Actions work: you can’t negotiate with your children

COLUMBIA—The Catholic focus on strong families is a great gift parents can rely on as they help their children through the struggles of adolescence.

“The wonderful thing about our faith is we really learn early how to cherish other individuals, to cherish our parents and cherish our children,” said George Holmes, Ph.D. “If you’re engaged in cherishing somebody, they have a feeling that they’re cared about in a powerful way and that they cannot fail.”

On March 18, Holmes discussed issues facing youth ages 10-20 at a workshop with parents at St. Peter Church in Columbia, where he is a member.

Before he retired, Holmes was chief of child and adolescent psychology at the William S. Hall Psychiatric Institute for the S.C. Department of Mental Health in Columbia, and a professor in the department of neuropsychiatry and behavioral science at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

Parents asked how to handle hot-button topics, including bullying, drug use, and depression. Holmes said many parents of bullied children feel completely powerless when dealing with school administrators because bullying is too often treated as a normal part of childhood.

He cited research on schools in Scandinavia that dealt with bullies by making the students directly accountable for their actions and declaring zero tolerance.

Students who were anonymously reported for bullying were closely monitored by teachers. If the problem persisted, they were suspended or even expelled.

“They’ve been able to reduce the problem tremendously,” he said. “They simply said … we don’t allow people who are bigger, older or meaner to take advantage of [other] people … If administrators and teachers don’t take control of the culture of a school, it’s chaotic.”

Parents must take action quickly when they discover their teenager is using drugs or alcohol, he said. Negotiating does not work. If the behavior persists, Holmes said, parents must get the child treatment as quickly as possible.

They also need to recognize the signs of clinical depression, including withdrawal, listlessness, ignoring personal hygiene and appearance, and extreme irritability.

“Parents, other adults and sometimes teachers think depression is a normal part of adolescent development, and that’s a horrible myth,” he said. “There are teens who get sad for a while, over a particular event like a breakup or losing a friend, but clinical depression immobilizes an individual.”

Depressed children need to be treated by a good child psychiatrist or psychologist, he said, and also benefit from spending time with their families and staying active.

Holmes said personal relationships are important now more than ever because families are often over-scheduled, spend hours each day staring at computer and smart-phone screens and communicate through text messages, Tweets and e-mails.

He encourages parents to spend as much “unplugged” time as they can with their children, and to volunteer or do community service as a family whenever possible.

“Go help build a house for somebody who’s so poor they’ve never had anything like that in their lives,” he said. “There’s something very powerful about enhancing empathy in adolescents. They have the capacity to identify with others, and the capacity to empathize does beautiful things for your soul.”