By Terry Real
The parent-child is a sober example of what it means to be “relational” in a relationship.
The normal skills that we think of as expert such as a doctor working on a body or a mechanic working on a car do not apply. In those situations, the professional diagnose what’s wrong and fixes it.
In personal relationships, your are reacting to the car, and the car is reacting to you. You have to be very smart in your diagnosis and efficient in the way your fix it. There are no rules, because it is not static, it’s a relationship. You take a position, and see if it works. If it isn’t working, try intensifying your position a few more times. If it isn’t doing anything or making things work, then you shift to a radically different position.
In relationships you have to be smart, but you also have to be humble. When you try something to affect or adjust the behavior of a child, you have to be connected and sensitive to the response and then be flexible in movement to the response – it’s a dance.
The reason I start out by saying this is because being a good parent is dancing well.
When dealing with a belligerent child, you learn very quickly that what works one time could be a disaster the next. You can take the Gameboy away and get the kid to straighten up, but the next time you try that it has no effect.
All relationships are like a dance, but the one with a difficult child is even more intense. It’s like a Tango -- you make a move, see how it works, and intensify it.
What do I mean by “intensify”, you ask?
Good question! How much is it going to be about setting limits and standing up to bad behavior and how much is it going to be about compassion.
I have two sons. A disciplinary tactic with one might get me a scowl and a pout while the same tactic with his brother would produce world war three.
Remember, to get what you want – good behavior – you have to pay attention to what will give you leverage with the kid. There are small moments and responses in that child that you have to pay attention to.
Having said that however, there are some general principles.
If you have a child that is being chronically difficult, I want you to be sure that you feel like you understand what’s really going on the kid.
- Is he or she acting differently at school? I the child not behaving normally with friends at school at home?
- Ask the teacher. Raise the possibility of an evaluation. Identify if there is learning issue that is causing your child stress.
- Rule out depression because a lot of kids who chronically act out or who exhibit difficult behaviors are masking developmental difficulties or in some cases biological psychiatric conditions.
- You have to be clear about the fact that it is behavioral vs something deeper.
Get feedback from teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, camp counselors, anyone who can talk to you about your child’s environment beyond what you see and experience yourself is enormously helpful. If you start getting reports that the same difficult behavior that you’re seeing is happening across the board, then you have a more difficult problem.
However, if your kids is better behaved at school and other people’s houses then it’s a tip off that you may need to look at your own parenting skills, but be sure to pause and see if you can get a sense of the big picture and that there are no systemic disorders.
There is no systemic problem – my kid is just a brat!
And, sometimes a brat is just a brat. If I’m dealing with a kid that is chronically difficult in a family then I’m dealing with a kid with too much power. The answer is to take this kid’s inordinate power away.
I’m a strong believer in healthy parental authority (or parental hierarchy). What really distinguishes Relational Life Therapy from other forms is that we don’t just focus on helping people come up from shame, rather we also help people come down from grandiosity. The young brat is all about grandiosity and being contemptuous to authority.
What we mean by “grandiosity” is, looking down your nose, contempt, feeling “better than”, etc. Pia Melody, my mentor and colleague, offers great insight that has made a tremendous contribution to my thinking. She says there are two forms of child abuse. We naturally think of disempowering abuse – making a child feel impotent, small ,worthless, defective, unlovable, etc. Yet, she says that there is also the abuse of false empowerment -- pumping up a child’s natural grandiosity or not doing the work of putting a child in his place.
All children are natural animals and when we go against shame and go against grandiosity we are civilizing our own natural animal behaviors.
Many times I’ve spoken about my own childhood. One time I came home with a terrible report card, and I expected him to fly into a violent rage. Instead he threw it down and said, “It’s because you’re too bright and those [bloody] teachers don’t know what to do with you because you’re too bright,” and he walked out. He did me no favor by saying that because I got C’s and D’s thru high school.
As the father of two boys there were times when they were growing up there was about 60-70% it was about setting limits and understanding about being sensitive to others around them.
The other day I was shopping, and there was a child running amok always on the verge of destroying something. He was keeping all of us distracted, and he almost broke six things in a row; his parent completely ignoring this all the while. At one point he touched something that I had put aside to purchase, and I said to him very sternly, “Don’t touch that.” That snapped his parent to attention, and the kid was finally wrangled. Another parent might have even challenged me, a stranger, for disciplining the child, to which I would have responded, “What makes you think you have the right to let this little kid run around and trash this store?”
So what is the cultural imperative here?
I think a lot of parents are afraid of being disliked by their children. When you set a limit you have to allow yourself to be disliked, and they’re uncomfortable with their children disliking them at all. In the northeast, we euphemistically call this, “The Cambridge Syndrome.” That’s when you treat little Johnny like he has a Ph.D. “I’m putting you to sleep at 7:00 instead of 9:00 because you need more sleep, because, because, because….”
Over explaining why you are setting the limit treats the kid like he’s an adult. He can’t process all of that information, and frankly you shouldn’t apologize for putting him to be early because he needs it, period.
So what makes a brat?
False empowerment, pure and simple. An absence of guidance and limits and negative consequences for bad behaviors. Failing to tame bad behavior through sensitive but strong and appropriate parental hierarchy is actually causing harm to your child and his ability to relate in the world.
You can (and should) appreciate your three year old’s dabble in the arts, but come on, every finger painting is not a Picasso. No child has the right to have more power in the group than you – the adult/parent should have. Unless you have offered the child the choice in what movie the family is seeing, he does not have the right to say I don’t like it and cause the whole plan for the outing to change. A child does not have the right to interrupt the adults and just keep talking.