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Fearless Parenting: What It Really Looks Like

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Dr. Meg Meeker

Daniel brought his 15-year-old son, Brandon, to my office. For the past two years, Brandon’s grades had plummeted from B’s to F’s. If he didn’t make serious changes, he was going to have to repeat his sophomore year. When I began questioning Brandon about his routine, changes in his life, and what home life was like, he immediately told me that he had ADHD. His father nodded in agreement when he asserted himself.

Over the next 45 minutes, I learned that Brandon’s parents had divorced four years earlier and he had moved six times. His parents shared joint custody and Brandon missed his father when he stayed at his mother’s.  He didn’t like sports and enjoyed being with his friends at school, but he hated the work. He liked his teachers, but he just couldn’t seem to concentrate in class. He reminded me several times during the 45 minutes that he had ADHD. His teacher even told him that he had it.

When I probed about activities he did at his mother’s and father’s homes, he told me that he didn’t do anything. What about television? “No,” he said. He didn’t watch much, but he did play video games with friends online.

“Every day?” I asked. “Yup.”

His father piped in, “Tell her the truth, Brandon.”

Brandon looked at me. “I play a lot.” He admitted.

“How much is a lot?” I queried.

“Well—maybe three or four hours a day,” he said.

Again, his father broke in. “No, son. It’s more like five hours a day when you’re at Mom’s, right? And about the same at my house.”

I looked at the two of them and asked why he played so much. Clearly his father didn’t approve, and Brandon was a bit embarrassed. He seemed like a very sweet, conscientious young man.

When I asked them, they looked at each other, and his dad shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know.” His father told me, “He just likes the games and they’re not violent or anything. He usually plays soccer, football, and golf. I don’t like him playing so much because he disengages from me when he’s in front of the screen.”

After a few more minutes, I told Brandon and Daniel that depression and learning difficulties can look just like ADHD. No, they didn’t think he had either of those. And when I pressed him on concentration, he said that he could. He read novels every night before he went to bed and could read for an hour at a time.

So what gives? I wondered. I talked about doing more testing on Brandon and evaluating him thoroughly for ADHD and talked about treatment options if he had it. If he really had ADHD, we had a problem, I said. Any treatment that we offered would be potentially negated if he continued to play so many video games. The reason, I explained, was that video games cause him to react to quickly changing movement. What we needed his brain to do was to focus on black words that didn’t jump, sing, or move on a white page. When I began talking about medications, his father interrupted me.

“Look,” he said. “I don’t want my son on any medications.” He was frustrated.

“Sir,” I said. “We have a serious problem on our hands. Your son is failing school, and he won’t do his work. Let me ask you.” I looked right at him. “You know him better than anyone. What is the real problem here?”

Daniel sighed. “I don’t think his problem really is ADHD. He won’t do his work because all he wants to do is play games.”

“So, why do you let him?” I queried.

“I just want him to be happy. The divorce has been rough on him. Games help him relax. Besides, when he’s at my house, I don’t want conflict. If I take games away, I’m afraid I will drive him away.”

Bingo!

His father nailed the problem—or at least part of the problem. Dad was afraid to curb his video game time because he didn’t want his son to be unhappy. The problem was, his leniency was helping his son fail school. Fear drove Daniel to do things that he knew were bad for his son. He just didn’t want his son to be unhappy.

“So what needs to happen here?” I asked.

“I need to go home and lock up the games. When his grades come up, he can start playing again,” he said.

“I agree. Can you do it?” I replied.

“Yes, I can.” He looked at Brandon, and Brandon glared at me.

“I know you can,” I said. “And you have to. Parenting Brandon out of fear is causing him to fail. You can turn that around.”

A light went on in Daniel, and I could see him sit up straighter.

“We’re going home, and the games are stopping. No more. Regardless of what happens, I’m going to take charge here.”

The two left with many forms to complete and a follow up appointment in two weeks. I have a sneaking suspicion that Brandon’s grades are going to climb because his father decided to ditch his fear that his son would be upset, unhappy or disengage from him if he set strong limits. Daniel is a really good father, but his heart got the best of him. And so did fear.

If you struggle with letting your heart rule your parenting, rather than your best judgment, do a little probing yourself.

Is fear keeping you from being an extraordinary parent?

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