To keep kindness, empathy, and patience front and center in our work together, I started the third session by asking Donna if she thought Jack might be struggling with issues beyond their own conflict.
Donna thought for a few moments. “I think Jack was hoping for his father and me to get back together,” she finally said. “But a couple of weeks ago, his dad announced his engagement to someone else.”
“Have you spoken with Jack about it?”
“Yeah. I told him I was sorry he couldn’t have what he wanted.”
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t say anything. He just teared up.”
Hearing this, I thought about how close Donna had been to opening up a conversation about something that really mattered to Jack. If only she’d done it in such a way that her empathy could come through! “What if you went back to him and said that in a different way?” I suggested. “I think your words were on the mark, but they got lost in your delivery, which may have sounded almost businesslike to Jack, signaling the end of the conversation. He could only react, which he did, with tears.”
“How would I say that differently?” Donna asked.
“Maybe you reach out to touch him on the back and say softly that you’re so sorry that you and his dad couldn’t give him the one thing he wanted most in the world, the two of you getting back together.”
Now it was Donna who teared up. “I’d like to have said it that way,” she whispered.
“You still can,” I told her. “You can say, ‘You know, a few weeks ago, when we spoke about your dad getting engaged, I told you I was sorry you couldn’t have what you wanted. But I wish I’d said it differently, because I think I shut down the conversation, and I’m sorry. That wasn’t what I intended.” “If I know my son, he’ll say he doesn’t remember the conversation, or it didn’t bother him.” “You tell him that’s okay and that it bothered you, and that it was important for you to let him know that. And then just leave it there. Don’t make a big deal about it. It’s an opportunity to change the legacy of parenting in your family, to make it more respectful and emotionally intimate and, ultimately, more effective.”
“That’s just a whole different way of talking. I don’t know if I can do it,” she said. “It is different. But I think if you stick with it, and start seeing changes in your relationship with Jack, it’ll make it easier for you to keep going with it. Experiment, play with different words and phrases, see what feels natural to you.”
At this point, Donna began to express openness toward a different way of doing things. All along, I’d been trying to start a process of inquisitiveness with her—which could occur only if she could see me as someone credible as well as someone with whom she had no need to be defensive. I believe that my efforts to become emotionally compelling to Donna helped as well. After all, people make changes because of how they feel about the person making the recommendations, not because they were presented with a better idea.
A Boy Hugs His Mom
Donna returned a few weeks later for what would be her final session. She reported that she’d been trying to inquire rather than assume, and converse rather than argue, and she and Jack were getting along better. “I’m starting to enjoy hanging out with Jack, and I think he appreciates that I’ve tried to make things better,” she said. “He’s even started hugging me now, but it’s usually when I’m doing the dishes. He comes up behind me, and he knows my hands are wet and I can’t hug him back.” She seemed disappointed as she told me this.
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked.
“Well, I can’t hug him back. It’s like he’s controlling it.”
“Let him,” I said. “He’s a 12-year-old boy who wants to hug his mom but doesn’t want it to be this big deal. It’s a good thing.”
It was several moments before Donna spoke. “You know, I think I need to start thinking of him as this nicer kid, not someone trying to manipulate me.”
My goal for working with Donna had been, in part, to help her cultivate a faith in her ability to infuse her words and wishes and personal presence with the power her physical body had carried for years. I’d hoped she’d recognize the emotional and interpersonal returns that come from treating others carefully and respectfully. Her comments at the end of this session seemed a hopeful sign of positive shifts, not only in her parenting, but in her conception of her son. I supported her decision at that point not to schedule a next session and instead see how things went.
A year later, I got an email from her, telling me things were going well. She wrote, “You helped me see that changing how I interacted with Jack could change our dynamic. I try not to back him into corners or drive my agenda so hard anymore, and he hangs around longer at the dinner table. I also see far less anger in him.”
In the end, Donna didn’t need to say things exactly the way I said them or abandon her belief that a little tough love could be good for a kid. She needed only to be encouraged to talk with her son differently, respond more empathically, and reach out to him more kindly.
I believe most kids are eager to see their parents as worthy of their respect, and I find little else can affect a relationship as powerfully and as quickly as the reinstatement of respect between people. Granted, it’s hard for angry parents to change how they relate to their disrespectful kids before seeing a change in their kid’s behavior toward them. But somebody’s got to go first, and most kids will recognize their parents’ effort in taking the lead as the generous and ambitious gesture it is. That call to action is more persuasive than any reprimand will ever be.
By Peter Fraenkel
Janet Sasson Edgette’s case study packs much clinical wisdom into a short space. The core of her strategy is to transform the parent’s approach from one of authoritarian attempts at control to one of nurturing a compassionate relationship. Decades of research by Gerald Patterson and others at the Oregon Social Learning Center, as well as Diana Baumrind’s classic work on authoritarian vs. authoritative parenting, document the destructive effects on children’s development when parents engage them in a coercive cycle of interaction. The more the parent attempts to exact compliance by force, the more the child resists and misbehaves, resulting in worsening behavior, resentment, and sometimes violence.
Edgette first sets out to engage Donna in stepping back and seeing her role in this escalation, and in wondering about the child’s feelings and perspectives fueling his “disrespectful” behavior. In this way, she seeks to elicit not just simple empathy, but what contemporary psychoanalytic family therapists like Peter Fonagy and Eia Asen call mentalization and theory of mind—the ability to imagine fully the child’s experience and motivations. As this case demonstrates, that’s easier said than done. Parents often stubbornly refuse to consider their children’s perspective, and instead, rigidly defend their theories of parenting, often reflecting how they themselves were raised.
When parents endorse their own parents’ authoritarian parenting, I ask them, “Were there ever times when you wished your mom or dad would have parented you differently?” Invariably, they’ll reveal moments when they wished their parents had been kinder and gentler, and more interested in their thoughts and feelings. This can become the basis for parents to experiment with novel ways of relating to their children. In my practice, I explore and validate the honorable intentions underlying a parent’s coercive approach. Usually, as in this case, the parent is afraid that if her child doesn’t straighten up and fly right, he’ll get in trouble in the world. So I suggest that her goals and intentions are excellent, but that her strategy is failing, and that there are far less emotionally expensive and stressful approaches.
In a first session, I always ask parents what they do for fun with the child—which often results in a blank stare and a response of “nothing, really.” For the following week, I’ll prescribe the parents to engage in some activity that the child enjoys, not what the parent thinks he should enjoy, even if it’s playing video games together. This becomes the new pleasurable bedrock upon which the parent–child relationship can be transformed. Kids are simply likelier to obey parents whom they not only respect, but also enjoy.
Given how stuck her client was in her ways, I admire how directive Edgette was in offering not only general parenting techniques, but specific words Donna might try out with her son. This contrasts with what I see as overkill in the strengths-based, nonhierarchical approach that’s so in favor these days. As in old-fashioned psychoanalytic therapy, it holds that therapists are supposed to avoid giving direct guidance, and should only elicit existing “subordinated narratives” or hidden strengths. But as this case illustrates, parents often have no positive memories from their own upbringing and no clue how to behave differently, and they need specific direction. If a therapist keeps asking the client for her own ideas, she’s likely to shout in irritation, “If I knew what to do, I wouldn’t be here!”
Yet just as Edgette, writes, our suggestions are not meant to be sure-fire formulas. Rather, we pair with our parent-clients in a joint, collaborative experiment in transformation, whereby every generic technique must be tweaked and fitted to the particular nature of their relationships with their unique children.
Finally, Edgette wisely highlights the importance of establishing an emotionally compelling relationship with the client, reminding us that a successful therapeutic relationship is parallel to a good parent–child relationship. If the child feels emotionally supported and connected to his parent, he’s willing to do what the parent knows is best for him. Our clients are temporarily like our children, no matter their age and intellectual sophistication, and they need our compassionate direction.
Janet Sasson Edgette, PsyD, is a child and adolescent psychologist and the author of Adolescent Therapy That Really Works and Stop Negotiating with Your Teen: Strategies for Parenting Your Angry, Manipulative, Moody or Depressed Adolescent. Her latest book is The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Fraenkel, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at The City College of the City University of New York, and a faculty member and former director of the Ackerman Institute’s Center for Work and Family. He’s in private practice, and is the author of Sync Your Relationship, Save Your Marriage: Four Steps to Getting Back on Track. Contact: email@example.com.