D.W. Winnicott, a famous child expert, noted that there is no such thing as an individual child. There are only children and parents. Understanding children’s behavior is accomplished by viewing parents and children as a team. When a child is not functioning well, there is often some imbalance in the team’s functioning. The emotional atmosphere that exists between parents and children can lead either to constructive, healthy living or a life course fraught with missteps and obstacles.
What are the essential components of the kind of rarefied atmosphere that spawns a well-functioning team? Studies of children and parents suggest the following:
This kind of listening presupposes an ongoing interest in the other person’s point of view. Questions that are posed are meant to help parents to understand children’s thinking and, most importantly, their objections to considering what parents are proposing.
–Regulation of Emotional Contagion
Active listening is virtually impossible unless parents are able to constructively regulate their own emotions. This is no small feat. Parents and children are often exceptionally skillful at arousing intolerable emotions in one another. These emotions interfere with an individual’s capacity to listen actively.
Parents and children reciprocally exchange or “catch” emotions from each other. Emotions are contagious and are often caught just like colds. Once parents and children “infect” each other with an emotion (i.e. frustration; anger; sadness), the job of emotional regulation becomes more complex. For example, a parent dealing with a frustrated child will have the task of containing his/her own emotions as well as the induced emotion of frustration caught from the child. Holding onto these induced emotions serves several purposes:
(1) First, it allows the parent to experience the feeling with which the child is struggling;
(2) Secondly, experiencing the child’s feeling permits better understanding of how to approach the child; and
(3) Third, containing these induced emotions prevents parents from taking premature actions (i.e. yelling or other punitive behavior) simply for the purpose of providing an emotional release when emotions become “too hot” to hold.
–Consultation with Your Child and Emotional Communication
Once you have listened to your child and mastered the difficult job of regulating emotional contagion, you are ready to attempt to consult with your child about what would help.
Consulting children seems like the most logical way to approach parent-child difficulties. However, it is often overlooked or attempted unsuccessfully because of the failure to master the prerequisite steps above..
While parents often ask me what to say to their child, I tell them that it is not so much the words that are used as it is the emotional communication with which the message is delivered. The ideal, of course, would be to know exactly what your child needs at any moment in time without he/she telling you. (Wouldn’t we all like this for ourselves?!). While some parent-child dyads approximate this during the early first months of life, most of us just need to ask our children what they need. (By the way, consulting is just that-it is a way of gathering information and joining with a child. Asking children what they would like is not the equivalent of doing what the child asks. Maintaining the difference between talking and doing is extremely important in undertaking the task of consulting with your child).
Good emotional communication requires:
(1) Being “in sync” with your kids. That is, allowing your child’s feelings to “wash” over you without drowning in them!
(2) Examining the feelings in order to understand your child’s dilemma;
(3) Containing your own emotions when they would not be constructive;
(4) Consulting with your child about what would help. (This includes not being put off by the usual “I don’t know” responses and emotionally “staying with” children to have them say what is stopping them from moving forward).
(5) Eliciting your child’s objections. (This may sound like a crazy idea! However, without knowing what it is that prevents children from being more cooperative, it is virtually impossible to craft a constructive response).
(6) Discussing how to remove the obstacles in the road. For example, children may be “using” a behavioral pattern in lieu of expressing a feeling that is intolerable to them or their parents. Most children are protective of their parents even when their relationship appears to be very negative. Stopping a repetitive behavioral pattern (i.e. underachievement; oppositional/defiant behavior) can occur only after the feelings that have been deemed taboo are expressed in words rather than in action. At that point, these patterns no longer become necessary, and drop off by themselves.
After having sat with hundreds of parents over 30+ years, I can tell you that all of the above is doable but not easy. The power of emotional contagion can knock any parent-child (or spouse-spouse) team off-track. Individuals must build up their own emotional insulation so they can tolerate the high intensity of emotional communications in their families. Insulation does not block out feelings. It just permits them to be experienced without short-circuiting our own wiring and blowing a fuse.
When either genetics or life experiences have left individuals without adequate insulation or wiring, professional consultation may be useful in providing “re-wiring” and “re-insulation.” Parents who can tolerate a wide spectrum of emotions and model this for their children often find that they are successful partners with their children.