The Director, Prof. Gordana Buljan Flander, Ph.D., was a guest on the program Ether Familias on Radio Sljeme on June 3rd, 2019. She discussed with the host Ivana Krušlin Radaljac the topic of parenting and contemporary upbringing, setting boundaries and seeking support in everyday parenting concerns.
At the very beginning, the director explained how one could ask for advice or help at the Child and Youth Protection Center of Zagreb.
- People often think that we are a private institution, which we are not. The City of Zagreb is the owner and founder of the Center, but we are within the healthcare system, which means that parents and children come to us with a referral issued by a family practice doctor. Therefore, anyone who wants any advice, any answer to a question concerning upbringing, can come, and parents who feel that their child is exposed to violence, parents whose children are exposed to bullying at school, can also come. People often associate us more with violence against children and among children, and then think that when they come to us, some action will be taken immediately to remove the child from the family or some action against them. This is simply not true. All parents with any parenting questions can come to us, they don’t have to pay anything, everything is on a referral. So we are open to all the educational and developmental problems of children.
Host: Today, parents are unable to detect what is happening to their child. Some major intervention may not be necessary, but parents cannot do it themselves.
- Of course, that’s why the profession is here. If something is wrong with the car I will go to the car mechanic, if there is a problem with the water I will go to the plumber, so it is logical, if we have some educational questions and dilemmas, it is logical to ask mental health professionals. I think it’s good for parents to contact, seek advice and help. On the occasion of Parents Day on June 1st, I appealed to parents via Facebook and in a column on our website, trying to encourage them to come forward if they need help. It is no shame to seek help, nor is it a sign of parental incompetence. Actually, it is a sign of parental competence and respect for the profession. Unfortunately, when it comes to the psychological and psychiatric profession, especially in relation to children, parents often think that they have to know everything best. Why would they know? It’s not their profession.
Host: Parents can learn some skills that they didn’t have and then continue that mature relationship at home.
- Sometimes a few appointments and tips are enough. I’ve been working for a long time and sometimes I meet people who say “I met with you 10 or 15 years ago, and you told me that my child doesn’t have a problem but that I have a problem, that I don’t understand what is going on in child’s head or in child’s soul or that I don’t understand that developmental stage, especially in adolescence, your two-three-four sentences have changed my perspective on the situation and it has helped me and my child”. So we are not miracle workers, but we know developmental and child psychology, we know what is usual and expected for a certain age, we know what we can attribute to parental influences and some other influences. That is why we are a mental health profession and it is really not a shame and not a problem if parents seek help, it is a shame if they do not seek help and support when they need it. “
Host: How is it that Croatian society still didn’t get rid of this stigma that if someone hears you go and ask for help and a psychologist then it’s horrible?
- I specialized in America, and it really made a big difference to see how modern it is to have a psychologist there, and people here come secretly from another city so others don’t see them in their city. Although, I have to say that the situation is getting better from year to year, there is a destigmatization of psychologists, but psychiatrists are not yet. Sometimes parents call me to appoint their child to a psychologist, and I see that the problem is for a psychiatrist and I say this: “Don’t waste your time on a psychologist, it’s a problem for a psychiatrist,” and they say, “I don’t want my child to go to a psychiatrist, I don’t want the grandparents or neighbors to know”… And this is actually a shame because the wrong message reaches the child. It is necessary for us all to work together to destigmatize psychiatric problems, so we will work more on prevention and thus help our children more. Research shows that 25% of psychiatric problems start in preschool age, by the age of seven, and 50% by school age, by the age of 14. So, by then, we need to get a grip on the problem and even then parents need to seek help and advice to prevent bigger problems.
Host: When it comes to when parents should seek help and advice, often experts tell parents to be a parent, not a friend, to set firm boundaries.
- Boundaries are necessary, they just don’t need to be set in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation of the child, when a child is afraid of some horrible punishment like physical violence. They should be placed in an atmosphere of love, but they must be firm. And that is where parents often slip, because those boundaries are not tight, consistent and they don’t endure. If you ground a child, don’t ground them for 30 days, because by the fifth day you will give up. Give them one day … When a child grows up they will tell you, “Mom I knew exactly when you meant seriously”. Kids know very well whether we are consistent or not, whether we mean it seriously or not. When we say something we should stick to it.
Host: It is common advice that a child should not be told “Do you think it is bedtime” but should be told “It is bedtime”.
- The big problem nowadays is that parents give up their parental responsibility and their parental role… Parents are the ones who set boundaries and set rules with the child, but then they also insist on following these rules and sanctions or consequences if the rules are not respected. So it’s the parent who has to say at 11 o’clock you’ll be home because the law says so, and there’s no negotiating. And that is why we cannot be best friends with our children. These are the phrases we speak only to get closer to them, because we don’t know how else to control the child. So you can say to a friend “I won’t be home by 11 o’clock in the morning”, and it is the parent who has to make sure that the rules are set and that the children and family comply with the law. The parent cannot be the best friend of the child, the children have the best friends of their age at school, kindergarten…
Host: How to maintain parental authority?
- I think what matters most in parenting is the relationship with the child. One should never lose a relationship with a child. I would say that it is important to nurture this relationship so that parental and child dignity remains preserved. So we will not humiliate the child, but we will not humiliate ourselves either. We cannot consider a child neither our property nor a bad person that we need to repair, nor can we consider a child an equal member in the sense that he or she makes decisions as much as we do. The child is entitled to their opinion, and their opinions, their desires, their problems should be heard… so that we can understand it. But we are the ones who make the final decisions in the best interests of the child. So if a child says “I want to play games all night”, of course we can’t allow that. That’s his wish, but it’s not his best interest. Because he needs sleep too. If the child says he doesn’t want to go to school, we will not allow him or if he doesn’t want to go to the doctor when he has pneumonia. And today parents know how to say “The child has a right to his opinion, I have to respect his opinion”. His opinion should be respected and heard, but it is we who make the decisions in the best interests of the child.
- I especially emphasize this, in the situation that we are experiencing today, and these are high-conflict parental divorces, when one parent “goes through the woods and the other by the road.” When there are parents who feel that their children don’tt need another parent, because if they don’t need them then their children automatically don’t need them. Then they say it is the child’s will and desire … It is important that we take over the parental responsibility in this part as well.
- It is always important to keep the child in focus, no matter what decisions you make. If the child’s interest is in conflict with that of the parents, in this case, we in the Center always stand on the side of the child, and in this case we always include other systems, such as the social system, which is not there to deprive the parents of the child. Social workers are not someone who abducts the children from their parents.
Host: Why in Croatian society, social workers are thought of as people who take away the children from their parents. It’s not that simple. Often, removing children from their families is salvation to those children.
- Absolutely. Both as an expert witness and as a clinical psychologist who has been doing this job for a long time, I have to tell you that whenever I witnessed the withdrawal of parental rights, every time I thought that it was even too late to start this procedure and that it would be much better for these children to have started this procedure earlier. Because if one year when the children are separated from the family we see that the parents don’t have parental competences, and if they don’t have the capacity to change, why prolong this measure from year to year and deprive the child of the chance to be adopted, why give the parents a chance to change if they don’t have the capacity to change? Certainly experts in social work evaluate families very well and from my experience, they start the process of removing a child from the family too late. Why do they have such an image? I do a lot of training for the centers for social work and care in our country as well as in Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia… so I know that the same story is everywhere in the region. Everywhere, they see a social work professional as someone who will take your child away.
- I think there are several reasons for this. One is that they themselves don’t have enough self-awareness, they don’t have enough confidence that what they are doing is good. And they don’t have it because – from my experience – they don’t have support. And they must have support of the institutions for which their work, to be respected and valued as a very important profession. It is a difficult, responsible and dangerous job, and we, as a society, do not appreciate them enough, but think that they are someone dealing with the poor and some problems… and not being respected enough. When it happens that a child is bad, something bad happens to them, everyone will point their finger at the welfare center and ask why they didn’t withdraw parental rights earlier, and if they did it earlier, then everyone will get on their feet and ask why are parents deprived of their child because any family is better for than no family.
- So whatever we do is not good because we think, as in psychology, that we know everything. People allow themselves to make decisions and some judgments and opinions based on lack of knowledge and lack of competence. What can someone know about some family, so they comment on a Facebook group, or comment in a newspaper about a family like they know the family as good as the welfare center?
Host: Commenting on FB groups turns into one form of harassment, presenting personal information, calls for action on the edge of the law, this is a platform that no one controls…
- That’s really true. In these situations I feel sorry for the children, because the parents publish information about their children, parts of psychiatric and psychological findings. Tomorrow these kids will google it so they will see it for themselves. Their parents are creating a digital identity that is not their choice, they are violating their children’s right to privacy, lynching calls can happen… I also see comments about our Center, which can vary from compliments to lynching calls, because if we, in a high-conflict divorce, take the side of the child, then inevitably the parent who has received a finding with which he is not satisfied, will declare us incompetent, corrupt, that we are in contact with the Welfare Center… Why would we be in contact? When it comes to their parenting competencies, especially parents who think best of themselves and who are not ready for change, are not ready for the insight offered by the profession, they will turn their anger towards the experts. They would rather declare an expert incompetent than change themselves and be a better parent to their child…”
You can listen to the full interview on our You Tube channel here: (in Croatian): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khIMuDoN_rA&t=22s