If I’d ever talked that way to my mother, she’d have killed me right there on the spot!” Over the years, I’ve heard some form of this lament from many parents complaining about the younger generation’s lack of respect for adults. Some think it’s because their kids aren’t afraid of them, not realizing that they don’t need their kids to be afraid of them to get them to do what they want. They just need their kids to respect them—and not their authority or status, but who they are and how they’ve chosen to show up as a parent.
That kind of respect eludes controlling or authoritarian parents. Preoccupied with commanding deference, some parents fail to recognize that a child’s respect is always something bestowed, not extracted. Thus, they end up forfeiting the opportunity to remain credible influences on their children in favor of levying control, which is a poor and costly approach to relationship building. After all, the ability to control one’s child is always time-limited: kids grow bigger, grow up. It was this feeling of losing control over her 12-year-old son, Jack, that brought Donna in to see me.
The Big Divide
Requesting a private parent consultation, Donna came to her first session alone. In her late 30’s, she’d been divorced for several years and was working successfully in the marketing industry. In addition to Jack, she had a nine-year-old daughter, with whom she cited no problems.
“Jack is so polite to his teachers and coaches and friends’ parents,” Donna told me. “They’d fall over backward if they found out how rude he is at home and how much we argue, especially when I ask him to help around the house. I don’t know what it is between us.” She paused before adding, “Every other weekend, he stays with his father, but he says he never has any problems getting Jack to listen to him.”
I asked Donna what had brought her in to see me now, rather than, say, six months ago. In response, she told me a story. After a recent snowstorm, Jack, at her request, had shoveled the driveway and front walkway but had refused to clear the last part of the sidewalk. The more Donna insisted he finish, the angrier and more defiant he became. In fact, he became so enraged that he lurched at his mother, who responded by chasing him around the kitchen table. “When I finally caught him,” she told me unapologetically, “I pinned him on the ground and screamed, ‘Now go shovel the sidewalk!’”
“Oh,” I said, nodding slightly. My facial expression stayed light, my eyes held hers, and I added, “Okay.” It was my way of telling Donna that I wasn’t at all rattled by what she’d shared, yet at the same time saw how deeply in trouble she felt as a parent.
“I’m not proud of it, but that’s why I’m here,” Donna said. “I know what I’m doing isn’t working, but I don’t know what else to do. I just wanted him to finish shoveling the sidewalk.”
Clearly, the failure of physical force to wrest compliance out of her son had marked the end of Donna’s ability to leverage control as a parenting strategy. The problem was that she had nothing with which to replace it. I responded to her by inviting her to revisit Jack’s refusal to do that last portion of the sidewalk with a sense of curiosity, rather than outrage. “Here’s a kid who did a few hours’ worth of shoveling for you,” I said, “so his behavior probably isn’t about just wanting to be difficult. I’d have been curious to find out what changed from earlier in the day. Maybe I’d have asked, ‘I don’t understand, Jack. You were so helpful all day, and your attitude now is so different. What’s going on?’”
“But isn’t the most important thing that he shovel the sidewalk? Otherwise he wins,” Donna replied.
“No,” I told her. “The most important thing is seeing the big divide that’s opening up between you and your son, and figuring out how you guys got there and how you can get back.” I wanted to introduce Donna to the idea that maintaining control, extracting an apology, or making sure a job gets done can matter less than taking care of the relationship. In this case, it could’ve been as simple as finding out whether something was troubling the boy.
“I’d be kowtowing to him if I don’t make him do the sidewalk,” Donna said, revealing to me the degree to which she sought control over Jack, and how far she was from seeing that “winning” wasn’t the most important thing in predicaments like these. I was also learning that empathy didn’t come easily to Donna, and wasn’t a quality she particularly valued. But I felt that showing my own empathy for her would encourage her to do the same for her son, helping her recognize the value of patience and understanding in crafting loving, lasting relationships.
“I think what’s important is understanding Jack’s decision to say no after having said yes for most of the day,” I responded. “Would you have been able to ask him about that with interest—like genuine interest?”
Donna sat back. “Probably not. I was too angry by then.”
“I get it,” I said gently. “It could be that there’s just too much resentment at this point to respond thoughtfully in the moment.” I wanted to normalize Donna’s anger and her difficulty, showing her how I could be understanding when she probably expected me to be critical. “You know what I find sad about all this, Donna, is that something that could’ve been a conversation wound up being an argument. Maybe Jack was cold or tired. Maybe he felt he’d done enough. It’d be great if he could tell you, but most kids don’t just volunteer that on their own. They need somebody to ask them.”
“But, Janet, that’s not how the real world works,” Donna said tersely.
Whoa, okay, I thought. We’d quickly returned to the tough love, and now Donna was framing her treatment of Jack as being in his best interests.
“But it can be how your family works,” I replied softly. “Your home doesn’t have to be a training camp for the real world. It can be a place where your son learns what respect and being understood look like. He’ll still be held accountable for his choices, but this will help him in the real world a lot more than anything he’s going to get out of the school of hard knocks.”Donna stared at me. For a moment, I worried she’d stand up and walk out. Instead, almost imperceptibly, she slowly began to nod her head, and by the end of the session I felt I’d gained a bit of traction.
Respect vs. Control
Over the next week, I thought about Donna’s difficulty seeing an alternative to her deeply ingrained parenting style. Believing a large part of her tough-love approach was a hand-me-down from her family of origin, I started our next session by asking about her own parents.
]“They were both no-nonsense people,” she said. “You did what you were supposed to do, and that was that. Nobody ever asked what your reasons were for not doing something. Nobody cared.”
“Were there other influences on your parenting style besides your parents?” I asked.
“Not really. The other day I told Jack, ‘I’m your mother, and you’re my child, and you need to do as I say!’ That was straight out of my parents’ playbook, but I was at a loss, and these days everything out of my mouth seems to be negative. I find myself either yelling or dripping with sarcasm. It’s a problem. Like last night, I was looking forward to watching some TV with Jack, but I was worried he’d do or say something to ruin the evening. So I tried to prevent that by saying, ‘You know, if someone doesn’t say something snide about finishing his homework, we might actually be able to watch some TV.’ Jack looked at me and then just spent the rest of the night in his room. So instead of him ruining the evening, it was me.”
“Donna,” I replied, “so many of your interactions with Jack are based on what you can or can’t get him to do. I want to help you find other ways to influence and relate to him.”
“Like what?” Donna asked.
“Well, you were just saying that yelling and sarcasm were your go-tos. What if you were more careful about how you spoke to Jack, maybe worried less about being in control of your interactions with him?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “I know it just makes matters worse whenever I’m sarcastic.”
“I worry that it leaves him feeling resentful too, and that’s something that doesn’t just go away. Resentment builds and then bleeds all over everything if it’s not attended to.”
“I know, it’s just that when we argue I’m usually so angry that I’ll do anything to get his attention, even if it means hurting his feelings.”
“Donna, you already have Jack’s attention. What you really want is his respect. See if you can turn these arguments into conversations. Like when you told me about Jack getting mad at his sister for reading the book he’d left in the family room. You’d said something to him like, ‘Jack! You can’t keep her from reading the book. I bought that book, which means it’s my book. And I say she can have it!’ That’s a situation that didn’t need control. It needed de-escalating, and resolution.”
“I don’t know what else I’d say,” Donna replied quietly.
“What about something like, ‘Whoa, Jack, why are you so angry about your sister reading your book? What are you worried will happen?’” I was proposing a response to her son’s uncharitable reaction that would have expressed a wish to understand, not just reestablish the social order.
I thought this was the kind of suggestion Donna wanted. Instead, she said, “That feels like placating to me. I really think he just needs to suck it up sometimes.” It was as if, for Donna, empathy, or simply taking the time to try to understand a situation or a person, was a luxury that child rearing couldn’t afford.
I understood this was Donna’s default stance whenever her capacity to empathize was taxed, yet again we were at an impasse, with my therapeutic values centering around respect, clashing against her parenting values centering around control. I wasn’t insensitive to the fact that I was sitting across from a mother who was asking for help and exposing some of her worst moments as a parent. But what I really wanted to do was to tell Donna outright to stop calling her son names and being so antagonistic and confrontational with him. I wanted her to know that Jack’s defiance and disrespect were likely coming from pain and an attempt to protect himself from her microaggressions. I wanted her to realize that hardening a kid up for the “real world” means hardening him up toward his whole world, including the one he shares with his family.
I wasn’t sure how to help Donna parent more effectively from within her own paradigm, because I couldn’t support it. At the same time, I wrestled with the idea of presenting ideas from within mine that she couldn’t or wouldn’t want to embrace. What mattered most, however, was that Donna felt neither obligated to adopt my ideas nor guilty for disregarding them, while still wanting to talk about them.
To keep kindness, empathy, and patience front and center in our work together, I started the third session by asking Donna if she thought Jack might be struggling with issues beyond their own conflict.
Donna thought for a few moments. “I think Jack was hoping for his father and me to get back together,” she finally said. “But a couple of weeks ago, his dad announced his engagement to someone else.”
“Have you spoken with Jack about it?”
“Yeah. I told him I was sorry he couldn’t have what he wanted.”
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t say anything. He just teared up.”
Hearing this, I thought about how close Donna had been to opening up a conversation about something that really mattered to Jack. If only she’d done it in such a way that her empathy could come through! “What if you went back to him and said that in a different way?” I suggested. “I think your words were on the mark, but they got lost in your delivery, which may have sounded almost businesslike to Jack, signaling the end of the conversation. He could only react, which he did, with tears.”
“How would I say that differently?” Donna asked.
“Maybe you reach out to touch him on the back and say softly that you’re so sorry that you and his dad couldn’t give him the one thing he wanted most in the world, the two of you getting back together.”
Now it was Donna who teared up. “I’d like to have said it that way,” she whispered.
“You still can,” I told her. “You can say, ‘You know, a few weeks ago, when we spoke about your dad getting engaged, I told you I was sorry you couldn’t have what you wanted. But I wish I’d said it differently, because I think I shut down the conversation, and I’m sorry. That wasn’t what I intended.”
“If I know my son, he’ll say he doesn’t remember the conversation, or it didn’t bother him.”
“You tell him that’s okay and that it bothered you, and that it was important for you to let him know that. And then just leave it there. Don’t make a big deal about it. It’s an opportunity to change the legacy of parenting in your family, to make it more respectful and emotionally intimate and, ultimately, more effective.”
“That’s just a whole different way of talking. I don’t know if I can do it,” she said.
“It is different. But I think if you stick with it, and start seeing changes in your relationship with Jack, it’ll make it easier for you to keep going with it. Experiment, play with different words and phrases, see what feels natural to you.”
At this point, Donna began to express openness toward a different way of doing things. All along, I’d been trying to start a process of inquisitiveness with her—which could occur only if she could see me as someone credible as well as someone with whom she had no need to be defensive. I believe that my efforts to become emotionally compelling to Donna helped as well. After all, people make changes because of how they feel about the person making the recommendations, not because they were presented with a better idea.
A Boy Hugs His Mom
Donna returned a few weeks later for what would be her final session. She reported that she’d been trying to inquire rather than assume, and converse rather than argue, and she and Jack were getting along better. “I’m starting to enjoy hanging out with Jack, and I think he appreciates that I’ve tried to make things better,” she said. “He’s even started hugging me now, but it’s usually when I’m doing the dishes. He comes up behind me, and he knows my hands are wet and I can’t hug him back.” She seemed disappointed as she told me this.
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked.
“Well, I can’t hug him back. It’s like he’s controlling it.”
“Let him,” I said. “He’s a 12-year-old boy who wants to hug his mom but doesn’t want it to be this big deal. It’s a good thing.”
It was several moments before Donna spoke. “You know, I think I need to start thinking of him as this nicer kid, not someone trying to manipulate me.”
My goal for working with Donna had been, in part, to help her cultivate a faith in her ability to infuse her words and wishes and personal presence with the power her physical body had carried for years. I’d hoped she’d recognize the emotional and interpersonal returns that come from treating others carefully and respectfully. Her comments at the end of this session seemed a hopeful sign of positive shifts, not only in her parenting, but in her conception of her son. I supported her decision at that point not to schedule a next session and instead see how things went.
A year later, I got an email from her, telling me things were going well. She wrote, “You helped me see that changing how I interacted with Jack could change our dynamic. I try not to back him into corners or drive my agenda so hard anymore, and he hangs around longer at the dinner table. I also see far less anger in him.”
In the end, Donna didn’t need to say things exactly the way I said them or abandon her belief that a little tough love could be good for a kid. She needed only to be encouraged to talk with her son differently, respond more empathically, and reach out to him more kindly.I believe most kids are eager to see their parents as worthy of their respect, and I find little else can affect a relationship as powerfully and as quickly as the reinstatement of respect between people. Granted, it’s hard for angry parents to change how they relate to their disrespectful kids before seeing a change in their kid’s behavior toward them. But somebody’s got to go first, and most kids will recognize their parents’ effort in taking the lead as the generous and ambitious gesture it is. That call to action is more persuasive than any reprimand will ever be.
By Peter Fraenkel
Janet Sasson Edgette’s case study packs much clinical wisdom into a short space. The core of her strategy is to transform the parent’s approach from one of authoritarian attempts at control to one of nurturing a compassionate relationship. Decades of research by Gerald Patterson and others at the Oregon Social Learning Center, as well as Diana Baumrind’s classic work on authoritarian vs. authoritative parenting, document the destructive effects on children’s development when parents engage them in a coercive cycle of interaction. The more the parent attempts to exact compliance by force, the more the child resists and misbehaves, resulting in worsening behavior, resentment, and sometimes violence.
Edgette first sets out to engage Donna in stepping back and seeing her role in this escalation, and in wondering about the child’s feelings and perspectives fueling his “disrespectful” behavior. In this way, she seeks to elicit not just simple empathy, but what contemporary psychoanalytic family therapists like Peter Fonagy and Eia Asen call mentalization and theory of mind—the ability to imagine fully the child’s experience and motivations. As this case demonstrates, that’s easier said than done. Parents often stubbornly refuse to consider their children’s perspective, and instead, rigidly defend their theories of parenting, often reflecting how they themselves were raised.
When parents endorse their own parents’ authoritarian parenting, I ask them, “Were there ever times when you wished your mom or dad would have parented you differently?” Invariably, they’ll reveal moments when they wished their parents had been kinder and gentler, and more interested in their thoughts and feelings. This can become the basis for parents to experiment with novel ways of relating to their children. In my practice, I explore and validate the honorable intentions underlying a parent’s coercive approach. Usually, as in this case, the parent is afraid that if her child doesn’t straighten up and fly right, he’ll get in trouble in the world. So I suggest that her goals and intentions are excellent, but that her strategy is failing, and that there are far less emotionally expensive and stressful approaches.
In a first session, I always ask parents what they do for fun with the child—which often results in a blank stare and a response of “nothing, really.” For the following week, I’ll prescribe the parents to engage in some activity that the child enjoys, not what the parent thinks he should enjoy, even if it’s playing video games together. This becomes the new pleasurable bedrock upon which the parent–child relationship can be transformed. Kids are simply likelier to obey parents whom they not only respect, but also enjoy.
Given how stuck her client was in her ways, I admire how directive Edgette was in offering not only general parenting techniques, but specific words Donna might try out with her son. This contrasts with what I see as overkill in the strengths-based, nonhierarchical approach that’s so in favor these days. As in old-fashioned psychoanalytic therapy, it holds that therapists are supposed to avoid giving direct guidance, and should only elicit existing “subordinated narratives” or hidden strengths. But as this case illustrates, parents often have no positive memories from their own upbringing and no clue how to behave differently, and they need specific direction. If a therapist keeps asking the client for her own ideas, she’s likely to shout in irritation, “If I knew what to do, I wouldn’t be here!”
Yet just as Edgette, writes, our suggestions are not meant to be sure-fire formulas. Rather, we pair with our parent-clients in a joint, collaborative experiment in transformation, whereby every generic technique must be tweaked and fitted to the particular nature of their relationships with their unique children.
Finally, Edgette wisely highlights the importance of establishing an emotionally compelling relationship with the client, reminding us that a successful therapeutic relationship is parallel to a good parent–child relationship. If the child feels emotionally supported and connected to his parent, he’s willing to do what the parent knows is best for him. Our clients are temporarily like our children, no matter their age and intellectual sophistication, and they need our compassionate direction.
Illustration © Sally Wern Comport
Janet Sasson Edgette
Janet Sasson Edgette, PsyD, is the author of Adolescent Therapy That Really Works, Stop Negotiating with Your Teen, and The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don‘t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood.
Peter Fraenkel, PhD, is a couple therapist, psychologist, associate professor of psychology at City College of New York, and professional drummer who studied with Aretha’s drummer. He received the 2012 American Family Therapy Award for Innovative Contribution to Family Therapy, and is the author of Sync Your Relationship, Save Your Marriage: Four Steps to Getting Back on Track, and Last Chance Couple Therapy: Bringing Couples Back from the Brink.