The Relationship Expert
Licensed Psychologist in Arroyo Grande & Los Osos
I work with parents who have children ranging from infants to teenagers. Some have a child who is going through a difficult time in his or her life, which can be excruciating for their parent who feels helpless to do anything about it. Others are doing their best to guide their child in the face of defiant or irresponsible behavior. Many parents of teens are left wondering, whatever happened to that adorable little boy or girl who used to look up to me?
If you’re a parent, and you are dealing with challenges with your child, I want to hear about it. I also want to hear about you. I’ll ask you about the pressures you are under as a parent.
I’ll definitely want to learn about your family dynamic as you were growing up. For instance, did you get to see a strong model of parenting in action, or are you doing your best to make it up on your own? Perhaps you’re striving to be the opposite of your parents who weren’t capable of giving you the care and structure you needed growing up.
If you’re married, I’ll want to learn about your relationship with your spouse. When the chips are down, do you feel like your husband or wife has your back? Many parents who come to therapy also work through marriage counseling issues, too.
One thing we’ll work on together is focusing on the things you can control as a parent and letting go of the things you can’t. It’s natural to ask how to get better control of your children. But the truth is, you can’t “control” your children…just like you can’t control your spouse, your in-laws, your friends, or anyone else. In reality, there’s only one person you can control.
Giving Parents the Tools They Need
This applies to how you discipline your children. You have control over what you choose to do when your children throw you a curve ball. When a child acts out, it is incredibly tempting to react without thinking. We’ve all done it. Like a marionette dancing on a string, there is no choice, but only an action and a reaction.
In parenting counseling, we focus on giving you, as the parent, the tools you need to give a timely and thoughtful response to your child’s behavior. Regardless of how your child acts, you can have a plan that allows you to give correction in a calm, assertive way. And you can do this in the face of one of the most powerful emotions parents experience.
Parents Overcoming Fear
There was a show several years back called, Fear Factor. In it, contestants performed a variety of stunts, many of them extremely scary, to win a cash prize. For one test, contestants would immerse their bodies in a container filled with live snakes. Meanwhile, a timer ran to see how long they could endure. Yikes!
When children misbehave, it can bring up some scary feelings in parents. Frustration, anger, and even guilt can rise up in a flash. The feelings are prompted by something deeper than just a natural reaction to the defiance of a child.
Parents can see what their children cannot. Namely, that their child’s misbehavior has the potential to lead to a bad and painful place. Nearly all parents are scared to death that their child would experience pain. To think of someone you love so much going through pain—that’s the ultimate fear factor. Especially when you know that the pain could have been avoided if your child had only listened to you.
Parenting Counseling in Action
As we work together in parenting counseling, I ask parents not to run from those feelings, but to experience them for what they are. It may be no picnic, but learning to tolerate those scary feelings gives parents an ability to remain calm when their child acts out.
Some parents who come to counseling will express things like, “My child doesn’t listen to me. It hurts my feelings when he doesn’t respect me. Does it mean that I’m a bad parent?”
“It’s not personal. It’s business,” is one of the often quoted lines from the movie, The Godfather. For parents, I’d like to tweak that to read, “It’s not personal. It’s behavior modification.”
Many parents, who I work with in therapy, get hooked on worrying about whether or not their child will like them. But children can be so fickle. How a child or teenager feels can change several times in one day, regardless of what you do. Rather than focus on feelings, which can lead to a marshland of ambiguity, I recommend parents focus on behaviors, which are much clearer. Either a child did something, or she didn’t.
There’s a way to modify behavior and not have to create a perfect response on the fly. Plus, it takes some of the heat off of you being the “bad guy.” Many parents have success with setting up a system of rules and consequences for their children. They sit down with their children, when they are not misbehaving, and explain that from now on, the family is going to share a clear understanding of what the household expectations are. If children decide to do X, the consequence is Y.
Some families create a chart and hang it up. And some parents even allow their children to help them brainstorm the consequences. To their surprise, many of these parents have to ease up on the consequences because their children’s own solutions were too severe.
With a system, the response is already laid out for you. You don’t have to be creative in the moment and then answer your child’s demands of, “But why? That’s not fair!” The child already knows why, and it’s completely fair because they knew the consequence before they chose to act the way they did. As a parent, you don’t have to feel defensive. You can just let the system be the bad guy.