Discovering Our Children

Discovering Our Children

The Connection Between Anonymity and Rage in Today's Kids

By Ron Taffel

September/October 1999

Jessica has just been told by her mother to stop watching TV and clean up the table. "Not now," Jessica says, without bothering to look up. "No, Jessica, I mean this minute," her mother says sharply.  "Later," Jessica responds, almost absentmindedly. Mom stiffens and threatens: "Stop it now or there won't be TV tonight." Finally, she's got her daughter's attention. Jessica looks her mother squarely in the face and says, "Fuck you, mommy!" Jessica is 8 years old.

Fuck you mommy. The exhilarating horror of this phrase! How many adults today can imagine the consequence had they thought, let alone said, such a thing when they were kids? Over the last 10 years, however, as these exchanges are becoming increasingly part of everyday family interaction, it has become apparent to me that a tectonic shift about acceptable behavior is taking place in parent-child relationships throughout the country. After all, Jessica is not a neglected or abused child in thrall to gang culture. Her parents are middle-class professionals living in a comfortable suburb. Nor is Jessica "maladjusted" psychologically; she knows her parents love her, she earns good marks in school and basically gets along well with other children. What is really shocking is that exchanges like this are so ordinary; they are a part of daily family discourse in America.

A father informs me that his 8-year-old son, when asked for the fourth time to turn off the computer game and straighten his room, snarls, "Leave me alone, butthead!" A 10-year-old girl, told by her mother to finish her homework, barely glances up, utters under her breath, "What an asshole," and continues to play.  I hear the "flailing tantrum" story over and over: a parent directs a child not to chew gum or to stop playing and get ready for bed; the child responds by hurling him- or herself at the parent, flailing away with small fists in a frenzy of anger. One therapist told me that a girl he had been seeing expressed her jealousy of an unborn sibling not by the usual array of anticipatory anxieties, but by smashing a baseball bat into her mother's pregnancy-swollen belly.

Several months after the rampage at Littleton's Columbine High School, we are no longer entirely surprised by news of gun-wielding preteens murderously venting fury on classmates and teachers. But we are still not prepared to see intense (if, so far, less lethal) anger in kids 5, 6 and 7 years old. And yet, in 150 interviews with an economically, socially and ethnically diverse group of young children I conducted a year before the Littleton shootings, I was startled to hear about the casual explosiveness in young kids whose parents obviously cared about them. "A few times a week, I get so mad, I go into my room and just rip it apart," I was told over and over by angel-faced innocents as they sat in the classroom. "I beat up on my brother and sister whenever I get mad," reported numerous open-faced youngsters. "When I get really really angry," one 7-year-old girl lisped, summarizing what dozens of other children had expressed, "I go into the bathroom, shut the door and scream as loud as I can!"

It is not just parents who are feeling the brunt of the explosive defiance that seems to be spreading like a virus through the ranks of America's children. Recently, I attended a Little League softball game led by an experienced coach, and watched it turn into a free-for-all. One 7-year-old, enraged after he struck out, grabbed home plate and ran off in a howling tantrum; another child, tagged "out," physically attacked the boy who had tagged him; a kindergartner, when she was called out by the umpire, ran up to him, screamed, "I hate you" and actually kicked him hard three times in the shins. All this in a friendly neighborhood game for kids and their families.

In interviews with important, nonparental adults in kids' lives--teachers, coaches, principals, community leaders, camp owners--I heard about the same disturbing pattern of anger and even disdain for adults, manifested not by hulking high school wrestlers, but sometimes by the tiniest of tykes under four feet tall. One eminent children's theater director says that in 25 years of producing plays, he has seen an increasing disrespect for him and his colleagues by his young charges. "I can't describe the enormity of change in the way children behave. I can no longer count on having their respect and attention merely because I am the adult and a teacher--now half the struggle is just to get them to begin to listen to my directions." Even therapists are taken aback by breathtakingly raw affronts to adult authorities. Expert clinicians have told me that it is not at all unusual for grade or middle schoolers to look them dead in the eye, say "Who do you think you are?" and then get up and march out of the session.

Surveying this ravaged terrain, one can't help but ask, Why are kids this angry? What is going on that is so wrong between parents and children--often making it seem as if we are walking on a minefield? In large part, it's because, like deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car, parents at all ends of the political and economic spectrum are often utterly at a loss about how to provide leadership in their own families.

What do fathers and mothers do these days when their young child curses at them or goes into a flailing tantrum or daily beats up a younger sibling? Not very much, as it turns out. Speaking for many, Melanie described her reaction when her 6-year-old son, Eric, hit her and screamed at her in the supermarket: "I didn't know whether it was better to smack him on the spot or let him get his feelings off of his chest so they wouldn't fester." Other parents respond with intense rage and unenforceable punishments. In the face of her daughter's "fuck you," Jessica's mom immediately spanked her and threatened, unconvincingly, to take all TV away for a whole year. Several weeks later, while watching television together, another version of the same incident occurred.

Parents have become so anxious about not doing the wrong thing that they often become paralyzed. For example, 10- year-old Mindy had been invited to a party one night, where, she said, the kids would be playing make-out games. "What should I do," Mindy asked her mother, Ann, "when they start kissing?" But Ann was as unsure as her little girl. Finally, after what seemed like an endless hesitation, she offered, "In the end, it's whatever makes you feel comfortable with who you are," a wishy-washy, unsatisfying answer that left Ann discouraged and Mindy very annoyed.  Later, Ann confided to me that she didn't know what would be better, letting the child "harmlessly" explore her emerging sexuality or setting strict limits that she might rebel against--and choose not to confide in her next time.

Bill, the father of depressed, 13- year-old Jason, was in an equally serious quandary. After a couple of lonely years without friends, Jason had finally seemed to find a buddy--a classmate he brought home during lunch period. The tentative friendship seemed a real breakthrough, except for one tiny detail: the two boys spent the lunch hour in Jason's room smoking dope. Should Bill ignore the massive infraction of school discipline, not to mention state and federal drug laws, in relief that his son had found a new chum? Or should he crack down on this illegal and dangerous behavior? Which was worse for the boy--being a friendless and possibly scapegoated loner in school or a budding pothead with a pal?

Adults are not only confused by their child's anger, they often seem to have lost their own moral direction. What, for example, happened to Chrissie, who screamed at the umpire and kicked him in the shins at the Little League game? Incredibly, her mother, who was watching, did not reprimand her. The umpire did not kick her out of the game, and a few minutes later, Chrissie got the weekly achievement certificate she'd "earned"--a red ribbon for her participation.

Moral relativism also seems to have become the collective attitude of what I call the "second family"--the kiddie culture of peers and media that is often more important, and more visible, to children than the "first" families of their parents and siblings. Although young children I have interviewed--5, 6, 7 years old--strongly believe in right and wrong and are angry when their parents fail to set rules, by fourth or fifth grade, they begin talking in ominously relativistic terms about moral issues. Much to the dismay of adults, many children, responding to events like the Columbine murders, make remarks like, "I don't think what they did was right, but I don't completely blame them either. Those kids had their reasons. They were treated badly, and anybody can crack under certain conditions."

In 1996, the Rockford Register Star, an Illinois newspaper, gave us a glimpse into the second family's moral code. The newspaper polled hundreds of teens in heartland America, asking them what moral guidelines they followed. "There aren't any," these kids answered almost unanimously. "You only need to treat others the same way they treat you." Almost none of the teenagers, boys or girls, were prepared to label any behavior, no matter how noxious, simply right or wrong.

More disquieting, and perhaps more instructive, few of these kids had ever considered that adults might in some way be able to guide them in making decisions about issues of right or wrong. And why should they? Most of the grown-ups in their lives don't understand the details of second-family living or believe in their own ability to redirect their children--a failure kids pick up on only too well.

In truth, the cyclical waves of often contradictory advice thrown at parents over the past 30 years may be part of the confusion. As parents scramble to do what works, they try out the latest one-size-fits-all theory, only to find it superseded a little later by a new popular orthodoxy. Parents get hooked on different childrearing techniques, which tend to swing crazily back and forth between poles of permissiveness and toughness, regardless of whether these off-the-rack approaches are actually appropriate for their individual child. Eight-year-old Peter, for example, had gotten into another bruising battle with his little brother, who screamed in pain. His mother, Hillary, tried an approach based on Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) model (first introduced in 1970 in reaction to strict, Victorian child-training methods). PET emphasizes the importance of allowing children to express themselves freely and warns of psychological stultification if we suppress the child's inner spirit. Using "active listening" techniques, Hillary asked open-ended questions to help her sullen boy express and neutralize his feelings of jealousy. The more she used this kind of therapy-speak, the more tight-lipped he became. "Oh, forget it," Peter finally said in disgust and walked away.

The Tough Love approach, with its emphasis on setting limits and quashing what was felt to be too muchexpressiveness, followed hard on PET, and that is where 12-year-old Jenny's parents decided to put their money. Jenny had been drinking, hooking up with lots of boys, staying out way past her curfew and doing poorly in school. Her father, Bob, already overly rigid, treated Jenny to an iron-clad discourse on bottom-line consequences. Two days after his hell-and-brimstone sermon, Jenny didn't come home at all, having found a place to crash with some loosely supervised kids in the neighborhood.

As the knowledge of widespread family abuse and incest surfaced during the late '70s and early '80s, the pendulum in childrearing advice swung back toward protecting and "empowering" children. The self-esteem movement was born, encouraging both parents and children to believe that every child was "special" just for "being a person." Part political, part reaction to inexorable increases in childhood disorders and acting out, the self-esteem surge was soon overtaken by an even bigger wave, emphasizing "family values." During this period, parents were exhorted that if they taught their kids morality, psychology would take care of itself.

During the early and mid-'90s, neurobiological discoveries caused the tides to shift once more in favor of the biological underpinnings of various childhood difficulties, now given labels,  like Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Attention-Deficit Disorder or Affective Disorders. The role of parents and professionals became helping children take medication or compensate for problems that were seen as largely beyond conscious control. Most recently, in reaction to this biological trend, regarded in some circles as a flimsy mechanism for providing alibis to spoiled and undisciplined kids, authoritarianism is making a comeback. "Children should be punished for every act of disobedience, no matter how small," intones John Rosemond, the main spokesman for the new movement. Spanking is highly recommended by conservative psychologist James Dobson. Currently, in the shadow of the school shootings, there is a legislative movement afoot to post the Ten Commandments in every schoolroom in America.

"Sometimes," says one of the fifth graders in my study, "I get the feeling my parents don't know me."  "Mine, too," yells an irate classmate from across the room. "We don't spend time together--we're always so busy in my house."  Just about every child nods enthusiastically, some with obvious fury.

It is logical that many parents buy great quantities of off-the-rack advice, because, stretched to the limits as we are, we do not really know the children we have. We cannot always tell the ways in which our kids are uniquely different because we just do not spend enough direct, one-on-one time with them. The hard truth is that many parents may love their children, but they do not create the time to pay attention to them. They do not really hear them. They do not really see them.

This sounds harsh, and it is a bitter pill for overworked parents to swallow, particularly those who feel their lives are already intensely child-centered. Indeed, there is research data indicating that parents today spend the same, if not more, time with their families than June and Ward Cleaver ever did. But when we examine what kind of time families spend with one another we get a troubling picture of what so-called family togetherness actually looks like these days. Family members may be spending time near each other, in the same house, engaged in parallel but separate activities, and not remotely doing things together. Indeed, a long-distance phone conversation can provide a much closer and more intimate experience of connection than a typical evening in the bosom of the modern American family. Mother, for example, may be supervising her 5-year-old in the bath while calling work to arrange a meeting for the next day; sister is e-mailing several buddies and talking with yet another friend on the phone; Dad (if he lives at home, or if it's his weekend with the kids) is busy finishing up a report, looking up every 10 minutes or so to announce it's nearly bedtime to whatever child might actually be listening.

There is nothing inherently evil about any of this--it's normal family life in America--but it is no way to get to know your own family. Kids understand this. They are angry and yearn for what they are not getting. In my conversations with children from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade, the kids overwhelmingly indicated that what they wanted most from their parents was more time, as in undivided attention. "I want my mom to stop being so busy and just play with me." "I love when my dad sits next to me and we watch movies together." "Last week, my mom and dad took me bowling and it was great!" "I want my mommy to lie down with me every night." I don't believe this is simply more whining by a generation of spoiled kids. These are the heartfelt responses of children who are desperate to be seen, truly known, rather than scheduled or psychologized.

What happens to children when they do not get the kind of direct, undivided, personal attention they need from their own parents? When they lack confidence in the capacity of their own parents to guide them? Where do they look to find something that promises to assuage their yearnings for attention? Nature abhors a vacuum, and for American children, the great, roaring hurricane of the mass media culture--particularly the culture of celebrity--rushes in to fill the psychic void that family used to fill.

Twenty years ago, I rarely heard about celebrity fantasies in my work with kids; now, I rarely don't. Increasingly, children answer my questions about what they would like most by stating that their greatest wish is to be near a celebrity.

This is sad, but less ominous than the hunger within many kids to achieve celebrity status themselves, as if this were the one best bet for achieving the attention and sense of being known that seems to elude them. For most of the kids I interviewed, the lesson of Littleton was the indubitable celebrity that the shootings conferred on the shooters. The Columbine High School killers were ultimately successful, said many of these children, because their acts made them famous. Perhaps in a celebrity-drenched culture, most of us occasionally want to be famous, but for children who are furious because they can't get the personal attention of the people they love and need the most, the desire to be seen can become an all-encompassing and toxic need. In a medium of fragmented families whose members live parallel lives, in which children often feel more catered to than truly known, where off-the-rack childrearing techniques complicate more than they resolve and moral relativism is the norm, the culture of celebrity is a potentially inflammable ingredient.

Kids who commit publicly violent acts have found the metaphor that describes the pain of, as well as the solution for, their invisibility. They engage in such behavior precisely because it makes an unknown child instantly and uniquely recognizable. In a child's mind, violence appears to be the perfect antidote to the anonymity of his or her life.


What are we to do with a problem of such dimensions?  How can family therapy help parents get to know their children better, reclaim them from the casually violent mass culture and raise them to become strong and moral adults?  Our track record inspires little confidence. Most family therapists, myself included, are not only unprepared for the current crisis in childrearing, we actually mirror the same social and cultural phenomena that sap the good sense of parents. If mothers and fathers do not know their own children very well, as therapists, we don't get to know them that much better. We regularly dismiss a child from sessions, so that we can work with the real problem, presumably between his parents. As a field, we have little training in child development and almost no idea about how to talk to kids, one on one, in sessions. Children, angry that their parents don't listen to or know them, aren't likely to feel any better heard by us therapists.

And if kids are being raised in a climate of dangerous moral relativism, our carefully cultivated, value-free neutrality has made us proud to claim that we do not set standards of right and wrong either; the closest we come to standing by any particular principle is our unflinching belief in the notion of family hierarchy. But, without a firm set of values for raising children, we can't be much help to parents who are floundering around in their own moral confusion.

During the last decade, as I increasingly saw myself struggling with these issues, I painfully concluded that if family therapy were a book about childrearing, the pages would be just about empty. Despite our extensive training, we have simply not been prepared to help parents raise their kids in today's culture. So several years ago, in the throes of this growing professional crisis, I began a project of exploration and research with several questions in mind. Would it be possible to build a different kind of paradigm for raising children that would encompass each child's individuality, while providing some substantial insights about what all children need?  I aimed for a personal and specific approach to address the violence-fostering anonymity many children feel, one that provided dependable guidelines for childrearing without becoming just another technique-driven manual for raising everychild.

In the course of this project, I combed the child development literature of the past 30 years, unearthing relatively unknown gold mines of information. One was a longitudinal study on adolescent health published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September 1997, on 14,000 economically and culturally diverse teens over several years. Another was the research of the Johnson Institute, one of the largest drug treatment and research facilities in the country, which has followed almost 100,000 youngsters for a decade. I was not looking for the latest spectacular New York Times Science Section finding; rather, I wanted to discover what, if anything, has been consistently regarded by child researchers over the years as critical for raising emotionally healthy children. Next, I reviewed my own 25 years' worth of work with families--doing therapy, teaching, supervising and presenting at more than a thousand workshops around the country. Finally, since children are at the center of the crisis, I interviewed 150 kids from preschool through middle school.

I was stunned to discover the massive convergence among all of these sources.  The scientific research shows categorically that every child is an idiosyncratic individual, not only different from other kids, but from his or her own siblings. Over the last five years, research has demonstrated an enormous variation in neurological hard-wiring, leading to a range of temperamental differences. It stands to reason, then, that any new childrearing approach must recognize the child in all his or her individuality, and it must promote a good "fit" between a parent's approach and the child's own personality.

What this means is that it is virtually impossible for any prepackaged technique to be uniformly applied without creating in children even greater anger at not being clearly seen. One robust, self-willed boy may actually respond well to firm punishment, while for another, a parent's raised voice may do the trick. For some children, like my own son, Sammy, yelling or even using a harsh tone reduces the child to tears and creates tremendous resentment. Some children thrive on continual praise offered directly and generously, while others avert their eyes and seem more annoyed than pleased. The latest research essentially corroborates these reactions: all kids are very different from the get-go. They have what might be called a distinct core --a constellation of emotional and intellectual attributes that vary dramatically from child to child, an "acorn" of a self, as psychologist James Hillman says, that struggles to be recognized and responds with anger when it isn't.

Another even more resounding message emerged out of my review of both formal and informal data: children need certain fundamental skills in order to develop a strong inner sense of themselves--core skills to maintain the core self. Developmental theory that has held sway since World War II is not necessarily correct--child skills do not always just "click in" at the appropriate age. Every child has core attributes that come naturally, but other skills need nurture. Self-esteem, it turns out, is not a birthright. It cannot be built without internal substance to support it.

The skills or attributes needed by every child fall into four broad categories that are at particular risk these days. First, all the sources indicated that children need to feel respect for their parents and other adults. Respectful kids have clear expectations of what is required of them by important adults in their lives and are willing to follow through on these requirements. The research clearly demonstrates that, far from feeling oppressed by the obligation to look up to their elders, respectful children feel more secure and less angry in their daily lives, and are better able to resist being drawn into risky behavior by peers. Second, children need the capacity for mood mastery, especially in this frustration-averse culture. It is critical for parents to help kids learn to moderate their own internal emotional states, to know how to calm themselves down when upset or angry. Without such internal resilience, kids turn to outside influences--most often the second family--for structure and soothing. Third, even very young children in day care centers, nurseries and preschools must learn what I call peer smarts. This is the ability not only to make and keep friends, but the sense to know when to walk away from friendships that are harmful or demeaning. Finally, every child needs to develop communication skills that I refer to as expressiveness. This is not the sophisticated glibness that today's kids all seem to be skilled at, but the ability to talk about what really matters; to talk about feelings, friends, dreams, wishes and frustrations. Without this "emotional literacy," as school counselor Michael Nerney calls it, children cannot help but express anger in endless and destructive ways.

From these four basic skill categories, several other related skills have cropped up for a total of 10 core skills or attributes (see sidebar). Some, like expressiveness, seem obvious in the context of therapy. Others, likefocus and passion are not so obviously part of therapy. But teaching a child how to focus, for example, will help him not only pay attention in school and on the playing field, but give him the most important tool: enjoyment of learning. Engaging a child's passion --for a hobby or interest or school subject--will nurture her innate enthusiasm and protect her from the virus of the supercool ennui afflicting so many kids these days.

Other skills-- caution, respect and gratitude --sound almost reactionary in today's laissez-faire climate. Children, though, have never before had such a need for caution --an ability to stop, think and weigh the impact of actions on themselves and others before being swept away in some metaphorical mosh pit of the kiddie culture. Related to respect is gratitude, which sounds perhaps like the most antiquarian of all the skills, but is one of the most important. Gratitude nurtures in a child both a realistic recognition of what adults have done on his or her behalf and possibly a budding sense of faith and spirituality.

I purposely labeled these skills to sound ordinary rather than psychological or diagnostic. They are words used on a daily basis that resonate more deeply than the distancing terminology we're used to. Kids and parents relate more to whether they can focus on a task than they do to the diagnosis of Attention-Deficit Disorder; parents worry about whether their child is cautious rather than whether he or she will act out. The aim is to help clients feel personally known in our presence, creating a language of change that addresses the anonymity of family life and standard therapy practice.

Does every child have to become strong in every skill? No, but the glaring absence of one, say body comfortor respect, can seriously compromise a child. On the other hand, strengthening even one core attribute begins the healing process. Developing respect for adults and what they have to say, for example, is likely to strengthen a child's sense of caution, his capacity for gratitude and perhaps his ability to focus successfully on school work. Are these the only core skills a child will ever need? Not necessarily, but these skills have been proven essential in this time, in this age and especially in this culture. As the Zeitgeist changes, we will surely reevaluate current attributes or add new ones.

Nothing is written in stone. This is a paradigm in progress, a way of saying that when it comes to childrearing and family therapy, we cannot be where our field was several decades ago, before we were conscious of the undeniable facts of gender, race and class. We can no longer afford to confine ourselves to the airy vagueness of abstract family process and ignore the content of what parents should actually do. Therapeutic neutrality aside, we must stand for something. And in this anonymous yet highly charged second-family world, it needs to be the strengthening of a child's core self. This entails: knowing what constitutes healthy child development; bringing children into therapy to learn more about who they really are; offering informed feedback and guidelines to parents; using our systems knowledge to help parents fit better with their children. We need to create a therapy that will encourage parents to strengthen in their own children the core values and skills required to channel aggression into emerging responsibility.

Fourteen-year-old Jay was sent to treatment because of two public displays of anger. The first was inviting 300 of his closest friends to a parent-free suburban home, which was trashed by the raucous guests. Several weeks later, Jay was caught with a couple of other boys vandalizing a county office building.

While I learned the details of Jay's day-to-day life, I did not remain neutral--I silently used the template described above, evaluating his core skills, trying to determine which were stronger, which weaker. After a few sessions, it was clear that Jay had no compelling interest. Glaringly, his core self had a numbing lack ofpassion, for anything but second-family pursuits--his video games, his CDs, his friends.

We live in a time characterized by a tyranny of cool. But a passion for something other than the pop culture itself builds connections that are usually antidotes to aggression. A passion for music, art, science, horseback riding, whatever, requires kids to abide by certain rules and delay immediate gratification. Most often, it also engages the young person in a learning relationship with a responsible adult--a mentor, coach or teacher. Finally, kids with passion tend to hang out with peers involved in the same or other interests, those who are not completely absorbed in second-family values.

I once would have explored Jay's feelings and asked him to talk about what led to his behavior. But I now have matters of content to take care of. I quickly discarded therapeutic neutrality and told Jay straight out that he sounded bored most of the time, that passion was missing from his life. This was not presented as an open-ended therapeutic question ("Do you ever feel your life lacks passion?"), but as a direct, clearly stated guideline from an expert in childrearing. Jay responded with pro forma adolescent disdain: "Oh, yeah? What big interest did you have as a kid?" Jay grumbled about how stupid the very word "passion" was, that nobody he knows can stand a gung-ho dork--and the session was over.

Later that week, I told Jay's parents that they must help Jay develop a passion--one deeply engaging extracurricular activity. They were taken aback not to hear more off-the-rack advice that greater hierarchy and discipline were needed. The idea of passion, though, didn't exactly make them happy, either. Several weeks later, the three finally hammered out a deal that could only happen in postmodern America: Jay would be allowed to get some previously banned X-rated magazines in exchange for taking up an extracurricular activity.

Jay sulkily picked out a science project about ways to grow outdoor plants indoors (its potential illegalities were intriguing to the boy), and began working on it with another kid and their teacher. Within a few months, Jay and his science buddy became good friends--they did homework together and crammed for tests together. They also played quick hands of poker during free periods and occasionally drank to excess together. But as Jay's grades steadily rose from D's and C's to mostly B's, his disengaged flatness diminished.

Even more remarkable was the effect of Jay's connection with the project's advisor. This first nonremedial teacher in Jay's life since fourth grade happened to have a zeal for learning and an openness to irreverent discussion, and Jay began to develop an embryonic ability to talk to other adults--including his mother and father. He actually asked his dad for help on the project, and every so often even revealed day-to-day life events to his mother. As Jay spent more time with his study buddy and his rediscovered parents, his attention was drawn away from acting out. He started a study group, coauthored an ingenious (and completely legal) crib sheet for math tests, and asked out a girl he'd secretly been hot about for years. A year and a half later, Jay is no longer a dead-eyed kid in thrall to the mass culture. He seems to have, literally, come home after a long voyage in an alien land.


Most clinicians are aware that today's kids, so glib about any and all subjects, are often totally unable to talk with parents about what really matters.  The research clearly shows that a lack of expressiveness damages a child's ability to problem-solve and stay away from risky behavior. The reason, however, for poor expressiveness is not always a generic emotional muteness that strikes when children become preteens, but the failure of the adults in their lives to recognize the child's particular style of expression.  Just as therapists have tended to impose one particular mode of expressiveness onto children in therapy sessions, parents in their well-meaning effort to communicate with their offspring may be speaking a language their particular child can't understand or even tolerate.

So it was with Eddie, a 13-year-old boy who came in with his father, Burt, following a divorce in which Eddie's sister and mother had moved to another part of the country. Burt, traumatized by the separation, was also deeply troubled by Eddie's being utterly disrespectful and uncommunicative both to him and to his extended family. Though verbally muted, Eddie "spoke" in the way he appeared: he had a bright orange Mohawk hairstyle, prominent tattoos, multiple piercings in his ears and tongue, and showed up at staid family gatherings in gangsta' rap attire--hooded sweatshirts, huge baggy jeans and brand-name sneakers with untied laces. Sitting alone and sullen in the corner of the room, he answered the solicitations of his worried relatives with grunts and grimaces.

Several years ago, I would have attempted to provide a therapeutic forum for father and son to open up together. Now, I was on a different, much more specific path: in order to promote the verbal expressiveness Eddie greatly needed, I wanted to learn about the boy's basic communicational style. So I asked Burt to describe for me Eddie's language development. Furthermore, I inquired into Burt's and his wife's own developmental histories. Interestingly, his wife had been shy, less likely to initiate conversation and occasionally became tongue-tied. Eddie's lack of verbal expressiveness was not simply depression or defiance. It was one measure of his unique personality, an inheritance from his mother that was exacerbated by his father's loquaciousness.

I told Burt that therapy wouldn't stop Eddie's nonverbal but public statements until the boy could acquire better core skills at expressing himself: "You have to change the way you talk to Eddie," I said bluntly. "You have to stop yelling, and you can't hammer him with questions. His system can't absorb it--you may not like it, but this is the child you have." "How can I quiet down?" Burt, the attorney, screamed back at me. "My whole family's been talking this way forever. I make my living talking like this."

Over several months of practice, Eddie's father became adept at giving his son time to respond to one question before firing off another, and the atmosphere at home began subtly, but unmistakenly, to change.  As Eddie realized his father would listen quietly when he, Eddie, wanted to talk, and would respond more slowly and evenly, the content of the conversations grew more intimate. One evening, during a TV commercial, Eddie stunned his father by, for the first time, bringing up the divorce.

Burt, seeing these unexpected changes, told me about a deeper hurt--resentment that Eddie did not appreciate him, that he took his fatherly steadfastness entirely for granted. Eddie's chronic rudeness had left Burt feeling that nothing he had ever done for the boy counted for much.

In fact, Burt was right. Gratitude is a core attribute missing in many children today. According to a growing body of research, real gratitude, discouraged by a second-family culture that expects instant gratification, is one of the basic steps toward empathy. It slowly emerges from children's realistic awareness of their own dependency and the efforts most parents and teachers make on their behalf. Furthermore, gratitude helps kids feel small in a healthy way. They learn to recognize that they are not the center of the universe and are often dependent upon the goodwill of others.

I agreed with Burt that he had a right to expect gratitude from his son and said that he deserved and ought to expect some acts that demonstrated his son's grateful appreciation, such as going to family events with him. But just as he couldn't shout this boy into more expressiveness, he wouldn't be able to lecture Eddie into gratitude either. I suggested that instead of ordering Eddie to attend family functions, he say to him, "I really need you to do this. It is embarrassing and hurts me when you don't." Getting ask-for-no-help Burt to say the word "need" required several family-of-origin sessions. When he finally looked Eddie in the eye and spoke to him quietly, Burt was amazed that his son did not stomp out of the room in a disdainful rage; true, Eddie sighed and rolled his eyes, but he also actually listened and nodded. Burt, slightly encouraged, took another chance. Again, instead of demanding that Eddie eat dinner at home, Burt said that he really needed the boy home once or twice a week--he felt lonely and sad eating dinner every night by himself.  This approach, stressing Burt's vulnerability, dovetailed with Eddie's underlying sensitivity and exactly fit who Eddie was. The two started having occasional meals together. Most of the time, they sat silently watching the tube, but every so often they found themselves having open conversation about what had happened during the day--ordinary conversation of good friends as well as father and son.

As expressiveness and gratitude slowly strengthened and he became more known to his father, Eddie's outrageous and provocative statements slowly disappeared from his neon-like body. Now, several years later, Eddie is successfully graduating high school, having been taken under the wing of a master martial arts teacher--an older man who, interestingly, speaks very slowly and demands a high degree of respectful gratitude.


Unlike Jay and Eddie, 12-year-old Alicia had passion and expressiveness to spare, and lavishly exhibited them as a committed actor. Smart, pretty, thin and involved, she completely mystified her parents with her frequent tantrums and almost violent arguments with peers. She was, at best, a diva with friends and a demon toward others. During several meetings, I learned from Alicia that she had a striking absence of peer smarts. She continually seemed to say "yes" to the wrong kids, while alienating friendlier and more emotionally solid kids by being mean. Zach, her 14-year-old heartthrob, said to her, "You're kind of ugly, but I like you anyway," and then kissed her. Befuddled by this mixed message, Alicia let him kiss her and felt hurt and confused for the rest of the day. Later on, a classmate sensed Alicia's bad mood and approached her with a smile and a greeting, "Hey, Alicia, what's up?" Alicia snapped back, "Get out of here, you wretched skank!" Why? Because, she said, this girl had earlier glanced "flirtatiously" at Zach.

One day, after discussing these events, Alicia suddenly glared at me and asked,  "Why doesn't anybody ever help me figure out what to do with my friends? Why don't you or my parents tell me how to handle stuff!" Alicia's complaint was right on target. Parents and even therapists, afraid of being oppressive, are often loath to offer clear, uncensored advice.

The following week, I told Alicia's parents that in order for Alicia's rage to cool down, she had to feel greater competence with her peers, and for this she needed their guidance. As usual, a straightforward directive to parents about their particular child triggered underlying family dynamics. Both Alicia's parents, Phyllis and Dean, grew up with terrible memories of overly critical and demanding parents who never gave them a moment's privacy or peace; their own laissez-faire approach toward Alicia was generated in the perfectly honorable desire not to squelch her personality.  However, with my encouragement, one night, after Alicia yelled that she didn't want to hear anything about her life from them and ran to her room, Phyllis followed and waited outside the locked door. Phyllis was shocked when her daughter opened the door a crack and listened. Alicia was just as surprised that her mother actually pursued her to help.

So astonishing was the ensuing engagement between mother and daughter that Alicia began to share the incredible complexity of her social world with Phyllis, not to mention participating in some forays to local outlet stores together. It wasn't long before she brought Zach to her house for mom and dad to meet (and offer their opinion, she confided to me). Because Alicia felt guided at home, she was learning to be more adept with the other girls in class. She became less quick to lash out; she understood better how she hurt others' feelings, and tried to repair rifts when they occurred.

Just as strengthening one core skill in Jay and Eddie led to improvement in other parts of their lives, so it was with Alicia. Feeling more confident with her peers, Alicia's grades soared, and she finished the year with a flurry of constructive activities--school projects, experimental writing, community service camp. Alicia will never be a shrinking violet and she can still make the air crackle with sharp witticisms. But, at 13, she is bursting out from behind her sardonic wall.

This has increasingly been the pattern with the children I see. What is most striking, however, are not the dramatic changes in their emotions and behavior, but the fact that what worked with Alicia, Jay and Eddie was not remotely interchangeable. The more these kids felt personally known and parented in ways that fit them, the less angry and dangerous their public statements became.

In a classroom discussion I led recently, 11-year-old Amanda made this stunning commentary: "If the adults don't know what's going on, it all turns into chaos." She could have been talking to many of us therapists as well. Although Amanda didn't realize it, she was describing the new paradigm. It is our job to know the facts of healthy child development. It is our responsibility to stand for something. It is our task to help parents learn who a child is and what he or she needs in order to develop a strong core self. For, as tragic events repeatedly demonstrate, we are in a life-and-death struggle over who will connect to the core selves of our children--mothers and fathers or the enveloping world of the second family.

"The adults need to know," says Amanda, the classroom becoming entirely still. And, for what seems like an endless and frighteningly intimate moment, all the children's eyes are fixed on the teacher and on me.


Ron Taffel, Ph.D., is director of family and couples treatment at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York. He is the author of Parenting By Heart and other parenting guidesThis article is adapted from his latest book, Nurturing Good Children Now. 

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