The One Question That Revolutionized Parenting My Difficult Child

When anxiety and depression drove me to a counselor, she asked me one parenting question about my difficult child that changed my life forever.

A little over two years ago, panic attacks abruptly replaced my ability to sleep. After a week of misery, I went to the doctor and asked for help. A battery of tests came back normal, and I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and mild depression. As a part of my treatment, I began seeing a counselor.

My counselor practiced cognitive behavioral therapy, which didn’t immediately connect with me. We spent our first session debating the realistic odds of my entire family coming down with intestinal illness on our upcoming missions trip to Ecuador. My counselor tried to convince me that I was severely overestimating the probability of this event. (As it turns out, my odds were pretty accurate. But we all survived, so at least she was correct about that.) I left with significant doubts about the helpfulness of her approach.

Things got a lot better when I started to talk about things closer to the heart of my anxiety, like my struggles parenting my son with ADHD. My counselor had a child with ADHD, and I could tell that this time, she understood me with her heart. She was listening with empathy. She had been there.

This photo says a lot about Josiah.

I can’t remember exactly what drama was happening at the time with Josiah and his homeschool support program. Was it soon after he got in trouble for eating his science experiment, despite being warned not to by his teacher? Or was it the time a different teacher told me he had been on his face, eating the dirt between classes? (Turns out he wanted to literally bite the dust.) Maybe it was the week he forgot his email password (because he made it too complicated), borrowed his classmate’s email account, and sent out pictures of a blobfish with glasses (with the title “You hate me”) to his entire class, a smattering of teachers, AND the assistant district superintendent (because his name started with J, just like Josiah). I had begun to tense up every time I saw a teacher approach me when I arrived to pick up my kids.

No matter what was happening on campus, I know for certain what was happening at home, because it never let up. Josiah and I clashed daily over his schoolwork and his difficulties focusing. He seemed driven to reject every suggestion I offered, every strategy I researched. Rather than reaching for what might help him, I watched him cling to those things that made him miserable and unsuccessful. I struggled with discerning what was genuinely difficult or impossible for him because of his ADHD, and what was simply attitude.

Did someone say attitude?

As I poured out my struggles to my counselor, I could feel her understanding and support. When I paused, she asked me one question: “When you pray for Josiah, what do you pray for?” Oh, I had a lot to say. I prayed he’d find his center, make good choices, avoid disaster, follow Jesus. I prayed I would know how to parent him. I prayed…

My counselor gently interrupted. “What do you thank God for about Josiah?” she asked. I blinked. I had been too busy crying out for help to spend a lot of time in thankfulness.

“Next time you pray for Josiah,” my counselor suggested, “try thanking God for what’s good and right about him. It will change your perspective and help you understand him.”

Every now and then, you hear something that is absolutely simple, absolutely true, and perfectly timed to change you. This was one of those times. My counselor was right. Practicing gratitude for my son profoundly alters my perspective and eases my anxiety.

When we give thanks, specifically, for the good we see in our children, we begin to see who they truly are. We glimpse them as God made them to be – his masterpieces – and we get a vision for what they can become. Those parts of our children that infuriate us, that break our heart – we realize that they don’t define them, nor do they define our relationship with them. We begin to view our children through the lens of compassion rather than frustration. We remember that they are gifts, and that God treasures them – and he is just as invested as we are in their future and their becoming.

Josiah is 14 now, and the force of puberty is strong with him. He’s beginning high school next year in a large public school. We have not given up petition for this boy! But I have to remember not to start and end there.

Josiah graduates from 8th grade today, one of three graduates from our homeschool support program. I’m supposed to give a small speech, and I compiled a list of what makes me thankful when I think of my son. I want him to hear (again) these things that are true about him, and I want him to know that this is who he is:

  • He is funny and good-natured. His craziness is never directed at hurting anybody, and the younger boys in school love hanging around him. He can laugh at himself.
  • He is honest. I can trust that his version of what happened is true.
  • He is strong and helpful. He will uncomplainingly lend a hand if I ask.
  • He is curious and loves learning. He asks great questions. He uses his free time to explore new concepts. He wants to become a professor of political and economic philosophy. He has a wonderful writing voice.
  • He is original. He refuses to blindly copy somebody else, but forges a new path. He thinks far outside the box.
  • He is generous. He spends almost all his money on others.
  • He cares about his friends and the world. He’s willing to sacrifice for them. He wants to follow Jesus and make the world a better place.

Writing out a list like that for your child (and remembering it when you’re desperate) really does change your perspective, especially if he or she is the cause of your graying hair, or contributes to your sleepless nights. At the very least, it fills your heart with love and gratitude. There’s a magic in that, too.

***
This article originally appeared at Heather’s blog.
Heather McDaniel
Heather McDaniel grew up in Bangladesh and Kenya, with some states in between. Her husband works for the Indian Health Service, and they’re currently rooting themselves and their three kids in western Washington soil. She loves the ocean, being surprised by beauty, and ice cream. Heather earned a degree in Christian Ed like her mom’s, followed by a degree in public health like her dad’s, but is finally learning that she is called to a path uniquely her own. She writes about the delight and terror of life, parenting, and walking with Jesus at her blog, delightwithterror.blogspot.com.

Comments