Running to a Healthy Future

The year was 1983 and the first summer of the Jasper Mountain Program. There were only six children in the Program at that time and they were out of school and ready for an active summer.  The three staff had divided up times to supervise the children and I did most of the recreation with the children.  I was a runner and when the children were in school I was able to run by myself, but now they were out of school and I had the children to supervise.  My plan was to run first thing in the morning before breakfast and sometimes one or two of the children asked to run with me and we took off along a trail that used to be the former railroad track.  As more children asked to come along, running on a trail was not ideal because the children all ran at a different pace and all had differing levels of endurance as to how far they could go.  This would go on for the next three years until we built a running track on the property.  During the fourth summer the children worked together and leveled off the ground, went to the local lumber mill and brought back many pickup truck loads of sawdust to make the running track.  The result was an ideal running surface on a level field where 17.5 laps equaled one mile.  With the track in place I could supervise the growing number of children (now up to 12) while I ran.  Although periodically a child had shown interest in running with me, I did not anticipate that many of our emotionally disturbed children would want to do something difficult like running.  So the children would sit next to the track while I ran my four miles and then we would all head to breakfast.  Partially due to their efforts to make the track and partially because they got bored just sitting there, but more and more children asked to join me for a few laps periodically running and walking.  Each morning there were more children running more laps.

My personal experience with running was not wonderful. I had found running unpleasant and very difficult and I avoided it growing up.  The first time I ran a mile without stopping was because it was required to join the football team and I found the experience horrible.  Despite being very involved in high school and college sports, I was not a runner.  I only began running grudgingly at the age of 26 when all the team sports were no longer available and I wanted to stay in good shape.  The health effects were so beneficial that I became a committed runner, but it was never fun.  With my bad attitude about the experience of running I would never have expected emotionally disturbed children to be interested or willing to do something so unpleasant.  I was wrong as it turned out.  It is not that the idea of breathing hard, enduring the pain, getting sweaty and pushing yourself beyond what you thought were your limits was all that appealing to our children over the years.  Actually I still am not certain why the children do it other than the practical aspect of the first thing in the morning running is what everyone does in the program.  They head to the track before breakfast and some walk/run and other run the whole time for 30 minutes while their laps are counted by the staff so they get credit.  We encourage the staff to run as well (a tough sell for some of them) and have found that the more participation from staff results in more participation from the children.  There are some positive aspects that encourage the children such as pride when their track shoes are moved each week up the 80 foot long mileage chart, there is some positive peer pressure to be one of the runners, and there are periodic incentives (shoes, MP3 players, running outfits, etc.).  However even today I marvel at how many of the children simply put in the effort and learn the amazing positive things that running can do for your personal health.  After all the benefits have keep me religiously doing this activity that I have never really liked for the last 39 years.

Decades of research have shown the same findings—running has consistently been found to be the most healthy single activity a person can do. The benefits are too numerous to give a complete list but the main benefits to emotionally disturbed children are:  belief in self, personal confidence, meeting a difficult goal, achieving success at a difficult task, improved respiration and circulation, improved stamina, developing coordination and muscle tone, weight loss (running helped one child last year lose 77 extra pounds), reduction in the need for numerous psychiatric medications, better sleep patterns, improved self-regulation, improved relaxation, reduced stress, enhanced stem cell development in the brain and overall improved brain health.  The list goes on and for decades it has been known that these benefits are available to everyone, but running is just difficult enough that not everyone can or is willing to do it.  Emotionally disturbed children in an intensive treatment program are the ideal population for the benefits of running.  The challenge is how to entice the children to run.  At Jasper Mountain it is the environment that does the enticing and this gradually developed over time to be what it is today.

However we have found that running can be incorporated into an existing program. When we developed a second residential treatment center at first it had no running program but through planning it was incorporated into the structure and the results were the same—the children participated.  There is no sign of the interest in running fading even after 30 years.  Just this year the children set new mileage records in both treatment centers.  The children collectively ran 3,000 miles in ten weeks.  This breaks down to an average of 1.5 miles per day for every one of the children!  Is it making a difference—without question!  We are not a track and field program not are we preparing the Olympians of the future.  Running is a small part of our treatment program, a small component with huge positive gains.  Will I personally continue to run?  Yes, just as long as I am able because of what running gives back to me.   Will our Programs continue to have a running program?  Yes, as long as the adults do their part to make running available and teach the children the benefits of healthy lifestyle decisions like aerobic activity.

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Appropriate and Effective Use of Psychiatric Residential Treatment Services

By Dave Ziegler, Ph.D. 

Executive Summary 

Stakeholders in a comprehensive system of care view psychiatric residential treatment as a dynamic and critical component interfacing with an effective overall mental health system for children (Butler & McPherson, 2006).  To be most effective PRTS must be targeted, responsive, and individualized to the needs of the child and the family and have the following characteristics: 

  • Integrated into the overall system of care and includes a continuum of step-up and step- down services within the same provider organization.
  • Offers a comprehensive and ecological model of multi-model treatment interventions into an integrated whole, designed to meet the individual needs of a child and the child’s family.
  • Commitment to national standards of excellence, a continuous commitment to quality improvement, and have an identifiable treatment philosophy and approach based upon research and empirical evidence.
  • Emphasizes the environment around the child that will necessitate family interventions, partnering with families during and after residential services to best meet the child’s needs.
  • Makes an impact on the child’s positive thoughts and perceptions, emotional self-regulation, and pro-social skills and behaviors.

Psychiatric residential treatment services can play several effective roles within the overall system including: a. intensive treatment while maintaining safety, b. a component of a step up/step down plan for a child, c. Treatment of serious disorders that require coordinated multimodal interventions, d. assessing medication level while providing a stabilizing environment, e. alternative to psychiatric hospitalization, and f. a treatment of last resort for children for whom other interventions have been ineffective. 

Less appropriate uses of PRTS include: a holding place for a child waiting for a community placement, destabilizing the child by rapidly altering medications or delving into deeper psychological states without sufficient time to re-stabilize, and when the length of time in PRTS is predetermined before admission due to cost, utilization, or other factors unrelated to the needs of the child. 

The commonly repeated criticisms concerning the lack of research support for the effectiveness of PRTS lack validity.  The comprehensive nature of a multimodal integrated environment presents unusual challenges for isolating variables for causal research.  However, considerable research exists to support the overall effectiveness and efficacy of PRTS. 

When efforts are made to insure that the proper children are admitted to well designed PRTS, the child, the family, and the system of care can expect individualized, client-centered care that can result in positive outcomes for everyone. 

Introduction–Efficacy and Effectiveness of PRTS 

A common goal among all stakeholders in the system of care for children is to develop a comprehensive array of services that is sensitive to the needs of children and their families and provides needed care on a continuum of intensity based upon individualized needs.  For over fifty years there has been a debate concerning putting children in out-of-home placements.  The debate has continued whether this it is the orphan asylum of the past or the psychiatric residential treatment center of the present.  For a variety of reasons, some well deserved, residential care has been plagued by negative stereotypes and pessimistic sentiments (Frensch & Cameron, 2002). A persistent notion that institutional life is contrary to a child’s nature (Whittaker, 2004) has led to “an archaic and inaccurate perception of residential treatment as a single type of ineffective, institutional congregate care for children” (Butler & McPherson, 2006). However, the long standing debate over residential settings has gradually given way to an acknowledgement that the best system of care includes alternatives for the needs of all children regardless of the level of required intensity (Leichtman, 2006; Butler & McPherson, 2006; Lieberman, 2004).  Therefore the question has changed from whether residential treatment should used, to what is the appropriate and effective use of residential treatment in the new system of care. 

There is considerable literature and research support for the value of residential treatment of a broad variety of types and approaches, particularly for the sophisticated treatment settings that have met the highest national standards of excellence (CWLA, 2004; Lewis, 2004; Friman, 2000; Handweck, Field & Friman, 2001; Larzelere, Daly, Davis, Chmelka & Handwerk, 2004; Lipsey & Wilson, 1998; Lyman & Wilson, 1992; Pfeifer & Strelecki, 1990; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999). “Residential services are an important and integral component within the multiple systems of care and the continuum of services” (CWLA, 2005). This statement from the largest children’s advocacy organization in the country outlines the new thinking coming from policy makers, system managers, advocates, families, and providers.  The many arguments against the use of residential care of the past, including the comparison of one level of care over another, are out of favor due to improper comparisons and lumping divergent services (Handwerk, 2002; Butler & McPherson, 2006). In its place is a more inclusive and practically position that there will always be a number of youth who require the intensive structure and safety of the residential setting. Whether it is the Child Welfare League of America, the Building Bridges initiative, or the providers themselves (AACRC and others), there is wide support from stakeholders that residential care is an essential and important part of the overall system of care past, present and into the future. 

The psychiatric residential treatment program of today is not the same as programs of the past, including the very recent past.  This fact makes most comparisons to current care and the residential treatment of the past questionable in their validity.  The quality Psychiatric Residential Treatment program of today is not only integrated into the overall system of care, but includes a continuum of step-up and step-down services within the same provider organization.  Such an internal system of care allows for children and families to change levels of treatment intensity without changing key staff such as psychiatrists, therapists, teachers, and mentors.  For child with significant mental health needs, the level of treatment intensity will necessarily change over time if the plan of care is effective. 

What Constitutes Good Psychiatric Residential Treatment Services 

A quality residential program offers a comprehensive and ecological model (Stroul & Friedman, 1996; Wells, Wyatt & Hobfoll, 1991; Hooper, Murphy, Devaney & Hultman, 2000) of multi-model treatment interventions woven into an integrated whole, designed to meet the individual needs of a child and the child’s family.  The best programs start with a commitment to national standards of excellence, a continuous commitment to quality improvement, and have an identifiable treatment philosophy and approach based upon research and empirical evidence.  Effective programs will emphasize the environment around the child that will necessitate family interventions, partnering with families to best meet the child’s needs, and at times may include efforts to identify a family for children without one.  Good residential programs know the target populations that they are most effective with and have evidence based approaches for these populations.  Good programs make positively impacts on the child’s positive thoughts and perceptions, emotional self-regulation, and pro-social skills and behaviors.  The best residential programs are integrated into a community of stakeholders who have input into a continual unfolding of quality interventions in an overall environment of safety, respect and effectiveness. 

The Best Use of Residential Treatment 

For too long residential treatment has been relegated primarily to the placement of last resort.  In some situations it may be the case that a child has been unresponsive to treatment that is less intense or insufficiently environmentally integrated, thus necessitating the strengths of a residential setting.  The use of residential care as a “last resort” is still a possible role but there can be other roles as well: 

Intensive treatment while maintaining safety—Some children cannot be effectively and safely treated in a family setting.  Examples of this are serious violent behavior, firesetting, and significant sexual behavior. 

One component of an overall treatment continuum—At times the needs of a child may warrant treatment in a variety of settings from maximal to minimal levels of intensity as treatment progresses.  Residential care can be an important part of the plan including a back up to serious deterioration in levels of care in community settings. 

Treatment of serious disorders that require multimodal intervention—Children with the highest acuity of psychiatric needs often require a complex array of integrated services in a single setting.  An example of this are complex trauma disorders where up to a dozen specialized intervention strategies may be needed (Connor, Miller, Cunningham & Melloni, 2002). 

Safely assessing psychopharmacological intervention—A child may have serious emotional or behavioral destabilization when medications are significantly altered.  For children with several medications, it may be important to insure safety for the child and all concerned while the medication assessment process takes place. 

Alternative to hospitalization—A well designed psychiatric residential program can be an effective alternative to hospitalization for many serious children.  This can provide advantages including: keeping the child and family in the community, intensive care in a less restrictive setting, and a significant reduction in cost allowing a length of stay appropriate for the child. 

There are also ways that residential treatment should not be used.  It should not be a default setting for a child who has completed treatment but is waiting for a placement.  A residential setting should not be allowed to destabilize a child’s mental health, such as changing medications or opening painful psychological issues without sufficient time to follow through with the ramifications.  While there are children who have been shown in research to improve with short stays of six months or less in residential care (Blackman, Eustace, Chowdhury, 1991; Leichtman, Leichtman, Barker & Neese, 2001; Shapiro, Welker & Pierce, 1999), this is based upon a short-term approach of lowering the expectations of treatment through modest and selective goals such as primarily addressing the issue that caused the removal of he child from the family home (Leichtman & Leichtman, 1996).  However there is still a place for longer term treatment with specific childhood disorders that are not responsive to short-term interventions (Zegers, Schuengel, van IJzendoorn & Jansserns, 2006; McNeal, Handwerk, Field, Roberts, Soper, Huefner & Ringle, 2006; Greenbaum, Dedrick, Friedman, Kutash, Brown, Lardieri & Pugh, 1996).  Residential treatment is improperly used when the length of intensive residential treatment is predetermined before admission due to cost, utilization or other factor unrelated to the needs of the child. 

Efficacy and Effectiveness of Residential Treatment 

It is commonly stated that residential treatment has been shown not to be effective.  A closer look at efficacy and effectiveness tells a different story. While there have been weaknesses among the providers of residential care over the years, there have also been very effective services delivered in a residential setting.  This point raises an important distinction between an intervention and a setting.  Too often this distinction is misunderstood resulting in ‘apples and oranges’ comparisons (Butler & McPherson, 2006).  For example, an evidenced based intervention can be effective in a variety of settings, or the wrong evidence based intervention in a specific setting can be highly ineffective.  When discussing whether a placement is the best choice, both the setting and the interventions to be used are both important considerations. 

Science is informing the mental health world at an unprecedented pace.  Objective research is increasingly being considered to inform decision makers, parents and providers as to what to do more of, and what to discontinue.  Science considers all aspects of a situation to form an opinion, not just factors that confirm previous biases. Because there has been a fifty year debate over putting children in residential setting, both sides have presented data to enhance their argument, for or against. We must now move beyond previous biases and look toward objective science. 

Whether a treatment setting works depends upon both efficacy and effectiveness.  Objectively speaking there is research to support strong efficacy in residential care.  At the same time there are consistent questions as to the effectiveness reflected in research on residential treatment (Hair, 2005).  This apparent contradiction points to the difficulty in evaluating whether a complex setting works or not.  The answer often depends upon the way the question is framed, as well as how outcomes are measured.   

There has been decades of research evidence of efficacious treatment of children and adolescents in all settings.  When children who receive a broad variety of treatments are compared with control groups of children receiving no treatment, the treatment group is consistently superior with an effective size from .7 to .8 (Casey & Berman, 1985; Baer & Nietzel, 1991; Burns, Hoagwood & Mrazek, 1999; Grossman & Hughes, 1992; Hazelrigg, Cooper & Borduin, 1987; Kazdin, Siegel & Bass, 1990; Shadish, Montgomery, Wilson, Wilson, Bright & Okwumabua, 1993; Weisz, 1987; Weisz, Weisz, Han, Granger & Morton, 1995).  Some treatments and some settings have shown better results than others, but treatment efficacy research provides strong and consistent evidence that providing psychological treatment to child clients is much better than not doing so. 

Much has been made of the scarcity of causal research on residential treatment.  The reason that effectiveness research on residential settings has been either mixed or lacking is primarily due to the complex weave of multiple treatments in an ecological setting.  Such an enriched setting of multi-modal treatment variables is not conducive to empirical causal research.  Moreover, “the very characteristics that are likely to make (treatment) effective make them more difficult to describe and evaluate…numerous elements of family and agency life weave together with the therapeutic intervention and potentially decrease the chance of finding a positive treatment effect when there is one” (Hair, 2005). Butler and McPherson point out that this lack of empirical evidence in part is based upon the challenge of measuring what residential care does best.  They report gains such as:  enhanced safety, truancy reductions, consistent medication management, reduced hospitalizations, consistency, structure, caring and nurturing, limit setting, psychosocial support, self-esteem role modeling, time to self-reflect, and focus on mental health issues, all of which are invaluable to the child but are complicated to objectify and analyze. “Thus the literature does not actually reveal much helpful information” (Butler & McPherson, 2006). 

Some of the research showing marginal or no positive efficacy makes the conceptual error of comparing some new type of treatment intervention with the traditional treatment setting of residential care.  There are studies that indicate poor outcomes with residential care (Burns et.al., 1999; Greenbaum et.al., 1996; Friman, 2000; Ruhle, 2005).  Some of these studies again address a setting, not specific treatment interventions.  Research on essentially all settings can find poor outcomes (families, hospitals, foster care, schools, etc.). For example, while there is considerable evidence of effectiveness for some uses of family based treatment foster care, other uses have been found to be contraindicated (Farmer, Wagner, Burns & Richards, 2003), or less effective for some populations than residential care (Drais-Parrillo, 2005). Treatment settings in themselves do not insure effectiveness, this can only be done by quality interventions within a treatment setting.              

When treatment interventions are the subject of research residential settings the results often show strong improvement (Landsman, Groza, Tyler & Malone, 2001; Hooper et. al., 2000; Weiner & Kupermintz, 2001; Burns et.al., 1999).  Research has shown long-term maintenance of gains in clinical functioning, academic skills and peer relationships (Blackman, Eustace & Chowdhury, 1991; Joshi & Rosenberg, 1997; Wells, 1991). 

Two predictors of long-term positive outcomes deserve to be specifically mentioned.  The quality of the therapeutic relationship in therapy has been found to be one of the most important predictors of long-term success (Pfeifer & Strzelecki, 1990; Scholte & Van der Ploeg, 2000).  In a recent study on attachment representations, children in residential treatment improved in their forming secure attachments and decreasing their avoidance and hostile behavior.  However this finding was true only for children with longer stays in residential treatment.  The study reported, “When the duration of treatment is extended, the personal attachment backgrounds of clients and treatment staff increase in importance (Zegers, Schuengel, van IJzendoorn & Jansserns, 2006).  The other long-term predictor of success is positive outlook, life satisfaction and hopefulness.  In a 2006 study children in residential treatment increased their hopeful thinking and general well-being, while decreasing psychopathology (McNeal, Handwerk, Field, Roberts, Soper, Huefner & Ringle, 2006). Attitudinal and cognitive variables such as hope have been found to predict outcomes above and beyond psychopathology (Hagen, Myers & MacKintosh, 2005). This study on hope found the children with the highest levels of psychopathology made the most gains after 6 months of residential care. 

Therefore a quick statement on the general findings of research indicate: strong support for providing treatment services to child over no treatment, mixed results when evaluating the setting, and strong support for effectiveness with specific treatments in residential settings.  It can therefore be said that, in general, treatment provided to the child will be better than none at all, and it is the treatment interventions used in the residential setting that are the determining factor of efficacy and not the setting itself. 

The Right Target Population for Psychiatric Residential Treatment 

Intensive treatment services in a residential setting are restrictive and potent and should only be a part of the plan of care for a child if needed.  There is common agreement that care should be taken before placing a child out of a family setting and particularly when placing the child in a PRTS program.  It is important that guidelines exist concerning the right target population while not being so prescriptive that children ‘fall through the cracks.’  To avoid legislating children out of a needed service, it is essential that the individual child’s needs must come first, and the child matched to the proper level of care intensity.  The overall criteria for such a restrictive setting is to include only those children who cannot receive the treatment they need while remaining in a family setting.   The historical criteria for admission to PRTS have been: 

  1.  Other treatment resources available in the community do not meet the treatment needs of the child.
  2. Proper treatment of the child’s psychiatric condition requires services in a psychiatric residential treatment setting under the direction of the psychiatrist.
  3. The services can be reasonably expected to improve the child’s condition or prevent further regression so that psychiatric residential services may no longer be needed
  4. The child has a principal diagnosis of Axis I of a completed 5-Axis DSM diagnosis that is not solely a result of mental retardation or other developmental disabilities, epilepsy, drug abuse, or alcoholism. 

These criteria have provided guidelines while allowing for individual needs to be considered.  If proper treatment resources exist in the community, if the child does not need psychiatric oversight, if the treatment can help or prevent further deterioration and if they child has a mental health diagnosis, then the child can be considered.  As the system focuses on improving community resources, more children would be screened out due to the first criteria. 

The one screening tool that has been used in the past is the Childhood Acuity of Psychiatric Illness.  It has been used to inform the admission and discharge decisions but has not been the sole criteria.  Like the CASII, where it is possible to have an overall low acuity score yet be appropriate for intensive treatment due to high risk behavior, the CAPI scores do not address all areas of need or interest when making admission decisions.  Therefore it cannot be used solely as an indication of proper or improper placement decisions. 

There is general agreement that treatment should be individualized, strength-based, and integrated.  Therefore it is important to insure that admission and discharge decisions are individualized and not based upon a score or single or multiple indicators not related to the needs of the child. 

It is important that the child have a serious mental health issue to be appropriate for PRTS.  However, the treatment needs of the child should be the primary consideration and not the diagnostic category, which often varies by practitioner.  Frequently a child’s diagnosis changes when the provider changes.  Diagnostic categories are not discreet in many cases and children needing PRTS care typically have multiple Axis I diagnoses. The diagnosis of a child at admission has been found to be a negligible factor in success at discharge (Hair, 2005), thus the specific diagnosis should not be used as a factor to screen a child in or out of PRTS. For example, lf a child is dangerous due to a mental health diagnosis, the child should not be screened out due to which diagnosis the child has been given.  Using another example, if a child is suicidal and has a serious oppositional defiant diagnosis, the child should receive the treatment needed in a safe setting, which could necessitate a PRTS level of care, regardless of the diagnosis. 

Research consistently indicates that children with supportive families do better in general, do better in school, do better in treatment, and do better coming out of PRTS.  This makes logical sense.  However, true trauma informed care necessitates that a child who is unlucky enough to receive poor family support or who has lost his or her biological family, should not be further neglected by the system and prevented from receiving PRTS care if that is the indicated need.  Developing an aftercare resource becomes an important part of the plan of care.  Trauma informed care also requires that the treatment reflects the child’s past, provides effective trauma treatment, and insures safety, predictability, and stability of placement while intensive trauma treatment is provided.  For a seriously traumatized child, focusing solely on stabilizing a child’s behavior without providing intensive trauma treatment is not individualized, nor is it responsive to the needs of the child and family. 

Summary 

Psychiatric residential treatment is an important and essential component of the mental health system of care.  The best treatment programs are ecological in orientation and combine all the needed components to best help the child and family.  Despite the fact that ecological treatment settings are not conducive to quantitative causal research designs, they have been shown to be some of the most effective services for children with multiple needs.  Psychological treatment has shown decades of strong support across settings and has been shown effective when interventions in residential settings are considered rather than the setting itself.  The family must be involved in both decision making and intensive treatment along with the child.  If a child has lost his or her family for whatever reason, the child should not be further neglected by not receiving the level of intensive treatment services needed.  The right target population should be afforded PRTS.  Adhering to the historical criteria has shown that the right children receive the right level of care.  Reliance on any one score, instrument or factor alone is contraindicated for PRTS as it is for any placement decision for a child.  The admission decision on a child must be individualized with the needs of the family taken into consideration.  The treatment must conform to the child and family and not expect the child to conform to the treatment.  This includes both treatment programs as well as the overall system of care.  When a PRTS program is carefully designed with multi-modal treatments to address the complex needs of the child, and individualized in partnership with the family, this intervention can turn the most seriously challenging children in the system of care into some of the most improved consumers.  Such an outcome is one that is desirable to all stakeholders in the system of care.  

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So You Have a Challenging Child in Your Home?

By Dave Ziegler, Ph.D.

Dave Ziegler is the founder and executive director of Jasper Mountain, a nationally recognized treatment program for traumatized children.  Dave is a psychologist and holds four professional licenses and has been a foster parent for many years.  In addition to his work at Jasper Mountain, he speaks throughout the country as well as internationally to parents and professionals.  Dave is the author of five books, including Raising Children Who Refuse To Be Raised, Traumatic Experience and the Brain, Beyond Healing: The Path To Personal Contentment After Trauma, and Neurological Reparative Therapy: A Roadmap to Healing Resiliency and Well-Being.  This article is drawn from his 2005 book Achieving Success With Impossible Children, Winning the Battle of Wills.

If you have a challenging child in your home, you are not alone.  With the numbers of children in foster care, the increased number of domestic and foreign-born adopted children, and children in biological homes that have experienced divorce and other domestic problems, parents today are searching for answers to the increasing challenges presented by troubled children.  Some of these children can make parents crazy, because parenting approaches that work for other children don’t help at all; and even worse, what worked with the child yesterday, doesn’t work today.  Sound familiar?

I know what you are thinking, “another one of those articles about being a good parent-with an expert saying: be consistent, stay calm and make sure the child gets plenty of tender loving care.”  Not so fast, in some cases this advice is a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.  And if you haven’t already asked this, I will do it for you, “So what makes this guy an expert anyway?”  Good question.  There is only one thing that makes someone an expert in parenting difficult children and that is to have actually done it, and done it successfully.  Starting as a foster parent with one child at a time, my home has evolved into one of the top treatment centers in the United States. The type of children we go out of my way to help are those that refuse to ask for, or even accept, our attempts to help or to parent them.  Perhaps I have a screw loose, but I see these children as my best teachers.  So if your child is happy to see you when she comes home from school, if he volunteers to help out around the house for free and can be found on weekends cleaning his room while singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” then this article is not for you.  I hear stories about such children, but I have never parented one.  My foster home turned into a group home, and then into a treatment center over the years.  But my family is still here 23 years later getting children who are grumpy (and worse) off to school each morning, and seeing if we can introduce each of them to a world they don’t believe exists-one where they can come out a winner.  Do they eventually get it?  Yes, in nearly every case.  But before they learn to touch the stars, they have to learn to firmly plant their feet on the ground.  If you are with me so far, then let’s get to work on parenting difficult children.

What I have found that works with troubled and difficult children is a combination of staying focused on the goal for each child, and knowing what I need to be doing more of, and what I need to be doing less of.  My goal is a progression of having each child experience the following and to do so in the correct order-experience safety, security, acceptance, belonging, trust, relationship, self-understanding and personal worth.  These critical components of being a successful human being must come one at a time as in stair steps, and rely on the foundation of the step that came before.  Without safety you can’t have security, without acceptance you cannot feel like you belong, and without trust you cannot have a successful relationship.  I ask myself what step I am on with each child I am working with and keep focused on the goal to get to the next step-one child and one situation at a time.

What I need to be doing more of can be broken down to the following: 1. Translate the child’s behavior and energy to understand what is going on inside of him (don’t get sucked into his words, works are seldom helpful), 2.  Give attention to things I want to see more of (don’t spend your day giving most of your energy to misbehavior, because what you give attention to, you get more of), and 3. Lead with thinking and not with emotions (don’t let the child decide how you are going to act or feel, remember that feelings are easy targets for children who want to wound others).

So what about being consistent, staying calm and tender loving care?  I find consistency overrated.  This is not the case with responsive children, because they need your consistency.  With troubled, angry and/or manipulative children, they will use your consistency against you.  To disrupt a child who gets stuck in the same negative behavior habits, I suggest creative inconsistency.  What this means is you must first disrupt the cycle between you and the child.  He is used to doing his thing (misbehavior) and waiting for you to do your thing (correcting the behavior).  You don’t like this cycle, but your child does like it because he feels in control of you and the environment.  If you are tired of this dance, then change it.  First short circuit the behavior pattern, and then intervene more effectively.  For example, if your bundle of joy has a habit of not liking dinner each night and colorfully sharing her culinary review, then start the dinner by saying, “Jessica, you only get dessert tonight when you have found something wrong with every aspect of tonight’s dinner.”  After the child looks up at you wondering, “Has she finally lost it?” she then has a dilemma (that I love to put children in)–do I follow directions and criticize, or do I refuse to criticize and break my pattern.  You win either way.  We call this prescribing the symptom, and it can also be called putting the child into a therapeutic bind.  The goal is not to frustrate the child, but the goal is to frustrate the behavior.

Most parenting classes will tell you to stay calm.  That is fine most of the time.  However, when I get ignored by children (this is frequent in the early stages), or if the child wants me to repeat essentially everything I say, I might try yelling my thoughts and directions.  I don’t do this in an angry way, just a loud way.  Troubled children do not like yelling in the house if the yelling isn’t coming from them, so they always ask me, “Why are you yelling?”  I tell the child that I am saving us both the time of either repeating or having them miss what I have to say.  When they ask me to stop it, I offer them a deal that I don’t need to yell if they listen and don’t need things repeated.  Welcome to the world of reciprocity.

As for tender loving care, the quickest way for a child to put a parent in the funny farm is to reject every overture of caring and love.  Love may have been all the Beatles needed, but they were not raising troubled children.  Difficult children need love all right, but it needs to come in the form of teaching the child the lesson that life and relationships are two-way streets, what we put out to others has a lot to say about what we get back.  So save your tender loving care until the child has moved beyond manipulation, self-hate and perpetual rudeness (yes, with the right steps they can move beyond these).  In the meantime give them a different type of TLC-Translating what is going on with them, Learning from every situation to be a better parent to this child, and staying in Control of your behavior, your emotions and the energy in your household.

With those basics as a foundation, let’s look at a number of strategies for successful parenting:

  • Take care of yourself-if you don’t do it, who will?  We all have rechargeable batteries, but like a flashlight, if we don’t take the time to recharge, our light becomes dim in a hurry.
  • See below the surface of behavior-what you can see is only a small part of the problem.  Behaviors are the result of what a child thinks and how he or she feels.  We must go deeper than managing behavior.
  • Be firm in a loving way-if we are too firm the child links us with past abuse, if we are too loving they may not respect us.  Strike a firm and friendly balance.
  • Never stop working on yourself-we all make mistakes parenting?  I use my mistakes as a model for children.  I admit the mistake and take personal responsibility, and then I take the necessary steps to repair any damage done.  How can we ask a child to do this if adults have not taught the child how by example?
  • Make sure the child feels your support-don’t wait until things go badly before showing your support.  When things do go badly, with every correction give the child the message you believe that he or she can do better.  “We don’t grab things from others just because we want it in this house.  I want you to think about this and I know you can come up with a better way to handle it.  When you do, let me know and you can have your turn.”
  • Always give more praise than criticism-criticism fits the child’s negative self-image, praise does not.  If you want the child to be more positive, he must hear more positive messages from you.
  • Practice the “New Day”-just because the child has been doing poorly in the past, start over each day and give them a chance to improve.  If the child is ready to move beyond misbehavior, make sure you are ready to let them.  This is one reason why extended consequences, such as grounding the child until age 21, are not recommended.
  • Don’t let the child lower your expectations-you generally get somewhat less than you expect from a difficult child.  If you expect a lot or a little, you will get somewhat less.  High or low expectations, its your call (by the way, the child prefers lower expectations).
  • Practice “No-Lose Parenting”-do your home work, use your superior mental skills, do your best, don’t give up, don’t expect an immediate return on your investment in the child, and remember, your responsibility is what you have become more so than who the child chooses to become.  If you do all this, how can you lose?

OK, so I haven’t told you everything you need to know to be successful with your difficult child.  Fair enough, so the little challenge in your home is going to take some extra study and work?  That is why this parenting approach has two textbooks with very appropriate titles:  Raising Children Who Refuse To Be Raised and Achieving Success With Impossible Children.  The ideas in these books can change the whole game with your child.  Working with tantrums, sexual behavior, lying and stealing, and teaching responsibility, positive discipline, are all covered in the style of this article. Obviously I believe the ideas will help you.  I believe this because the ideas were all taught to me not in graduate school but by the children I have parented.  Did I forget to say, parenting a difficult child can even be fun?  You will have to read more to find out about that (I warned you about my loose screws).  Happy parenting!