What if my child shows no remorse?

Q: Our 6 year old son has had issues since learning to walk. Defiance is key with him. He has ALWAYS done whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. As I’ve said above, we’ve done everything we know how, and everything counselors have told us to do and none of it works. The scariest thing is through all the consequences, through all the rewards, through all the extra attention and ‘time-in’, he just doesn’t care. He will look you straight in the eye and say “I stole, I know it is wrong” with no remorse, no care. You can cry and be honest with him how it saddens you as a parent and he looks at you blankly. 

A: It sounds like he may be emotionally closed off due to some kind of internal distress. If so, it makes sense that guilt and crying and all that other stuff that may seem to work with your other kids won't penetrate his shell. Often, despite appearances, kids actually have a whole lot of feelings happening underneath those blank looks.

For starters, I'd recommend that you ask your doctor to complete a thorough medical evaluation in case there are physical or developmental issues that are impacting your son. 

Be There After School

Between the hours of 3:30 and 5 pm, I've learned the following information about my kids' classmates:

who is cutting
who is having sex
who is smoking pot
who is sneaking out at night
who is contemplating or has attempted suicide
who is being abused at home
who has access to guns

This treasure trove of data flows freely at our kitchen table on a daily basis. The precious first few moments when kids walk in the door after school are a magical window of opportunity - they are weary from carrying information that is complex and disturbing all day, and they want help making sense of it. Just like that big heavy backpack ... it's such a relief to drop the burden with a thud the second they get in the door.

For this reason, I try to make it a point to stop whatever I am doing and sit down with them while they eat a hearty snack. On the days that I miss this magic window, they have moved on to other projects by the time we connect, and the concerns of the school day are no longer so easily accessible.

These kitchen table conversations about other people's problems (or OPP as they call them on a local radio station) are PRICELESS. We hash it all out together in neutral territory. I get to say things like, "Wow, I wonder if your friends know that if they don't use condoms correctly, they could get pregnant." Or, "Gee, I wonder if she considered that those naked pictures she texted to her boyfriend's cell phone could end up being seen by thousands of people on the internet."

If my kids think I'm being paranoid or overly cautious, we often move to the computer to do some research together to prove me wrong. (And sometimes I am wrong ... but not often. LOL) Many times those informative links get emailed off to their classmates.

Of course, there's a more obvious benefit to being home after school if you can. Research tells us that an astronomical percentage of first sexual encounters and drug experimentation happens between the hours of 3 and 6 pm.

If you have to work and can't be home to supervise, here are a few ideas for supportive structures you might consider putting in place: call home frequently, text them, come home early without notice every so often so they never know when you might show up, or randomly send a neighbor to your door to ask for a cup of sugar.

You might also encourage your teen get an after school job. Something as simple as helping the mom next door take care of her young children or walking dogs in the neighborhood can be productive, income-generating, and encourages pro-social connections.

Even the most reponsible kids still have moments of brain snafu, so don't make it easy for them to get into permanent trouble while acting on a temporary impulse. Know where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing. Our teens still need adult supervision -- not the prying and intrusive kind of supervision, but the kind that could knock on their door any second to deliver a plate of cookies, and will notice what they are up to.

Dealing with Inappropriate Behavior

How do you suggest dealing with things such as calling me names (like dumb and stupid), throwing things at me or other members of the family, destroying something in the house or other such behavior?

How do I be sensitive to my child's needs and yet still teach her about boundaries?

I'd read those kinds of outbursts as signal flares or indicators that tell you your child's nervous system is overwhelmed. When she's feeling calm and centered, those things don't happen. And once she's already gone over the edge, she's no longer receptive to reason or a lesson.

This is why parents are so often frustrated that their kids continue to repeat undesirable behaviors even after they've given them a consequence. Children who are focusing on their own pain, loss, or disappointment are not receptive to learning. Additionally, consequences alone do not teach children what you want them to do next time. They need concrete guidance during a time when their brains are receptive to learning in order to make a change.

So, what's a parent to do? First, intervene to insure safety. Gently contain your child and/or move the victim or object out of reach.

Then tell her it looks like she's feeling overwhelmed, and that you will help her. She needs your assistance with learning how to read her own cues. Saying things like, "Uh-oh, when I see you starting to push I know it means you need some space. Let me help you find some," lays the groundwork for her to interpret her internal cues by herself.

Eventually she will be able to initiate protective action on her own. Every time you read and respond to her behavior as communication, you help her learn more about her temperament and her needs, and how to advocate for them in healthy and appropriate ways.

Give her the language you want her to use by saying to the other party, "Susie is needing some space right now, so she's going to play over here on her own for a little while. Please don't go near her. When she's feeling ready to play with you again, she will come and find you."

Hopefully, children are very physically attuned to their adult caregivers, and take great comfort from their presence. So the closer you can keep her to you when she's overwhelmed or stressed out, the sooner she can entrain to your calmness and settle down. You may want to invite her sit on the kitchen floor and color while you are cooking or whatever. It doesn't mean you have to drop everything and focus on her. Just let her be close.

To recap so far: your first job is always to insure safety. Then to help her settle down (and remember to settle yourself down, too!) Emotional upset and learning do not mix, so there's no point in trying to reason with or instruct or correct an overwhelmed child. Only after she is feeling safe, calmer, and connected to you again does the teachable moment become possible.

So later that day, when she's relaxed and open, that's when you say, "Hey, let's talk about what is going on for you when you start pushing (namecalling, throwing, etc). I'm wondering if that's your way of saying (I need a break, I'm really frustrated, I'm sad that I can't have what I want, I'm tired, I'm angry, etc). And the thing is, it's hard for me and others to listen to messages that hurt or scare us, so let's see if we can figure out a way for you to tell us what's going on for you in a way that we can hear it better."

Listen to her suggestions, and decide together on a phrase or gesture that she can use to signal to you that internal pressure or frustration is building up and she's gonna blow. Do your best to respond right away when she gives you the signal - her fuse is probably very short at this point in time, and she's still learning, so there might be only a very small window to intervene before she takes matters into her own hands.

I hope this helps. If you'd like help working through this process, I'm available for parenting consultations by phone and email. Please feel free to contact me at karen@karenalonge.com .