Parenting tips from Brenton Mock, experienced behavioral therapist working with behavior problem children.
While in the home of a family, I observed the following exchange between a second grade boy and his mother. He was describing to me an incident that happened on the way home from school several days earlier. About five sentences into his story, his mother interrupted him and made several corrections to what she perceived as inaccuracies in his story. He tried several times to restate his point of view only to be reprimanded by his mother and not allowed to finish telling me the tale. I could see the frustration and anger building in him. He gave up on the attempt to tell what he thought was a meaningful story and left the room. Shortly thereafter I had to leave.
The next day in a phone call with the mother I asked her how the rest of last evening went. She sighed and told me it was terrible. Her son acted out his anger all night up to and including punching three holes in the wall. Now her son had a serious anger problem, which was why I was working with the family. Upon hearing this, I sighed. That horrific, unpleasant evening could have been easily avoided, even with an oppositionally defiant child.
I have seen similar patterns of interacting with numerous parents and their children. Most often such incidents revolve around children trying to get permission to do something or to get their parents to do something for them. These become problematic when there is a disagreement as to the preferred outcome. Too often these encounters end with both parties frustrated, angry and parents having to deal with children who escalate unpleasant behaviors. What the solution?
The way to avoid potential conflict is to apply insights and techniques developed from the work of Dr. Howard Markman and Dr. Scott Stanley, co-directors of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. Their work focuses on husband and wife relationships, but much is applicable to parent-child relationships. Their basic insight is that, to come up with acceptable solutions to the problems children raise, problem solution must be separated from problem discussion. The research suggests that we reach better solutions when a good problem discussion occurs. Wisdom requires that you do not move on to problem solution until problem discussion has been successfully completed.
This can be difficult for a parent to put into practice. When I revisited the story telling interaction with mom and pointed out how she could have avoided that escalated behavior by taking time to listen to and validate her son, she objected. She said that she knew exactly where her son was going and what game he was playing. She didn’t need to hear the rest of what he was trying to say, so she immediately moved to her solution to the problem. Indeed, I have plenty of kids tell me that mom never lets them finish a sentence. To this mom I made the point that, even though she understood her son, he needed to hear from her that she understood. That feeling of not being understood and therefore valued drove his escalated behavior.
The goals of problem discussion are mutual understanding and validation. I have found it extremely important for parents to validate their children by taking time to listen. Parents listen with two goals in mind. The first is to listen deeply enough to discern the underlying need or desire or feeling that is driving the request or behavior. Even when a child makes a negative choice and acts out, there is always a valid, underlying feeling or need driving the behavior. The parent lets the child know that he or she is understood and what is important to the child is valued by the parent. Now, validation does not mean agreement. A child may be unwarrantedly angry or have an inappropriate need or desire. Still, the parent can identify the real underlying need, validate that and redirect the child to a non-problematic, appropriate behavior choice to address the real need. Much escalated behaviors can be nipped in the bud when parents intentionally listen to and validate where their children are coming from. When that feeling is validated, the child does not need to, “turn up the volume,” to be heard and, given that the native tongue of children is misbehavior, this can make for the unpleasant evening described earlier.
In problem discussion the focus of the parents is on what the child is saying in words and actions. When parents are the listener, they should not be thinking of solutions or in correcting the child’s perspective or in defending themselves. Their intent is to let the child know he or she is understood. At that point parents can helpfully add their perspective and wisdom to the discussion, so that the child has the benefit of the parent’s input. Once understanding is established, parents can move to the second step which is problem solving. Parents will discover they will have much more responsive children with which to deal.
On another occasion I witnessed the beginnings of a fight between a fourth grader and his four year old brother. Little brother had the habit of being a pest in order to get the attention of his older brother. I watched the four year old come up a kick over a tower his brother took an hour to build. Mom told me that in the past the older one would attack and hit his brother under such provocation. The elder went for the younger, angry and raising his fist. I intervened and asked him to come and sit with me. For the next ten minutes I listened to him and validated his legitimate anger at his brother’s behavior. This calmed him down considerably. Then I asked him what would happen if he hit his brother. He rightly told me he would get in big trouble with his mother. I asked him if that is the outcome he wanted. He said no. I asked him what could be a better choice. He said that he should involve his mother and let her deal with his brother, which she did. When he left the couch he no longer had the need to beat on his brother. Mom watched with great interest and to her credit ably reproduced the distinct problem discussion – problem solution model in the weeks that followed.
In years of working with parents and their children, this probably is the most helpful insight and technique I’ve found to bring peace into a family. It, as well, powerfully creates positive relationships between parent and child and lets the child know how valued and loved they are.
copyright 2007 G. Brenton Mock