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.