In a previous blog we met Pam and saw how she was interacting with her anxious son Hamish to try to get him to school. She described the details of her morning pattern with Hamish and her husband Bill (step dad to Hamish). Pam identified that her primary energy was being directed towards Hamish: worried thoughts about his anxiety, what he might be feeling, what might fix his symptoms, changing Hamish’s feelings about himself and making him willing to go to school. Can you hear all those “Fix My Child” efforts? With all this “You” focus, Pam was left feeling increasingly hopeless as a parent to her struggling son.
Pam’s first step to recovering her confidence was recognising that the more she invested her energy into trying to change Hamish the more she lost her clarity as a parent. She began to change herself as a parent by refraining from getting caught in a futile power struggle with Hamish leading to the distressing scene of trying to drag him out of bed. It was evident to her that such coercive efforts were contributing to her much-loved son’s increasing helplessness.
It was difficult for Pam to consider directing her energy towards herself as a parent. She had become increasingly concerned for Hamish over many years. To her, Hamish seemed especially reserved and at risk of severe depression. Hence she treated him as fragile. She was allowing her worry to shape her parenting. As a next step towards reclaiming some parent leadership Pam began to grapple with what she was factually in control of? And what was beyond her sphere of control?
This important project for relationship discernment enabled her to ensure that her parenting activity was fruitful rather than futile.
Here is what she came up with as things she could have agency with and things that were outside of her realm of control:
✓I can be in control of responding to Hamish and husband Bill in a calm manner.
✕I am not in control of getting them to be calm and thoughtful – although my tone and demeanour can be a positive influence. I am not able to control Hamish’s mood or confidence.
✓I can be in control of what I will do to support Hamish and what I won’t do for him that will keep him dependent. I can ask him each morning if he wants a ride to school, I can have breakfast out on the bench if he wants to help himself, I can be interested in what is happening in his favourite streamed TV drama.
✕I am not able to guarantee he gets to school or eats a good breakfast.
✓I can restrict the access to internet Wi-Fi at 11 pm each night.
✕I cannot make Hamish get lots of sleep.
✓I can treat Hamish with respect and warmth
✕I can’t make him feel good about himself.
✓I can be attentive and interested in son’s dreams for a career in music video.
✕I can’t promise that he will achieve all that he hopes for.
✓I can offer to be a sounding board for any assignments Hamish has. I can ensure that I don’t do his work for him. I can refrain from helping out until Hamish has begun to make his own inroads into the school work. I can ensure I hear his ideas before I offer my own ideas.
✕I can’t make him more motivated and focussed on his school work.
✓I can share with husband Bill How I am managing to not let my parenting be so driven by worry. I can allow Bill to work out his own way to relate to Hamish and not interfere.
✕I can’t change Bill’s parenting style.
As Pam could distinguish between what was and wasn’t within her control she could change the way she expressed herself to Hamish. Previously her communication was full of suggestions and affirmations directed at fixing Hamish:
“You can get yourself to school: You are going to have an OK day at school; You are going to be able to follow your dreams; You need to eat a healthy diet; You need to get at least 7 hours sleep. You have to start that assignment.”
Notice how the focus of this parenting in on YOU Hamish must change. Clarifying what Pam could change about herself in interaction with Hamish helped her to communicate in a completely different manner:
“I am willing to make it a bit easier for you to get to school but I am no longer willing to bribe you or nag you to get ready for school. And I won’t write notes to the school about you being sick. I will simply contact the school and tell them the facts that you were not able to find a way to be ready on time today.”
Pam’s support for Hamish’s efforts don’t need to be full of “you” accolades or instructions. Instead Pam can define to Hamish the support she wants to offer; and when he shows some self-directed steps of progress expressing:
“I acknowledge the effort it has taken to increase the time you spent at school this week. I admire the determination you have used to take these steps. I’m up for recognising this with a little extra support for your leisure activities this weekend.”
Pam is discovering her “I” position as a parent.
The patterns of a child becoming increasingly entitled, or increasingly dependent, are years in the making. Hence the path to improved wellbeing occurs gradually. It’s often bumpy and requires plentiful stores of parent patience. The shift from trying to change others to just changing how you relate and what you are willing to do and not do for the other enables the parent to have some inner confidence and agency. The young person may appear to be slow to change but a parent with inner clarity adds to a more growth enhancing relationship environment for all members of the family – in particular for their vulnerable child.
Note that the part 1 of this blog is found here.