A Special Education

Insight into troubled kids, and ourselves.

Letting the Chips Fall: Control and Letting Go With Your Children

Are you willing to wake up to your parenting experience?

When I was a kid, one of my favorite game shows was "The Price is Right." I liked the game "Plinko" - where contestants earned "plinko chips" by accurately estimating prices of household goods (prominently displayed for the camera and, of course, flanked by beautiful, overly smiling models). At the cue of host Bob Barker, and with chips in hand, contestants climbed the steps leading up behind the "Plinko" wall so that they could release them one at a time, pinball style, down the wall and toward their dreams of "Showcase Showdown" success. Chips bounced about off of pegs placed tightly across the wall, eventually landing in slots at the bottom that were assigned prize dollar amounts. There was no way to know exactly where things would end up. The chip might start on the left, veer toward a thousand bucks, only to end up all the way over to the right in Zilchville. Some contestants seemed like they had a strategy to their "plinko-ing," but it was really chaotic and random. Only the "Plinko" gods, (or maybe some secret magnetic remote control device in Bob Barker's pocket), could control the outcome.

This is how much of my clinical work has seemed over the years - like playing "Plinko." You start out with a general sense of where you'd like to end up with a client, but somehow, things bounce around, and the actual end point of treatment is in a completely different (and sometimes very surprising direction). There's a "Plinko" quality to parenting as well - we, as parents, set our sights on specific goals and outcomes for our kids, and then . . . reality says otherwise.

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Plinko is great for a game show, but it really has no place as the method for deciding the course of treatment for client, nor does it make sense as a way for constructing your household or your savings plan for your child's college education. Besides, at least on "Price is Right," contestants all got parting gifts. All I'm left with at the end of some of my sessions (and parents after a confusing and contorting day of managing their kids) is a throbbing headache. Sound familiar?

My wife and I used to talk on Friday afternoons about our weekend plans - we would each lay out our agendas for all the shopping, errands, household doings, social outings and work-related tasks we'd tackle and cross off our lists by the dying of the light on Sunday. We might even squeeze in a viewing of the Bills/Patriots game if we were lucky. And then my daughter was born . . . As many a parent has learned through hard experience, the to-do lists of pre-child weekends must become "tentative" at best. It doesn't matter how tightly you grip your agenda because when your kid comes down with a stomach bug and throws up all over it, none of it will get done (and your list becomes less of a desired occupant of your wallet or purse).

Parents learn this "looseness" in planning regarding their evenings and weekends, but why is it harder when it comes to the behavior our kids MUST exhibit in public, or what friends they WILL (or WON'T) have, the school they SHOULD attend, or the person they must NEVER marry? In my clinical work I've learned to set goals for treatment but to write them out in pencil, a big eraser always sitting within reach. I'm thinking it's also important for parents to have a similar flexibility in the craning of their necks toward their children's horizons. You can't really see that far anyway.

A metaphor I've used in session with parents and kids has to do with holding a coin in your hand. "This coin represents that ‘thing' you want to happen - that thing this is very, very important to you," I say.

I plop the coin into the palm of their hand. "Grip it very tightly - as tight as you can." I wait until I can see the whites in their knuckles, suggesting the gripping is sufficiently intense.

"Now turn your hand over, fingers facing the floor. Now imagine releasing your grip on this thing - this thing you want so badly." I wait for "the look" - the sense from the person that "no, I don't want to let go of it."

"Go ahead and turn your hand over," I say. "Now slowly open your fingers." I watch as they look at the coin resting there that now means much more than one-tenth of a candy bar. It holds the mass and weight of their most important desires.

"Are you willing to let it just sit there in your open palm? Let it sit without clutching at it as long as it will. Let it sit there despite anything that might happen to bounce it out of your grasp?"

Whether we're talking about a client's wants and needs, or those of a parent for their child, the recommendation is the same - to let the goal sit loosely in one's open palm. If you grip at it, you won't be able to pick anything else up and you might miss something even more important.

Numerous studies (summarized by University of Kentucky researcher Ruth Baer in a 2003 meta-analysis in the journal Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice) and in many studies since that time, have clearly shown the benefits of mindful engagement of present moment experience. We manage pain better, symptoms of disease abate more readily, anxiety calms and depression eases more when we learn to mindfully watch and allow our moment-to-moment experience. Our pain, symptoms, fears all seem to increase when we grip at them, try to "control" them away.

What parent has not felt pain, experienced anguish, gotten colds and suffered compromised immune systems, and suffered from the heights of anxiety and the lows of depression in the wake of the comings and goings of their children? The research is clear - we'll suffer less and have more stable emotional footing for making sound steps forward as parents if we learn to mindfully engage our experience of our children. And yet, it's so very hard to do.

Writer Robert Pirsig, in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, writes that, metaphorically, we are all freight trains. We each have three parts:

1. Freight cars that represent our history, our learning, our "baggage" from the past
2. An engine car that represents the leading edge of things - our present moment experience. It also happens to be where the "fuel" is.
3. And then there are the tracks, or the goals and values that the train rides on. This is our sense of the future - where we think we're heading.

When we're in pain, sick, anxious or depressed, where in the train are we hanging out (as parents or mere people)? Either we're digging away for answers to our angst in the freight cars, or we're standing on top the train on tiptoes trying to see what's coming up around the bend. What we're not doing is keeping our hands on the controls - staying present with whatever "is" in the moment. We risk increasing our suffering as a result (and perhaps derailing the entire train).

As a clinician, I've learned that I'm more effective with clients when I stay in the "engine car" with them. When things get hard in session, I'm more able to help them when I can deeply witness what shows up in them and in myself. I'm learning this as a young father as well. My daughter's illnesses and tantrums could quickly derail me if I let them. My fantasies of her future glories could also lead to a multi-car pile-up if I'm not careful. I'm holding a fistful of coins regarding her life, and I've learned that things will go better if I keep my fingers relaxed. A few might fall out as we move along, but others will inevitably show up as well if I keep my hand open.

Parents shouldn't play "Plinko" with their children's college savings, but they should learn to let go of gripping things so tightly in their daily parenting that the few chips they're greedily holding never fall in the first place.

 

Mitch Abblett, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, supervisor, trainer and writer, specializing in work with troubled youth and their families.

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