Beyond Communication Skills: How People Change
A Parenting Dilemma
A few years ago my son and I often didn’t see eye-to-eye on things. He was ten, and becoming more independent. He was strongly invested in his own point of view. When we disagreed, he let me know. He felt that I was unreasonable. I felt that he was rude.
I respected his new-found independence, but challenged the words and tone he used to assert himself. I tried the standard parenting strategies – ignoring, explaining, using time outs and taking away privileges. Nothing worked, and when I got frustrated both of us felt bad. I was at a loss.
About a year into this struggle, I went to a professional conference. It was almost a week long, and focused on attachment and relationships. I learned more about neuropsychology, about how our brains are “wired” for closeness and connection. I talked with colleagues about how people get stuck relationships, and what it takes to move through those stuck places. And we practiced using new tools with each other.
I always learn a lot at conferences, but this one was also profoundly moving. It’s impossible to focus on something so deeply important as our closest relationships, and not be affected. We all struggle the most basic relationship questions: Do you need me? Do I matter? Can I count on you?
I thought about a couple I was working with, who I’ll call Lisa and Allen. They were struggling with these very questions, but couldn’t yet talk about them directly. Instead, they were caught in a “dance” where Lisa wanted to be close, but she was so desperate that her longing for intimacy came out as complaining. Allen didn’t understand what she wanted but didn’t want to argue, so he stayed quiet. His wish for a close, peaceful connection came across as withdrawal. Lisa felt that and was afraid she wasn’t important. Allen was afraid he couldn’t reassure her enough. They were caught, and both of them felt lonely.
My job as a counselor was to help them step out of this cycle, to help them understand the emotions driving their cycle, and talk with each other about what each of them really needed.
My son and I were caught too. In our “dance,” I wanted to him to be respectful and polite, and his comments pushed my buttons. But I could see that he was struggling too. Maybe he wanted to be more like me – to be able to disagree, think for himself, have his perspective valued. Maybe, underneath the rude behavior, he was struggling with the same questions my couple was, the same questions we all struggle with: Am I important? Do I matter? As I understood our cycle, I gained a new perspective on his behavior.
I returned to my practice energized. Over the next few weeks, I helped Lisa and Allen make an important shift, and their conversations changed. Lisa talked about how much she missed feeling like she was number one in his life. Allen listened, and was moved. He told her how important she was to him, and how he too wanted more closeness and warmth. Lisa and Allen started to understand each other differently, and felt closer and more connected. They had stepped out of their negative cycle, and were on their way to dismantling it completely.
An Unexpected Shift
At home, my son started to ask for things respectfully. We joked more. We laughed. He gave me spontaneous hugs. The rude comments had mostly disappeared. I was puzzled. After all, I hadn’t learned any new parenting strategies.
And then it hit me: It wasn’t him that had changed – it was me. I understood that he really wanted me to know how he was thinking and feeling, even if he didn’t always express it in the most “adult” way. I understood that when he was upset, my frustration made it worse. I understood that what I thought of as “his rudeness” was part of our negative cycle, and that underneath that behavior was a need for connection, support, warmth, and love.
All along I was doing my best to be a good parent. But somehow my parenting strategies didn’t invite the closeness we both wanted. Once I saw the cycle and stepped out of it, I didn’t need strategies. When I understood the emotional side of our conversations and stepped out of the cycle, his behavior shifted. In the end, his behavior was different, but I was the one who had changed.