The following parenting strategy is an excerpt adapted from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” (http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328919870&sr=8-1). As with all techniques, this is just a tool and it may or may not fit with your personal family situation.
Give Information—Then Back Off
Most parents, at least initially, feel drawn toward actively and directly teaching life lessons to children. After all, as adults, we have far more accumulated wisdom than children and therefore it makes perfect sense to tell them what decisions they should make and warn them of potential life dangers. Many parents also use direct power strategies of lecturing, criticism, praise, and advice-giving to teach their children important life lessons. Unfortunately, life lessons based on direct power are often ineffective. This is likely true because, as Carl Rogers might say, children are more interested in learning about life based on their own experiences rather than learning indirectly from parental lectures.
Praise, punishment, lectures, advice, and criticism are external means of influence (Glasser, 2002). When talking with parents, we usually emphasize that praise and punishment strategies involve “outside-in” or external learning. Punishment is a message from the outside that tells children they’ve done something wrong; praise is a message from the outside that tells children they’ve done something right.
All learning is partially outside-in and partially inside-out. Children can learn from what others say (often through praise and punishment) and they can learn from their own judgments of their own direct experiences. Generally, children’s developmental issues (e.g., individuation, identity formation) make it desirable for parents to intentionally use inside-out learning strategies with their children, at least some of the time.
Inside-out learning emphasizes personal experience and judgment rather than judgments imposed by others. Most parents agree that, although they want their children to be open and sensitive to others’ opinions, they want their children to have an internal sense of direction and integrity even more. Unfortunately, using direct power to tell children what to think often backfires. Some children oppose their parents simply for the sake of opposing their parents. In these cases, children seem to gain a sense of identity through opposition or rebellion instead of learning to personally reflect on their experiences and then consciously choose their own behaviors.
Troy’s Three Choices
Troy, a teenage boy, came for counseling. Troy was in conflict with his parents about his relationship with his girlfriend. His parents were concerned and had made it clear that they disapproved of the girlfriend and of his relationship with her. This communication left Troy feeling deprived of his personal choice and so he stubbornly clung to his relationship despite the fact that he also had doubts about whether the relationship was a good fit for him. As we worked in counseling, it became clear that Troy had three general choices: (1) He could comply with his parents’ wishes and discontinue the relationship; (2) he could oppose his parents and insist on his right to have this relationship; or (3) he could think about his parents’ opinions as information and then step back and critically evaluate the relationship himself and decide what he thought was best. We discussed the most challenging outcome of all: that he might end up agreeing with his parents and terminate the relationship and then they (and he) might think they had “won” the power struggle.
As a result of our discussions, Troy decided he wanted a joint meeting with his parents. During the meeting he effectively communicated to them that they had made their position and their concerns very clear. He then emphatically asked them to back off so he could decide how to proceed with his relationship. In the end, Troy broke off the relationship and thanked his parents for giving him the space and time to make his own decision.
This case illustrates the give information and then back off technique. The parents communicated their concerns directly. Although they were initially overbearing about what their son should do, eventually, with encouragement, they backed away and gave their son time to independently consider the issues. In essence, by backing off after expressing their concerns, they also communicated trust in their son’s ability to make a reasonable decision. One problem underlying this situation is the fact that after expressing concerns, it’s often difficult for parents to keep their mouths shut and let their children make their own decisions on their own timeline rather than the parents’ timeline.
Troy’s parents might have been even more influential if they had started the process by asking Troy if they could share their opinion with him. For example, they might have asked: “Would you like to hear our thoughts on how your relationship seems to be going?”
By asking for Troy’s permission, a new power dynamic is intentionally established. The new dynamic includes some of the following characteristics:
- The parents give a signal to Troy that they have important information they’d like to share with him, but they’re giving this signal before they provide the information.
- Asking permission gives Troy a sense of empowerment. He may choose to (a) receive the information, or (b) reject the information. He’s less likely to feel as though his parents are shoving the information down his throat.
- Even if Troy initially rejects the information by saying “I don’t want to hear what you think” or “I know what you’re going to say,” he can still change his mind and ask for the information later.
- If the parents approach Troy with an attitude of concern, he may feel cared for, which is always a good thing in a parent–child relationship.
- If the parents can respect Troy’s right to reject the information, paradoxically, he may become more open to hearing their opinion later.
- Overall, by asking permission, the parents are at least expressing partial faith or trust in Troy and his problem-solving ability.
There are exceptions to every rule. This particular problem-solving technique provides an excellent foundation for exploring exceptions to all indirect and problem-solving strategies. Because these approaches intentionally and explicitly give away parental power, they should be used only when parents feel at least somewhat comfortable trusting their children with the problem-solving process. For example, if Troy’s girlfriend is obviously abusing drugs and pulling Troy toward a destructive lifestyle, it may be necessary for the parents to insist on more extreme and directive steps. These steps might include:
- Family therapy
- A drug/alcohol intervention
- More intensive supervision of Troy’s behaviors
- Severe limitations regarding Troy’s freedom outside the home contingent upon specific communication and “checking-in” standards
- Involvement with law enforcement (if appropriate and/or warranted)
Although not exhaustive, the preceding list provides a sense of how the nature of the parent–child relationship and the parents’ trust in their child’s judgment interact with the level of directiveness. More directive, limit-setting, and monitoring parenting approaches may be necessary, depending on the severity of the situation.