In spite of his mom’s death from breast cancer two years ago, 14-year-old Damian appeared to be doing well. He was experiencing typical adolescent issues with independence and responsibility, but seemed to be working those out with his dad. Damian was starting to think about college, motivated by a desire to “always make my mom proud of me.”
I was a bit taken aback when I shared my impressions with his dad. He became very quiet and simply said, “our family is not right. We need help.”
I finally realized that I was focusing on the wrong client. I stopped talking about Damian and instead questioned dad about how he was doing.
Dad spoke extensively about what it had been like over the past few years. He told me the story of the first time he met his wife, the only person he truly loved. They were together since junior year in high school and were each other’s best friend. He talked about how traumatic it was when he first learned of his wife’s cancer, and the painful three years he spent feeling helpless during her ordeal.
His story was one of love, loss and sadness. I’ve been well-trained to avoid overly emotional responses regardless of what a child or parent tells me during a session. That’s hard for someone like me who gets teary eyed at Hallmark commercials.
I met with dad a few more times, and then connected him with an adult therapist who focused on counseling issues around grief and loss. There was no need for me to meet again with Damian.
It’s difficult at times to determine the real reason why parents seek help for their children. For some parents, it is just too hard to initially acknowledge that the root of their unhappiness is more due to their issues than their children’s. Other parents, like Damian’s dad, focus so much attention on their children that they fail to recognize their own depression or other serious problems.
Here are a few guidelines to determine who really needs help in your family:
- If you have any problems with substance abuse, child abuse or domestic violence, first get help for yourself. Kids living in homes with such parents show little improvement until their parents deal with those issues.
- Unhappy marriages lead to unhappy parents. It’s hard to be a good mom or dad if you are in a bad relationship with your spouse.
- Parents with major mental disorders, such as psychosis or mood disorders, generally require medication as well as therapy. Again, focus on yourself first rather than your child.
- The experience of a major traumatic event will affect you both as a person and as a parent, so be sure you deal with those concerns.
It’s common for parents to put children as their top priority, but getting professional help for yourself is sometimes the best way to help your child.
[Reprinted by permission from the December 13, 2009, edition of the Dayton Daily News, “Ask yourself, who really needs help in your family”, Family Wise, Gregory Ramey, PhD]
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Guest Contributor Gregory Ramey, PhD, Child Psychologist and Dayton Daily News Columnist
Gregory Ramey, PhD, is a nationally recognized child psychologist and columnist who has worked at Dayton Children’s Hospital since 1979. In addition to his weekly column in the Dayton Daily News about effective parenting, Ramey has conducted more than 200 workshops and has recently been quoted in articles in Redbook, Parenting, Ladies Home Journal as well as columns distributed by the New York Times Wire Service.