'Don't punish the whole child': LSS family counselor shares insights on parenting

Recently, we profiled “Nancy” and “Dave,” a North Dakota couple whose relationship with their son had deteriorated as he spiraled into drug abuse and violence.

Their relationship was transformed by working with Meryle Vinje of LSSND’s intensive in-home family counseling program.

This week, Meryle tells us about intensive in-home family counseling, a type of court-recommended therapy that works quietly and diligently behind the scenes to save families in crisis.

She also shared perspectives on parenting that can be helpful to any parent, whether their adolescents are straight-A students or on the verge of dropping out of school.

What exactly is intensive in-home family counseling?

Children who are involved with Juvenile Court and the Division of Juvenile Services (for being involved in illegal or high-risk behavior) are referred to Family Counseling for services. Some of our families are voluntary and others are court-ordered. All of our clients are at risk of being removed from the home/separated from their families by Child Welfare or the Department of Corrections.

Our services are free to families, as costs are covered by the state Department of Corrections and North Dakota Medicaid.

We provide mental health counseling services multiple times each week to the parent and child for about 6 months. We address the mental health conditions which we believe are underlying the high-risk behavior. Many of our families wish to work on communication and relationship building, conflict resolution, educational challenges and substance abuse, among others.

How can parents approach their roles differently, especially when they are parenting kids who are acting out?

· “I tell my parents to change how they perceive their role and give them skills and insight for their role as a parent, a mentor and a support system for their child, and the behaviors, thought patterns, and emotions of the child will follow. Treat your child with love, respect, and nurturing and tell them you love them and are proud of them. Even on the worst days, a parent can still find something wonderful to say.”

· “Secondly, don’t punish the whole child when they make mistakes. Punish the poor choice or the bad behavior and then teach by asking, ‘What have you learned from this? What could you have done differently?”

· “Third, set concrete boundaries. If a child knows what the consequence will be, more often than not, they will not make some of their poor choices.

“For example, if mom states they need to be home by 9 p.m. and they don’t come home until 10, next time they will come home at 11 p.m.

“But if they know what the consequence will be – like they’ll actually lose their phone or not be allowed to play Xbox or they’ll have to be home one hour earlier next time – they will make better choices.

· “The No. 1 rule: consistency, consistency, consistency.

· “If the child is home because of a consequence, this is an opportunity to spend time with them. Find out who they are and what their hopes, dreams and goals are, while you teach them to play chess or bake cookies.

· “So many parents overdo it. They tell me, "They were an hour late, so no TV, Xbox, phone, car, friends, going any place, or pizza while you act this way. They broke curfew, they didn't commit murder.”

· “The idea is to teach the child that there are consequences for their choices or actions, but they first must know what the rules are.

· “Discipline is only a small part of being a parent. Positive rewards, encouragement, spending time with them, and advocating for our child are also important. Be present and active in your child's life.

“The secret to being a parent: listen, be active in their life, love them, nurture them, speak with kindness, think before you speak, treat children as your most valuable possession, and continue to learn as your child learns.”

A therapist once told me that one common theme among parents – whether they have straight A students or kids who are struggling – is that they need to give more positive reinforcement. Would you agree with that?

“The one consistent aspect to my therapy is telling the child what potential they have. Most of my kids have never heard they are smart, they are talented, they are caring or lovable or wanted, that they determine their life, no one else gets to do that, that they determine what they want to take away from their life and what they want to leave behind.

“One of my kids was extremely bright. He had a high IQ, yet he failed eighth grade twice. I became involved at the end of his second attempt at eighth grade. I told him he has a healthy IQ, and I explained IQs to him and that 66 percent of all the population has an average IQ, including most of his teachers.

“When I told him that his IQ was higher than mine, he turned his head and said, "’No, no, no.’ I told him there are many factors to determine intelligence, and that knowledge was just learned information.

“Going back to his failing eighth grade, I spoke with the principal, and she agreed to allow him to take a final on all his subjects. If he passed with a 75 or better, he could continue on to ninth grade. I picked him up from home, we went to the school, I sat outside the room while he took his tests, and he passed all five classes and moved on to ninth grade. We celebrated by going to his favorite pizza place!”

Your work sounds rewarding, but demanding. What is your favorite part about it?

“It is a job unlike any other job. It is not traditional therapy. Sometimes I am an advocate, sometimes a mother, educator, therapist, social worker, nurse, teacher, guidance counselor, coach, cook, and many more hats. I love my job and the families I work with. We never know how important we are in someone else’s life.

“There are so many times that I question if I am doing the right thing with a client, am I going to be effective in my treatment, will my work make a difference in their life? It is nice when I get to see the end result – it keeps me going.”

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