Turning attention to angry youngsters

Center in Queen Anne's sponsoring conference on `challenging' children

May 21, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Crystal Sipes put her feet up on the cluttered coffee table, took a sip of her sweet iced tea and told a support group about how her 6-year-old son sprayed gold paint all over the walls of his new bedroom.

Sipes and her husband had just spent a day painting the room white and needed only to put down carpet before their son could move in. The next morning, her husband discovered the spray paint.

"He was upset, but he did the counting thing and cooled off," Sipes said of her husband, after the meeting for parents of children with hostile, defiant behavior. "Before these meetings, he couldn't have done that. He would have taken the can away from the child and busted his rear end."

The Kent Island residents are founding members of a group of parents that meets in Grasonville - just over the Bay Bridge from Annapolis - every Tuesday night to work through problems with their children. Their guide is the 1998 book by child psychologist Ross W. Greene, The Explosive Child.

Some psychologists estimate that about 15 percent of children have what they call "oppositional defiant disorder" - or explosive behavior. To help parents cope, the state-run Judy Center in Queen Anne's County, which serves as host for the support group, is sponsoring a free conference on "Challenging Young Children" tomorrow through Friday.

"This is the beginning of creating a community that supports children and families that are having these difficulties," said Dorothy Carpenter, outreach manager for the Judy Center in Queen Anne's, one of 24 Judy Centers statewide that provides family support, and health and education programs for young children.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the disorder's causes are unknown, but biological and environmental factors might have a role. Treatment, the academy says, can be wide-ranging, and might include family and individual psychotherapy, as well as training parents to manage a child's behavior.

For some parents of explosive children, the Grasonville center has become a refuge. Their children, they say, can be inflexible and easily frustrated and exhibit behaviors such as intense temper tantrums, mood swings and verbal and physical aggression.

Carpenter is the facilitator of the support group, which formed in the fall and has about 10 regular members. State education officials said they believe it is the first of its kind in Maryland. But it shouldn't be the last, group members said.

The weekly meetings start with a "dump session," in which the parents talk about how their week went. "It's nice to be able to ... have other people laugh and cry with you," Sipes said.

Often, the group brings in a speaker, including psychologists and special education employees.

Sipes and others said they have become better parents through the group. They have learned how to reach children who don't respond to traditional child-rearing. They try to prevent conflicts, such as talking to children about what to wear before they get dressed, instead of trying to make them change later.

They have also learned to do quick mental sorting of their children's behavior, to deal first with the truly important issues and not let small problems become big deals.

"My mom's philosophy was, if you spank them enough, they'll mind you," Sipes said. "That won't work at all for these kids."

Frances Jones, who is raising two of her grandchildren on Kent Island, said the group has helped her become more relaxed and less confrontational. She also has learned how to deal with the school system and get her grandson into special education classes.

"It used to be going to school was a nightmare. Now we rarely have a problem," Jones said. "I want to know I'm doing everything I can right to help these children. I'm all they have."

Mostly, the parents help each other cope. The parents know they can talk about how their children stomp on their homework or climb onto roofs or struggle academically and with peers - and the parents can find people who understand.

"It makes you feel like you're not alone," Sipes said.

Information about the conference: 410-827-4629.

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