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When You Say It Right (But Things Still Go Wrong)

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The following excerpt is taken from How To Say It to Your Kids, by Dr. Paul Coleman.

There are no perfect formulas to solve every child problem, but when common-sense solutions fail and creative solutions fail, chances are you have misidentified the problem. Giving your car a tune-up to make it run better won't help if the problem is bad gasoline. Wearing a sweater to keep warm is fine, but it doesn't fix the furnace.

Family life is complicated. People seek professional help because their efforts to resolve certain problems have failed and they don't know why.

When reasonable efforts to parent your children backfire, something fundamental to the situation is being overlooked. This chapter will help you locate the culprits and fix them.

Reasons 1 and 2

A Child Problem Is Really a Disguised Marital Problem

This takes many forms. One form occurs when a parent complains about a child's behavior (sloppy, inattentive, unappreciative, disrespectful, etc.) but the parent is hurt most by the belief that his spouse acts those ways, too. Thus, a man who is annoyed with his wife's inability to handle menial household chores by herself (such as a burned-out bulb or a tire with low air pressure) may yell at his daughter when she acts helpless. He is really angry with his wife. A wife who thinks her husband takes her for granted may find it difficult when the kids are whining while she's trying to eat lunch. She may mishandle that situation because her frustration with her husband is not being addressed.

When anger is misdirected at the children, yelling at them is often done within earshot of the spouse. "Will you kids please clean up your mess? How many times do I have to tell you!" may be a wife's way of yelling at her mate to help out more around the house.

Sometimes a child's behavior problem serves a hidden purpose. It gives a spouse an excuse to blame the mate for something. "See, I told you that you are too lenient (or harsh) with discipline. Now look at what he's done." When marital differences are annoying but unresolved, parents may have less flexibility when dealing with their children's problem behaviors, and those behaviors might then continue.

Finally, if a child's actions distract an unhappy couple from focusing on their relationship, the actions may persist despite reasonable efforts to resolve them. For example, a child who has many unrealistic fears and anxieties may keep parents from discussing (arguing about) an area of conflict. Instead, they may focus on the child. By bringing the parents together in a common cause, the child may subconsciously learn to develop symptoms.

You Are Over-involved or Under-involved with Your Kids

Experts sometimes use the word "enmeshed" to describe an overly involved parent. Such parents mean well but actually tend to overprotect, smother, and stifle normal growth. They become uneasy with a child's growing independence because their own role is threatened. These parents use empathy a great deal and try to reason with their kids. This is not so bad, but usually they are trying to reason in ways that overprotect. Children in these cases tend to become more dependent and therefore require more involvement with their parents, so it is a self-perpetuating cycle. Some kids rebel and pull away from the smothering. Efforts to persuade them may fail -- not because the words are ineffective but because the reason for the rebellion is being overlooked. Until Mom pulls back some (most enmeshed parents are mothers), nothing will change.

Underinvolved parents are referred to as "disengaged." They may care, but it takes a lot to get their attention. It will take a bloodcurdling shriek from a squabbling child before the parent (often a father) steps in and tells the kids to break it up. These parents admire autonomy and give their kids plenty of room. But, unfortunately, the kids receive less supervision and less affection as well. Such dads are good at giving orders but poor at affection or empathy. You can see how these patterns can make it hard to communicate effectively. Imagine that the kids are fighting frequently (sound familiar?).

An enmeshed mother jumps in to arbitrate, reason with the kids, and maybe tells them to be quiet. Ten minutes later the kids are at it again. A disengaged father may intervene if the fighting gets serious. But as soon as he goes back to the newspaper, the fight may resume, though at a slightly lower decibel level. The mom is ineffective because instead of letting the kids work out their own squabbles, she teaches them that they can count on her to settle their differences for them. Dad is ineffective because if the only attention he gives the kids is negative attention, the kids will opt for that. Until Dad is more involved in the kids' lives overall (not just when they are fighting) and until Mom backs off a bit and lets the kids have a life without her, beautifully phrased communications will have no long-term effect.


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