While grocery shopping in New Hampshire one day, my daughter started to throw a typical three-year-old tantrum. This was not something she did often. I gave her a few minutes to calm down and because she couldn’t, her dad took her to the car screaming while I finished shopping with her brother. I was very embarrassed at the scene she created. A lovely older woman came right up to me and said simply, “Good for you!” At that moment, no one could have said anything that meant more to me. That occurred more than twenty years ago, and I have never forgotten her.
What parent hasn’t experienced those moments of complete vulnerable helplessness? My sister-in-law used to say parenting was “an exercise in total humiliation.” Personally, I am a firm believer in the growth that accompanies these uncomfortable moments. But I am also convinced that, as a family member or friend of someone who is dealing with a difficult child, there are some things that you can do to be helpful and supportive — and certain things to avoid.
One summer, my children stayed with their grandparents for a week when they were about 6 and 8 years old. Their grandparents were old school and believed “children should be seen not heard,” literally. Because my son had Oppositional Defiant Disorder, the week started going down hill the first night. My son argued, defied and yelled his way right out of favor. The power struggles started right away and neither my son nor his grandparents had the skill to resolve it.
I remember my son calling me on the house phone saying he wanted to go home, that he hated being there — and hated them. I heard his grandfather come to take the phone away. I can’t remember when I have felt so truly devastated or unable to do anything to help. There have been many visits since then, but he never got over the resentment and anger from that one week. His grandparents had the best intentions, but they didn’t have the effective tools needed to work with a child with behavioral issues.
Their advice to me when I tried to explain the situation was, “He’s just spoiled — you need to discipline him more. He’s hyperactive, have you considered drugs to help calm him down?” and ““You need to get him under control. Spanking is the only way to deal with this kind of defiance!” These were just a few of their suggestions. Other family members mentioned counseling, while trying to coach me in the moment by saying, “Don’t let him bait you.”
Translation: “You don’t know how to raise your children. He is a basket case. You really need help.” The judgments and underlying messages were about my incompetence. My concern for my son and how this would affect him long-term was also very painful. One of the worst circumstances that I can remember was one in which everyone pretended that nothing happened after an explosive episode, leaving an awful silence that whispered a conviction. Many parents we talk to through our 1-on-1 Coaching Service have experienced very similar (if not the same) treatment. This ultimately leads to a very real sense of isolation for the parent.
So how can you be supportive of someone in this situation? (And how would you like to be supported, if this is happening to you?) What worked well for me was having someone who could actually commiserate with me. I had friends that would share their own stories and be willing to stand in the trenches and brain storm with me. My brother used to walk by and just give me a partial hug or pat my back, which spoke volumes to me. It was a great comfort.
During one of my son’s loud meltdowns at a campground, my sister- in-law came up and quietly asked if there was anything she could do to help. That was enough to energize me and help me feel like the cavalry had just arrived. Lastly, one of the most helpful things for me was to have an empathetic listener, just really listen.
Being supportive to parents isn’t about blame, shame or guilt. It’s about finding a way to reach out, offer help, and be a good listener. And it’s not just about today, it’s about ten — or even twenty — years from now.