Parenting: Wise Ways to Change Your Why’s into What’s

Parents of children and teens with attention, anxiety, mood and mental health challenges often ask, “Why?”

Why is my five-year old daughter the one who always throws a temper tantrum when it’s time to leave the party?”

Why is my ten-year old son constantly in the principal’s office for being the class-clown?”

Why is my twelve-year-old daughter afraid to go to school?”

Why does my fourteen-year-old ‘rage’ for hours when he’s told ‘no’ at home but not at school?”

Why is my sixteen-year-old daughter pregnant?”

Why is my twenty-year-old son addicted to speed?”

These are just a few of the really tough questions weary and worried parents ask counselors, teachers, ministers, and God every day.

You may have asked these same questions in the past.  I know I have.  It’s my hope that this post will give you some hope. 

A few years ago, after my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my wife and I were asking why God would allow such a brilliant woman, her family, and her friends to suffer such a terrible loss.  A wise counselor was empathic when he told us that Gwen has a new purpose in life.  All of her adult life, she taught and counseled children, and now her purpose was to teach each member of her family how to be a better person.

Personally, I am still striving to develop patience when she asks the same question fifteen times every hour, but I have to admit that she has taught me to be more patient when my daughter gets distracted fifteen times an hour while she is trying to complete a simple yet boring and monotonous task.

More importantly, I have learned that when I keep asking, “Why, God, does this one I love have to struggle so?” I need to start asking, “What?” instead.  Specifically, I need to ask, “What is the purpose of this struggle?” and “What can I learn from this one who is struggling?”

This same idea can be applied to your struggles with a struggling child or teen.  Believe me when I say that I know this is an extremely difficult process, but here is what I continue to learn: my child and I grow in strength when I start asking “What can I learn?” instead of “Why is this happening to us?”

Please notice that I said this is a process: in other words, it takes time (a lot of time) and it’s not easy!  Don’t expect to stop asking, “Why?” tomorrow, two weeks from now, or even two years from now.  Also, expect to ask, “Why?” at different times throughout your child’s life (even into their adulthood). What I’m saying is that it’s okay to ask, “Why?” and after you do, follow-up by asking, “What can I learn?”

You can start by learning to focus on the positive “mirror strengths” often associated with your loved-one’s struggles.  For example, many children, teens, and adults with poor sustained attention often have tremendous creativity. Look at Walt Disney: he had trouble paying attention and he lost his first job because of the unimaginable amount of imagination he had inside his brain.

Another example of “mirror strengths” can be found in the ADHD and dyslexic genius Thomas Alva Edison.  Many of his inventions are the result of his strong curiosity.  However, as a five-year-old (and throughout his life,) his curiosity was often mistaken for poor response inhibition (or impulsivity). At the age of five years, Edison decided to light a small fire in the family barn “just to see what would happen.”  What happened was the barn burned to the ground!  Although this and other impulsive acts damaged his relationship with his father, Edison’s mother encouraged his curiosity to thrive.  As a result, he used this strength to obtain over 1,000 patents for new inventions that changed our world.

Most other challenges your child or teen may have can be reframed as strengths.  For example, with my daughter, I’ve reframed stubbornness as determination and arguing as debating or rhetoric. These words have the same basic meaning but these changes in perspective point us to a more positive trajectory in life.

What challenges does your child or teen have?  How can you reframe these as strengths?

Next, focus on learning more about your child or teen’s specific struggles.  What can you learn about  self-control from your child who lacks self-control?   What can you learn about peace from your child who fears going to school?  What can you learn about forbearance from your teen who rages for hours?

Finally, love your loved one for who she is right now.  I know it’s not easy! But, loving others despite their flaws is often the best teacher of the skills we’ve been called to develop.  Here’s the secret: neither my counselor nor I can take full credit for these comforting insights: a long, long time ago, a wise old sage named Paul wrote that when we strive to love the strugglers in our lives, we show the world our joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Paul went on to say that as a result of these actions, we find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, and able to marshal and direct our energies wiselyIn other words, as we show compassion to those who are struggling, we become better people.

Keep loving your struggling loved ones, keep looking for what you can learn, and leave the rest to God: He will never fail you.

Think about it and post a comment below to this question: 

© 2010-2014, Monte W. Davenport, Ph.D.