Star-burstHarriet Breslow, L.C.S.W.-C.
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Father and sonsspacer-picIn my social work practice, I see a wide variety of problems and symptoms. These problems can range from “mild” ones, such as temper tantrums, refusal to do chores, refusal to obey curfews, poor school perfor-mance, disrespectfulness towards parents and teachers; to more serious ones, such as the development of a chronic, incapacitating illness or phobia, refusal to go to school, physical abusiveness at home or in the community, trouble with the law, and even an unwanted pregnancy. You may wonder what all of these problems could have in common, since there could be a variety of reasons for their origins. What they have in common is not their origins, but rather how to achieve their solutions. In my work I do not think about problems from the point of view of what caused them, but rather what can be done to solve them. It is here then, in reaching the solution, that many or most of these problems may have a common denominator.

spacer-picIn thinking about how to help parents change their children’s behavior, I have learned that the best and easiest way to do it is to ask parents to do something which forces the children to react in a different way. In a more common language this would be known as “outsmarting the children.” Considering the intelligence and the “savior faire” of today’s children, parents need all the good strategies they can get their hands on.


spacer-picThe major things that I ask parents to do are: 1) to take charge of their children by clearly laying out their expectations for their children’s behavior; 2) to be in complete agreement at all times about what these expectations are; 3) to provide enthusiastic recognition for accomplishments; 4) to provide adequate incentives for behaviors they wish to promote; 5) to institute consequences without anger when rewards and compliments are not enough; and 6) to be consistent.

spacer-picOn the surface these requests sound relatively easy to accomplish. However, for most of us, it takes a great deal of hard work to execute them successfully. I think you will see what I mean as I discuss in detail the ramifications of these points.

spacer-picThe first objective I mentioned is to take charge by clearly laying out expectations for our children’s behavior. I think that most of our grandparents did this without ever questioning whether it was right or wrong, good or bad for the psyche of their children. There was something that needed to be done, and they told their children to do it. I think it was probably easier because in those days many people were poor, and children didn’t have many luxuries or the privileges that went along with those luxuries. Our grandparents didn’t have to worry about whether they were liked by their children; they worried about whether there was enough food to eat and clothes to keep warm.

spacer-picIn today’s society we seem to be caught up in making sure our children have every advantage. We worry whether they are happy. We worry if we are the right kind of parents who can properly understand and communicate with our children. We worry if we abuse our children’s rights. We get so caught up in this concern for our children that we forget, as parents, that we too have rights, and we overlook that the family is really a benevolent dictatorship, not a democracy. Please don’t misunderstand. I think it is important to respect children and their thoughts, just a s you would respect any other human being, but listening to a child’s opinion and doing what the child tells you to do are two different things. Children don’t need parents to be pals; they need them to be parents who will provide a concrete value system, a structure with clear guidelines which will keep a child from losing control, particularly in those later teenage years when all adolescents test parental limits. If there are no expectations and limits, the adolescent often has no way to learn good judgment, to control impulses, and stop destructive behavior.

spacer-picParents should begin to have expectations when a child is young. These expectations can be as simple as doing little chores around the house: learning how to take dishes to the sink; setting the table; sweeping the kitchen; making his bed; setting his alarm and getting up by himself; and making his lunch for school. Even the smallest of children can do some of these things, and in return they achieve a sense of self-esteem because they are independent in many ways. They become part of the family by contributing to the successful running of the family, and they know it. If they begin doing these chores as small children, they are not over whelmed with chores or expectations as they grow older, and they are not helpless to take care of themselves when they leave home. I can’t tell you how many parents I have met who are still struggling to get their 17 year old up in the morning for school. It becomes a daily battle and sets a bad mood the whole day for the entire family. It is almost unreasonable for a parent to expect a 17 year old to suddenly get out of bed in the morning on his own when he has never done it before.

spacer-picWhen I work with families, I ask the parents to write out on a piece of paper the major expectations they have for each child in the family. Then I also ask parents to state a consequence for each behavior that is not carried out. I also ask them to pick a reward , no matter how small, when a child exhibits appropriate behavior. Because the consequence and the reward are clearly stated ahead of time, the child knows just what to expect if he does or does not do what is asked. This process actually protects the parent and the child. The parent no longer has to lose his temper and make up an unreasonable consequence on the spur of the moment which he may not be able to enforce, and the child is no longer made to deal with a consequence that is too harsh or unreasonable.

spacer-picIt is important that expectations consist of realistic goals that the child is capable of meeting. Often I suggest that the parent set the long range goals in small increments which are more easily attainable. For example, a child cannot go from D’s to B’s. He may go to a D+ or C+ then to a C. This may take several weeks or months. Or, he may improve in one or two subjects for several months before all subjects begin to improve. If a child’s reward only comes after he has achieve all B’s, he may lost interest because he feel she will never reach his goal, and he may give up.

spacer-picIf a child receives some reward as each grade improves, he will be more likely to keep on trying to reach the long-range goal. The important thing about putting rules, consequences, and rewards down on paper is that parents are clearly stating: this is what we want you to do; here is what will happen if you do this; and here is what will happen if you don’t. The child knows exactly what to expect and can make a better decision about how he will behave.

Small familyspacer-picThe second piece of advice I give to parents is to be in complete agreement at all time times about what their expectations are regarding their children. This means that not only must parents agree on the expecta-tions and communicate that fact to the child, but they must also be willing to take equal responsibility for seeing that the child does what he needs to do. I spoke before about the intelligence of children today. If there is any kind of split between the parents, the child will pick it up immediately and use it for his advantage to gain control. The child gains control by getting one of the disagreeing parents to joining with him in support of what he wants to do. The child then gets his own way, because two individuals usually can overpower one. In many cases, parents will claim they have not joined their child against the other parent because they have not openly condoned the child’s misbehavior. They may, however, choose to silently stand by and watch the struggle between their spouse and their child without giving any constructive support to the spouse who is trying to control the child’s behavior. This refusal to stop a child’s misbehavior can only then be interpreted by the other spouse as support for the child’s misbehavior. The child is fully aware of this, and soon learns that he can count on one or the other parent to either support him or not oppose him on certain issues. It may not always remain the same coalition. The child may realize that he will get better support or lack of opposition from one parent of another depending on the issue. It doesn’t matter as long as he gets his way and gain power in the family. I will say more about this need for agreement later in the paper.

spacer-picUsually, by the time I see parents and children in my office, negative patterns of interaction have been established for a long period of time, and my first objective is to help promote some positive feelings between parents and children, no matter how poorly things are going. The most effective tool to promote good feelings is enthusiastic recognition for acceptable behavior, which is my third request of parents. Just a smile or compliment goes a long way in these situations. We are quick to criticize our children’s faults or misbehavior, and at the same time we fail to compliment them when they do what is expected of them. Many parents believe that a child does not deserve recognition for doing the minimum requirements that any normal child his age should do, such as going to school every day; attending classes; doing homework; keeping his room clean; helping with chores around the house; listening to parents, etc. These parents believe that a child should be able to provide his own motivation to do what he should do because good behavior should be important to him.

spacer-picIf we, as adults, think about our own work situation, I wonder if we would continue to work as diligently if we never received a word of praise for doing our job. How motivated would we be if we felt that the only time someone took notice of us was when we made a mistake. If your child only hears your comments about his behavior when he does not live up to expectations, he may begin to believe that negative attention is better than no attention at all, or he may adopt the attitude that no matter what he does, it is not good enough - so why try.

spacer-picNo matter how poorly your child is doing in some areas, there must be something that he is doing right. He needs to know that you are aware he can be successful at some things, even if he fails in some other ways. In working with a great number of families through the years, I have witnessed the following phenomenon: when I ask a family to record for a week or two all the things their child does right, the parents come back with a much better attitude about their child. The parents report on positive behavior they have previously not seen (probably because they were not looking for it), and even if the negative behavior is still present, family members begin to feel better about each other. When the parents report compliments instead of criticisms in the session, the behavior may often increase while negative behavior will most likely begin to decrease. In other words, when the child’s behavior is seen through a new perspective of success rather than failure, the child feels better about himself and usually responds by improving his behavior.

spacer-picCertainly there are times when more than just compliments are needed to change behavior, and rewards and consequences may need to be introduced to increase motivation. But one thing is certain: when daily criticisms far outweigh compliments, success is unlikely, and a new plan of action is needed. My further request to parents is to provide adequate incentives for behaviors they wish to promote. Many parents believe they should not need to reward children for things other children do as matter of course. There are, indeed, many children who do not require reward to do the everyday things expected of them. But if your child has developed a pattern of behavior which is non-compliant and uncooperative, then you must begin to think about ways to change this pattern. It is much easier to promote new desirable behavior with incentives rather than with punishments. If the incentive is meaningful to the child, often a consequence does not need to be enforced. Once the new behavior becomes firmly established, often the child no longer needs a reward, because the good feedback and feeling of success he gets form doing will becomes enough reward to continue the new behavior.

spacer-picI once worked with a mother and a teenager who had been locked in a battle for a year about getting up on time for school. I asked the girl what it would take for her to get up on time, and she promptly replied, “cinnamon rolls for breakfast”. Although the mother’s budget was tight, she agreed to purchase the cinnamon rolls, and the daughter got up every day on time with no assistance form her mother. After a week, the girl grew tired of cinnamon rolls, but she continued to get up on time because it really made life much easier for her at home and at school. Not all cases are this easy to solve, but the point is that once the negative pattern of interaction was broken and a new behavior was established, the girl could make a more rational choice about how she wanted to do things. If we had skipped the reward and gone right to the consequence, I think the girl would have been more determined to hold her ground as a way to fight with her mother.

spacer-picSome parents are uncertain as to what rewards they should use. One good rule of thumb is that the smaller the child, the more frequent the reward. A reward of extra time with parents is usually the best, such as two stories at bedtime instead of one, or staying up a little later to play a game. Sometimes seeing a favorite TV show, (even if you have to tape it and play it at a convenient time) or more time with computer games are good rewards. Nintendo seems to be a big attraction, and extra time with that can be awarded in 15 minute increments. However, extra computer time and TV time only work if they are monitored on a regular basis.

spacer-picFor older children, privileges such as the use of a car, going out with friends, extension of curfew times, or permission to get a job, are appropriate rewards. In most cases, I consider getting a job a privilege because I believe a young person’s first jobs are his schoolwork and chores at home. When he is responsible in these areas, he can then have the privilege of going out and earning extra money. However, even this viewpoint needs to be considered on an individual basis, as there have been children who show their first signs of responsibility on a job outside the home, and they are then able to transfer these skills of responsibility to other areas of their life. The key to working with these children is looking for what motivates them to produce the desired behavior. Remember, rewards are effective incentives only if they are meaningful to the child.

spacer-picIf rewards and compliments are not enough to produce the desired change, parents may then have to institute consequences. Parents are sometimes at a loss as to what kind of consequences to use. Often they can’t think of an appropriate consequence, or they use the same one for all misbehavior, no matter how big or small they might be. If possible, it is best to try first a natural consequence of behavior. The best consequence for a small child is time out. The time out can be as little as two or three minutes depending upon the age of the child. If parents phrase their words the right way, the child can hear the consequence as something he has caused and has control over. For instance, I suggest that parents say, “when you throw your toys, that tells me you are tired and need to go to your room for a rest”. If the child is still crying in his room, the parent could say, “I will know that you are ready to come out when you are calmed down.” For a small child, just being isolated from others is a very big consequence.

spacer-picAs a child gets older, time out will probably need to increase in the length of time a child is in his room. However, if time out is used effectively when the child is small, the child will quickly learn that his parents really mean what they say, and, therefore, time out will not need to be enforced very often.

spacer-picOne thing to remember is that if your child begins to behave better as a result of your consistent structure, understand that he has probably not changed, but that your relationship with him has changed. He will probably test you every once in a while with an old behavior, and if you fail to give consistent structure, he will probably go back to his old ways. When time out is sued as a child gets older, toys and other distractions may need to be removed from the area where the child will be placed so that time out does not become play time.

Small familyspacer-picIn cases where time out is not appropriate, such as a temper tantrum in a public place, I usually suggest that parents quietly pick the child up, take him home, even if it means leaving the groceries in the cart, or cutting short the family outing. Then as soon as possible ( hopefully within the next two days, ) plan some sort of outing and leave that child at home with a sitter and an explanation of why he cannot go. You will only have to do this once or twice before the child decides temper tantrums do not work for him.

spacer-picOther appropriate consequences for small children include: loss of favorite toys; loss of play time outside; loss of privileges to have friends come in; loss of TV; loss of computer games; and earlier bedtime.

spacer-picFor older children I find it easier to take a privilege away rather than to try to make them do a chore to make up for their offense. Sometimes the restriction is related to the offense; sometimes it is not. The most common restrictions are : loss of the phone; loss of TV; loss of video games; loss of the car; restriction to the house; and earlier curfews. Do not ever impose a restriction you cannot enforce. If the phone is a restriction, you may have to unplug it or take out the receiver and take it to work with you. If TV is restricted, I have suggested cutting the cord from the TV in half, and putting a female play on the end coming from the set, with two male plus on the ends of the other piece. You simply take the piece with the two male plugs to work, and the TV cannot e watched. If you want your child to stay at home, you may have to be there in order to make him stay.

spacer-picChildren must get the message that their parents are in charge, and if the child is traveling down the wrong path, the parent has a responsibility to do all he can to change that course for the child’s sake. I once had a case concerning two delinquent girls, where the mother had lost control to the point that she couldn’t get one girl to unlock her door to come to the first session. After the first session, the mother was instructed by me to go home and take off the door. The girl came to the next session. In six weeks this girl, who had previously served three months in reform school, was going to school and had a part time job. I had been told by her probation officer when therapy started, not to bother with this one, as she would never listen to anyone. Once the mother made it clear that she was willing to go to any lengths to enforce the rules, even take off from work, the girl and her sister obeyed her. When a child knows that a parent will not give up no matter what, he will usually , at some point, begin to listen.

spacer-picIt is also important that parents not rescue children from the consequence of their actions, particularly when the consequences are naturally imposed from some outside source. For instance, if a child is late for school, or misses it completely, he may either receive detention and/or lose credit in the course. Many parents believe that losing credit is too severe and damages a child’s self-esteem and , therefore, they will write notes to the school making up an excuse. This does not help the child learn to be responsible for his own actions, and the problem will only get worse. If a child breaks the law or abuses drugs or alcohol, the police or some other outside agency will probably get involved. In some cases parents may need to call the police themselves. This action says to the child : “I will not let you abuse yourself or others anymore. I will help you get control of yourself until you can do it on your own.”

spacer-picRecently I sadly listened to a very wealthy father tell me how for years he overlooked his son’s use of marijuana, and how he periodically took him home from the police station, so the son never spent the night there when he was arrested. The father though he was protecting the son. Now the son was 25, and he had spent months in jail. He was also facing criminal charges in an upcoming trial. His father said the best thing he ever did for his son was to let him go to jail and deal with the consequences of his own behavior. Since the son’s brief jail term, his behavior turned around, but sadly he still had to face the results of the trial. Hopefully it was not to late for him to lead a better life.

spacer-picNow, don’t panic: most of you will not have problems this severe. However, today, problems with drugs, alcohol, and crime do not have class boundaries, and parents must be prepared to draw the line for their children’s sake. Please do not misunderstand. These rules and consequences are not the only things children need. They need love and time. They need time to make mistakes and time to fail with acceptance. But without guidelines, these other things are of not much use. Parents must not look for children’s approval, but rather for their cooperation, and parents must be willing to do whatever they need to do to get that cooperation.

spacer-picToo many parents are afraid to enforce a consequence for fear their child will not love them anymore. This often happens in families with an absent parent where the child plays one parent against the other. However, I have seen many families where both parents are present, and the parents are still afraid of losing their child’s love or of making the child unhappy, so the child always gets his way.

spacer-picMy fifth piece of advice to parents is that consequences are most effective when parents enforce them without a big display of anger. If parents scream or hit children and then try to enforce a consequence, the children may respond more to parents’ anger rather than to the consequence itself. The child will probably forget about the lesson to be learned and will concentrate on either how angry he is at you, or what a bad person he is to deserve such anger. Screaming and hitting to not work for a variety of reasons. Parents who use these methods as their main way to control behavior usually find that children develop a poor self-image; their bad behavior escalates; and they may begin to adopt these methods as their way to solve problems. When children, particularly boys, become teenagers, they are usually bigger than most of their parents, and physical force becomes a danger to the whole family.

spacer-picMy sixth point for parents is to be consistent at all times. Without consistency none of the previous advice makes much sense. Children will quickly learn that “no” can mean “yes” , if, when they bug you, you finally give in. Or, they will continually do the same things over and over again if they know that your promises of the month’s restriction will only last two days. Children can probably accurately predict the outcome of every dispute you have with them based on previous experience. It will, therefore, take them awhile to learn that “no” means “no”, they will probably continue to “test” you every once in a while just to make sure that you haven’t forgotten.

spacer-picIn most cases, use of rules, consequences, and rewards works very well when: both parents are in agreement about what needs to be done; actions by parents are consistent; and consequences are enforced without excessive anger.

spacer-picHowever, there are times when a child may get so angry when a consequence is enforced that he will escalate his negative behavior. Or in some case, consequences seem to have no effect at all on changing behavior. At this point, parents and children seem to be locked into struggles which are more destructive than the habits they want to change. In such a case, my rule of them is: first re-evaluate what you have been doing. Make sure that you have been clear, consistent, have tried several kinds of rewards and consequences without excessive displays of temper for at least a month. If you have done all this and you are still not succeeding, the it is time to DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. !!!!!!!!!

spacer-picRemember, the following suggestions should never take the place of consistent rules, rewards, and consequences. It is only when you have exhausted this plan, and it doesn’t work at all, that you should try something else.

spacer-picA good place to begin is to re-evaluate what you are currently doing or have done in the past that has been successful. Sometimes we forget old techniques that have worked well for us. With a few revisions or variations, they may work again. Also, if there is anything you are currently doing that motivates your child, see if you can expand on that and use it to motivate him other areas. The same solutions can often be used for a variety of different problems.

spacer-picOne approach that is often helpful in a less conventional style of parenting is breaking the old patterns of interaction between family members. You may change who is handling the problem. If mom does most of the disciplining, dad may take over completely. Then see what happens. (This means absolutely no interference from mom even if she doe not agree with dad’s method.) If you are a screamer, you may try to only whisper to your child, or better still, write him notes when you want to tell him to do something he probably doesn’t want to do. Instead of being angry, what happens if you give your child a hug? If your child refuses to eat, what happens if you take his plate, throw his dinner away, and tell him the kitchen is closed till the next meal? When your child has a temper tantrum, see what happens if you encourage him to scream louder and longer. (Most children like to think they are in charge of their own tantrums, and if you encourage them to do more, they may do less.) While they are screaming and yelling, see what happens if you begin to do something totally out of character and unrelated to the situation, such as singing a song and doing a dance. One mother sang a song and danced a jig right out of the room, leaving her daughter speechless. The child was perfectly wonderful for the next three days without the mother’s saying a word directly to her about the tantrum.

spacer-picThe father of a teenage boy could not get his son to empty the garbage, until one night the father turned on the son’s bedroom light at 2:00 a.m. and dumped the garbage on the bedroom floor. The father never said a word, but the son always remembered to empty the garbage after that.

spacer-picOne seventh grader refused to attend classes, smoked without permission, and frequently did not come home all night. After much ineffective yelling, her parents decided to take action that was very different for them. One day without warning they took away her lunch money. Within several days her behavior in all areas began to improve, and every time she asked about her lunch money, her parents informed her that she knew how to get it back. A year later, she was a model child, and her younger sister began to exhibit difficult behavior. This time, the mother went to the younger girl’s room and took down all her favorite posters from the wall. The behavior change was even more rapid then her sister’s. All this was done without the use of words. I always tell parents- if you haven’t been successfully in getting through to your child, then you have to use a different language to get through to him. It must be a language he can understand more easily, and probably a language that is not composed of words, confrontations ,or expressions of anger.

spacer-picI advocate less talk and more action. Eliminate the problem first, and then talk. Your children feel power when they can make you lose your temper. When you stay cool, they often feel powerless. When you are calm and they get angry, then you know you are on the right track.

spacer-picFor smaller children time out without anger is still my favorite consequence. Another method is to distract the children from the problem behavior by focusing his attention on something positive. When a child must accomplish a task within a certain time period, such as eating or getting dressed in time for school, the use of a kitchen timer is very helpful. Many young children do not have a good concept of time, but they can easily see the timer moving towards the zero point, and it is like a game to them. If they beat the timer, then , of course, they get a reward.

Three generation familyspacer-picIf the child will not get dressed in time even with the timer, I have suggested that parents take the child to school in their car in their pajamas. Usually they will change clothes all by themselves on the way to school, and the problem usually doesn’t happen again. You can offer this option by presenting it as a lesser of two evils: “Would you rather get dressed in the house or at school? Do you want to go to sleep with the night light on or off?”

spacer-picOne thing that certainly helps to motivate children is to talk to them in a constructive manner, stating what you want in the positive, and leaving out the negative. Instead of saying,”You can’t go out to play because your room is not clean enough yet,” say instead, “ You have made a lot of progress. Let me know when you have finished so you can go out and play.”

spacer-picOne of my favorite techniques that works particularly well with small children is the use of a prediction, where both parents and child predict their behavior for the next hour, half day, or whatever time period they choose. Each person makes the prediction by drawing a happy or sad face on a piece of paper and then they places the paper into an envelope without the others seeing it. At the end of the designated period, they open the envelope and see whose prediction was right. A child very rarely makes a sad prediction, and he is very interested in proving the adult wrong and winning the game. Often a small reward is given when the child wins. This method also works for school teacher with problem children.

spacer-picThere is also an illusion of choice method: “Would you rather have Wheaties or Cheerios?” “Would you rather clean your room now, or do the dishes first?” Another technique is the uncommon sense approach which takes into account that children often do the opposite of what we ask them. It’s like pulling on a cow’s tail instead of pushing the cow into the barn. You must do the opposite of what you normally do, knowing that they will want to resist what you ask. For instance, two boys who wouldn’t stop fighting were giving boxing gloves by their parents and ask to fight every night after dinner. It wasn’t as much fun whey they had to fight. One child who never made it home on time for dinner found that his dinner was gone when he arrived home, and his parents acted surprised say, “We didn’t notice you were missing. Dinner is over, so you will have to wait until breakfast to eat.” Since he received nothing to eat until the next day, he had no trouble getting home on time thereafter.

spacer-picAnother good method is the reframing technique where you make a benevolent interpretation of a child’ negative behavior. When a three year old throw his toys, you make take them away saying,”When you throw your toys, it tells me you are tired of playing with them.” Or when that same child has a temper tantrum the parent may say, : When you scream like that, it tells me you need a rest in your room.” This is more positive way of enforcing time out.

spacer-picA 17 year old who had particularly messy room was told by her mother, “I’m glad to know you still need me to organize your life. However, you may not like the way I organize things.” When school work is an issue, parents can best help to motivate children by providing appropriate rewards and consequences. I frequently work with the school directly and request a progress report to the parents every week or two weeks. One thing is for sure, nagging never helps. It seems to make parents feel better, but it doesn’t get any more homework done.

spacer-picWhen a child is 16 or older, if every effort has failed, on rare occasions I have suggested that the parent should tell the child he is really on his own, and if he really wants to fail, he can do so. Of course, he will have to repeat any subject he fails; he may even have to repeat the entire year or go to summer school. These are all natural consequences of his actions. There even have been occasions where a child over 16 has failed repeatedly or refuses to attend classes. In these cases it may be more helpful in the long run to allow the child to drop out of school, get a full time job, and pay rent. At first it seems like great fun to the child, but after a while the novelty wears off. Children more often than not return to school or take a high school equivalency exam and then go on to college. Other alternatives include sending a child to trade school where they can learn a skill or sending them to structured private school or an alternative school. One thing I have learned over the years is that when children finally get motivated and decide what they really want, they will usually take the necessary steps to achieve their goal. Not all children are motivated by the same thing or at the same time, do sometimes they need to make a few mistakes before they “find themselves.” The hardest job for parents is to let their children make their own mistakes. We want to protect them. However, because of our protection, children will often miss the lessons life has to offer.

spacer-picParents are not the only ones who like to protect. I spoke before about children who gain power in the family when one parent disagrees with the other parent about parenting issues . They side with the child. The child coincidentally uses this power to protect the family unit. If parents’ disputes about how a child should be disciplined should escalate to the point where the marriage may be threatened, eventually the child’s actions will become so intolerable that he will ultimately force his parents to join together as a unit again him. Does this statement seem contradictory to my previous statements.” Hold your judgement for a moment.

spacer-picA child’s feeling of well being is greatly enhanced by the fact that two parents are working together to protect and guide him. Thus, children will rarely acknowledge that parents have a right to separate or even argue a great deal. Because our children are very bright and sensitive, they will often become scared and anxious when they see parents fighting. Actually, what children fear the most is that they are responsible for the parental disagreement. When parents fight, a child will get in the middle to try to protect their relationship. He distracts them from their disagreement by doing something that forces the parents to focus their concern on him. This new focus of concern may give the parents a momentary break from their own hassles. It may also give them motivation to reconcile their own differences, since they now have found at least one thing to agree upon– the fact that their child needs help.

spacer-picIn many cases when a parent is feeling unloved by a spouse or unsuccessful on the job, he may begin to feel better about himself when he is needed to help his child. If the parent rises to the occasion and supplies the needed help, his own self-esteem will be raised in the process because he has been successful in doing a very important job. The parent will also spend less time worrying about himself because his attention will have shifted from his own problems to the problems of his child.

spacer-picI recently saw a widow and her 16 year old son who was getting into trouble with the law. He refused to get a part time job, even though he had enrolled in a school work program. Her son had no goals for the future and refused to think about work after graduation. Although I helped the mother set limits for the widow had been so busy attending to her son’s needs and trying to get him to listen to he the boy, and she was able to control his behavior, he still refused to get a job. After a few sessions, I discovered that r, that she had never taken the time to grieve over the loss of her husband. She did not have to think about her own unhappy situation as a single parent, or even to worry about financial problems arising from the loss of her husband’s income. She had no social life, as she spent most of her time at home keeping tabs on the boy. It was not until I fully understood the mother’s situation that I could see the protectiveness of her son’s misbehavior. It occurred to me that he might possibly be willing to make a supreme sacrifice by either never getting a job or failing at the ones he finally took. If he never learned to support himself, he would be forced to remain at home and could continue to give his mother something to worry about for years. His mother might never have the time to be depressed about her own loss or her loneliness since her efforts could continue to focus on helping her son find a job. The result might be that through his distractions the boy could become powerful enough to protect his mother from her emotional problems for many years. Of course, when I suggested that the boy might be worried about his mother, he denied it at once. He stated that, in fact, he would leave home the minute he completed high school. However, once his mother began to embark on a more normal social life her herself, I was not surprised that her son was willing to look for a job.

spacer-picThus, a key issue in understanding a child’s behavior is his overwhelming need to protect his parents, either by helping them to have a good relationship or helping them to function normally. The child will do this in spite of great personal cost to himself. He may fail in school, he may commit crimes, or he may even develop symptoms that make him appear strange to the world. If parents can agree on nothing else, they can usually agree on the fact that this child is bad, sick, helpless, or crazy, and they can at least agree to work together long enough to help this child get back to normal. As long as the parents come together and work in a united way, the child will hopefully give up his symptoms, temporarily at least, and improve. When that happens, the parents, if they have worked out their differences, may stay together as a united front. But more often, they will begin to separate or disagree again, because they are no longer worried about their child. The whole cycle will start all over again with the child acting out by resurrecting the old symptom or selecting a new one. Some families can even see this cycle in progress but not know how to stop it.

spacer-picI recently saw a family where the parents had such bad disagreements about what to expect from their child, that the boy ended up incapacitated, unable to move from his bed. He went to live with relatives out of town for year while his parents regrouped, got into counseling, and began to jointly work on a list of expectations and consequences. We also worked on marital issues as well as in-law problems during this time. When the boy returned in good health, I warned the parents, they must continue to agree on their expectations for him, or he would get sick again. Things went well for two months, and then old disagreements over the child began to appear . The physical symptoms then began to reappear in the boy. This time the parents were smart enough to compromise and reach agreement for the sake of their child, and the son quickly returned to good health.

spacer-picWhen a divorce is threatening, or a separation has taken place, parents may learn to set aside their personal differences in order to parent the child in a united way. Ir order to avoid trauma for the child and severe stress for everyone involved, the parents possibly can learn to negotiate and agree on parental goals, rules, and expectations for the child. If parents cannot reach agreement on those issue, then the child may continue to be the focus of the parents’ anger for each other. The child could remain a negative link between the parents, disengagement in the future. It is particularly difficult for a child caught in a web of parental anger to leave home successfully when he is older. If he leaves, he knows the marriage may fall apart, and he could feel responsible. It usually seems easier for the child to stay home and give his parents a reason to be together (providing a home for him) than to worry if his leaving will cause them to separate. Therefore, it is helpful for parents to communicate to the child that there is nothing he can do which will affect their decision to stay together or to separate. This is an adult decision and should not be controlled by a child. If this thought is stated in such a way by both parents so that he child really hears and believes the parents’ statements, and the parents are able to agree on how to parent the child, he may give up his symptoms which he originally developed to save the marriage. He can then go back to being a child.

spacer-picThus, a child’s emotional well being, during and after a divorce, could often depend upon the parents’ willingness to reach agreement on how to parent their child. Parents should understand that they will be the parents of that child forever, even if their contact is minimal though the years. Parental cooperation at this difficult time could provide healthy enough climate for a child, so that he would be able to successfully deal with his own task of completing adolescence and reaching adulthood. In addition, reasonable behavior on the part of the parents in a stressful situation would provide an excellent role model for a child in later years when he marries or has a special relationship.

spacer-picAlthough a life of constant bickering may not provide a good atmosphere in which to raise children, there is one positive comment you can make about this situation: it is at least easy for parents who argue a lot to know when they disagree. It is much more difficult, however, for parents to recognize that they have a hard time agreeing, when the disagreement is a subtle one. I am referring to families where one parent does most of the parenting while the other one is fairly removed emotionally from any family interaction and retreats from disagreements by remaining silent.

spacer-picThis, in my opinion, is just as much of a split as if the two parents argued all the time. If one parent is under-involved in the family, the other parent may be forced to compensate and become over-involved. The child could notice the uneven involvement and could recognize that this is also an uneven distribution of power, since one person consistently tells everyone else what to do. In addition, the over-involved parent may criticize any effort made by the peripheral parent to help out. Thus, the under-involved parent could be “put down” in front of the child and lose the child’s respect.

spacer-picAn example of this situation is where the mother complains that father never helps out with the care of the children. Dad tries to placate her by taking Johnny out to buy a pair of shoes, only to return home and hear from mother that the shoes are impractical, too expensive, and his taste is terrible. Father accepts this criticism with an angry silence, making mother even angrier because he won’t fight with her. The message that Johnny hears is that father is a lousy parent. Therefore, the next time father makes a request of his son, Johnny may choose to ignore it because mother has already said that father’s opinion is worthless. Since mother’s “put down” is not contested by father, Johnny may join mother in perceiving father as spineless jellyfish who isn’t very important. The strength of the coalition between Johnny and his mother cannot be overpowered by father who now becomes more isolated and ineffective in the parenting role.

spacer-picOr, the opposite situation can occur where the over-involved parent, in an effort to be responsible and see that everyone does what they need to do, is perceived by the child as a nagging, complaining tyrant, while the peripheral parent is seen by the child as the “good guy” and victim. In this case, Johnny thinks everything is his mother’s fault and that things would be just fine is she would allow his wonderful father to live in peace. By permitting Johnny to join him against his wife, the father isolates the mother and renders her powerless to get her way.

spacer-picIn either situation just described, the position of power given to Johnny by his parents can make him feel good because he will get his own way. At the same, he will probably be worried because he knows these power struggles could eventually lead to more serious problems, which could force the marriage to an end. Thus, when things get too bad, acting out in some way to get the peripheral person back in the picture. He can do this by developing a symptom that engages the peripheral parent by requiring his help, and he can act out in such a way to get the peripheral parent angry enough to join the other parent in taking charge of this “rotten kid.”

spacer-picOften times children choose a behavior which is really a metaphor for the parent’s relationship or some other parental problem. Children of alcoholics frequently become alcoholics themselves; they echo the behavior of their alcoholic parents. Thus, mother tells father not to drink, and she then tells her son not to drink. Or, if one parent feels rejected by the other parent, a child may feel rejected by his peers.

spacer-picOne of my colleagues recently saw an anorexic girl whose refusal to eat was so severe that she was in danger of dying. Her father was an alcoholic who had had by-pass surgery and was in real danger of dying if he continued to drink. In this case, the mother could not get the father to give up drinking, nor could she get the daughter to give up starving. She was helpless to prevent the death of either one. The girl finally agreed to eat only if her father agreed to give up drinking. She was willing to die in an effort to save her father. This is certainly an extreme example to illustrate my point of a child’s benevolence towards his parents. As parents we do not often see a child’s misbehavior as benevolent or protective.

spacer-picIf parents can provide the proper structure as a united front and take the power that is inherent in the parent role, then children can learn to be benevolent in more constructive ways. When parents can learn to cooperate with each other, children also learn to cooperate and become productive members of the family. Whether our children are experiencing severe problems or more normal adolescent problems, all parents need to take charge by laying our the rules clearly, and they need to be together in support of those rules.

spacer-picUnderstanding and love alone are not enough to give our children what they need to make it in today’s world. Children may not always like you or like what you do, but they will have the chance to grow up to love and respect you for standing firm on the principles in which you believe. By setting guidelines and enforcing them together, you as parents can be freed from a destructive relationship with your children and can make possible an effective relationship for now and the future.


Harriet K. Breslow, L.C.S.W.-C., is a licensed clinical social worker who currently sees families and individuals in her private practice in Potomac, MD. She has been in social work practice for over 34 years. For 13 years she worked as employee of the Frost Counseling Center. She works with individual, couples , families, children, and the elderly. She is a certified Mediator and Parent Coordinator, as well as an Executive Coach for government agencies and corporations. She is also a Collaborative Divorce coach and Child Specialist She is a member of Collaborative Divorce Association; Collaborative Dispute Resolution Professionals; judge who may only see International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, Maryland Collaborative Practice Council; Association of Family and Conciliation Courts; and National Association of Social Workers.

Mrs. Breslow has served as a consultant to a managed-care company and to a Montgomery County Youth Service Agency. She specializes in solution-focused brief therapy, and for the past 10 years, she has conducted workshops for Montgomery County School personnel, employee assistance groups, the Montgomery County Crisis Center, hospital staffs, and private practitioners She also provides supervision for individuals wishing to learn the solution-focused technique. She has lectured at numerous institutions in the Washington area, including Children’s Hospital, D.C. General Hospital, Taylor Manor Hospital, University of Maryland School of Social Work, Catholic University, Howard University, Bryn Mawr School of Social Work, Kaiser Permanente, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine. In addition to her work with mental health professionals, she has lectured to numerous PTA and other parent groups in the Washington area. Mrs. Breslow received her B.A. from Connecticut College for Women and her M.S.W. from Catholic University. She has trained with Jay Haley at the Family Therapy Institute and with Steve de Shazer at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee, WI. Mrs. Breslow has been married for 44 years and has two children, ages 40 and 42.


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