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.