‘Your son got into trouble.’ I tried to stay calm.’: Dad shares how to parent an ’emotionally troubled child’

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“My wife and I were thrilled when we learned we were having a boy. Our firstborn, Stella, was five at the time and had been wanting a playmate for so long. So, our little family welcomed Marcus with all our love on the morning of June 18th. Marcus was generally a cheerful kid. He mostly got along with his sister, especially when they would play together in the backyard in costumes and role-play adventures they saw in cartoons and Disney movies.

As early as preschool, my wife and I have seen Marcus’ interest in creative arts, specifically theater. So, we let him pursue his creative passions and encouraged him to join productions and clubs at school. His enthusiasm for theater arts grew when he was in grade school. He was actively participating in his classes and receiving recognition for his performances with his theatre troupe. He was happy. My wife and I were very proud. We knew our son was doing great in school and his extracurricular activities.

Although when he entered middle school, we started to observe changes in his behavior. We thought it was just a normal phase transitioning to his teenage years. But Marcus started to isolate himself from us. He wouldn’t talk about his passions much anymore, and he would easily become irritable about even the littlest things. I’d get mad when he’d talk disrespectfully to his mother, but it was challenging to connect with him whenever we tried to reprimand him. He’d just shut us down even more.

Then one Wednesday morning, my wife got a call from the school’s guidance counselor, Mrs. Tucker. ‘Your son, Marcus, got into trouble,’ she said. My wife immediately called me, and we hurriedly went to Marcus’ school. My heart ached when I saw our 11-year-old son on a bench outside the guidance office. His downcast gaze and puffy eyes made me want to just hug him and take him straight home.

As we approached him, Mrs. Tucker popped out of the office and welcomed us with a sad smile. Marcus had to stay outside while we talked in Mrs. Tucker’s office. I saw my wife’s face full of worry as we sat down and talked to Mrs. Tucker. ‘Marcus is a very bright kid…’ The guidance counselor started the conversation with a very concerned look on her face.

I tried to stay calm as Mrs. Tucker told us what happened with Marcus. ‘Is he open to both of you?’ I heard her ask. My wife answered hesitantly. Marcus used to be open to us both. He used to be excited and eager to learn and interact with people. I don’t know what happened, why did he change?

Courtesy of Stanley Clark

Mrs. Tucker said Marcus got into a fight with one of the students in his class. He got angry and threw a fit because this other boy teased him for being in the theatre club. This was the first time my wife and I were hearing this. He had this anger and frustration we didn’t know about. Mrs. Tucker advised us to approach Marcus calmly and acknowledge how he feels to help him express his sentiments to us.

My wife and I exchanged apprehensive looks before facing our son. We both know we’ve tried being calm, and that didn’t work. Marcus was quiet throughout our drive home. When we got home, I tried to approach him first, but he avoided my eyes and steered clear of me. My wife also tried, but Marcus just stormed into his room. How can we talk to Marcus without driving him away? We had to act fast.

I convinced my wife to contact a psychologist who could help us manage our son’s issues. She agreed and scheduled an appointment with Dr. Rhodes, a psychologist who was strongly recommended by a family friend. The next day, Marcus was still quiet but calmer at breakfast. I tried to start a conversation about an upcoming theatre premiere that weekend. Yet Marcus stayed silent as if he did not hear me. I looked at my wife anxiously, and she assured me with a tap on my shoulder.

The same day, my wife and I visited Dr. Rhodes’ clinic and talked about Marcus’ problems. We told the doctor lately, Marcus has some anger and frustration issues that affected his relationship with the kids at school and us. After a long chat with the psychologist, my wife and I decided to talk to Marcus again. But this time, we tried to apply Dr. Rhodes’ advice.

We talked to Marcus separately, so he wouldn’t feel we were ganging up on him. My wife spoke to him first, and I observed a slight positivity in my son’s mood after. When I asked my wife what happened, she said she just listened to Marcus and told him she understood. ‘We talked about how he was feeling and why he was feeling this way,’ she said.

I was in awe of how simply asking the right questions could turn things around. I thought about what Dr. Rhodes said: ‘Identify the triggers for his behavior and let him feel you believe and accept what he feels.’ After my wife’s talk with Marcus, I was feeling confident the situation would get better. Marcus was starting to interact with us again, until it was my turn to talk to him.

I picked him up at school that day, and I surprised him with a sweater, saying, ‘Theater is my sport.’ I was excited about the sweater, but he got frustrated and stopped talking to me when he got it. I didn’t know what I did wrong. I started to get frustrated, too. I told Marcus to stop acting this way, but he just got angrier, and the tension between us escalated.

When we got home, my wife was shocked to see our son sprinting angrily from the car to his room. ‘What happened?’ she asked. I heard a slight exasperation in her tone. She saw the defeated look on my face, with the sweater in my hand. She hugged me and comforted me, saying, ‘Give Marcus his time and space. Let him process this first. He’ll come around.’

At this point, I knew I could not just give up on my son. And so I gave him time to process his thoughts and feelings and waited until he was ready to talk. One Sunday, our family was out in the park having a picnic when I finally had a chance to talk to Marcus. This time, I allowed myself to be vulnerable as I explained how I felt. I reiterated how difficult it is for me sometimes to express my emotions and feelings, too. I let him understand it’s just normal.

When I said this, he saw a bit of himself in me. He started opening up because I approached him as a friend and I was open, too. He was just listening at first, but to my surprise, he hesitantly started expressing himself. ‘The ‘cool’ guys were trying out for soccer and baseball, but I chose the theater and auditioned for the lead role. They made fun of me.’ My heart broke for my son. But I also encouraged him.

‘I know you feel angry and upset, and that’s normal. But if those kids tease you again, you can choose to ignore them to save you the trouble.’ Marcus looked at me, confused. I explained further, ‘For instance, when I get agitated, as you do, I count in my head to calm myself down. Fighting those kids will not resolve anything, you know.’ He was quiet for a while, and finally, he apologized and explained how he felt alone and misunderstood.

I let him know he is safe talking to his mom and me, and I believe in him. He doesn’t have to tell us everything if he is not comfortable talking about it. But I assured him we support him, no matter what. Following this conversation, Marcus gradually warmed up and started speaking to us again. My wife observed positive changes in his behavior, like lesser tantrums and frustrated yells.

We went back to the psychologist and told him of our progress. Dr. Rhodes encouraged us to help Marcus find a constructive outlet to release his frustrations and intense emotions. Marcus is now into painting. He still loves theater arts, but we learned not to pressure him on it. There are still bad days when he would be angry and throw a temper, but my wife and I now know how to manage his emotional fits.

Talking to our son openly and making him feel understood helped us make sense of handling his emotions. It also helped us identify ways to engage with him better. At the same time, a psychologist’s expert advice taught us how to address and sort out my son’s emotional struggles. If there is one thing I learned from this experience, it is the fact that in dealing with your children’s emotions, it is crucial for you to make them feel validated and safe to help them express their feelings openly.”

Courtesy of Stanley Clark

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Stanley Clark. You can follow him on Twitter. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read another story by Stanley here:

‘Crying was NOT associated with boys. ‘It looks like you’re depressed.’ I had to be ‘man’ of the house.’: Man advocates for mental health, ‘I finally felt SEEN’

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