Strengthening Families Living with a Troubled Child
A troubled child can tear at the fabric of a family, but these tips will help make that family stronger and more understanding.
Families living with the proverbial “black hole” child start coping in unhealthy ways. Everyone alters their normal behavior to avoid stress or anxiety, but these behavioral changes make things worse. It’s unintentional, but parents, siblings, friends, and extended family act out psychological roles, and the dynamics are harmful. This is the "dysfunctional family," and these are some common roles:
* Protector: the emotional caregiver who defends the child regardless.
* Rulemaker: wants Protector to stop enabling the child, and set boundaries.
* Helper: smooths over conflict, and sacrifices for others.
* Loner: stays under the radar for safety to avoid stress.
* Victim: hurts, sometimes hiding depression or addiction, running away (mentally or physically), or acting out.
* Fixer: has all the answers and persists in telling others what to do.
* Black Hole Child: devours everyone’s energy but is trapped in their drama. For psychological reasons, they learn to manipulate; turn family members against each other; or uses their disorder as an excuse. Insecure, they act out to test if those they depend on still care.
If this is your family, it’s not your fault. Forgive yourselves. Families living with an alcoholic or addict behave similarly. There are specialized treatments for these families that may help your family, but the path is difficult. The family must work as a team.
For a child to be well, each person around the child must be well.
Hold a stress relief meeting.
Meet together without the "black hole" child present... now is not the time to include him or her. Meetings should be held with a family therapist or support group to keep things safe. The troubled child must never be demonized! Everyone's fears should be brought into the open—kindly. Each member vents their feelings without attacking others. Now brace yourself. You may hear upsetting things, but once feelings are in the open, people genuinely feel better.
Venting is healing.
It may only take one hour, but clearing the air helps people move on. They start to forgive, make personal changes, and trust each other. Parents and caregivers, as the leaders, tell your family supportive things like: “We’ve got your back;” “We’ll chip in if you need a break;” “We can handle it.”
Hold a check-in meeting.
Some weeks later, ask how everyone is doing? What is working well and what isn’t? Brainstorm solutions.
Hold family meetings as needed.
Eventually the troubled child's unique needs must be woven in. Since this is extremely tricky, work with a family therapist.
As family teamwork improves, the child’s behavior gets worse, but this is actually a good sign! Plan ahead for a major storm. Visualize standing shoulder-to-shoulder to keep everyone safe. Hang on together. The child may blow-up multiple times, but these end eventually. This article explains why, plus how to manage when a troubled child faces loss of power.
The child stabilizes and behavior improves. They are surrounded by a caring but firm team that locks arms and can’t be shaken by chaos. Surprisingly, this genuinely helps the child feel secure.
How it might unfold:
* Protector: steps back; and accepts Rulemaker’s opinions about rules and structure
* Rulemaker: steps in to help Protector as needed and gives them a break. Rulemaker and Protector work out only two or three important rules which are fair and easily enforced.
* Helper: accepts they are not responsible for everyone, and is redirected to friends and activities that renew them.
* Loner and Victim: need quality time for their starved emotions. Both might need psychotherapy.
* Fixer: withholds judgement and lectures, and accepts there are no simple answers. Their experience does not necessarily apply to this family. They ask how to help.
Helping a troubled child means helping the family first, and family teams are the best way. As each member strives for a healthier role, each gets support from other family members which cheer each other on, “Atta girl!”, “You rock!”, “Go Mom!” Teamwork creates therapeutic homes and strong families. Research proves that strong families lead to better lifetime outcomes for the child.
Margaret Puckette is a compassionate and experienced coach for parents of a child, teen, or young adult with a serious behavioral problem or addiction. She draws on years of personal experience as a parent, social worker, and support group leader. Her book and blog of the same title, “Raising troubled Kids,” offer practical and sound information on how to reduce stress at home, help a troubled child, and holistically improve family wellbeing. www.raisingtroubledkids.com.