What kind of a parent would you consider yourself to be? Are you a good parent, firm parent, or somewhere in the middle? For many parents they would quickly identify themselves as a parent somewhere in the middle. But in some cases the reality that parents lack appropriate skills to cope with their child’s behavioral and mental health problems is real. This article will discuss the challenges often faced by parents raising children with mental and behavioral problems and why many of them often fall into the trap of perpetrating physical, emotional, and psychological abuse.
As a child and adolescent therapist, I have worked with multiple families who are wonderful. But I have also had the unfortunate experience of working with parents who are very impulsive, inattentive, disengaged, immature, and detached from their kids. To make matters worse, some of these parents also struggled with their own mental and behavioral health diagnoses. For example, one case I had involved a 6-year-old child diagnosed with ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, and bipolar disorder NOS, while his father struggled with adult ADD, was oppositional, and previously in a long-term inpatient unit as a child. His relationship with his son was characterized by frequent verbal and physical aggression including opposition. The family composition was also a contributing factor as the father lived with his step-father’s mother and her husband. The stress level in that home was maxed out.
It’s difficult discussing child abuse because many of us would rather view ourselves as people who would never abuse anyone, especially a child. But because abuse is a taboo topic for many of us, it is important that we discuss it here. Abuse, in a general sense, is defined as “the act of treating someone harshly or with cruelty.” State definitions of abuse will most likely vary. In the state of Pennsylvania child abuse is defined as:
“(A) Any recent act or failure to act by a perpetrator which causes non-accidental serious mental injury to or sexual abuse or exploitation of a child.
(B) An act or failure to act by a perpetrator which causes non-accidental serious physical injury to a child.
(C) A recent act or failure to act or series of the acts or failures to act by a perpetrator which creates an imminent risk of serious physical injury to or sexual abuse or exploitation of a child.
(D) Serous physical neglect by a perpetrator constituting prolonged or repeated lack of supervision or the failure to provide the essentials of life, including adequate medical care, which endangers a child’s life or development or impairs the child’s functioning.”
Most parents are uninformed about the types of abuse that a mental health therapist must report for the safety of the child. The most frequent type of abuse that I have witnessed in my practice includes:
- Physical (hitting, smacking, pushing, tying a child up, pinching and leaving marks behind, etc)
- Emotional/psychological/verbal (name calling, cursing, verbal aggression, frequent yelling, using degrading terms, calling a child names based on their mental health challenges, etc)
Because mental health professionals, including mental health therapists and psychiatrists, are mandated by state law to report any suspicion of child abuse, we must report any reports given to us by a child, another mandated reporter such as a teacher or case manager, a parent, a grandparent, or anyone else who suspects a child has been treated wrongly. This often places parents in a very complicated position because many parents are frustrated and burned out and do not intend to harm their children. Mental health and behavioral problems are overwhelming for many parents, primarily a parent in a single parent household. Sadly, some children diagnosed with behavioral problems will use the child welfare system against their parent, placing more strain on the family unit.
About 3 million child abuse reports (or child-line reports) are made every year involving more than 6 million children, according to Childhelp.org. To make matters worse, about 3 million children are subjected to an investigation. Every report of child abuse must be investigated within a specified amount of time. In the state of Pennsylvania and Ohio, child abuse reports must be investigated within 24-72hrs after the report has been made.
Anyone can report suspected child abuse, even a neighbor. You do not need the child’s personal information to report abuse. It is often helpful to have the child’s address and demographics (age, height, weight, race, gender, etc.).
For many well-meaning parents and families, there are often issues under the surface that must be examined. Some things to keep in mind include:
- Children with mental health/behavioral problems are more challenging than other kids: Young children are often very challenging as it is. Top that with behavioral problems which might include temper tantrums lasting long periods of time, crying spells, inattention, hyperactivity, oppositional and rebellious behaviors, and physical aggression. Children with mood disorders such as bipolar disorder are also challenging because they are moody. Parents who are uninformed about their child’s mental health and behavioral problems or who lack the patience necessary to work with them, often resort to corporal punishment (physical discipline) that often crosses the line.
- The parent is lenient and non-directive: Parenting is not an exact science. Many of the parents and grandparents before my time have always told me that parenting is a “jump in and make the best out of it” type of situation. Because of this, many parents blindly walk through life trying to figure out which way to guide their children. Some parents require parenting classes to help guide their judgment and instill confidence. But parents who are not receiving this kind of support often resort to a permissive and neglectful parenting style. Permissive parents are often detached, immature, and lenient. Permissive parents seem involved with their children but lack the skills necessary to instill appropriate values, rules, and boundaries. Think of it this way: no routine, no rules, avoidance of conflict, and fear.
- Agencies and schools put pressure on families: When children are struggling in school and cannot concentrate, excel, or remain engaged in academics, parents are contacted and if something seems wrong to the agency or school within the parental system, reports get filed. As previously stated, if a mandated reporter suspects child abuse, neglect, or maltreatment, they can call child welfare agencies and get them involved. Parents who fear this often take their internalized anger out on their children. One famous line for parents is “get to school now and don’t be late or I will have to pay.”
- The educational system provides little support: Although the educational system is a “mandated reporter,” they are not always engaged with families like they should be. Children and families who are struggling with finances, transportation, or even obtaining educational supports are rarely helped by the school in which their child attends. Families are often left on their own to search for and pursue outside services. This is extremely frustrating for families and parents. Parents then resort to taking their anger out on the child. In other cases, some parents just detach from it all and end up neglecting their children’s essential needs. When parents are pressured to comply with a strict educational system and begin putting pressure on their child (who already suffers with mental or behavioral problems), kids fight back and sometimes literally. This can turn into pinned up feelings of rage between the child and his/her parent. It’s a vicious cycle.
- Some parents also have their own mental/behavioral problems: It’s a fact that many stressed out and overwhelmed parents are sometimes substance abusers, chronic gamblers, neglectful, “checked out,” or emotionally unavailable to their children. Having a parent who is “ill” and unable to address essential needs can lead to a family unit of chaos. The only thing these parents really know to do is use verbal and physical aggression to “gain some kind of control,” at least they think it’s control.
Can you think of a few other reasons why children with mental health and behavioral problems are sometimes mistreated by their own parents? It’s a difficult discussion to have but a much needed one.
As always, I wish you well