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Problem Child


We have a thirteen-year-old diagnosed bi-polar child that his currently on both therapy and medication. One particular area that we struggle with and causes major relationship problems is his inability to admit to anything that he is questioned about. You could have a video camera of our child committing the act and he not only completely lie, but try and turn it around so that you are the reason he is being questioned. For example: the other day he was asked in front of his teacher if he had all of his homework completed. His answer was emphatically YES. Later that evening he came out and said he had homework to do. When questioned why he answered he had no homework, he became very angry and starts to blame us because we did not specifically ask about today’s homework and he meant he had yesterday’s finished. He does this on any topic that he is confronted with and will not give up until it becomes a shouting match and he then get disciplined. Causing many family problems…..Don’t know what to do???

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Find a behaviorally oriented child psychologist who can work with your family on this issue. You can find them in the YellowPages under psychologists (and sometimes social workers although this is rarer) – you will need to interview them to find out their orientation. Other styles of therapy are good too – I’m not knocking them – but I am most comfortable recommending the behavioral approach (my bias). Although the identified patient is your son – the proper approach is generally to work with the entire family on the issue – to train you and your wife to help work with your son so that he socializes as well as he is capable of. Let’s talk rewards and punishers for a moment. People tend to do what feels good (rewards) and to not do what doesn’t feel good (punishers). There is no such thing as an ‘absolute reward’ – that is to say – a thing that every person in the word finds very rewarding. Similarly, there is no ‘absolute punisher’ either. Rather – each person has unique things that they find rewarding or punishing. A totally common mistake that parents make is to think that the things they (the parents) personally find rewarding and punishing are identical to the things that their child finds rewarding and punishing. So – for example -an upset parent intent on punishing a child’s behavior might send the child to his/her room believing that this isolation will be punishing. However, because there is internet in the room, a stereo and a TV set – the child doesn’t experience this exile as a punisher at all – but rather as a double reward (gee wiz! I get to get away from my stupid parents (reward) and I get to play video games too (reward). In this example – sending the child to the room actually rewards the bad behavior rather than punishes it. If you make assumptions about what your son finds rewarding or punishing that are wrong – you could easily end up thinking you are punishing him when you are actually (from his perspective) rewarding him. This won’t help your situation get better. The thing to do is to get your family interactions with your son studied by a trained behavioral psychologist who can then advise you as to what your son thinks is rewarding and punishing. Once you’ve identified what he is willing to work for (reward) and what he is motivated to avoid (punisher) – you will have the best levers possible in this world for moving his behavior towards a more pro-social position. You will have to be highly consistent in your implementation of your plan to reward his pro-social behavior and to punish his anti-social behavior or it will have a lessened chance of succeeding. This will be hard work – but it will be harder for you to have this problem go unchanged. I believe it will only worsen if you don’t act. You may have a conduct disordered child on your hands – one who is at risk for delinquency in later years (in addition to whatever else is going on). In this sort of case – prevention is better than cure. Do this now.

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