The Ripple Effect of Defiant Behavior: When Parents Pay the Price
by James Lehman, MSW
Q: A child’s behavior problems can cause disturbances in a family beyond the relationship between the parent and the child, can’t they? I’ve had friends whose marriage suffered when their child started acting out. Is that common?
One of the unseen costs of an acting out kid is all the different ways that the child’s behavior affects the family. Unfortunately, the effects on the family aren’t viewed by society, the courts or the school system as really relevant. So there’s not a lot of support built in for the family. They’ll determine that the family is “sick,” and then the family has to go to therapy. But I’ve met many families who were feeling the effects of behavior problems, and the family wasn’t sick. The problem was all the repercussions from the kid’s behavior.
Picture what happens when you drop a stone into a pond and you see the ripples. Now picture that stone being dropped in again and again so that the ripples keep expanding and expanding. A child with behavior problems is like the stone in the pond. Every time he acts out, it’s like another stone being dropped into that pond. The ripples get bigger and more frequent in the family. He can’t solve problems any other way than acting them out. His main skills are defiance, manipulation and dishonesty, because he doesn’t know any other way to solve his problems or to deal with the realities in his life, which are, admittedly, often very painful. But no matter how painful his problems are, a child still has to take responsibility and learn to solve them.
Marital conflicts emanate from child behavior problems almost always. One parent blames the other. What happens is that parents tend to look at each other through the “window” of the child. Instead of looking directly at each other, they look at each other through the kid’s behavior. When you’re in pain and uncomfortable and you look at somebody else through that kind of pain and discomfort, it distorts how they look to you. And it distorts how you feel about them. So you often find one parent blaming another or thinking the other parent isn’t doing it the right way or not doing enough.
When this acting out occurs, it can start to push parents toward the edge of their relationship, testing how strong it is and how solid they are. Ideally you would like to think that it bonds parents together, but it doesn’t happen that way. The behavior tends to split the parents.
Q: And the more split the parents become, the more problems develop in the family around that division. When this is going on, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the chaos in the family. How do you get through that chaos and get to the root of the problem?
What parents need is a process by which they can be unified. I recommend that parents agree on certain principles and look at the actions that come from those principles. If our principle is, Johnny has to take responsibility for his behavior, then let’s all act that way and not worry about all the other issues that ripple out from that. Johnny has to take responsibility for his behavior, so let’s focus on that one thing. Let’s teach him problem solving skills. If there is a crisis, let’s handle it responsibly and productively. Responsibly means nobody gets hurt. And productively means that everybody can learn a lesson from it.
Once the family starts to deal with the child’s problem, the problems secondary to his behavior start to settle down. Whether the secondary problems are the parent’s communication, the other children’s safety and behavior or the financial strain that occurs when you have a kid who’s acting out, those things tend to subside, once you focus on the behavior problem.
So parents need to be able to communicate and not look at their relationship through the child. Rather, begin to look at your child through your relationship. See yourselves as a team. Parents find that the behavior calms down when they start working more like a team. First, because they find the common solution. They find something that works and that’s helping their child. Second, the family stressors go down. They’re able to deal with the normal stress of taking kids to soccer, taking kids to guitar practice or whatever they normally do. And they’re not dealing with the stressors of crisis, calls from the school, going down to the police station, or trips to the hospital or the emergency room.
When I work with parents and talk to them about being a team, I find they get really in touch with that. They’re eager to find a way to enjoy each other’s company again. Because they realize their kid is like a loaded gun in their midst, firing whenever he wants. And they know that nobody can live peacefully with that. No marriage can work really strongly when that’s going on, because people are fatigued, angry, frustrated and afraid. The outcome of changing the child’s behavior is that parents communicate better. They feel better about their marriage and they feel better about themselves. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times, and it can happen for you.