General Issues for Family and Friends
Q. What do parents generally discuss in their counselling sessions?
Parents come because they are concerned about their children’s behaviours. They come for help because they can’t:
– stop their children doing certain things (eg using alcohol or other drugs,
staying at home and being a couch potato, seeing certain people etc.); or
– make them start to do other things (eg get a job, study harder, be more
responsible around the home etc.).
Q. Do the parents you have seen over the years have things in common
with each other?
Each parent usually feels angry, frustrated, disappointed, hurt and powerless. They come because they are sick of feeling that way and want things to change. They often look for a quick solution. They are sure that one exists and are so frustrated because they have not been able to find it.
Q. Any other common characteristics?
The parents usually have very different ways of responding to their child. One parent (often the father, but not always) is stricter with very clear expectations of what is acceptable. This parent tends to focus more on the child’s behaviours. The other parent is more understanding with fewer consistent expectations, focused more on the child’s emotional responses rather than the child’s behaviours. These two approaches often result in parents responding to their child in different ways, leading to the child receiving inconsistent messages, which can increase the problematic behaviours.
Q. Which way is better?
Neither. Both responses can be appropriate at certain times, and inappropriate at other times. The main problem is the fact that both parents are stuck in their default ways of responding to the child which creates conflict in their own relationship. Not only do they problems managing their child, they cannot manage their relationship with each other. They are usually in conflict with each other and so cannot give their child what s/he needs.
Q. What do children need?
This is the starting point of my discussions with parents. Parents need to base their responses to their child on what is most useful for their child. We start a discussion where we try to understand their child as an individual. What parents begin to understand is that their child needs:
– to be treated in the same way by both parents. If one parent is stricter than the other,
the child gets confused about which behaviour is acceptable. The child may try to play
one parent off against the other because if the parents are in conflict, the child stops
being the focus of their attention.
– to be treated consistently over time. The same behaviour from the child needs to
produce the same responses from the parents. This reinforces the standard of what
– to be managed in a controlled manner. If the parents manage their emotions and
behaviours, the child learns to manage their own emotions and behaviours. If the
parents often act in an out-of-controlled way, the child will also.
– to experience reasonable, related consequences for their behaviours. We all learn
from consequences. When we experience a good consequence, we are likely to
repeat the behaviour that resulted in the consequence. For example, praise for
cleaning up increases the chances that cleaning-up will recur. On the other hand,
if we have to pay for a new phone when we break one, we are less likely to break
These are the four main issues that cause parents’ difficulty in their relationship with their children.
Q. Isn’t “consequences” a fancy word for “punishments”?
By “consequences” I mean the related results and outcomes of behaviours. For example, if a worker does not turn up to their workplace, a related consequence would be that they would not be paid. As a contrast, a punishment would be the imposition of a $1000 fine. A consequence for a child who doesn’t put their dirty washing in the laundry basket would be that the child does not have clean clothes. A punishment would be that the child is not allowed to have a social life for a month.
Consequences need to be reasonable and related to the behaviour. In the case of the child with the dirty washing, a consequence could be that they must wash all the family’s washing for a month. This is related, but not reasonable.
Q. So is that all there is to managing problematic behaviours?
If parents are unified, consistent and mange their responses to their child with reasonable, related consequences, they have made a good start in dealing with their problematic child. Yes, only a start.
Parents of both problematic teenagers and adults also have to accept their ultimate powerlessness to directly control the behaviour of their children. The rules of the game change once the child reaches puberty.
Puberty is a time for teenagers to begin the important process of forming their own identity independently of their parents. It is a time to find answers to “Who am I?”, “What’s important to me?”, “What do I want to do?”. It’s a time where teenagers are very aware both of what they don’t like as well as the differences between themselves and their parents.
One of the issues that is of concern to teenagers is their need to feel in control over their own lives. They want to make endless choices about what to wear, what to listen to, what to do, who to be with etc. etc. When parents want to control a teenager’s behaviour, the teenager feels out of control. The resultant anger of the teenager needs to be responded to in a measured, contained way by the parent. Arguments turn into battles for control, and ultimately parents lose the war with their teenage or adult children. Parents may win individual skirmishes, but they will lose the war – any chance for a mature, adult relationship will be gone. Teenagers can become very competent in the art of guerrilla warfare! Also, teenagers who are constantly angry will often act in self-destructive ways – via drinking, drugging, fighting etc. Parents who manage their own anger act as role model and can show teenagers a way to manage their own anger.
The only way that parents can hope to modify the behaviour of their teenage or adult children is by allowing them to experience the consequences of their behaviours, and
by acting as a positive role model.
This strategy is not guaranteed, but is the best hope to achieve the desired results. For example, when a child gets parking fines which the parent pays, the child is not experiencing the consequences of their own actions, and so will not be careful about their parking. By allowing the child to deal with the problem in a non-punishing manner, the parent is indirectly helping the child learn to behave differently.Leave a reply