Bedtime Success with an Oppositional Child

A parent used to try to help his child, age eight, understand and agree with the parent’s decisions.  This father had had a painful childhood himself, and he kindly did not wish the same for his son.  The boy would go along with decisions he liked, but learned to rage violently against the others until father gave in.  He typically refused to cooperate with bedtime.  He would say, “I don’t want to go to bed,” and then he would ignore or fight with father.

“So I used to think, ‘Oh, his body knows what it needs better than I do,’ and leave him alone.”

“But now when he gets oppositional and combative I move in closer and give empathy but also bring in limits, allow fewer choices and less freedom.”

   How’s that working?

“His rages are shorter and less frequent.”

I notice that formerly ‘fun’ father also seems calmer, less reactive, more confident, more serious, and makes fewer crisis calls between sessions.

   How’s that feel?

He looks at me seriously.  “It’s hard work.”

This father who previously worked hard to avoid his son’s frightened and frightening feelings, has stepped up to the plate, taken charge and given his son the parental attention, limits and guidance the child has been both demanding AND rejecting at the same time [classic example of children’s Ambivalent attachment style.]

It was as if by sharing so much inner confusion and chaos the son was saying, “I feel too much in charge of myself and need help.  But I also will reject help, so you should expect to feel as confused as I do.  Help me please!!”  Parents and caretakers must then rise above the child’s helpless logic, see the big picture, take over, and free them both from the old stuck pattern.

“Doorknob Therapy” and Idling Cars

This little thought struck me gently enough that I want to park it here on this blog.  It is not often we tie individual psychology to our need to save the earth.  Here is one example.

New counselors soon encounter a phenomenon which becomes familiar over the years.  A client will finish a decent therapy session, get ready to leave the room, put their hand on the doorknob and then say, “Oh, by the way….” and suddenly introduce some powerful new information which can change a lot of things.  But there is no time to process it — they are on their way out.

In the field this is commonly called “doorknob therapy”.  All the therapist can do is thank the client and make a note to reflect on this next visit.  It is too late for today.

I wondered why this happened until I watched the way car drivers will stop and talk to a friend through their rolled down car window – without turning off the car which may idle away, uselessly polluting for half an hour or more.

It struck me that these two behaviors share something in common: they provide safety to the speaker.

Why?  They surround the speaker with a context – the context of being about to escape.  When we are on the verge of leaving a situation, it feels safer to speak freely.  Think of that song about quitting a job, “Take This Job and Shove It, I Ain’t Workin’ Here No More.”  Pure freedom to finally say what the worker has wanted to say for a long time.  Because if I am leaving, you can’t do me any harm.

Not that my two examples are dangerous situations to begin with.  But unconsciously we do carry with us remnants of childhood when we were not certain what social situations were actually safe.  So at the moment of leaving a situation, all fear that the response by the other person might be unpleasant, unsatisfying, or simply unexpected, is lowered.  We can always say, “Well, I gotta’ be going now….”  Almost the definition of safety.

The doorknob in hand and the sound of the purring engine both tell us we can rush off at a moment’s notice, lowering our unconscious fear of being rejected, found unacceptable or threatened with abandonment.  We can speak with less inhibition and more courage.

Of course there is still just plain overconsuming pollution.  I am reminded of going to our town’s general store last summer.  Out front by the parking lot sits an old piano where anyone can stop and tickle the keys for awhile.  In front of the piano was parked a huge gas-guzzling SUV, idling away.  It had out-of-state plates, not uncommon in tourist-filled Vermont.  The ample-sized driver had one arm out the window and the other helping him inhale a mega-calorie Dove bar.

Being who I am, I went up and smilingly offered to play him a tune on the piano if he would turn off his engine (and stop polluting our town.)  He smiled back and laughed, snorting through his ice cream, “I don’t think so!”

Sigh.  At least he smiled.