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7/22/12blog post

when good kids have bad parents

I have a tough time trying to help kids make sense of their parents’ bad behavior. These youngsters typically end up in my office to learn “coping skills.” They mostly want to understand how someone they love can do bad things.

  • The dad of a ten-year-old girl was arrested and subsequently sentenced to one year in jail for domestic violence.
  • The mom of a young teen was arrested several times for driving under the influence. She was enrolled in a mandatory treatment program and required to perform 300 hours of community service.
  • The dad of two preteen boys was convicted of gross sexual imposition for his inappropriate behavior with a young boy in the neighborhood.

Perhaps the above situations were due to these parents having a mental disorder. We don’t blame cancer patients for having a physical disease, so why should we blame these parents for having a mental disease? Here’s the dilemma I confront these situations. I want to keep the focus on individual responsibility but also help the kids of these parents achieve some understanding as to why their parents behaved badly.

The situation becomes even more complicated as we learn about the background of each of these parents. Does it change your view of the situation if you knew that the dad convicted of the sexual offense was himself a victim of repeated sexual abuse by his uncle? The mom with the alcohol problem grew up in a family with two alcoholic parents. The dad arrested for assault was also a victim of physical abuse as a child.

Here are the two principles I use when working with kids in these situations.

1.The way you were treated as a child does not explain or justify your behavior as an adult. I’m sure that the experiences of being sexually or physically abused, or living with alcoholic parents left emotional scars on these youngsters. However, as these kids entered adulthood, they had an affirmative responsibility to seek help for their problems. None of the parents sought professional assistance, although each was acutely aware of their problems.

It is all about individual responsibility and choice. These kids had no control over what happened to them as children, but did have lots of options as adults to seek treatment.

2. Each child must figure out for themselves the type of relationship they want with their dysfunctional parent. I reassure kids that they need to figure out for themselves how they want to navigate their relationship with their troubled parent. I’ve worked with many kids who want nothing to do with a parent in jail, while others want to stay connected regardless of what their parent did. We need to respect both approaches.

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