What if She Grows up Like Auntie Agnes?

costumeMany of us have a “black sheep” in the family. Sometimes that person has a mental illness and sometimes not.  It might be someone who caused you or your parents great unhappiness in your childhood.  At any rate, you know someone fairly close to you who caused havoc in your life.  That relative provides a model of what you do not want in your child and a model of what you fear.

Yikes!

When you have just gone through an angry, out-of-control episode with your child, you might think of Auntie Agnes and fear the worst.  You panic.  You might over-react.

Jumping from the Past to the Future

Family history is a burden to many parents.  We start to work on particular behavior problems.  It might seem to be fairly straightforward to me, but I find that the parents are very, very concerned.  This is one reason that it is essential for a psychologist to get a good family history.  When I learn about the relative or parent with bipolar disorder or substance abuse, I can begin to understand why this parent is especially alarmed.

Back to the Present—The Only Place You Can Work for a Better Future

My job at this point is to bring the parent back to the present.  The present might be that this is a ten year old with a brittle disposition who is quick to anger.  Temper tantrums have hung on much longer than usual.  Clearly this is a problem, but it does not predict major mental illness.  I re-orient parents to the problem at hand, a child who needs help managing strong feelings.  I reassure them that we cannot predict the future.  I can further reassure them that they are doing a very good thing for this child by getting help for the family now.  In fact, getting help early makes it less likely that the child will have major problems later.

We know that untreated anxiety and difficulty managing emotions can lead to serious behavior problems, such as rage attacks and substance abuse, later in life.  The young person who learns to understand his emotions and to manage them is much less likely to develop such problems.

Yes, Genetics Count—But So Do Treatment and Good Parenting

Of course, we know that some mental illnesses have a genetic component.  This is true for alcoholism, mood disorders, and anxiety.  But genetics are not the whole story by any means.  Children who learn to manage their feelings and make better decisions will be less likely to become addicted or to be driven to poor choices based on strong emotions. Remember, the frontal cortex (the part of our brain that helps with mature decision-making) does not fully mature until the early twenties.  I have observed a big change decision-making during the college years.

Stay in the Now Where You Can be Effective

So, pull yourself back into the present.  If your child is ten, remember that she is not yet a teenager.  You have time to help her cope better before then.  If your child is fifteen, remember that he is not yet a young adult.  He has time to learn to be less impulsive.  And brain development is on your side.  Try not to focus on the terrible things Auntie Agnes did.  Focus on your child now.

 

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Photo credit:  Ghostlygavin on Flickr

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