- A very good lawyer, who was a kind, single parent of two young children, once shared his anxiety that, “I don’t understand kids — I don’t know what they need. I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake.”
- Thoughtful, gentle……and serious.
- I offered the following short version of children, recalled here as best I can:
- Barring very unusual situations — like at the extreme ends of the relational spectrum — what most kids need, bottom line, are two things from at least one safe adult (preferably a caretaker, but not necessarily):
- 1) pay attention
(“She thinks about me.” “She remembers me.” “She asks about me.” “She keeps me in her thoughts!”)
- 2) care enough to be in charge
(“She has boundaries she won’t let me cross.” “She sets limits for me.” “She corrects me.” “She has rules I am expected to follow!”)
- If the adult is safe and reasonably consistent, the affected child will likely be okay –- able to learn appropriate dependence as they grow. (I.e., they feel safely contained by and connected to a safe, caring adult.)
- Later, as adults themselves, they can transform that safe childhood experience of appropriate, vertical dependence on caretakers -– think caterpillar metamorphosis -– into a safe, mutual, horizontal, adult interdependence with a partner.
- I.e., achieving dependence as a dependent child supports appropriate interdependence as an independent adult. Conversely, it can be hard to manage adult interdependence if we failed to experience safe dependence in childhood.
- Sexual boundaries make sense in this context. Whereas the childhood dependent relationship with an adult makes overt sexual relations developmentally premature for the child and pathologically exploitative for the adult, the later, interdependent relationships of adults can accommodate overt and mutually enthusiastic sexual relations.
- Sometimes adults show up for counseling with their own early, unresolved issues getting in the way of parenting the way they would like. We may end up working with the parent or caretaker to resolve this, and it can take time. It may require an extended, boundaried counseling relationship with a safe therapist who can stay empathic to the testing and stumbles which were never allowed or possible during childhood.
- Because children slowly but progressively develop their independence and identities as people, infants will need more physical care, while older children will need more social and emotional care and attention to their increasingly complex inner thoughts, feelings and concerns.
- Finally, as adolescents, they re-introduce us adults to the exciting-frustrating integration of living in the home while working on peer and other outside relationships. (Who am I really? How do I fit in? How do I get physically close outside my family in ways that feel safe and good?)
- Sorry, is that more than you asked? I asked.
- “Wow, no, that’s really helpful!” said the lawyer. “Thanks!”
3. “What about setting limits and boundaries?”
Limits and boundaries mixed with sincere appreciation of the young person’s inner life (their thoughts and feelings) is something which young folks desperately need from adults. Their early childhood experience of rules, boundaries and limits from adults who cared about them (and for them) is their best chance to internalize a sense of safety and security later in life. Rules mean structure, and structure is a form of attention. (This is why children usually enjoy school.) Teens, of course, need to push, challenge, and test the rules all over again. They can evade and avoid rules and even brag about it, but what counts ten years later is that adults never changed the rules or limits under pressure or threat. “You returned an hour late. I am not happy. I expect better from you. And the rule stays the same.” Done. Don’t apologize, and don’t explain twice. (Saying it twice is lecturing.)
Put another way, kids who grow up learning that ‘rules don’t apply to me’ stumble into adulthood without key skills in self-control and self-discipline. They usually work out their impulses and emotional needs against police, mental health agencies, and other systems of authority for floundering adults.
4. “What are appropriate expectations?”
Appropriate expectations increase with age, and are best set slightly higher than a young person’s emotional age inside. (A growth challenge.) Does that make sense?
Try increasing choice, freedom and options. When they test and take advantage, you can apologize for moving too fast, and dial things back a notch. An adult’s job is to help young people grow at a pace appropriate to their emotional stage. And to do it without shaming.
Struggling young person?
Is the teen still denying, projecting, and hiding, as if much younger? Dial down the choices, freedom, and independence because they are crying for more structure, limits, and eyes-on supervision until they can catch up emotionally. And do this without shaming. Finally, the same young person may swing from one extreme to the other and back in a matter of days. Be prepared.
5. “What about suspending judgment?”
Openly judging actions, choices and events is important in a democratic society. However, judging people is best done discretely because people need one anothers support and encouragement to stay connected in community and to grow through struggles.
Put another way, when I am struggling and making quite a mess of it (“It’s all your fault!!”) what is most helpful is to continue to see a better image of me in your eyes as you continue to relate to me and share your observations. A judgment from you, on the other hand, can nail my sense of myself to my worst and hardest moments.
1. “What Does It Mean to Listen?”
Parents who listen are paying attention to both the words and the feelings, because a parent’s role is a) to keep their young person in their thoughts (I love to learn about you and your life; I can’t learn enough), and b) to care enough to respond at any given moment with a brief mix of support and limit-setting. Parents then keep paying attention so they can respond in a timely way when the limits are tested. If this sounds hard, it is probably because we did not have it modeled enough when we were young people.
Tip: “It’s my job to keep you safe,” (i.e. like the dog) is less helpful than talking relationally. “I want so much to feel close to you.” Of course, you may expect snarly in return. But speaking relationally out loud is what counts.
Bigger tip: Reassuring (“It will be okay,”) is less helpful than giving Empathy (“That sounds hard; I’m sorry it’s hard,”) and Curiosity (“How did you find out? Huh. What did you do then?”).
Young people who listen are highly sensitive to three things: a) the word “but”, b) feeling judged, and c) lectures.
a) Try “and” instead of “but”. In most cases it works.
b) Judging others can sneak up on us, as in “constructive criticism”, arguing about who is right, and compliments! Compliments are judgments with a positive coating. Try starting compliments by asking, “May I give you a compliment?” It feels very respectful to be asked before being judged, either positively or negatively.
c) At about word three of a lecture, young people stop listening. We all do.
2. “What is respect?”
Respect is an attitude which reflects our perception of worthiness. To respect a person reflects my own respect for myself. If my history gave me enough positive images of myself as I was seen in the eyes of others (especially adult role models), I will have internalized a sense of self-respect; and I can give respect to others with little difficulty.
If I show a lack of respect (i.e., disrespectful behavior) that is often my hidden request for help. I may also have a rule that I don’t deserve any help, so while asking indirectly for help I will also reject attempts to help me. Welcome to my confusion. Please find a way to help. Your motives are good.
(Next blog: “What about setting limits and boundaries?” and “What are appropriate expectations?”)
- Occasionally someone will call to ask how long emotion-focused therapy for their child would take if they were to come in. I find two variables affect this.
- One variable is the severity of the child’s current and previous dysregulation. I.e., what is the width and depth of disruption so far?
- The other variable is the capacity of the adult attachment figures to apply therapeutic parenting at home between sessions. I.e., can they manage to shift to counter-intuitive responses when provoked? Can they shift to time-ins instead of time-outs? Shift to empathy versus reassurance? Can they privilege preverbal and relational messages over cognitive logic? (One adoptive father declared, “It’s like thinking backwards – and then it works!”)
- Not every parent is ready to do this immediately.
- Let me illustrate with two examples – one a typically short case, and one lengthy.
- Typically short case:
- A child adopted from overseas was doing fine in his new home until parents decided to adopt a second child. He then regressed to his old orphanage behaviors. Parents called for help.
- Parents were first seen without the child, to help them focus on his underlying fear (fear of abandonment, fear of being exchanged or replaced, fear of not being good enough, etc.) Then they practiced how to respond to the child with P.A.C.E. instead of reassurance. I.e., “You will be alright” does not reduce anxiety, but Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy do. (But postpone playfulness if a child is upset. They hear it as sarcasm.)
- Then they brought the child in for family sessions. Because he was nervous – (thinking Now I’m in for it!) – we let him just sit between parents on the couch and listen like a very young child is allowed to do. He could soak up the safe atmosphere of feeling wanted, surrounded, contained, and clearly in our thoughts as we talked kindly (with PACE) about him, his struggles, and the fears driving his acting out. The adult talk finally met and matched the needs of his inner thoughts and feelings! He felt secure and accepted again, and we were done in four sessions, plus parenting homework.
- Typically longer case:
- An adopted child with a history of severe maltreatment in Maine was brought into therapy by his new parents in Vermont. He was picking fights and seeking conflict with everyone. The adoptive parents were raised harshly themselves and continued to take everything personally. They were easily hooked into big surface conflicts about behavior.
- I spent much time shoring up these parents, helping them to depersonalize things they had long ago learned to personalize. “His behavior is not about you. It’s a message about his inner life – his thoughts, feelings from the past….but you must feel so frustrated, having to work so hard!”
- Two years later the child is stable in school (schools are structured to meet children’s needs), but only a bit more secure at home. Parents feel a little less rejected, but still have ambivalence about their decision to adopt.
Increasing control is a common and logical response to rising anxiety. Yet sometimes reducing anxiety by increasing control can get out of hand, hurting relationships through pain and confusion. At a meta-social level, author Alan Johnson points out that men in a patriarchy find the fastest path to control is violence. (“Don’t make me hurt you…” “She threatened to take the kids, and I lost it….”)
Children can also project commands, threats, and other attempts to find safety through control. My first experience with such a child occurred early in my job at a Canadian mental health clinic.
A lovely but angry nine-year-old girl was brought in by her legal guardian. As usual, I asked the safe adult attachment figure – in this case the guardian — to stay in the room with us. [The four major benefits to this will be listed in a future essay.] And as usual, I accepted the child’s symptoms as clues to what she had been through. I knew from her history that she had grown up between divorced parents. She visited one parent who would avoid her strong feelings as much as possible (resembling the “dismissive” adult attachment style). And she lived with the other parent who treated her sometimes warmly and sometimes coldly, depending on her own mood (similar to a “preoccupied” adult attachment style.)
Consequently, the girl’s rude demands and commands in session were accepted as invaluable clues to her own attempts to make sense of her confusing history. The challenge for me was to respond with Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy — versus either opposition or cooperation. (Note: it is best to avoid Playfulness with an upset child. It can sound a lot like sarcasm.)
With children like this girl, who bullies, my initial hypothesis (to be tested) is usually that she is trying to put her anger and frustration into others, where she can observe it outside herself – giving her a rare moment’s relief from experiencing those feelings within, 24/7. Peter Fonagy in the U.K. explains in a brilliant essay that the bullying person can experience brief relief from their own internalized shame and terror by forcing those feelings onto another person, whom they can then attack, drive away or even kill in an attempt to be rid of the feeling forever. (Note the routine daily news of murdered women in patriarchal societies.)
I did not have long to wait.
“Robert! Sit over in that chair!”
I let my jaw drop and outwardly reflected my experience of HER inner sadness and scaredness which she was trying to relieve by commanding ME. Matching her ‘vitality affect’ (Daniel Stern’s fine term), I used her commanding voice, but my words.
“You want me to change chairs! And if I do, you hope that you feel better! And I so want you to feel better!”
At first she registered only my failure to obey. “Go!! Sit there!!”
I continued to keep my voice loud, like hers, but my words empathic, like mine. “And if I don’t sit there, you’ll get more upset!! Oh dear!! I feel terrible!” I appeared visibly and audibly distressed — loud and vulnerable and without mocking sarcasm. I was reflecting from a stuck place, a spot she had experienced so many times in her short life.
“GO!! SIT THERE!!” The only response to non-compliance this girl had ever learned was her parent’s escalation.
Without mocking (practice this), I continued to mirror her affect (her outer expression of her inner feeling) and reflect on how it was affecting me as I cared about her. This ability to reflect is something she should have learned early in life, instead of being made to feel ashamed of her own feelings.
Me: “Now I am stuck!! I want you to be happy, because I like you, but if I don’t do what you want, I’m scared that I’ll disappoint you and then you won’t like ME!!!”
Being one-third my size, she did not try to push me, but she did try the other parent’s response: abandonment. Looking away she announced, “I’m ignoring you.”
I then shared my sadness at feeling ignored by her, whom I liked, and said in a hopeful, lonely voice that I hoped she would talk to me again soon! (This modeled for her how to articulate a complex relationship with feeling. I suspect she had never heard this before.)
She suddenly became vulnerable herself. “You’re scaring me, Robert!…..You know how come I’m afraid of you?”
Me: “How come you’re afraid of me?!” (Repeating her phrase tells her both that I’m listening, and avoids distracting from the huge window she is about to open onto her own thoughts and feelings.)
“Because,” she nearly spit in self-protective anger, “I WAS TREATED LIKE A LITTLE STUPID IDIOT MY WHOLE ENTIRE LIFE!!!”
I quickly reflected my feelings, while matching her vitality affect. “I AM SO SORRY TO HEAR THAT!!!” And I continued to share my own affective response to the thought of a child being treated like a ‘little stupid idiot’ her whole entire life. Almost wailing I said, “Oh! I am sad to think of you being treated that way!!”
Then, I introduced my curiosity: “What did you do?! How did you cope?” (Note: It sometimes requires a cool hand at the tiller to steer away from knee-jerk reassurances such as, “You’re NOT an idiot! How could anybody treat you like that!!?” But reassurance shuts down feelings, while I wanted to articulate her need for a way out – What shall I do? How shall I cope!?)
Now she deepened into her memory but still could not differentiate her inner life (remembering the past) from her outer life (being here now). She could not yet reflect from the safe emotional present, as most adults do. She was still emotionally in the past, stuck in the memories and trying to manage her old feelings by making others change (“instrumental” use of affect) instead of describing her feelings to deepen connection (“signal” use of affect).
Suddenly she glowered fiercely at me. “If you ever hit anybody in my family – I’ll shove that notepad down your throat!!”
That was low-hanging emotional fruit, for which I was extremely grateful. It is important to not waste it with the following abstractions: (‘How do you think that makes ME feel!?’) would demand of her a complex ability to feel empathy for others. (‘I can teach you to relax and let go of those old hurts.’) would go prematurely to cognitive solutions while she is stuck in a state of highly dysregulated emotion; I would be abandoning her in freefall with her scary feelings. Such a response would be congruent with van der Kolk’s theme of The Body Keeps the Score, emphasizing meditation and other pulse-slowing approaches to stored childhood trauma. Yet this path would be premature to where she was in this moment. I still had to establish safety, and co-regulation of her affect.
Accepting the low-hanging emotional fruit (“…I’ll shove that notepad down your throat”) I match her harsh vitality affect again: “(gasp!) Somebody shoved something down your throat!!”
Immediately she is able to reflect on the past, protected by the empathy I am giving her in the present.
“Instead of spanking me every time I was naughty I had to bite into the bar of soap and chew it and swallow it! And I didn’t get any water!”
She is tearing up. And as I imagine being her being made to eat soap, my own eyes fill, I bite my lip, and my mouth turns deeply down in empathy.
She looks at the ceiling. “And if you cry, Robert, I’ll burst out into tears!!!”
For the rest of our session we had trust. I had helped her feel understood beneath all her fierce threats, by responding only to the feelings under the behavior, and responding preverbally (voice, facial expression, mirroring affect) instead of with cognitive insight.
Co-regulated at last, this aggressive child was finally free to reflect on her life from a safe, outside perspective, something parents usually, unconsciously, provide to children from birth onward.