When there’s a problem with a child, I see the parents for coaching in therapy. As leaders of the family, parents have the power and ability to create change in the family system.
Jenny* and Stefan are having difficulty with their 7 year-old son, Nicholas. I explain during the initial phone call that if they would like my services, Jenny and Stefan will be my clients, rather than Nicholas.
During their first session, Jenny and Stefan told me what was going on at home:
Jenny: Nicholas is having terrible temper tantrums. He throws himself on the floor, screams, kicks and bites.
Lorna: How often is this happening?
Jenny: Almost every day. He won’t sleep in his own bed, won’t do his homework without a huge fight, and I can’t get him to sit down and eat his dinner.
Lorna: How’s he doing in school?
Jenny: Thank goodness the teacher says he’s doing fine, only sometimes he gets a little disruptive in the classroom.
Lorna: When did all this start?
Jenny: When he was a toddler. He was an easy baby.
Stefan: Jenny and I have worked really hard to be good parents. I promised myself I wasn’t going to be like my mom and dad. They never told me they loved me, they were critical and controlling and I was really scared of them, especially my father. So I always explain to Nicholas why we’re upset with his behavior. I listen to his point of view and both his mother and I tell him we love him after we have to discipline him. We don’t want him to feel insecure or that he’s bad.
Jenny: Yes, we agree on parenting issues. We’re together on this. My parents were the “seen and not heard” types and I think it’s affected my self esteem.
Lorna: Tell me how it works at home, when he’s likely to have a tantrum.
Jenny: Well, he’ll blow up when we ask him to do something like come to the table or pick up his room. But sometimes, really, it comes out of nowhere.
Lorna: Think a little more about “nowhere”. What might you be doing before he starts up?
Jenny: Hmm, well, maybe when I’m busy with something else. On the computer, making dinner, or talking on the phone-yes, especially if I’m talking on the phone. I don’t know the last time I had an uninterrupted conversation with a girlfriend or my mom. That’s why I always call them from the car now.
Stefan: Nick doesn’t like it when Jen and I are affectionate. He always pushes his way in.
Lorna: What do you do in those situations?
Stefan: I pull him into the hug, or I explain to him that sometimes grown-ups need alone time.
Lorna: So you shift your attention from your wife to your son. Does he listen to you?
Stefan, embarrassed: Well, no. The moment with Jen just ends. Nicholas takes up a lot of our time, but I think that’s mostly because he’s an only child.
Lorna: I’m not sure I’d think about it that way. Tell me about bedtime.
Jenny: A nightmare. First we fight about getting ready for bed-brushing teeth, pajamas, picking up his room, it’s all a battle. Once he’s in bed I read him a couple of books-usually four. Then I rub his back until he falls asleep. Sometimes I’m so tired I fall asleep with him. But eventually I get up and go to our bedroom. By the middle of the night though, he’s in there with us. Sometimes I go back to his room by myself so I can get a decent night’s sleep!
Stefan: I guess I sleep through most of that.
Jenny: Yeah, you sleep like a rock.
Lorna: Here’s what I’m thinking about your situation. In your desire to do a better job at parenting than your parents, you created a different problem.
Stefan: Clearly. What problem exactly?
Lorna: You interfered with your son’s ability to soothe himself. How long can either of you let him be upset without tending to him?
Jenny: Oh, sometimes I try, but I really can’t take it. I always go to him.
Lorna: Do you know that children have a natural ability to calm themselves?
Jenny: I played by myself for hours on the weekends when I was his age. Nicholas would never do that. He always needs to be entertained. I thought that was because of TV and video games and stuff.
Lorna: I tend to think that children who take up an inordinate amount of attention have been conditioned to be that way. Nicholas is attuned to seeking a certain level of attention and feedback.
Jenny: I give him positive feedback when he’s being good, and lot’s of attention, so why would he want negative attention?!
Lorna: Ever heard that old expression, “Negative attention is better than no attention?” On a biological level, humans are programmed to crave a certain amount of contact. The amount matters more than the quality. Programming varies somewhat from person to person. Your son is used to a lot of contact.
Stefan: That’s an understatement! What do we do about it?
Lorna: Between now and the next time we meet, pay attention to the patterns of interaction between the three of you. What do you do when Nicholas gives a “distress signal?” Who reacts first? How long until one of you gives in? Figure out exactly what’s going on in your home and then you can begin to modify it. We will start that conversation next time.
(For more reading about family concepts go to http://www.lornahecht.com/family-therapy)
*No one in this article represents a real person-except me. The case is a compilation of many families I have coached in therapy.
See Session 2: http://www.lornahecht.com/487/
See Session 3: http://www.lornahecht.com/session-3-parents-create-change-in-the-family-system/