|Beyond Being “Right”|
|Posted on November 20, 2010|
Frequently, in my experience working with parents of troubled adolescents and young adults, parents freeze up when their children give them negative feedback. Parents are walled-off, fearful, and unable to tolerate their child’s perspectives, especially when they contain a statement implying: “You did not do enough for me.” With these kinds of remarks, parents swiftly rebut, defend and emphatically demonstrate how much they did do. However, parents can model differentiation by hearing, reflecting and acknowledging their child’s perspective.
Parents do not need to be locked into “right,” and “wrong,” thinking. Even if parents feel their child is blatantly “wrong,” this armored response does little to facilitate deeper dialogues, especially considering most parents want close and open relationships with their teens and emerging adults. Take the metaphor of a parent and child standing on opposite sides of a room. A therapist raises an object between them, say a book, and asks each party to describe what they see. The child may say, “well I see a title and a picture.” The parent may say, “well I see just words, like quotes.” Both parent and child are right, they are each sharing their different perspectives, and their own reality. The “truth” is the whole object, the book, composed of both sides. The parent and child cannot see the whole object or the whole truth unless each gets up and views the object from all angles.
When children share their reality or experience, this is actually a gift. The child is engaging in dialogue, rather than shutting down and saying everything is “fine.” Parents may think the child’s perspective is distorted and it probably is – that is okay. Struggling teens may be distorted by overwhelming emotions, drugs and alcohol, or an overall emotional immaturity. Most teens are full of feelings, not rationality. Parents do not have to validate the child as being “right” or invalidate the child as being “wrong.” Instead parents can listen, reflect and thank the child for sharing. “Can you share more about what you mean?” “I will be sure to reflect on your perspectives.” “It is important to me that you can tell me how you feel?” When parents are open and receptive, rather than defensive, it keeps opening doors in the parent-child relationship rather than shutting them.
For example, one angry adolescent girl, through the course of her treatment, told her father that he did not set enough limits with her. He was too “easy,” too “permissive,” and as a result this teen could not control her drinking. This account may cause a parent to completely harden, considering all that parents of troubled teens go through. However it is also an opportunity for a new outcome. This dad remembers that past differently and felt that his daughter never abided to any limit or boundary. She blatantly violated all the rules of the home. Yet at this moment in the treatment/recovery process, what is more important is listening to each other, not being right. So he said in response, “Can you tell me more about why you feel this way?” She said, “Well I am not sure, I just remember getting away with stuff, stealing alcohol from you, leaving the house when I wanted, and feeling out of control.” The father replied, “I remember that too, what do you think we could have done differently?” After a long pause, she replied: “Well for one, you could have gotten rid of the alcohol and perhaps given me breathalyzers. You could have locked me in the house. I don’t know, but I think you could have done more.”
Even though this dad did not know the extent of his daughters drinking until it was too late as she was a skilled liar, his parenting instincts were always to trust her. Still, rather than getting defensive he replied: “Well, thanks for your feedback, I appreciate your perspective.” With this response, what was most important was hearing and validating his daughter, not being “right.” He might even say, “What limits can I hold you to now that you are in recovery?” She might say, “Well, I need to go to daily meetings and I want you to hold me to this when I come home, also I need a curfew, and frequent check-ins.”
When the father accepted his daughter’s points, she relaxed towards him and began to share more. This led the conversation in a new direction to a new outcome. We all have distortions in our reality of events, especially emotionally charged events. What is more important than being “right” is listening and hearing others perspectives. This is much more challenging to do when it feels as though a child is blaming again, but rather than viewing it as blame, parents should view it as an opening to deeper dialogue.
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