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A reality of family life today is that effective hierarchy isn't primarily about the rules: it's primarily about having a parent accurately understand his or her child, and the child's feeling understood. Most older therapists and parents were taught that limits are basically about tough love, boundaries, and enforcing rules. Not so for this generational dyad! Twenty-first century hierarchy is about understanding how to get through in ways contemporary kids can absorb when there's too little time and less parental conviction.
Since therapy is really about learning to change, the first tool I now use in helping create a workable, 21st-century kind of hierarchy is figuring out what I call a child's "learning-temperament." This is an amalgam of the widely known work on learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, tactile, active, concrete, and inferential learners, etc.), with an emphasis on the more recent interest in constitutional temperament (e.g., sensory integration, tenacity, activity level, first-time reactions, basic mood, adaptability, separation sensitivity, etc.). Learning-temperament is a formidable force. As most veteran parents and researchers report, it's apparent from the first years of life and doesn't change much with age.
Understanding how a child constitutionally metabolizes information creates in parents (and therapists) a respect and patience for how deeply ingrained a child's responses to adult teaching are. The effective use of this understanding increases parental authority and the chance that parents and therapists will get through—that a message will stick to those walls.
Let's say you're working with a temperamentally "tenacious" learner, rather than a child who's easily distracted by the next event. Once such a child makes up her mind about something—whether it's a toy or tomorrow night's concert—she can't easily let it go. So, for "the rules" to get through, one must offer a couple of options (both of which are acceptable), rather than go head to head, as Stanley Greenspan of Zero to Three Foundation fame reports. For example: "You can share that toy with your younger brother and I'll have more time to read to you before bed, or you can play with the toy by yourself; either is okay with me."
By contrast, a child may be a temperamentally "active" learner. Rules, if they're to stick, will need to be offered in the midst of another activity, like dancing, doing the laundry, or driving to school, as many parents find out serendipitously. We discovered that we got through to our own highly active daughter, Leah, while she was practicing her gymnastic moves on top of our coffee table. Kids like Leah are much more open to parental authority when they aren't made to stop moving.
When I began to pay more attention to this aspect of adult–child interaction, I was astonished to see how a grasp of learning-temperament immediately increased parental authority. Twelve-year-old Ryan had been asking mindless questions of his classmate Jeremy, who hated being pursued. Jeremy would ignore or dis Ryan until Ryan lashed out in front of everyone, making himself look like the "bad guy" and getting him into trouble. Though smart as a whip, Ryan couldn't understand how his inability to hang back set him up for abuse. Instead of thinking in standard terms—a nonverbal learning disorder or ADD diagnosis—I understood that Ryan not only had trouble picking up visual cues, but, under his loud obtuseness, had a sensitive learning-temperament, which made him hear firm advice as sharp criticism, which he needed to rebuke.
Ryan's parents admitted they'd been stymied by his inability to grasp their guidance and by the ferociousness of his responses, which nearly led to physical confrontations. Since I now do "tempograms" (genograms tracing temperament across three generations), I wasn't surprised to learn that several family members, including Dad, had exploded defensively against any attempts at authoritative guidance; smart, but interpersonally dumb, was their theme song. Recognizing this characteristic across generations was a turning point. Slowly, mom and dad's edginess about Ryan's loud obtuseness around the house—his whiny demands for juice while watching TV, his explosions when he lost at games—was replaced by the slightly gentler tone that Ryan needed so he could listen.
As fights with his parents morphed into greater mutual comfort, Ryan opened up to guidance about schoolyard politics and the impact of his impulsiveness, and positive experiences began sticking to those walls. Gradually, he stopped chasing Jeremy and found his own group to hang out with. Months later, he and Jeremy found themselves doing what was once unimaginable: laughing together as friends in the lunch room.