“Everyone is mean to me!”
“Nothing ever goes my way!”
Sadly, these are common refrains from many of my young clients. In my clinical experience, children and teens with ADHD, learning differences, and High Functioning Autism struggle to take charge of their lives. Sometimes they communicate that they are passive players in the world – as if the world happens TO them.
This is in stark contrast with widely held philosophies. America’s founding fathers believed that we have God-given free will to pursue happiness. Carl Rodgers, the founder of Humanistic Psychology, proposed that all people have the innate ability to heal, grow, and realize our vast potential. I agree with Rogers that we can direct our lives in powerful and positive ways through CHOICE. The amazing human brain has differentiated from other creatures by evolving the ability to conceive of the future, evaluate options, and make plans.
Children with deficits in social cognition often communicate to me that they feel ineffective and unconfident for many reasons. It is hard to keep pace and engage with typically-developing peers with incomplete understanding of the unwritten rules of socialization, inflexibility, or weak real-time problem-solving skills. What’s more, my clients often communicate a sense that their emotions and impulses are overwhelming and hard to control.
That is why I instill in each client and camper the belief that, “YOU ARE MORE POWERFUL THAN YOU EVER BELIEVED…You have the ability to take your ROAD TO HAPPINESS™.” We all need to help the child un-learn learned helplessness. We must facilitate in them the belief that they CAN engage and succeed socially and that they CAN cope with their emotions.
Imagine that you are walking the road of your life. Looking ahead, you see a fork in the road with a directional sign. One arrow points to the ROAD TO SADNESS, ANGER, or FAILURE. The other arrow directs you to the ROAD TO HAPPINESS and SUCCESS. Which road would you CHOOSE every time?
Your child has small and large choices like these all day long. Small choices include: would you rather have chocolate or vanilla, or a diet or regular drink? Large decisions are: “Should I take a risk and invite this classmate to hang out?” or “Should I hit this peer who is making me angry or walk away and get help?”
I call the fork in the road DECISION POINT. At DECISION POINT, life presents your child with a CHOICE. What enables a good decision? How do you steer towards the ROAD TO HAPPINESS? At decision point your child must first STOP AND THINK: “What might happen if I do _______?”
Write this powerful anticipatory question and post it in your child’s room or on the fridge. At various points during the day say to your child: “STOP AND THINK: What might happen if you do _______? What is your ROAD TO HAPPINESS?”
Emphasize that your child can enhance his life each and every moment during the day! “If your teacher gives a hard assignment, what will be your ROAD TO SUCCESS™?” On the home front, if your child resists your instructions and is close to receiving a consequence or a tongue-lashing, ask, “If you DECIDE to ignore my instructions, you will lose your video-game time today, but if you DECIDE to follow directions, you keep your privileges. What’s your ROAD TO HAPPINESS? Think carefully…YOU DECIDE!”
Notice the way the language places the responsibility and accountability on the child. Hang back and watch your child think it over. Give your child the gift of thinking about and anticipating consequences. Each time your child successfully takes the ROAD TO HAPPINESS or SUCCESS™, be sure to reinforce with praise. “What a POWERFUL CHOICE!” “GREAT DECISION! You did it!” With each success, your child will develop a sense of personal power, independence, and confidence.
It may sound overly simplified here, but this is very hard for your child! Decision-awareness and execution will likely require abundant repetition and practice. Of course, there will be mess-ups along the way. If your child makes a choice that brings an undesired outcome, you can use the ROAD TO HAPPINESS matrix to review the incident: “How did that work out? When you refused to do your homework because you were mad at your teacher, was that your ROAD TO SUCCESS or FAILURE? Let’s plan for the future; in a similar situation in the future, what would be your actual ROAD TO SUCCESS?”
If your child repeatedly takes the ROAD TO UNHAPPINESS/FAILURE, she may lack critical social-coping skills to execute the positive choices she wants to make. Another possibility is that your child may experience a pattern of reacting negatively to certain situations. It’s hard to make great choices when emotional dis-regulation or impulsiveness gets in the way. We can’t just ASK children to take the ROAD TO HAPPINESS without the necessary skill set. In all these cases your child would benefit from professional help in the form of individual or group therapy with a focus on social-emotional coping skill- building.
I wish for your child and YOU many trips down the ROAD TO HAPPINESS! Onward and upward!