A Parenting Crisis: My child has accessed violent pornographic stories online!! – From panic to thoughtful realignment of the parenting role.

A panicked mother discovers that her 12 year old daughter is writing stories with some sexually graphic and violent descriptions. How could this be? Has she been abused in some way? How do I approach her about it? The tumult of questions in response to this parenting shock point is seemingly endless for this parent. Understandably so!

After some distressed mother- daughter discussions it emerged that various internet sites had targeted her daughter through her social media use. Over a period of months the invitations to engage in written responses to the narratives and pictures had become increasingly graphic. It left this mother feeling naïve and ignorant of such targeted, grooming processes that are part of the internet age our children are swimming in.

What do you think is an appropriate response for this parent? (Aside from legal reporting of activity online that is unsafe for children.)

When I chatted with this mother I suggested that she start by clarifying what her response would be if her daughter wanted to hang out with a group of strangers. This was to reduce the extent of panic that was crowding her clear thinking. She was able to be clear about her principles in response to this hypothetical –

*No mixing with people that the parents had not met and gotten to know, *No socialising without adequate adult supervision, *Being interested in who these people were and how it was that their paths had crossed, *displaying curiosity, and caring principles rather than panicked confusion.

From this more thoughtful base it was possible for this mother to apply the same concerned curiosity to understanding the back story of her daughter’s exposure to these harmful online sites. She reported that while her daughter was initially distraught and defensive, her parental concerned but calm investigation cut through the reactivity. She wasn’t interrogating her daughter but acknowledging that she had not been the kind of guiding parent that she wanted to be for her children – to be a loving boundary setter and guide in the rapidly expanding realm of online relating.

When in a panicked state at the initial discovery, this mother’s entire energy went into imagining the awful possibilities for her child and think about devastating effects on her child’s development: “My child has been disturbed for life!!!” Her focus was anxiously focused on rescuing her daughter and getting all the external fixing help she could muster. This started with asking the school counsellor for a referral to have her child assessed (which is how we ended up talking together – I never saw her daughter).

When she recovered some thinking space she could regain a focus on her parenting principles. She could acknowledge her part in not being adequately in the loop about her daughter’s computer use and ‘virtual’ interactions. If it had been the real world of socialising she knew she would have been better informed about her children’s activities. Rather than beat herself up about this she clarified how she would need to add some extra responsibilities to her parenting job description. She conveyed her loving re-commitment to being a wise supportive parent in a changing world. This is such a different process to anxiously lecturing or ‘therapising’ her daughter. She reached out to her spouse and parenting partner to help her to process her shock and allowed him to talk through his own shocked response. While both had their distinctive reactions to work through they each came to acknowledge that parenting was a learning process that required some regular re- thinking. What did they each want to tweak about their parent leadership in the changing phases of their children’s lives?  They weren’t going to get it right all the time but would be able to recover their wisdom if they didn’t become fearfully focused on their child.

There were encouraging outcomes from this concerning episode for this parent.  She was able to tolerate the period of her daughters distress and angry defensiveness and stay in calm contact. She was able to demonstrate to her daughter that she loved her and was committed to being appropriately informed and protective of her as she was learning to navigate the early stages of adolescence. She was able to share the basis of her concerns about having relationships and sex conveyed in distorted, ugly ways. From this she opened up conversations with her daughter about what she thought was positive social media input and what was ‘rubbish’ input.  Opportunities arose for her to share how she had confronted different kinds of confusing and distorted relationship experiences during her own growing up years. They could think together about different levels of safe and unsafe communications and information.  She was able to work out with her husband some clear guidelines for computer and internet use – regular involvement in online interactions and devices in living rooms not bedrooms.

This mother’s story is such a clear comparison between thoughtful parenting and fear driven parenting in this radically changing technological age. Fear takes parents away from embodying their own role – it focuses anxiously on the child which easily contributes to the child’s distant defensiveness – which in-turn reinforces the parent’s worry.  Fear also drives parents to over-depend on external experts to search for evidence of developmental damage, then in turn to diagnose and treat the child. In contrast, the thoughtful parent focuses on their job description when faced with a child’s challenging episode. They figure out what they want to convey about their commitment to their child’s good and how they are going to action this. They are not swayed by initial reactive protests but persevere towards their guidance goal. A parent who recovers their leadership when facing a challenging revelation about their child’s experience is a parent who can grow through such predicable episodes. In response a child gradually grows more respect for their parent and learns to open up to them in order to access their wise support.

Working on a Marriage, not an Event – REPOST

Towards the end of last year I celebrated my 35th wedding anniversary and was able to mark it with a weekend getaway with my husband. It was a delightful, romantic respite from the end of year pressures. I was prompted to reflect on events that mark important relationship milestones or transitions. We can invest a lot in the experience of the event itself and loose the meaning of what the event is marking.

I recall a comment made about an upcoming wedding in my broader family – the soon to be groom wisely stated that for him this is all about a marriage and not all about a wedding. The wedding as an event and can be injected with disproportionate amounts of expectation for perfection that can leave a couple and family completely exhausted and somewhat flat afterwards- along with the depletion of their bank accounts (or parents bank accounts). In contrast to a focus on the event – a marriage is about a promise and a long haul commitment. It is not just about 2 individuals fuelling romantic expectations and creating a series of such experiences. It is about a transition of generational family relationships that restructures the broader family system. A marriage marks the beginning of another generational level.

For my anniversary break away I was certainly up for relishing the event. More than this however, my focus was on recognising the priority I place on my marriage and the mutual ongoing commitment that is involved through the many phases of life. The time away did boost emotions of joyful affection but more importantly it was an opportunity to reflect on the principles behind our original commitment and the lessons learned along the way.

There are many predictable deterrents to prioritising and working out a commitment promise. Marriage certainly exposes one’s selfishness. It also exposes ways of avoiding feelings of anxious emotions. Let me describe the typical ways avoidance of emotional discomfort plays out in marriages:

Rather than tolerate the discomfort of expressing differences of opinion in an open respectful way it is often just easier to avoid and distance into other activities; or ‘band aid’  anxiety through one way conflict. When emotions get stirred because of the inevitable absence of affirmation and attention from the other it is easy to impatiently pursue the other to steady ourselves rather than work on being less dependent on the other for self-esteem. If our spouse doesn’t respond as we’d like to our pursuits we easily become critical of them rather than clarifying what is going on for ourselves. Predictably this leads to complaining to third parties about our spouse being inattentive or unreasonable. Our anxieties lower as soon as we hear a third party support our point of view (Triangles).It is also common for one spouse to allow the other to solve their problems for them. Both the problem solving ‘expert’ and the one who gives way to the other’s ‘expertness’, have lowered tension through this adjustment.

And then come children!  It is predicable that a couple (to varying degrees) will substitute their effort to know each other with the detour of focussing on their children. Children need our attention but they can too easily provide a sneaky justification for neglecting the adult partnership. If there are not children, the detour of work, hobbies and pets can fill the breach.  Rather than work on being open about one’s challenges, hopes and dreams with the other it is just more comfortable to talk about the child’s latest milestone or perceived vulnerability. Commonly, a husband senses that his wife is less anxious for his attention when children come. As she is steadied and strengthened by caring for a dependent child she looks less to her husband when she’s unsettled. The husband is typically relieved that his wife is less critically attuned to whether he is measuring up and willingly participates in the distance that fosters more ‘mother to child’ focus. He may have opinions about child rearing or fostering their connection but avoid expressing them for fear of his wife’s critical response. The mother characteristically calls on her husband to help when parenting is overwhelming but as soon as he starts doing things differently with the child she is critical of him and is glad for him to resume his distance. The husband may just passively go along with his wife’s focus on the children to keep harmony or he may be passively critical and parent in a polarised manner. These anxious sensitivities and patterns to manage them in our marriages happen outside a couple’s awareness. (the opposite gender patterns may sometimes be present)

I think that every marriage partnership, and marriages with children, goes through varying degrees of at least a few of these patterns. It has certainly been the case in my own marriage and mostly I was oblivious to it. One such time was when my children left home in their 20s. It took me by surprise to watch how I became increasingly irritable with my husband. This revealed to me how much I had been stabilized by the presence of my children and their activities. It also challenged me to see where I had been neglecting to foster genuine connection with my husband. The past years have required renewed effort to know and be known to my husband in a deeper way. To address my part in immature management of discomfort.  My original promise over 30 years ago underscores this imperative.

I often hear, in my clinical practice, a spouse declare that they have no motivation left to prioritise their partner. The years have allowed for so much distance and detouring that they find it hard to feel affection and positive regard for the other. I endeavour to assist them to see how they have co-created this void and to envisage the possibility of playing a part in cultivating a fond acceptance of each other that enables them to grow old together. For myself, at the times I have struggled for motivation to be kind and in real contact with my husband, I recall the grace I have received in my life. Grace reminds me that love is a commitment. It is not based on another measuring up. This commitment was marked at a joyous event 35 years ago but it is not dependent on a series of happy events. It is sustained by an effort towards humility, confronting selfishness, immaturity and learning to stay truly connected in the face of tensions rather than take the easier detours that are on offer.

* The patterns described are observable in all long term committed relationship to varying degrees.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How much do I look to my spouse/important others to bolster my happiness? Is the state of my relationship measured by good times or an inner commitment to the good of each other?
  • How do I mark an anniversary? Is my focus on creating an experience or on affirming the achievement of sticking at promises made?
  • Which patterns have I been part of that contribute to distance and detours in my marriage?

A focus on getting needs met through the other? Distancing (physically and/or emotionally) when feeling insecure? Snippy conflict, which is emotional venting rather than working through things? Detouring my discontents to third parties? Becoming the expert on how the other should manage life or allowing the other to do this for me? Subtly allowing children to be the main topic of conversations? Allowing the experience of parenting a dependent child to be a substitute for staying open with my spouse? Staying silent to avoid the discomfort of the other’s criticism?

Relevant quotes from Bowen theory

These quotes referring to patterns in marriage are from Dr M Kerr’s book: Family Evaluation 1988.

It is predicable that [anxious immaturity] will be bound in one or more of three patterns of emotional functioning: conflict between the mates, disproportionate adaptation by one mate to preserve harmony, or focus of parental anxiety on a child. P225

People are willing to be “individuals” only to the extent that the relationship system approves and permits it. Giving up some togetherness (fusion) does not mean giving up emotional closeness. It means that one’s functioning becomes less dependent on the support and acceptance of others. P 107

People select mates who are at the same level of differentiation of self. Each person has the same amount of need for emotional reinforcement from the relationship…..Both have the same amount of emotional separation (differentiation) from their respective families of origin, an amount that parallels the amount of emotional separation (differentiation) that exists in the marital relationship. P171

People are keenly responsive (not necessarily conscious) or sensitive to one another’s emotional states and make automatic adjustments in response to the information received….The emergence of a symptom in the other can, in turn, reduce the anxiety of the first person as he/she begins to minister to the now symptomatic one. This alleviation of anxiety in the first person can also have a calming effect on the symptomatic one; it is easier to be symptomatic [needy] than it is to tolerate one’s internal reactions to another’s distress. P 129

People do not have trouble getting on because of issues (such as children, money, sex)…These issues tend to bring out the emotional immaturity of people and it is that immaturity, not the issues, that creates the conflict. P 188

‘Working on a marriage not an event’ – Jenny Brown

Knowing When to Ignore our Children – REPOST

How does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression.

How does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. I was chatting to a Mum last week about her 7 year old who was crying about not wanting to do swimming lessons in the school holidays. She had been learning swimming with her older sister throughout the year, and while she hadn’t been enthusiastic, she was making progress and participating.  On the cusp of the holiday swimming program this little girl declared that she was afraid of the water and didn’t want to be made to do swimming. I explored with the mother her possible responses to this protest. She was clear that swimming lessons were important due to the family’s proximity to the beach. For her it was not just an extra-curricular activity, it was about ocean safety. She did reflect that this younger child tended to become anxious and slip backwards just as she was making some maturing progress. Her responses had often been to sit down with her daughter and try to talk through her worries. She would suggest strategies for managing her fears but found that the more she reassured her daughter the more her daughter seemed to express her apprehensions.

In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. A parent can try to get to the bottom of their child’s setbacks by focusing on their fears and feelings. It can be quite disillusioning when the child then regresses further in response to such attention. A parent may then get frustrated with the child or teen and shift their positive attention to more negative cajoling: “Come on you can get yourself to swimming lessons; you’ve been doing it all year. You’re just being difficult!” The negative attention often leads to more ‘stuckness’ for the child and parent and the tone of their interactions easily becomes tense.

I recall a period in my own parenting, after an inter country move, when my then 3 year old began showing distress when I left her at her nursery school. She had previously been very happy to have me leave and had commenced her new ½ day pre-school with excitement and confidence. When she showed her 1st sign of separation distress I recall the staff becoming anxious about the child who had travelled all the way from Australia. They strongly encouraged me to stay with her to assist her in the transition and this synced with my own concerns about by child’s vulnerability. Some weeks later I was still sitting beside my daughter in the welcome circle joining in the children’s action songs and assisting with the afternoon activities. I often think I should have been put on the pay roll. Predictably my daughter did not increase her autonomy but became habitually distressed with the first inkling of separation. At the time I did not see the part that I had played in reinforcing her regression.

Bowen observed that when a child is focussed on anxiously they respond with increasingly impaired behaviours. This can happen in families, in schools, in psychological treatment. It is predictable that as a child reaches a new developmental milestone of more independence and mastery of skills, that they exhibit episodes of retreat to an earlier stage of dependence on caregivers. This is part of the growing up trajectory. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression.  In essence, they ignore the child’s reversion behaviours and invitations for the parent to treat them as if they were back in a more dependent stage. When the child resumes their age appropriate functioning, the parent attends to the child with calm reassurance.

What might this look like? Drawing from the example of the 7 year old’s protests about swimming lessons: Firstly the mother will recognise her own uncertainties and steady herself so as not to inject her sensitivities into the child’s situation. When the objections arise the Mother can demonstrate with a brief comment that she will not entertain such protests. This is followed up by ignoring continued winging/wining from the child. The parent does not give attention to the child’s upset in the form of concern, advice or stern lectures.  Any parent will find this challenging and will need to attend to their own discomfort in reaction to their upset child. It is predictable that the child will up the ante of their upset for a time. They will give this up when they can sense that the parent is going to maintain their resolve. When the child moves back into participating in their swimming classes, as they previously had been able to do, the parents acknowledge the child’s efforts and show interest in what they have mastered. They take care not to ‘over- focus’, through exaggerated praise or reward for what is simply the child’s appropriate engagement in their life activities.

Looking back on my own nursery school internship with my then 3 year old I can see how helpful it would have been to ignore the initial displays of separation distress – To give the usual loving gestures of good bye and to leave calmly. At the afternoon pick up I would show an interest in her activities but not give my attention to discussing her earlier upset. With the passing of 25 years it is much easier to see a way through. At the time I was working through my own separation challenges from my extended family and I can see how this made it difficult to distinguish between my insecurities and my child’s emotions. Growing ourselves up as parents (or carers) requires managing our own insecurities so as not to allow them to spill over into our relating with our child.

The current tide of parenting is all about attending to a child’s distress and showing sensitivity to their needs. Challenging this ethos guarantees emotive counteractions from many ‘child experts’ and conscientious parents devoted to the path of tuning into their child’s emotions. Of course there are apt times to listen well and support a child as they face real challenges. This is different to attention that reinforces a child’s natural moments of resisting steady steps towards increased maturity. A parent who can see their part in these patterns can be the very best resource for their child’s resilience.

Key questions for reflection

  • How do I respond to my child when their behaviour is a step back in age appropriate maturity? { e.g. might be tantrums, thumb sucking, sleeping in parents bed, separation distress, refusal to do tasks or participate]
  • Do I attend to such regressions either positively (reassurance, affection) or negatively (lectures, threats)? Am I reacting to the other parent by attending with the opposite tone?
  • What do I observe of the effects of such attention over time on my child’s resilience?
  • What are my own internal struggles in the face of seeing my child’s increased neediness or immaturity? How can I keep myself calm and thoughtful? Can I recognise when my child’s increased neediness of me steadies my own insecurities?
  • What ways do I support my child’s steps towards more autonomy? – With acknowledgement and interest that encourage progress or with exaggerated praise, and rewards that promotes immature entitlement?

 

To read more see: p 106 – 129 in Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. Jenny Brown

If you’re going to assist your child to grow their resilience, the first step will be to increase your own resilience in tolerating your child’s upset without feeling compelled to rush in and smooth over everything for them. The grown-up parent, who really wants to be a loving resource to their child, is prepared to work on themselves and not make a project out of their child. P 108

Relevant Quote from Murray Bowen MD

The process begins with anxiety in the mother. The child responds anxiously to the mother, which she misperceives as a problem in the child. [The father usually plays a role – he is sensitive to the mother’s anxiety, and he tends to support her view and help her implement her anxious efforts at mothering] The anxious parental effort goes into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, which is directed more by the mother’s anxiety than the reality needs of the child. It establishes a pattern of infantilising the child who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. Once the process has started, it can be motivated either by anxiety in the mother, or anxiety in the child. In the average situation there may be symptomatic episodes at stressful periods during childhood which gradually increase to major symptoms during or after adolescence. P 381 FTCP

‘Knowing when to ignore our children’Jenny Brown

 

A Dad gets back behind the steering wheels: How a father regained his agency with his oppositional daughter. 

Joe reflected on the progress he had made as a parent saying: 

“Over the last couple of years I had lost all confidence and direction as a parent with Chloe; but now it’s like I’ve got hold of the steering wheel again.  Now when she’s pushing and pushing to get what she wants, I know that at the end of the day, it’s my decision. I decide what I will go along with and what is not OK.” 

This is the next installment* in the story of one parent, Joe, as he worked to figure out how he could be a resource to his defiant 13 year old daughter Chloe. Previously Joe recognised that his pattern of rushing in to smooth things over for Chloe resulted in increased entitlement from his daughter. He began to accept that changes for Chloe would be slow but that the first step he could make was to stop trying to create peace by bribing Chloe. His stepping back from an ineffective pattern was the launch of becoming a more hopeful parent. Joe started to shift his focus from trying to change Chloe to a focus on what he could change. 

Joe gave consideration to what was in his control as a Dad when faced with Chloe’s demands. Just last weekend Chloe pushed him to drop her at the shopping Mall where she wanted to hang out with her friends. The previous agreement was that Chloe would spend the afternoon at a neighbour’s house with a girl from her school. They were going to watch a Netflix episode and work on a geography project.  Joe had already committed to be at their son Jake’s basketball game. His wife and co-parent Sue had left earlier to spend the day visiting her elderly mother.  

Chloe had learned how to get her dads attention. She would intensify the drama about how much she needed him to consent to her demand. In the past Joe would have dropped everything to avoid increasing outbursts from Chloe – even if this risked him being late for Jake’s game. Conversely on this occasion he gathered himself, clarified his priorities, and said to Chloe: “I know that hanging out with your friends is important to you but I am not willing to take you to the Mall at such short notice. My commitment is already made to be at your brother’s game and there is no way I am going to let him down. I’m also not going to be a part of messing up our neighbours plans.  I’m willing to help out with transport next weekend if we work out a plan in advance, but not today.” 

Chloe was silent for a moment. Joe thought she was still somewhat shocked to hear her Dad’s newfound tone of conviction in his recent responses to her. The silence however was not for long as Chloe retorted loudly:  

“Dad you don’t care about me and my friends. You’re putting Jake ahead of me and ruining my weekend!!!” 

Joe is working hard to not react to Chloe’s retorts. She certainly could stir up panic within him but he realised that parenting out of fear isn’t helpful for his daughter. He responded in a firm but controlled tone saying:  

“I’ve let you know my position Chloe and it’s not negotiable at short notice. I’ve got nothing more to say about this.” 

Chloe ramped up her protest with inflammatory language directed at her Dad. Joe focused his eyes on his emotionally wound up daughter and said:  

“When I am talked at with such disrespect it takes away my willingness to be generous with the many privileges I give you every day. I am not going to be walked over by you Chloe – that is not the kind of parent I want to be.”   

Joe then left the room to finish his car maintenance work in the garage.  Chloe followed with ongoing verbal pressure but Joe was resolute to not engage.  

After some time Chloe backed off and started getting ready to go to her nearby friend’s house. Joe wished her a good time. He noticed his distress about the rupture in his relationship with his daughter. He felt steadier when they were close. Nevertheless he did not backtrack and try to make peace. In the past he would have promised Chloe a special outing that night to make up to her. Joe was aware of his inner triggers to accommodate his daughter’s immaturity; and that he was a central part of the immature pattern.  He could see how much his parenting had been influenced by his conflict avoider posture in the family he grew up in. His older sister and Dad used to fight regularly and he counterbalanced this by always responding compliantly to his parents. 

By days end Joe refrained from indulging Chloe. Rather he showed an interest in the Netflix TV drama she was following. He asked her how it compared to similar shows they had watched. Who were her favourite characters and what she admired about them? After a bit of shared conversation Joe left Chloe to herself and made a priority of sitting with Sue to talk about what was happening in each of their worlds. He mentioned the challenge he had had with Chloe to Sue but did not focus on his worries about her. Instead he shared with his wife what he was learning about himself as a parent and how hard it was to learn to stay on course in the face of conflict. He reflected with Sue on how he can be just the same at work when there’s a hint of discord. 

Joe reflected on the progress he had made saying: 

“Over the last couple of years I had lost all confidence and direction as a parent with Chloe; but now it’s like I’ve got hold of the steering wheel again.  Now when she’s pushing and pushing to get what she wants, I know that at the end of the day, it’s my decision. I decide what I will go along with and what is not OK.” 

Previously Joe had sought professional help to find out what was wrong with his daughter. He had hoped that there might be a diagnosis and a treatment for Chloe’s oppositional behaviour. Additionally he wanted to relieve the tension emerging in his relationship with Sue about how his giving in to Chloe. If he could get a professional to treat his daughter’s problem it just might take the heat out of his marriage. Some months down the track Joe was in a very different place. He no longer looked for a fix for Chloe. Neither was he looking for a solution from helpers who were external to his family and his parenting. Joe had discovered that he was part of the increasing problem with Chloe. He had stepped back to observe the unhelpful ways he was reacting. This laid the groundwork for him to recover his parent leadership. He could parent with what was in his control and not try to change Chloe. He could convey his “I” position on what he is willing and not willing to do. He could also connect with his daughter in a less intense way. – not trying to win back her devotion but simply conveying interest in her life. Things were far from perfect with Chloe. At the same time Joe had recovered his hope as a parent.  This hopefulness grew in parallel with his clarity on how to manage himself more maturely with his daughter, and indeed with Sue and Jake as well. 

 

*The previous 2 installments of Joe’s story were posted on May 10th and June 7th 2017 

https://www.jennybrown.info/observe-parent-child-interactions/ 

https://www.jennybrown.info/dad-putting-puzzle-pieces-together/ 

 

A Tale of Triangling Mothers

Seeing triangles provides a key to unlocking ways to bring our best to our most important relationships.

‘Jenny, today when I heard you describe your triangle with your mother I thought: “Oh my goodness – You are fuelling the problem in your family!” I can see for the first time that I’m adding to my husband feeling set aside and to inflaming his irritating ways of trying to insert his presence in his daughter’s and our family’s life. No one behaves at their best when they feel critically sidelined. I also see that I’m contributing to my daughter becoming arrogant and quite disrespectful towards her Dad.’

At a recent community seminar on marriage I shared about my triangle position in my family of origin. As I entered my teenage years my mother increasingly confided in me about broader family matters. In some ways I was being elevated to an informal leadership position in the family as my mother managed her stress about the family through using me as a sounding board. She would discuss her worries about my siblings amongst other things. At times she asked me to connect in a particular way to a sister in an effort to reverse the pattern of distancing that concerned my mother.

My alliance with my mother developed gradually through developing common interests including matters of faith. I’m sure my mother never intended to triangle me in this way. It emerged out of a growing friendship and it clearly filled some gaps in what she shared of herself in her marriage with my Dad. As I look back I can see that my father didn’t seem uncomfortable the growing closeness between myself and Mum. I assume that it took some pressure away from him by relieving an undercurrent of unmet expectations of him in the marriage. Hence both my mother and father unconsciously co- constructed the triangle, with myself as a willing participant.

Such triangles commonly emerge between parents and one of their children. In my family it functioned to relieve some pressures. The cost was that it contributed to some distance in my relationship with by sisters and brother and it primed me to be an “over -helper” in my adult relationships. For my parents, while it assisted with harmony in their marriage, it also prevented any breech in their emotional connection from being worked on and resolved. While it was a rewarding connection for me and my mother, it detracted from the growth of connection between my mother and each of my siblings. While there was not obvious tension in my relationship with my father, my alliance with my mother influenced my view towards men as lacking in their relational capacities – not a helpful posture to take into my own marriage as a young woman.

After sharing about my key triangle growing up at the recent seminar, a woman came up to me in the lunch break and expressed that she could recognise a similar triangle emerging in her family. She was alerted to the potential detriment of this triangle for her marriage and her teenage daughter. Here’s what she described to me in the course of our quite brief conversation:

“My eldest daughter has increasingly become a friend to me. We just seem to click! But I can see that there are problems developing as we are regularly taking sides against my husband. I complain to her about her Dad’s annoying ways. When the family is all together, she gives me a knowing critical look every time her Dad tries to give input. I realise that I’ve been encouraging this – it makes me feel good to have her in my corner. Tension is increasing in my daughter and her Dad’s relationship and I have been getting more frustrated with how he reacts to her. Today when I heard you describe your triangle with your mother I thought: “Oh my goodness – You are fuelling the problem in your family!” I can see for the first time that I’m adding to my husband feeling set aside and to inflaming his irritating ways of trying to insert his presence in his daughter’s and our family’s life. No one behaves at their best when they feel critically sidelined. I also see that I’m contributing to my daughter becoming arrogant and quite disrespectful towards her Dad. Last year my husband and I got some counselling for our marriage that didn’t get us very far. I couldn’t really understand our tensions and growing distance until today when I saw the triangle I was in with our daughter and its effect on our marriage. I can see that I need to stop inviting my daughter into the snug alliance that judges her Dad and my husband. She’s not going to like giving up this position but I know it is best for our whole family.”

I was impressed by this woman’s insight and her resolve to change her part. (Relationship triangles are often difficult to identify). Her husband was at the marriage seminar with her and she had the opportunity to talk to him about her realisations. I sense that this was the start of a constructive growing up effort for them both as spouses and parents. My own awareness of my primary triangle growing up has been enormously useful in helping me to manage unhelpful tendencies to align with those who confide in me, judge those who I hear complaints about and be too quick to step into the cosy elevated status of giving ear to other’s problems. I am committed to not becoming a part of issues being detoured from the relationships they belong in. For me, and for the insightful woman I met briefly at the community seminar, seeing triangles provides a key to unlocking ways to bring our best to our most important relationships.

A Parent Recovers their Agency – Getting to an “I” position

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.

Mother with hands on hips

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.

Where is my energy directed as a parent?

Parents and family

As a parent where is most of Pam’s energy directed?   Is it to trying to handle her son? -Or reacting to Bill her husband and son’s step-parent? – Or towards managing herself in relation to her son and husband?                 

It’s useful to think back over an example of interacting with the child you are concerned about. Typical interactions reveal where most of our efforts are going?

Pam is a mother of a struggling adolescent son. She described a recent morning scenario with son Hamish and her husband Bill. Over the past year Pam’s concerns about Hamish anxiously withdrawing from peers and the family were increasing. Just last week Pam had set Hamish’s alarm the night before to help him get to school. When she woke she headed straight to his door to listen for evidence of any movement. All was quite. Pam’s stress levels increased. She knocked lightly on the door and asked if Hamish was getting dressed for school. She heard him mumble: “I’ll get up in a minute”. Pam went to the kitchen and started making his lunch. Her partner Bill (Hamish’s step father) told her to not get so uptight. Pam responded saying: “You don’t understand how anxious and down Hamish is. He needs all her support to get better”. After 10 more minutes Pam knocks on Hamish’s door, enters and sees him still in bed. She sits by his bed and asks if he’s OK. Hamish says that he has a bad stomach ache and just can’t get to school. Pam offers to make him a detox smoothie to help calm him. She gets out his school uniform and places it next to him. She packs his bag and leaves for the kitchen again. Bill sees how worried Pam is and says: “I can’t believe the stress he is putting you through!”  He calls out loudly and angrily to Hamish: “Get yourself up and come to breakfast now – Or I’ll come in and drag you out!”. Pam rushes to Hamish and sees him curled up in a ball and becoming quite distressed. She reminds him to do his breathing exercises to avoid a panic attack. She does the deep breathing herself and coaches him to follow her cues while sitting beside him and rubbing his back. Hamish begins to get shaky and says that he feels really sick. Pam gives him a rub on his back trying to help calm him down. Bill comes to the bedroom door saying firmly: “What’s going on here? Why are you still in bed? You’ll make your mother late for work again!” Pam asks Bill to leave saying: “You are not helping!”  She tells Hamish he can stay in bed until morning tea time and can go to school late. She writes him a late note to take to school and leaves it beside his bed with his bus pass. Bill vents his frustration to Pam about Hamish being lazy. Pam defends Hamish saying he has bad anxiety. They both leave for work. Throughout the morning Pam sends texts to Hamish encouraging him to get to school. Hamish doesn’t text back and doesn’t make it to school.

It was very helpful for Pam to describe the details of this scenario with a factual description of how each person responded.  Such descriptions assist people to see ways that each person is affecting each other. Pam identified that her primary energy is being directed towards Hamish:  worried thoughts about his anxiety, what he might be feeling, what might fix his symptoms, how to make Hamish feel better about himself and be happy about going to school.

Pam could see that her secondary energy was directed towards Bill and what she saw as his effect on Hamish. As Bill ups his criticism of Hamish, Pam increases her nurture for her son.

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. She was allowing her worry to shape her parenting; and to shape her interactions with Bill.  As a step towards reclaiming some parent leadership Pam began to grapple with:

• What am I in control of? What is beyond my sphere of control?

• How can I convey what’s important to me as your Mum?

• How do I want to contribute to my child growing their own coping capacities?

Pam didn’t quite know how to answer these questions but was willing to work on it.  She saw that the more she invested her energy into trying to change Hamish she was losing her clarity as a parent. While pleased that she wasn’t getting caught in a futile power struggle with Hamish by trying to drag him out of bed, Pam saw that her helping efforts were contributing to her beloved son’s increasing helplessness. The patterns of a child becoming increasingly entitled, or increasingly dependent, are years in the making. Hence the path to improved wellbeing occurs gradually, is often bumpy and requires plentiful stores of patience.

*Upcoming blogs will show how Pam answered these questions and reshaped her parenting accordingly.

A Dad putting the puzzle pieces together

Joe was beginning to see how his best efforts to help his daughter and family to have happy times together were actually contributing to a lowering of Chloe’s resilience.

This is the next instalment in the story of one parent, Joe, as he worked to figure out how he could be a resource to his defiant 13 year old daughter Chloe. Previously Joe described in detail the interactions of all the family at a recent outing to a pizza restaurant (see blog May 10). Having clearly laid out the different family responses during this typical problem interaction with Chloe, his next effort was to think back over his interactions to consider if:

  • His responses were contributing to his daughter building her capacity to manage her strong emotions OR were they feeding an expectation to be rescued by others?
  • Is Chloe just reacting to others OR is she getting practice at managing her reactions?
  • Is she learning skills of independence OR are the interactions increasing her dependence and expectation that others will make her feel better?

In looking back at the Pizza restaurant blow-up, Joe noted how much he tried to get Chloe to be pleasant and co-operative by appealing to her with his positive voice. He was putting his energy into trying to manage her mood and it was backfiring. The more he tried to convince Chloe to be co-operative the more she would retort with her complaints. Joe noticed that this would pull his wife into being tough with Chloe which he would respond to with even more effort to calm Chloe down to avoid a bigger outburst. Chloe was not learning to manage her reactions at all. Joe was trying to do it for her. As other family members (Mum and brother) started to give Chloe a piece of their mind about her behaviour, Chloe was being given even more emotional opposition to react to. Joe acknowledged that he then moved into more drastic efforts to calm Chloe down by giving into her (allowing her to only order gelato) and offering her incentives ( a phone upgrade). Joe saw that this was contributing to his daughter expecting that others would make her happy rather than learning to tolerate not getting her own way. Chloe was becoming increasingly dependent on others to remove her frustrations. On the surface her defiance sounded like a kind of rebellious independence from her family but Joe was coming to see that this was actually a picture of a very dependent child who hadn’t learned to calm herself down when she didn’t get her own way.

Joe was beginning to see how his best efforts to help his daughter and family to have happy times together were actually contributing to a lowering of Chloe’s resilience.

If the child/young person is beginning to calm themselves down and be more thoughtful and reasonable during or after the interaction, they are growing in resilience. If the child is agitated and either leaving the parent to work things out for them, or leaving the parent equally agitated, they are NOT growing in resilience and independence.

The pattern of both parents rushing in to smooth things over for Chloe had been happening for many years. Over this time her defiance gradually increased. This was now being amplified by the hormone charges of early adolescence alongside the stressful transition to high school (junior high). Joe couldn’t find anything in his pizza restaurant interaction with Chloe that was promoting her growth in responsible independence.  He accepted that changes for Chloe would be slow but that the first step he could make was to stop calming and bribing Chloe. He had some more work to do to figure out what to do instead but his stepping back was the beginning of him becoming a more hopeful parent. Joe was starting to shift his focus from trying to change Chloe to a focus on what he could change. He felt hopeful that he could make a contribution to his daughter growing in responsible relating.

First Steps for a Worried Parent – A father learns to observe his interactions with his defiant 13yr old

It’s natural to want to fix and change a child/adolescent who is struggling to manage life. Hence it may be a surprise to hear that a first positive stage for a parent who is worried about their child/adolescent is to figure out the predicable steps in parent – child and family interactions. This requires close consideration of a recent interaction with the child/adolescent. The content of the interchange is less important to think about than the reactions of each person. The goal is to identify what the parent may be contributing to unhelpful repeated patterns in the back and forth interaction.

While it might initially seem somewhat tedious, examples of what are constructive questions to ask are:

Where did it take place? What started the interaction? What were the beginning behaviours (what was said and actioned)? What was the emotional tone? How stirred up were your emotions? How did other family members respond? What was the next response? (Behaviours and emotional tone)What happened next? How was that responded to? What happened next? How was that responded to? How did things finish up? What was the left over tone for each person?

Here is an example of a father working to observe the patterns he is a part of:

Joe reported a recent challenging interaction with 13 year old Chloe, his youngest daughter. The family were out for a pizza dinner to celebrate the birthday of eldest son Jake (16). Joe recalled that Chloe started complaining in a whining manner that she didn’t like any of the food choices and wanted to go home. He responded by reminding her that this was an important family dinner for Jake and she should make an effort to support him. He thought that his tone of voice was cheerful, appealing to Chloe to co-operate. Chloe responded irritably saying that they should have known that she hates Pizza. Her Mother Sue responded firmly saying she needs to stop being so selfish and not spoil her brother’s birthday. Jake joined his mother, saying “Chloe you always make everything about you! I get why your friends have had enough of you!” Chloe slams the table and respond to her brother with a cutting counterattack. Joe intervenes and says to Chloe that she doesn’t need to eat Pizza and can order whatever she wants. He uses his best peacemaking voice to suggest that if Chloe can calm down and help them all to have a pleasant family dinner he will upgrade her phone for her (this was something Chloe had been negotiating with him for a while). Chloe backs off and says that she just wants gelato for dinner. Joe orders it along with the family pizza and drink requests. Jake gives his dad a serious stare. Joe interprets it as a challenge to his generosity towards Chloe. Joe recalls that Sue is then mostly silent and sullen. She ignores Joe and focusses on talking to Jake about having his friends over for a birthday gathering. Joe feels very tense about the tenuous state of peace. About half an hour into the dinner, Chloe has finished her gelato and says she’s bored and had enough. Joe encourages her to stick it out for the birthday cake reminding her that the new phone is only going to happen if she does this. He rushes the birthday cake candle blowing and the family leave to go home early. Joe was left feeling highly stressed. He sensed his wife was frustrated and quietly disapproving of how he managed Chloe. Jake seemed withdrawn. Chloe seemed agitated and consumed with getting her new phone. He feels despondent that his efforts are not appreciated. He is deeply worried about his daughter distancing from the family at this vulnerable time in her life and is intent on trying to reverse this possibility.

Can you see the patterns that each family member is part of? Joe was able to begin his reflections by asking himself: WHAT WAS INEFFECTIVE IN HIS RESPONSES?  WHAT DIDN’T WORK WELL? WHAT WAS CONSTRUCTIVE?  WHAT WORKED BETTER? Here are some of his thoughts:

Joe recognised that this was a common interaction, with him trying to be the peacemaker, leading to him trying to bribe or cajole Chloe into co-operating. He could see that Sue was becoming increasingly annoyed with Chloe; and that Jake was getting fed up with his sister and distancing from her. He recalls the earlier years when the 2 siblings got on so well and Sue and Chloe seemed so close. Chloe had seemed to be an anxious child who struggled to separate. Jake had been such a protective brother in her early school years. Since the start of secondary school this all seemed to change and Joe was stepping up to try to recreate a happy family dynamic.

Rather than talk about Chloe’s problems and symptoms (she was having increasing problems with defiance at school) Joe began to focus on himself in the interactions.  He could observe that his efforts were able to achieve some temporary peace in the family as Chloe would back down her loud complaints when he stepped into to offer an incentive.  Mostly he could see that his peacemaking was not effective, in the bigger picture of family relationships and his daughter’s wellbeing… He identified that he was rewarding Chloe’s demanding behaviour which was frustrating his wife and son. He did say that he sensed that Chloe felt that Jake was Mum’s favourite and he tried to reassure her that this wasn’t so. Deep down he sensed that Sue was negatively withdrawing from Chloe. He wondered how much his reinforcement of Chloe’s complaints played a part in fuelling this.  He didn’t know how to change his part in things but he could see that continuing to observe his patterns of interaction was useful. It certainly felt more constructive than working out how to change his daughter.

All family responses are like intuitive dance steps and often, over time, develop predictable patterns back and forth between people. The more that this can be conscious, the more a parent can make choices about continuing what is helpful and changing what isn’t. When a parent can learn to observe their part in responding to the child they are concerned about, they can create a pathway to working out how they can adjust themselves in order to improve the family environment. Small steps are required in working towards changed interactions that promote improved functioning for all – in particular for the most reactive and vulnerable child.

  • Stay tuned for a follow up blog next month on Joe’s next steps to observe and understand his part in his daughter’s increased reactive behaviours. Joe considers the effects of his responses on his daughter’s growth (or regression) of responsibility.

How to help a friend when you think they are over protecting their child?

Talking to a friend or family member about concerns you have about their parenting (or indeed any relationship) is a fraught arena.

People are happy to hear their friend’s ideas about external things – professionals to go to, new family activities, and extracurricular offerings, holiday destinations – BUT none of us like to hear input that sounds like advice or criticism of how we are managing ourselves with people we care about. As a result we tend to approach such conversations awkwardly which adds to the probable angst. When we are tense we tend to listen less and speak with excessive intensity.

Often it’s best to pay attention to our own management of relationships before venturing into giving a friend feedback. There are however times when I think one can be a genuine resource to another in sharing a systems way of thinking about parenting. The following is a de-identified* discussion I had with someone grappling with whether to talk honestly with her friend about parenting concerns:

The situation she described for her long term friend was: a shy, teenage son who was especially close to his mother. He had always been a sensitive child and during his younger years had regularly come into his parent’s bed to settle night fears. Two other children appeared to be more confident. The pattern of parenting being observed was of doing what the children wanted and not holding boundaries on any things that resulted in a child’s distress. The parents were devoted and generous to their 3 children. They enabled them to do what extra curricula activities they wanted and to promptly give them up if they no longer enjoyed them. It was becoming evident that the son was increasingly struggling to cope with school and peer activities. The mother was progressively adjusting her schedule to attend events with him. Recently the boy was missing school and showing increased signs of anxiety. He was reporting problems with being teased by friends. The parents were looking at both medical intervention and a change of schools.

What is described above is such a tricky family scenario – what looks like loving, devoted parenting can so easily cross the line into an over focus on a child – in particular reacting in ways to reduce a child’s distress. The more a parent supports – the more the young person comes to depend on the support and acts in ways to invite more of it. The child’s development of resilience in the face of stress is impaired due to too much protective intervention – this renders a young person much more vulnerable to emotional symptoms because they have less internal stress management capacity. They struggle to steady them self in even ‘normal’ challenging moments and gradually become highly relationally dependent and sensitive.

The close friend of this mother knew a bit about ways that an increasing focus on a child can, over time, amplify a child’s dependence and impair their growth of internal resilience. The friend had addressed some of her own tendencies as a mother to put her children’s happiness ahead of their learning to tolerate and manage life’s stressors. She wanted to share her concerns and her own lessons with her friend but had previously experienced defensiveness when discussing parenting. She was fearful of offending her and sounding like she thought she was the ‘perfect’ parent.

How was she going to navigate being helpful to this close friend when it seemed to be a ‘no-go’ conversation zone? Many parents – especially conscientious ones – are very sensitive to criticism and blame. There is a pervasive view in society that generosity of parental love equates with happy, healthy children. Such a mindset isn’t easy to question.

The following are some principles (not directives) we discussed for raising such concerns in a friendship. These might provide helpful food for thought – This isn’t intended as a template to fit all situations:

1: Questions are so important – that show a care and concern and a desire to understand what each parent is going through- Creating a platform of coming alongside with curious empathy, not judgement.

2: It’s helpful to not get caught in the content of decision making – IE changing schools. While shifting schools may well reinforce a pattern of ‘over rescuing’ it may also provide a circuit breaker.

3. Questions about relationship patterns are more useful for generating possible insight than questions about the individual child and decisions about his life and possible treatment. What have you been trying to do to help? How has than gone? How has your son responded? What seems to be helping to build his resilience what doesn’t seem to help?

4. Ensure that questions aren’t used to disguise your opinion – this is always picked up on at some level – it is actually dishonest.

If you see a genuine opening for sharing your thinking and concern:

1: Show that you have been listening well and have heard some of the challenging detail of what they are up against as parents with an increasingly needy child.

2: Ask if it would be helpful to feed back some thoughts you have had from listening to them that may or may not be useful to them?

3: If they are open, share from your own experience and from the details they have shared with you. This shows you have listened attentively. From what you’ve been through and what you’ve heard, you wonder that there might be a pattern of loving their son in such a way that could be inadvertently reducing his resilience and increasing his dependency. Ask if that is something they have considered?

4: Rather than give direct advice, share a scenario from either your own struggle or from examples you have heard from another (or read about). This can provide food for thought without being directly challenging.

5: If they don’t want you to share, it probably indicates that there is some reactivity already present – this can enable an acknowledgement that perhaps past interactions on parenting have not been experienced as gracious – ask if this the case? Follow up asking: How can I help to repair this – given our friendship is so important to me?

It is part of healthy relationships to be a resource to our friends and family at challenging times. Avoiding topics because of fear of tension is not helpful. Nor is the converse of judging and attempting to direct their life. Listening well and being prepared to share our own experiences can be a gift to a relationship. At the same time it is useful to ask: Am I valuing the wisdom I can gain from my friend’s experiences and vantage points?   This ensures that the friendship is balanced with support going both ways. In this way neither feels superior or in a one down position.

* The facts of the above scenario have been changed for confidentiality