Before I became a parent I had always imagined that the hardest part of raising and caring for another human being would be primarily physical. When my kids were infants and then toddlers it felt like an almost herculean task to keep them fed, clean, gas-free and safe. I remember rolling into bed after a day spent changing diapers, measuring formula, doing one too many laundries and forgetting to brush my teeth and thinking, “Oh, this parenting thing can only get easier and better from here on in.”
I was convinced once my kids could take care of their basic needs and actually use their words to communicate their feelings as opposed to me attempting to figure out how to soothe their cries, it would be smooth sailing. Of course, I could not have been more wrong—or in for a greater awakening. While new mothers tend to think the labor of parenting is in the early years, that physical stuff is a cakewalk compared to parenting little people who are now living in society and are influenced by so many factors outside of their home.
In fact once you send your kids to a school setting, where they will need to conduct themselves with others, how they sink or swim becomes a constant source of concern for you as a parent. And it is these early years that are truly when your parenting skills need to be as sharp and laser focused as possible so that you can set your child up with a solid foundation for becoming a well-adjusted and productive member of our world.
Perfect Little Specimens
I think we all want to believe our children are in some ways these perfect little specimens, and mirror images of us toddling around, and it is often beyond our comprehension that our little babes could be anything more than lovable. Perhaps some of us see the warning signs, but we choose to ignore them or we simply don’t know how to manage them. Yet bearing witness to this rash of gun violence perpetuated by seemingly “good” kids raises a red flag. At least it does for me, and it also frightens me to think- what can I do so that I am NEVER in a position where I am the parent of a mass murderer?
It pains me to think that there are parents who perhaps thought they were doing the best they could, and yet their children grow up and commit unspeakable crimes. Were there signs they missed? Was there something they could’ve done to prevent these crimes? And as a parent, when and at what age would these signs appear, the signs your child is troubled?
As a parent my most pressing concern is not only about how to keep my kid safe, but more so what are the signs that my child could potentially be harboring the feelings the kind of feelings gunman Elliot Rodger felt, for instance, how as a parent you can identify if your child is in trouble. Rodger, for example, was apparently in therapy for most of his life, and yet he posted Youtube videos that should have raised a red flag.
So what were the other red flags parents and loved ones missed? I think these are all tough questions but ones parents need to ask themselves. Who are their kids hanging out with? What are their kids doing in their virtual lives?
Of course the main signs we need to see are in teens, as they are the ones doing the violence, but I’d like to know about earlier signs and red flags that might even be spotted in a child’s younger years, when there is still time to get a child the help he needs.
I took all my fears to Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., who shared her insights along with some helpful advice for parents struggling to identify signs of trouble in their children.
How early can we parents see signs of trouble in our children?
Dr. Greenberg: I think the signs that a child is starting to move off the mental health positive track can be seen as soon as a child is in a group setting with other kids, and can be seen as early as preschool or kindergarten and is in a group setting.
Is a child troubled from birth—is it genetic? Or is his behavior a product of his environment and ultimately the way he/she was parented?
Dr. Greenberg: Keep in mind that the same parents can raise three kids yet each kid is born with a different temperament like, for example, there are some babies who are easy to pacify from birth. They are natural-born cuddlers, while there are other babies who are irritable and slow to warm up. We all come out of the womb differently. Parents could have three children with nice and easy temperaments and the fourth doesn’t get along with the family, doesn’t interact easily with them, and gets irritated by things that make his siblings laugh.
So what should a parent do about a child that is different?
Dr. Greenberg: As soon as this child gets into a group setting parents must stay attuned. Talk to his teachers and observe how/if their child is able to interact with other kids. If your child is able to make friends that is a good thing. Kids sense things, and when kids leave out other kids and don’t want to play with them that is a sign that something is wrong. Parents have to look at how other kids respond to other children, and parents must observe how their child is treating the other kids.
Parents need to observe if, in their environment/school, their children are making connections. If their child is NOT making these friends and connections, parents need to keep their eye on that kid and get him/her in a school setting that will make him/her be successful in his/her environment. Parents need to be careful they are not putting their child in an environment where the child is not making connections. This would mean their child is not having good experiences either socially and academically. This is a very important factor, since such a situation could lead to problems later on down the line.
Kids are rarely born as bad seeds, rather they act out because a lot can’t articulate at a young age what they feel- they don’t have language to say what’s troubling them, so they start to act out and get into trouble. For parents THIS is a red flag: When you see your kid acting out think: what is my child sad and upset about?
I think sometimes we are too quick to punish. First ask what your child is sad about and what is going on.
What is your take on this latest gunman, Elliot Rodger’s upbringing?
Dr. Greenberg: My speculation: it would be highly unlikely that they weren’t problems from an early age, and when you see that as a parent it is your responsibility to help get your kid into a good environment. In psychology we call this a “goodness” of fit: how good is the fit? Is my child thriving in this school? Is it the right place for him?
As a parent you should always be looking at the goodness of fit in terms of where you are placing your child and who he is playing with.
How can a parent determine goodness of fit for a child that seems to be in trouble?
Dr. Greenberg: You talk to all your child’s teachers, find out what is going on. Take your child to a therapist to get a good evaluation. Observe your kid everywhere. Get him help and put him in right environment where he could feel better. There is hope for everyone. You need to talk to every person in your kid’s life.
As children get older how can parents keep this watchful eye on them?
Dr. Greenberg: Watch what your kids are doing in social media. They are seeing all this sexual stuff. Yes kids will be angry—parents are afraid of their kids’ anger—but parents have to remember that they are not the friends: they are the parents. It is the job of the parent to keep his child safe and healthy and if he will get angry that you are invading his privacy- so be it
What should parents be looking for?
Dr. Greenberg: A change in behavior; how your child is spending his time; what kind of social connections he has; how he is functioning in comparison to his peers; signs of acting out or social withdrawal—if you see any of these signs you RUN don’t walk and get your kid into therapy. If you feel your kid is a danger to himself and to others you put him in a place where he can be watched—don’t be afraid of medications—they can save the life of your kid and the lives of people around him.
What else can parents do if they think their kids are in trouble?
Dr. Greenberg: Arrange opportunities for them to have success and pleasure and fun in their lives. Every kid needs to feel loved, to play, and to feel necessary. But kids also need responsibility and accountability. The research shows that kids thrive with rules and they secretly want them. We all thrive with structure and rules in our lives, and if you don’t give them rules and structure the kids see their parents as negligent.
Kids don’t need permissive parents—they need parents that provide rules. Parents really have to watch their kids and in the virtual world. If you are not monitoring your kids on social media, as a parent you are being negligent.
Parents need to grab that window like it is nobody’s business. Social media is a window into your kid’s inner life. Just as our mothers looked out the window and watched us play as kids, this is a window into your kid’s life, so why would you not look into it?