Ep 291: Parenting a "Problem Child"

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teenagers. I'm your host, Andy Earle.

What do you do when you have a kid who's lying to you? Maybe they're using drugs. Maybe they have tantrums. Maybe they scream and yell at you.

You might have a teen who gets violent, who throws things, who breaks things, who hits you, who punches walls.

Maybe sometimes you feel afraid for your safety, or for the safety of your other children.

Regardless of how severe your own troubles are, parenting a problem child is never easy. Kristina Kuzmic is a world renowned speaker known for her unique insight and humor on family related topics. She's the author of Hold On, But Don't Hold Still.

And the new book, I Can Fix This, and Other Lies I Told Myself While Parenting My Struggling Child.

Christina, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Kristina Kuzmic: Thanks for having me.

Andy Earle: I am super excited. I've been reading through your new book, I Can Fix This and Other Lies I Told Myself While Parenting My Struggling Child and really powerful piece of writing you've done here.

Kristina Kuzmic: Thank you so much. Appreciate that.

Andy Earle: It's about the myths that parents tell ourselves, but it's also really personal to you and your story with your son. What inspired you to go so deep with this one?

Kristina Kuzmic: I was never going to write this because it's really my son's story. And I have this rule with my kids where I will not share anything. I won't even tell you what sandwich they had for lunch yesterday without their full permission. It's just a matter of respecting their privacy. So with this being so personal and, our family really went through some rough days, I didn't think he'd ever talk about it.

So I figured I'd never write it. And then he actually suggested when we were driving back from the second residential treatment center he was in, he said, mom, what helped me the most was hearing from other teenagers. Because kids are hearing from parents and teachers and psychiatrists. And he said there was something about hearing from another teen.

So he agreed to do a video interview with me. I gave him seven months to change his mind, by the way. Cause I was like, are you sure you want to do this? And we sat down and we did this interview and it got huge feedback from families who were going through the same hell and didn't even know how to talk about it and didn't feel like they understood their teen and their teen was shut down.

That led to the book. And it was completely written with my son's input. I wanted every time I mentioned his name or what he felt to be genuine to his experience. And then he actually writes the last chapter. So you get to hear from a mom and then you get to hear directly from the kid.

Andy Earle: And a lot of the book really centers around his depression and during his teen years and substance use and anxiety and how that's affecting the family and how you're dealing with this and trying to deal with this. And so I wonder what kind of, when that started or Like in, when he was a child, you write a little bit about before this started, he seems like really empathetic and really caring and what kind of what, when did things start to change or when did your relationship with him start to, to change?

Kristina Kuzmic: I started noticing things when he was around 12 and I had actually worked in a high school years back as an assistant theater director. So I just figured I knew what I was doing with teenagers. I was going to be an expert. That's silly. I didn't even know he was struggling at the time, I just noticed he was acting differently. Out of character.

I figured, Oh, teenage hormones. I got this. And that was one of the first lies I told myself. Is that I know what this is. And I think a lot of parents, we assume we know what this is. Because either we've gone through it or we've had experience with teenagers or their sibling has gone through something similar.

So we don't treat the kid as an individual person. We're immediately assuming we know. And so 1 of the 1st things I had to learn. The way I worded in the book is to stand in all of his story. And to really not assume I know anything. He started doing what I consider typical teenage stuff.

He was isolating. He had an attitude, his grades started slipping. And then I started to notice, Oh, he's not just isolating from his parents as a lot of teens do. He doesn't even want to hang out with his friends. He doesn't even care about the hobbies he used to care about. He's not finding joy in anything.

And that's when it clicked for me that this is a lot more serious.

Andy Earle: So then what did that look like or when you started to realize something a little deeper was going on what did you do or how did you respond to that revelation?

Kristina Kuzmic: I decided that he should start therapy. And he thought that therapy was my way of punishing him because we found out that he had started vaping.

In my opinion, therapy was about getting my kid help who's obviously showing signs of depression. Even when he was in therapy, things just were getting worse and worse. He was getting violent. He had never been violent before. Suddenly he's punching holes in the walls.

Nicotine isn't good enough anymore. Now he's drinking. He's getting pot from school, but the weed was always laced with something. So it was like super dangerous. Anyway, all this stuff was happening and finally I asked to speak to this therapist alone and I said, I know you can't divulge to me what you guys talk about privately.

And I respect that. I just want to know if I'm missing something. And that's when the therapist really said, let me read to you the symptoms of clinical depression and let's go through it. And he had every single symptom. Every single symptom. And then I flat out asked him, have you ever thought about hurting yourself?

And he said, yes. Which, is like a life altering moment for any parent to hear that. Immediately, the worst of us comes out is the truth. Yes, we feel empathy and all that, but immediately we go into fear mode, worry mode, stress control mode. And I was giving my son the absolute worst sides of myself. Thinking I was being a proactive, good parent. But really just trying to control the crap out of the situation.

Andy Earle: You talk about that towards the end of the book one of the most profound things for you during this whole journey was to relinquish control. What do you mean by that?

Kristina Kuzmic: So the way I was raised and the way I thought a good parent should act is you see a problem and you solve it. You go into, especially when your kid is telling you they're suicidal.

Are you kidding me? You go into solving mode. And what I realized throughout this process is that in every interaction with my child, or anyone in my life, I have a choice to either control or to connect. But you can't do both because the minute you try to control, it takes you out of that ability to really connect. And that was the missing part.

And I think that's a missing part for a lot of parents. We all have good intentions. We adore our children. Of course, we want to just remove that pain. We want to make everything better. But unless we are connecting instead of controlling, our children will not open up to us. Our children will not even be open to our suggestions.

And I compare it even to my youngest is nine years old. When I tell him if I'm having a day where I'm just trying to control everything and I'm being that mom, I'm And I asked him to unload the dishwasher. His response is usually, do I have to? I don't feel like it. But if I've built that connection throughout the day with my kid, where he feels seen and understood, and he's important, and I care about who he is, and I ask him to unload the dishwasher, the kid unloads the dishwasher without any complaints.

That's a simple example I've noticed, but also the more I started connecting with my teenager, standing in on his story, letting him really teach me what he needs as an individual, instead of me, assuming I know everything, that's when he really started opening up and that's when he became really receptive to seeing a psychiatrist and getting all the help that I was trying to get him.

Andy Earle: You point out in the book that a lot of this was stemming from anxiety or fear in yourself and that often your reaction to that is to look for control or to try to Control the situation a little bit, which I just think is so human and natural. So in order to actually connect rather than control, we also have to come to grips with that anxiety or fear that we're feeling or learn to sit in that a little more.

What does that look like? Or how do we navigate that?

Kristina Kuzmic: That sucks. Sitting in that discomfort, especially when you. Even if you don't struggle with anxiety. What parent of teens doesn't, but let's just pretend. Even if you don't, when you know, your child is suffering and you're supposed to just not control the situation, you're supposed to shut up and listen.

Every time I have actually been able to face a situation with him calmly and openly, I was like, I deserve a Nobel peace prize. I was sweating. It's really hard. I don't think it comes naturally from most parents. I still fail at this. I still have to remind myself. But I'll tell you a quick story that really made me realize how impactful and powerful it is.

One day, this is years into Luca's journey. He had already been hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital. We had already gone through a lot. And. I'm passing by him in our hall and I see cuts on his arms. He had been cutting himself. And this is like at a point where, Oh my gosh, we've had so many ups and downs.

And I thought he was doing better. And I got my hopes up again. And here I see his bloody arms and everything inside of me wanted to go, Luca, what are you doing? You can't do that, buddy. Everything just wanted me to immediately go into fix, and I'm going to teach him, and I need to give him a lesson. All in an empathetic sweet way, not preaching at him. But I just was ready to go in there proactively and make him know why he should never do this again.

And instead, I just took a deep breath and I said, Hey, meet me in your room I'll be there in a few minutes and I'll help you clean up. And I sat next to him on his bed and I was cleaning up his bloody arms. And again, everything inside me just wants to control, just wants to say something that will make sure he never does this again.

And instead I just calmly, I kept reminding myself, take a deep breath and slow down your tone. Take a deep breath and slow down your tone. Because kids also, they sense our energy, right? If we come at them all the time with this, I'm scared, I'm worried, I'm anxious, energy. My God, they're gonna shut down so fast. And what I notice with my son: now, they feel like more big of a burden.

Now they're the ones that are causing this fear anxiety. So now they have more reason that they don't wanna be around, or they hate themselves. Because, look what I'm doing to my mother. And that's the part, it didn't click for me for a long time. So I'm sitting there and I'm cleaning up his bloody arms.

And I just very softly said, how did it feel, Luca? Did it take away your depression? And just very softly. And he said, no, mom, it didn't help. And I said, okay. And again, inside me, I'm like, And on the outside, I just said, okay, so how about we decide you tried it. It didn't help. And then maybe next time you want to try something new, you just call me first.

If you don't want to call me, call your therapist or call a friend, just talk to somebody first. Can we agree to that? And he said, yeah, that sounds good, mom. And he never tried cutting again. I'm not saying that's going to be everybody's story. But what I am saying is he felt. He wasn't shamed. He wasn't judged.

He wasn't lectured. He just felt like I sat there with him in his pain and I asked him to teach me. Did this help? I wanted to know from him. I didn't want to tell him, see that didn't help. Just wanted to hear from him. It just helped him feel connected. And I think that's the most important thing our kids need. Is, mom, do you see me? Are you just paying attention to the symptoms, mom? Are you actually paying attention to the problem?

One of the examples I give in the book is when his depression often showed up as anger and he would touch holes in the walls and he would scream. And what I had to realize is that when, while he was screaming at me, F you, I hate you, which by the way, I'm not saying that any parents should tolerate that.

And there are ways to deal with that. But my problem for a while was I was just hearing him be disrespectful. How dare he talk to me like that? And it took me a while to go. Those are the words coming out of his mouth. But what he's really meaning to say is mom, I hate myself and I want to die. Please help me.

And the minute I was able to see it that way, God, I became such a better, smarter support system for him. And I was making a lot of mistakes.

Andy Earle: But it's so helps you not get triggered by the words when you can start to look past the words or see that something deeper is going on.

Kristina Kuzmic: Yeah, because I think we parents often pay attention to the smoke coming out of the car is a comparison, right? If there's smoke coming out of your car. Oh, I just want to get rid of the smoke. I just don't like the smoke. I don't like this. And you never actually check what is wrong with the car. You're not going to get anywhere.

And same with the kids. A lot of times the kids who are struggling, their behavior shows up in a way where suddenly they're immediately labeled the bad kid or the lazy kid. Cause he won't even get out of bed. And we put these labels on them. Which only increase their struggles, right? Because now they're put in this box. And they already feel like losers.

They're already struggling. And now we're putting them in a box of you're lazy and you don't care. And, you have a temper and you're rebellious. Instead of just going, this is every behavior is a sign of something deeper. What is he trying to communicate with this behavior? What is going on underneath?

Andy Earle: Interestingly you also point out in the book that sometimes it's not just the kids that we're looking at as the bad kid or labeling as the problem that are having something going on under the hood, but maybe there's no smoke. And and sometimes actually the kids who seem like the good kids or seem like they're really going along with the program can be struggling really as well.

And maybe since they're going along with the program, since they seem like they're doing fine, we don't look a little deeper or really ask them about what's going on.

Kristina Kuzmic: I have three kids, Luca, my son, who the book is about is the oldest. And I thought I was doing everything right by checking in with his younger siblings.

His sister's only a year and a half younger than him. So she was in her teen years during a lot of this. And I would go into a room every day and I'd sit on her bed and I'd say, Hey, You doing okay? I know it's really chaotic in the house. It was very chaotic when he would punch holes in the wall or scream or whatever.

And she, she was there when the police got called to take him to the psychiatric office. Like she witnessed so much drama. So I kept checking in with her and I said, Hey, do you want me to find someone you can talk to? And she was like, no, I'm fine mom. I'm fine. And I'm checking all the symptoms.

Her grades normal. She's eating normal, she's sleeping. Like all the stuff they tell you to check. And really come to find out, she was really struggling. She was really struggling. And when I asked her, why didn't you tell me, I kept checking in with you. Why didn't you tell me you were struggling? I tried to be open with you and wanted to give you a chance to talk to me.

And she said, mom, you did, but I didn't want to add more stress. I already saw how stressed you were. And that's the thing with the good kid, right? Even if they don't have a sibling who's struggling. The good kid has this label on them. They're labeled the easy kid. And they, whether subconsciously or not, feel that now they have to play that role, right?

So they're going to make sure their grades are good. And they're going to make sure they do their chore and they're not disrespecting their parents. And then we as parents are like, who? Okay, good. They're fine. Especially if you have a child who's already struggling and taking up so much of, your energy and everything.

God, it's really reassuring to know that the other kids are doing fine, right? And really, she was struggling. So I always warn parents, check on your quote unquote good kids, because our society praises children for keeping the peace and being good, and no one actually thinks about what keeping that peace is costing the child.

Andy Earle: And really it strikes me that the more you validate them for that and express gratitude that they're so easygoing and they have it all together and they're doing so great. Then the less they're going to be inclined to share with you when they actually are struggling or when they do need help, because they don't want to mess that up.

Kristina Kuzmic: Yeah, I'm going to share a really heartbreaking story but I think it's important for parents to hear because it could save some lives. I had a friend. Him and his brother, their dad was very sick. They saw some really sad things towards the end of their dad's life. And they were teenagers and young when it happened.

And it just really, it was very heartbreaking. So one brother ends up just rebelling afterwards. He gets into drugs. He's skipping school. That's the way him dealing with that showed up. And his younger brother, seemed to be doing fine. He, his grades were still good. He didn't disrespect anyone. He was a good kid, all that stuff.

And so all the attention went to the kid who was struggling. This one's fine. He's struggling. And trigger warning. A few months later, the younger one had hung himself. And everybody was like, what? What? That's the thing. You can't just assume that it goes back to that whole thing about standing in awe of your child's story, really coming from a place of curiosity, and really taking the time.

When we found out my daughter was struggling, we decided that every single week, we would just take her out. Nobody else is invited. And give her our full attention. And during those times, we were just going to let her lead, and let her make the conversation whatever she wants it to be. And that's when she really started opening up.

And I know that takes time, especially if you have kids who are struggling. But my goodness, do not assume that your, I hate even saying the word, but quote, unquote, good kid is just fine.

Andy Earle: One of the big lessons that I'll take away from the book is that your son throughout a lot of this time was really pushing you away, was yelling really mean things at you, telling you to just leave him alone and go away. And I hate you. And I found this really powerful. You have a passage in here where you talk about he gets transferred to a hospital after the 10 days in the psychiatric hold, and it says Luca made it very clear to me that he did not want any visitors. I choose to show up anyway. It's the only thing I know how to do. And time again, showing up has been valuable. And I think that's definitely a theme that I'll take away from the book is how helpful that was to just keep showing up, even when he's pushing you away, even when he's saying, no, leave me alone. Not taking no for an answer.

Kristina Kuzmic: Yeah. And my son actually in his chapter, he wrote how, I was one of those kids that didn't want any help. And I didn't, I just kept pushing my parents away. But what he says in there. Is that by my mom constantly ending each conversation with, hey, if you do want to talk, I'm here. I want to listen. And when I said at the time, he would just be like, mom, I don't. Get out of my room.

He'd just respond very quickly and dismiss me. What he said later, and he wrote in the chapter is that I said it so many times it was instilled in his brain. And then when he really was struggling and he felt really desperate, he did come to me. He said, I knew I could come to her because she had said it so many times and he kept, she kept checking in on me.

And I, it was during his roughest days when he was like at his worst, I would take the time to just say, I just want you to know you are loved. I love you so much. Because a lot of times when we're upset because our kid is behaving a certain way, we act in a way where they assume, we're not feeling this, but they assume they're not lovable anymore because now we're mad and we're all that.

And I, I absolutely believe there should be consequences for certain behaviors and there should be boundaries. All that stuff, is important to raise responsible children. But even when your child is at their worst, make sure they know they are loved. That is such a powerful thing. When you are acting you're worst.

And the person you're acting your worst to is I don't accept this behavior, but also I love you so much. Ooh, that is powerful.

Andy Earle: Wow. So much to think about. We are out of time here. Christina, thank you so much for coming on the show for sharing so openly about your story. And I think there's just so much wisdom in the book. And I think so much that parents will relate to no matter what you're What's going on in your household.

So, I highly encourage people to pick up a copy of I Can Fix This. And Other Lies I Told Myself While Parenting My Struggling Child.

Kristina Kuzmic: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Andy Earle: Where can we send people to learn more about what you're up to and get, maybe follow updates from you.

Kristina Kuzmic: So I'm all over social media, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, all the places at Kristina with a K, and last name K U Z M I C.

Andy Earle: Beautiful. Thanks again for coming on the show and congratulations on the new book.

Kristina Kuzmic: Thank you so much.

Andy Earle: We're here today with Kristina Kuzmic, talking about how to parent a problem child. And we're not done yet. Here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

Kristina Kuzmic: Selfless means having no concern for self. How is a parent supposed to stay sane, or even model how to live a healthy life, if they have no concern for self.

So, we're done with that. We are not being selfless anymore. It's not a compliment. We're taking it off the table.

And every time I did this, within 20 minutes, he would come and say, Hey, mom, can we talk? And we would have the most productive conversations.

I realized, my goodness, I'm literally just telling him things he already knows. And my nagging him isn't actually making him hate me more, it's making him hate himself more. Because I'm putting a spotlight. Hey, let me just remind you, Luca, of all the ways you're failing today!

Sorry, parents. We don't always know more than our kids. You know why? Because the only expert at being the kid is the kid.

Oh, man, I learned so much about my child just by simply asking them, help me understand what it's like to be you.

Andy Earle: Want to hear the full interview? Sign up for a subscription today. It's completely affordable, and your membership supports the work we do here at Talking to Teens. You can now sign up directly through Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Kristina Kuzmic
Kristina Kuzmic
Author of HOLD ON, BUT DON’T HOLD STILL and I CAN FIX THIS, Immigrant from Croatia, Over 1 Billion video views on FB, Recovering pessimist, Carb addict
Ep 291: Parenting a "Problem Child"
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