to “fix” him, said Shannon Underwood, a psychotherapist at Ben Gordon Center who specializes in children. By talking to experts or taking a parenting class, parents can learn tools to make the entire family happier, she said.
“The child may have been bullied when they were small,” Elliott said. “They may have attention deficit disorder. They have a single parent. They may have been abused. All of those things may be true and they all require special care, but none of those things are an excuse for unruly behavior.”
Children act out for a lot of reasons, including to get attention, even negative attention, from their parents, Young said. Parents can help to break that cycle by recognizing the positive things their children do instead of always focusing on the negative, she said.
When the parent-child relationship is already strained, parents are often afraid to set and enforce new rules because they don’t want to push their child even farther away, DeKalb County juvenile program coordinator Bobbi Gillott said.
Both the Gables and Lick were surprised to find techniques they had always scoffed at before – like drawing up a family contract or using humor to defuse family tension – actually worked when they tried them. Lick said her children seem happier and more relaxed since the contract was put in place, because they know now specifically what the rules are what they can expect if they break them.
“The biggest thing for me was teaching them if they do something, they’ll suffer the consequences. They have a choice,” Gary Gable said. “That’s something they have to learn, and now we know how to teach them that.”
For More Help
Ben Gordon Center offers a program titled "Parenting with Love and Limits" for parents and caregivers of "out of control" teenagers. Children ages 11-18 are considered out of control by the program if they exhibit persistent lying, chronic truancy, physical aggression, stealing, running away, destruction of property, extreme disrespect or threats of violence or suicide. The class meets weekly on Tuesday nights for six weeks.
The center also offers individual and family therapy.
For more information, call 815-756-4875.
The DeKalb County Youth Service Bureau offers several programs, including Active Parenting of Teens and youth and family counseling. Counseling sessions to help build the relationship between children and parents are offered on a sliding fee scale, and parents can attend on their own if their children won't participate.
For more information, call 815-748-2010.