By Paula Marchman, M.A., L.P.C.
In my experience as a counselor, I am blessed to be present with many individuals and families on their journey to getting healthier in relationship not only with others but with themselves and with God.
During my internship, I counseled a family that included their 15 year old son during a period of time when he was “acting out” with behaviors such as skipping school, smoking and stealing with his “new” found friends. We were into our third session with this young man and his parents when he began to speak the words that will be forever engraved in my memory. He said, “You know, I hear you mom every night as you sit at the kitchen table with your bible talking to God. As I lay in bed I can hear you pray for all of us one by one. I know you want what is best for me, I hear you mom. I know how much you love me and I love you too. I understand why you are so worried about me and I see the problems with what I’m doing and I don’t want that either.” Their eyes connected and the room lit up with this amazing clarity and warmth. We all knew that they were back on the path together and it would be the path God has chosen for his life.
This family took action when they realized that their son was in trouble and they needed extra help. They looked at their resources, family, friends, church or professional counseling. They did not freeze and do nothing. They were proactive and it helped them get to a healthier place.
The first few sessions with this Christian family were more about dialoguing (active listening), finding the familiar connection to each other, hidden deep beneath this young man’s destructive behavior. This mother knew her son, his heart and who he really was and she held onto that mirror so he would never forget it either.
She preached to her children daily by being a living example, a powerful guide in the way she chose to live her life. She did not nag him but faithfully shared her values and beliefs and not by words alone. She was not critical nor condemning but firm and genuinely concerned for his welfare, now and in his future. Her son could connect to that and begin to change his destructive behavior.
The other piece to this story is that she did not get stuck with his bad behavior. She knew his God-given gifts and she looked beneath the bad behavior and spoke to his heart encouraging him to honor who he really is. This is huge even when your children are very young. We hold the mirror that tells them who they are in their early years of development. Active listening and productive communication skills are very important in this process. Children need to know that we love and honor them but as their parents we are called to provide them with a consistent and appropriate structure that allows them to grow and develop in a healthy way. Parents need to be firm yet loving, honest yet kind with their children.
She also held him accountable for his behavior and did not make excuses for him. She continued encouraging him to pursue the right path in his life, God’s plan for him but also allowed him to experience consequences in those choices. He understood that this was his problem and that he had a choice in the finding of the solution. He came to understand that he was part of something larger than himself, and how his behaviors also affected the family. His parents were modeling the give and take in family and teaching him to find solutions to problems rather than demanding his own way.
In the insightful book, “Taming the Spirited Child”, Dr. Michael Popkin, states that understanding your child means learning to listen for their “inner voice” the one that tells you about their fears and hurts that lie beneath their misbehaviors and anger. He says that as parents we get stuck with attempting to change the misbehavior of our child. He explains that the parental intuition guides us to not only observe the information the normal senses supply such as sight and sound but to listen to what lies beneath these behaviors. In his work of over 30 years with parents and children, he has found that anger, fighting and resentment often characterize the parent-child relationship. The “power struggle” that looks like each person attempting to exercise his or her will over the other dominates the family home. In a gentle and constructive way he gives parents tools and direction in establishing a relationship with their child coupled with encouragement, effective methods of discipline, communication and relational skills to help a child learn to live authentically in their family and in the world.
Every family needs a leader and it should not be a child. Fathers and mothers need to take their rightful place in the family as leaders, protecting and nurturing their children. Children need church traditions, healthy family interactions and boundaries to feel safe enough to grow and thrive. Children need faithful and present parents. Parents who realize the importance that their actions need to match their values.
Father Coniaris writes, “Children deserve respect because they are persons. They may be little, they are frequently immature, but they are growing persons. And the only way that they can grow into maturity is if we, their parents, allow and encourage them to grow. We must treat them not as objects but as persons.”(Making God Real in the Orthodox Home).
We, as parents, guide our children in discovering their God-given talents, by being attentive when we communicate with them, and encouraging them to grow in their uniqueness in God’s Kingdom.