"He just needs to quit whining and complaining and snap out if it," Sam (as we'll call him), a father and therapy client says about his conflict with his teenage son, Jack. I remind him that when he lectures his son, things always escalate.
"Yeah, whatever," says Sam, shaking his head. His voice rises like a thermometer's mercury. "But why can't he just do it? I never got away with whining and slacking off when I was a kid. My old man wouldn't put up with that for one second."
Sam's hands go into a vise-lock with the arms of the chair, his fingers white with clamping. "Doesn't he realize how disrespectful it is? Doesn't he see how he's becoming a complete loser?"
I let Sam know this is indeed hard. I quietly say it must be painful to see things so stuck with his son. I ask him what he most wants in his relationship with Jack. He had started to soften, but now stiffens. "That's not the issue, doc." He glares at me. "This ain't my problem and you know it." I sit upright, like I've just been poked with a cattle prod.
Listen to how this father talks about his son. Pay less attention to what he says and more on how he says it. Imagine the shaking of his head, the reddened face, and the defeated strain in his voice. You have to wonder at the messages this father and son send one another. Over the course of family sessions, I learned that the son, Jack, tended to reach out to his dad in various ways, but Sam focused more on what Jack was not doing (such as homework and chores) than what he was doing, and more importantly, wanting.
Jack was indeed a tough kid, with much that was infuriating and button-pushing about his behavior. He did, however, want a better relationship with his dad. Sam misread the cues and missed opportunities to connect
Listen not only to how Sam talks about Jack, but listen also to yourself. Imagine you are the clinician. How might you feel? What would you do? If you're like me, you might be tempted to struggle and play "tug-of-war" with Sam, much as he does with his son.
Tug-of-war is indeed a silly game. All of that straining in order to move a rope a matter of yards. If you've ever played it, or watched a match, it is pointless, and yet so easily and regularly played. Husbands with wives, co-workers and confidantes, and yes, parents with children -- No one, not even the experienced therapist writing a psychology blog, is above such game playing. What is happening here?
According to psychologist and relationship researcher, Dr. John Gottman, when opportunities for connection are missed, relationships fail. When relationships are rife with resentment, attack, and withdrawal (turning "against" or "away"), they fail. Conflict and negative feelings are natural to relationships. It is what is done with these feelings that predicts how things turn out. It is not that people are just from different planets and we should merely accept our differences. There are skills to be learned.
When we see others emoting, our brains, because of specialized cells called mirror neurons, spark with similar emotions. Human brains appear to have evolved for attunement and relationships. As Daniel Goleman argues throughout his bestseller Emotional Intelligence, and as recent studies indicate, we are wired for connection. In a biological sense, we were not the biggest, strongest or fastest animal on the block, so we evolved to band together for survival. Our brains are built for noticing and responding to one another. Unfortunately, they were also built for the emotional intensity required for running from saber-tooth tigers and fighting off rival cave-dwellers. Our modern lives don't need the emotional fireworks inside our skulls that lead to our tug-of-war reactions to one another - to our children in particular. More than anyone else, our kids need to learn emotional balance from their caregivers. All too often, we, as adult caregivers, unintentionally pass along bad habits of emotional "rope-yanking" to our children.
Parents (and therapists) must learn to give up games and learn to "dance" in attunement with kids in order for behavior, and their relationships in general, to improve. This may be especially true of "difficult" kids - those whose behavior hits buttons - those who are aggressive, "manipulative" or "moody." These kids seem to slap adults with the rope. They pull for negative reactions. And as soon as we get caught in assuming "intent," or lose sight of the role of our own social scripting and behavioral knee-jerk reactivity, a-tugging we will go.
Our brains seem to know little difference between upset bred from hungry lions or ill-timed parental lectures. If we miss the cues, fail to attend to the feelings behind our kids' behavior, and if we react instead of respond, we will battle needlessly with each other. We will do ourselves and our relationships with kids irretrievable long-term damage.
How do we (as therapists and parents) learn to "drop the rope?" In "A Special Education" this year, I'll be focusing on this a great deal. For now, as we enter 2011, I'd like to suggest we all make a resolution to start understanding our relationships with kids better. Let's agree that it makes sense to learn all we can about sidestepping pointless games.