Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.
I knew I wanted to work with children in my clinical life many years ago. I’ve always had a passion for children, but as a young intern, I recognized that many problems I saw in teens and adults that had been festering and growing very deep roots for many years. Treatment was, therefore, very challenging.
It isn’t impossible to grow past one’s childhood issues in one’s adult years, but it is much harder. My theory is that issues which have not been resolved by the end of adolescence become life-long issues. These patterns of behavior and thinking become our default. If, for example, one has trust issues with significant others (e.g. a parent) and this issue is not resolved by early adulthood, the individual will always have trust issues.
Difficulty trusting will also generalize to other relationships, even if the spouse, girlfriend, or co-worker never did anything to cause one to question trust.
It is for this reason that children who are abused are statistically more likely to become abusers and children who witness domestic violence are more likely to become victims of domestic violence or abusers themselves. Even when they say, “I’ll never get in a relationship like that” we know they do.
Part of the reason for this is that we are most comfortable with what is familiar to us than what is unfamiliar. Perhaps you have traded in an old car you have had for many years. You know some things don’t work right and it is old, but it isn’t until you sit in a new car that you fully realize how worn out and dirty your old one is. It may be dirty, but was your dirt so it wasn’t as clear to you.
It is also for this reason that even after leaving an abusive relationship, abused spouses/girlfriends/boyfriends are highly likely to get right back into another abusive relationship or even return to the original abuser.
I’ve probably said it before in the 25 years I’ve been writing this column, but it broke my heart in my early general practice days to see 50 and 60 year old individuals still struggling over things that happened when they were 10. How different their lives would have been if they had resolved the issue all those decades ago.
So I have two petitions for you. First, this should make clear the importance of your role as a parent in helping your children deal with serious emotional or behavioral problems when your children are young – preferably pre-pubescent.
It is not uncommon for parents to wait until their children are teens to seek help. That is understandable. When they are small we have so much more control over them and the problems seem so much more manageable. Yet when they start experiencing the freedom as well as the potential rebellion of the teen years, problems are magnified. But by this time their dysfunctions have become behavioral patterns. Change is challenging.
My second petition is to be a good parent. I know you are trying or you wouldn’t be reading this column. Don’t excuse inexcusable behaviors when your children are young. A friend of mine has a son who, when he was younger, regularly whined and threw tantrums until he got his way. His parents, both good people, regularly caved to his demands just to maintain peace.
This continued well into adolescence. By the time he was in his mid-teens, his parents often said to me, “He’s always been this way” as an explanation of his childish behavior. They excused it at that point as if it were something genetic when, in fact, they had created it.
When their son went to college, he had an exceedingly difficult time adjusting to being away from home. His roommate, teachers, coaches, and friends did not accept his temperamental attitude and his parents weren’t there to bail him out. Eventually he withdrew from college, move back home, and to this day he works as an hourly employee at a local grocery. It is a very sad story because he was intellectually capable of pursuing his academic and professional dreams.
So get help for your child early if you need it. And when issues aren’t serious, but they are potentially unhealthy long-term behaviors, expect more from them. Deal with it now or deal with it forever.