August 21, 2023
Zach & Sarah Part 2 of 2: When Your Teen Doesn’t Want To Grow Up
This is part 2 of the 2 part series with Zach and Sarah. Sarah and Zach are divorced co-parents of two children.
They came to Leslie to talk about Andrew, their 16-year-old son who is withdrawn and struggling in school. Last session Leslie explored ways to approach Andrew with curiosity and compassion in order to connect with him. She touched on family dynamics and how Andrew may feel like an outsider in a family of high achievers. We’re going to dive more deeply into that today – how putting pressure on your child, intentionally or otherwise, can set them up for shame and anxiety. Having intense feelings like you are not good enough or that you can’t live up to your parents expectations (perceived or real) can cause major disruptions even when it’s unintended by the parents.
Parenting is hard and we are all learning as we go. Sarah and Zach are dealing with very different issues with their two children. Andrew’s withdrawn behavior can feel so invalidating to the parent who is trying hard. Parenting the challenging child as we hear in this episode, is not very validating because your child doesn’t tell you that you’re doing a great job. Even though we all love getting the smile, the hug, and hearing the words, I love you, it’s NOT the child’s job to validate you. Remember, they’re just trying to survive adolescence. Parenting is hard and so is being a teenager.
5:15 “Shoulding” your child is shaming your child
8:05 Teaching parents to not work so hard
- 8:14 Talking less. Listen more to your kids. Listen twice as much as you talk
- 8:45 Nonverbal ways of connecting with your child
- 8:53 Make simple observations. Use the phrase “I notice that” Connecting to your kid in simple little ways that don’t put them in the “hot seat”
- 9:26 Say it and let it go
- 10:01 Indirect ways of connecting: talk about yourself
- 10:35 Be a real person
12:35 Manage your expectations and don’t personalize what your teen says or what they do.
15:50 Three Step Apology
17:10 The core belief of shame and what that means
26:54 Feel the fear and do it anyways: People/children may not realize that the anxiety is often present when you are doing something new
27:41 “Can you give yourself permission to….”
28:25 “You must have a good reason for…”
34:18 Creative solution brainstorming with your child – Practice brainstorming without evaluation
36:52 Shaping behavior – step by step successes.
Leslie-ism: Practice listening to your child – We have two ears and one mouth – listen twice as much as you talk.
Credits: Is My Child a Monster is produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Theme music is by L-Ray Music. Public relations is handled by Tink Media. Graphics and Website Design by Brien O’Reilly. by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible.
TRANSCRIPT OF SHOW:
0:00 Leslie Cohen-Rubury: Hi, this is Leslie Cohen-Rubury. And we’re looking for guests for Season 2 of, Is My Child A Monster?. We’d love to hear from all kinds of families with kids between ages 4 and 18. There’s no problem too big or too small. So if you’d like to volunteer for some free parenting therapy and are comfortable sharing your sessions publicly—with all names changed, of course—please visit ismychildamonster.com to apply.
[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]
0:36 Zach This idea of acceptance. It’s going to be a learning process for me, because there’s things that I find so hard to understand and so destructive
Leslie: This is, Is My Child A Monster?, a parenting podcast where you get to listen in as real parents and caregivers share their trials and tribulations in therapy sessions that we record live. I’m your host, Leslie Cohen-Rubury. And I’m a parent and a therapist with 37 years of experience helping families navigate this question. And just to be clear, no, your child is not a monster.
Today, Zach and Sarah join me again for the second of their two sessions. Sarah and Zach are divorced co-parents of two children. They came to me to talk about their son, Andrew, who is withdrawn and struggling in school. Last session, we explored ways to approach Andrew with curiosity and compassion in order to connect with him. We touched on the family dynamics, and how Andrew may feel like an outsider in a family of high achievers.
We’re going to dive more deeply into that today. Because putting pressure on your child, intentionally or otherwise, can set them up for feelings of shame and anxiety. And you’ll actually hear in this session, Zach and Sarah realize that that’s exactly what they’re doing. Parenting is hard. And so is being a teenager, so let’s not forget that. And as a reminder, all the names and identifying information have been changed. This show is for informational purposes only and not a substitute for therapeutic intervention. So let’s get started.
Leslie: Hi, Sarah. Hi, Zach, it’s good to see you again. And I think we left off talking about ways to connect. So what did you do?
2:47 Zach: My mind went toward activities. It seems like the place where I’ve had the most success in getting through to Andrew. One was skiing, he actually seems to kind of perk up about skiing, he seems to actually enjoy it. He’ll ski with me some, I let him go off on his own some, but it’s one of the ways where we have some real interaction. Another example is I brought him on a trip last summer with my mind went toward activities. It seems like the place where I’ve had the most success and, in getting through to Andrew, merged families in this way.
And, you know, it was a fairly long trip, a lot of driving, staying together. But he actually really kind of came out of his shell and, and seemed to enjoy it. And I don’t know, I think his personality, the way he kind of lives in the moment that way,I think he I think he can enjoy that sort of experience. And he appreciates not having the pressure of school and work and not having me on his case about school and work. And that was another way where we had a pretty nice time, pretty nice interaction.
Another example is, I don’t always but occasionally when I’m doing work on the house or in the yard, I will ask him to help me for a while. And some of the time he kind of drags his feet and is sullen and not very involved. But every now and then, almost despite himself, he kind of gets into it and kind of has some ideas; “Maybe we could do it this way. Maybe we could do it that way.” And that’s always really fun for me when he does that. And I do feel like we connect a little bit that way.
4:38 Leslie: Beautiful. Those are great examples of connecting. They’re larger ways, planning trips, going skiing; doing something out back is a little smaller. Those are great. I’m going to come back to you after I hear from Sarah—your ideas—and just going to help with one or two more ideas; but those sound lovely. It sounds like you really get to be together and he knows that you see him in a positive light rather than the you’re-not-doing-what-you-should-be-doing, and rather than the shouldn’t. We don’t want to should our children to the point where they’re feeling so much shame. Because they should be doing their homework, they should be handing it in, they should be studying more, they should fill out the application. And this is where you take a break from that—you get to connect to a whole person. That’s wonderful. All right, Sarah, do you have any ideas for connecting?
5:29 Sarah: Yeah, I also have had a little bit of success at times either with skiing or doing something like raking or something. But I have some very small ways in which I regularly find myself trying to connect. But I would love to expand on these. I find him to be a very, very good cook, and he enjoys it. So the only thing with this connection is that it’s sometimes hard to get him to…I like to engage him in talking about cooking, but he’s not really into talking about it. He just likes to do it. And he only likes to do it when he wants to do it. There’s not planning and whatnot. But I keep trying. And when he does cook, I really tried to…not just compliments but questions: “How did you do this,” and, “Wow, this is amazing,” and through cooking, or his art, complimenting drawings.
Another thing that I found was kind of a nice way to connect recently was to actually criticize his sister. Not to her, but to him, just in sort of saying that, you know, confiding a little bit that this is kind of tough with Kate right now. And I think that’s actually kind of a good way to connect with him. And just letting him know that his perfect sister isn’t so perfect. Sometimes connecting through food by making something for him that I know he likes, cooking something that I know he enjoys, or bringing him a doughnut or something.
Another thing I do, which I connect through touch so much. To me, to not be able to hug him and touch him is excruciating. But he’s not in a phase where he wants that. So it’s mixed. It can be an anti-connection moment, when I try to hug him or touch him. But if I do it right, I can just a little touch on his shoulder and an acknowledgement of, ”You don’t want to hug, I’m not going to make a big deal of trying to hug you or not hugging you.” I’m just going to touch him on the shoulder or pat his knee or something, and then leave it at that. It’s not nearly enough for me. But it feels like it’s something, even if he thinks he doesn’t want it. Sometimes I feel like that little touch. I feel like it has to be somehow reassuring. Even if he thinks he doesn’t like it.
7:57 Leslie: Well, great list, you guys. These are lovely ideas. And let me add—because I think parents actually sometimes work too hard. I love to save my energy. This job is so hard that any place I can save my energy, I do. One of the places I save my energy is, I try to talk less. And I can hear my children laughing as I said that, because I talk a lot. So we do have…I just try to remember that we have two ears—we want to listen twice as much as we talk. So that’s one thing. One way of connecting is just listening to someone. Some people don’t like to talk; but taking a drive and putting on music that you would share together…So some of the ways of connecting might be more nonverbal, and more presence-oriented. Sitting near him, observing him, using the phrase, “Well, I noticed you came in from school today with a smile on your face.” That little statement says, “Oh, wow, they noticed me. Mom noticed me. Dad noticed me.” That’s really an incredibly powerful connection.
And it’s so subtle. We don’t need money. We don’t need time, we just need to be observant. And so that phrase: use it. “I noticed that you’re frustrated that something’s not working on your phone.” Positive, negative—doesn’t matter. Just notice whatever it is, then move away. If he’s not going to like to hear that comment, then just say it and get out of there. Again, remember I said last time, plant the seed, just say something, observing. “I noticed that you’ve been working on your artwork for two hours,” then get out of the room. You don’t need to stay for conversation.
You know, you don’t need for him to acknowledge that you’ve made this statement to support him and validate him—say it and then let it go. The connection is made. Listening nonverbally, paying attention. And then another way to connect is in a much more direct way, which I think might be helpful for him. You might discuss things that are of interest to him—you already were talking about, like his cooking. Maybe if you talk about your life, your friends, your problems—I bet he may be a little interested in the idea that you have problems. And not because you have problems and we all say, “Oh, everybody makes mistakes, and no one’s perfect.” Forget all that. Actually, just sharing, just be real. I think kids love when we’re real and we don’t act like parents, we act like real people. I want you to be his parent, I’m not going to take away your authority. And I want him to see that you have things that you’re dealing with. Does that sound like that could work? So we have noticing him, observing him. The second thing I just said was…
10:58 Sarah: …talk about your own life, your own problems.
11:02 Leslie: Yep. Let him get interested in something you’re doing. Let him get interested, might be easier. He’s off the hot seat. Remember, I think he’s dealing with a lot of shame. I don’t think he wants the spotlight on him all the time.
11:14 Sarah: I just want to throw in there that I actually have tried that, talking about my own life. Because I feel like sometimes he doesn’t like to talk. I try to engage him at dinner, try to get him talking. So we can sit there in silence and that can be okay. Or I can talk with my partner. And then he’ll either just sit there and listen…and usually sit there and listen until he’s done with his food, and then he’s gone. But sometimes he’ll know that I would really like him to sit there. You know, it doesn’t feel good to me when I made dinner, and he’s gone in three minutes. So sometimes he’ll stay. And rather than just sit there in silence and rather than trying to make him talk, I will talk. But I’ve had it backfire, where he clearly doesn’t want to listen, he’s not interested. He just wants to go to his room. And then my feelings are hurt, or I’m frustrated or whatever. So I have had that happen positively where it actually was a connection. And it was good. But I’ve had it more recently just be a disaster.
12:29 Leslie: So here’s where we need to manage our expectations. And be careful not to personalize, it’s so easy to be frustrated. I’m with you. I don’t blame you. It’s justified. It’s difficult, you’re cooking dinner, they don’t say a word, they leave. But managing our expectation is: if I, every once in a while, can have a conversation where he listens, or he sits quietly but he listens to you and your partner, that’s great. If you get those little bits right now of engagement, it’s better than not having those things. So you want to just appreciate what you have, rather than focusing too much on what you don’t have.
And at the same time, being clever. I don’t know if it’s…the two of you…maybe he starts playing Wordle—you start playing Wordle. And at dinnertime you talk about, “Oh, was it easy? Today was a hard day, did you do Wordle? Did you not?” I don’t know if that’s something he does, I don’t know if you have a show that you watch in common, or an activity that you do in common. It’s okay to not have it go well all the time. Connection is not…we’re not looking for 100% connection, we’re looking for a give-and-take of: we connect and we go apart, we feel connected and we feel independent.
So we want a little bit of it all. So we have validation, by just acknowledging what you see and hear. When you were talking about touching him—I love the idea when you said you touch his shoulder or you touch his leg—you’re doing what you can, you’re respecting him. Once in a while, you can say, “Hey, I want to ask if this is a good time to get a hug? Or can I just put my hand on your shoulder?” We want to vary it up. But don’t be afraid of him. If you want to hug you can ask for one. He may say no. And then we have to be careful not to get our feelings hurt. But I don’t mind asking. As a matter of fact, I want to ask, I want to respect him and say, “Hey, is this a good time for a hug? No is a perfectly fine answer.” And then walk away with your head held up.
So those are the subtle ways of connecting with him. I think you’re already doing a great job. You guys spend time with him. That’s lovely. I think you just might need to give yourself credit for doing some of that connecting. So I’m leaning towards the other side of the dialectic, which is the expectations about achieving and doing it and all of that. And, Zach, can I ask you—you said you’re naturally oriented towards doing a lot, getting things accomplished—does he see you as perfect? And remember: from a child’s eyes, not from your eyes.
15:17 Zach: Well, I think he has a lot of complaints about me. And I aggravate him in many ways, but I do think he sees my accomplishments as formidable and imposing in some way and maybe not something he can live up to. And we definitely have some dynamic, some tension over the issue of accomplishments.
15:44 Leslie: Do you want to address that?
Leslie: I teach something called the three-step apology, which I have been doing. And at sixteen, seventeen years old, he’s almost your young adult son, right? And it’s almost a good time to, if this is comfortable for you, if this is the time for you, if you feel like this…Our kids see us as…first they see us as omnipotent, that we’re all being and we’re all powerful. And the two of you told me that you had a very amicable divorce, and that the kids were actually rather shocked; or jarred, was your word. They were jarred by the idea that you were getting divorced, because it’s not like you had a lot of high-conflict fights. Is that right?
16:31 Zach: Yeah, I think I said that when you and I talked, right? I agree with that.
16:37 Leslie: And so here he is, trying to figure out how to do the world. And he sees you guys had a good marriage, then you have a good divorce, then you’re like, wait a minute, and you have a good career. And it’s like, wait a minute, where do I fit in? How do I connect to you? If I’m putting myself in the category of bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, can’t do that, can’t do that. can’t do that. So it gets us into his shame. But one way that I think that we can get to that is we want to change. When we have shame, we have a core belief. Do you know what the core belief is under shame? What do you believe about yourself?
17:12 Zach: You’re unworthy in some way, I guess?
17:16 Leslie: Yeah. You have the words, “I am bad,” stuck in your head. Or, “I am unworthy.” So as you can imagine, that’s very detrimental, you don’t feel like you can do very much when you feel like you’re bad or broken, or unworthy. So I’m offering this idea of a three-step apology with you and Andrew. Let me explain it, and then you decide how to tweak it and how to make it yours.
Basically, a three-step apology: State what you’ve done; how you think it’s made the other person feel; and then what you want to do different. Basically, you would acknowledge to him that you have put a lot of pressure on him to think about his future, to do well. Because he needs to do well in order to do his future. And he needs to think about how to be motivated, how to succeed, how to have a career, how to be independent. And being successful, and putting those expectations on him, you may have done some damage in the process. And say, “I might have done some damage, because I may not have been sensitive to the fact that you and I are different. I do-do-doo. To me everything is about doing, is about fixing. I’m trying to fix you. So if I have given you the impression that I am trying to fix you, then I can imagine that that must not feel very good. As a matter of fact, that might make you feel like you’re broken. I want to have a conversation with you that says, I need to change what I’m doing, the way I speak to you; because I do not believe you’re broken. But I think my actions and my words have communicated something different.”
All right. That’s a lot to say. And that’s a lot of emotion in there. What do you think?
19:15 Zach: Yeah, I think it’s a good idea. I would have to think through exactly how to say it and how to bring it up and how to make it be mine. But I think he probably does need something like that.
19:32 Leslie: Yes. Again, I think you’re going to get the silent treatment when you do it. But it’s going to sink in. And there are many ways of doing it. You could verbally do it. You could write it on paper. You can write it on paper, and then do it verbally so that he can read it over. There’s many, many ways. I know you might want to think about it. Do you want to just try now?
19:54 Zach: Maybe not quite yet.
19:58 Leslie: It’s a hard one. So go take some time with this idea. It’s taking responsibility. I am doing that with my adult children. I asked my children to be independent. And for my son who was highly sensitive, he did it. He was a people pleaser. He went and walked to karate, he went and did things. And I didn’t realize that it was the scariest thing in the world to him. He did it so beautifully without complaint, that I didn’t see the anxiety. And he has since told me and so I have done an apology, that my goal was not sensitive or respectful to his biology, who he was. And I don’t blame myself, I can take responsibility that I was doing the best I can. And I now see that I could have done something different.
But I’m not crying over spilled milk. I’m just taking responsibility that it hurt him. I don’t think we intentionally go out and hurt our children. But what you’re doing out of love for your son—you’re doing it out of love trying to help him—has the unintended consequence of possibly making him feel like he can’t live up to your expectations. And we can take responsibility for that. I think it’s very healing. And I’m not telling you to do anything I haven’t done—I’ve really practiced this over and over again with all three of my children. So I think that might deal with some of the shame and connection.
[Music – Live in The Moment by Lesfm]
21:58 Leslie: In terms of the anxiety…last time, we talked about, that he might actually have a lot of anxiety that looks like it’s independence, it looks like it’s oppositional behavior. And really what it is, is, “I’m too uncomfortable to keep going forward. I’m too uncomfortable to do my homework, I’m too uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable, and I don’t know how to push through it.” Could be anything, how to clean up after myself, how to apply for a job, how to go for a new license—there’s a lot of discomfort in all of those activities. So is there one that you want to pick and we can break it down, to work on how to help him deal with the anxiety, deal with the discomfort, so that he can actually accomplish some goals; because we do want to get him accomplishing some of those goals.
22:39 Zach: I think we should start with the food in his room because it’s such a small, seemingly silly thing and yet it’s so maddening for both of us and such an ongoing challenge.
22:54 Sarah: Yeah, it’s maddening, but also just bewildering, too. I can’t understand it. It causes so much tension, so much stress, no matter how I choose to handle it. Sometimes I nag him, I’ll see it, and I’ll say it needs to come out. And he says, “Okay,” then it doesn’t come out. And so the next day, same thing: “You need to get it out. Got to clean it up.” “Okay.” Or, “Uh huh. And then it doesn’t.
So what I’m doing lately, which I know is absolutely probably the not the right way to do it. I hardly mention it at all; and when he’s gone, I go in his room, I take it all out. I don’t talk about it. I’m not saying anything, but he sees, he knows I’ve been in his room. He knows that I found the plate of food, literally underneath his bed from two days ago or whatever. So I mean, how is there not shame there like, “Oh, she got went under my bed.” I don’t like it, but it’s like, I can’t leave the food under there and I can’t…I just don’t know. That is a big one.
Another one that we could possibly address is the getting a job, too. That would be…it’s another whole thing, but that one is also a little bit bewildering and it seems like it would be a good one to work on or at least to try to apply whatever we do with this other thing. How can we just directly apply it to that?
24:25 Leslie: Okay.
24:26 Zach: He says he wants the job. And yet he won’t apply. Or if he does apply, he does it in such a half-hearted way that no one will hire him.
24:37 Sarah: I actually found he has a…his best friend works at a place and he’s now worked there for close to a year. And he applied at this place at the same time that his friend applied and his friend got a job And then he never got…Well, I think he applied right after his friend got hired. And then he never got a call, or at least he says he applied and didn’t get a call. Anyway, he said recently that he was going to apply there again, now that his friend has been there for a while. He thinks that he can get hired there. So he said he was working on the application. I said, “On the weekend, maybe you’ll drop that application off.” And he said, “Yeah, I’m just finishing up the references.” And I said, “Great.” So two days later I asked him, “Did you get your application in?” “No.” “Okay, you’ll probably have some time today; you know, once you just get it done.” “We’ll see, maybe.” And then I found the application completed perfectly. It’s all done except for there’s too little on the references. He needs the phone numbers. And that is all—it looks beautiful. It’s amazing. But he left it at my house. And I know that he had time to do it.
25:53 Zach: This is one where I think he’s very shy and anxious about approaching adults for things and having adult conversations. And this feels to me like one where maybe he just doesn’t know how to do it. He doesn’t know how to ask these people to serve as references. He doesn’t know how to ask them for their phone numbers. He’s intimidated by that adult interaction.
26:21 Leslie: Yeah, there is…like I said, just a few minutes ago with you two: you make life look easy. You made the marriage look easy, the divorce look easy, your jobs look easy. Your life, it’s…and his sister makes life look easy, too. And he doesn’t get why he feels uncomfortable when approaching adults or approaching a job. It’s like, how come no one else is going to have these feelings that I have? Well, a) just like social media, you don’t see the rest of their life. So he doesn’t understand that people have anxiety. We need to remember that having anxiety and being nervous and doing it anyway is a dialectic statement. Feel the fear and do it anyway. So you need to say that a thousand times is, “You’re going to be uncomfortable. And you can do it anyway. People feel uncomfortable, and you can do it anyway.” Now, there’s one thing I want to do that really change when you say, “Oh, people are nervous and do it anyway;” you could tell them a thousand stories of people who are scared. You could watch…there’s a story about the Jamaican bobsled team that was scared to do it. And they did it anyway. And then there’s movies and there’s shows and there’s videos of people being nervous and doing it. You could show him all that. He’s got to give himself permission.
And I had a daughter that was highly anxious—still is. And my line for her was, “Can you give yourself permission…” and then fill in the blank. “Can you give yourself permission to make a mistake?” That was the line I used with her. With him, I’d say, “Can you give yourself permission to be uncomfortable and talk to adults? He’s got to give himself permission. He knows everybody else is fine with getting nervous, but he’s not giving himself permission to be uncomfortable.
So that’s one line I really want you to start using over and over and over again. It may take five, ten years to sink in. That’s okay. He’s got a long life ahead of him. The other line—this line popped out of my head when I was at my wit’s end with my daughter who was hitting her brother constantly. I was like, “I have a Master’s in special ed a Master’s in social work. Why can’t I figure out how to solve this problem?” I couldn’t. So one day, she went again and hit her brother and I sat down with her. And I said, you must have a very good reason for hitting your brother. I felt like the sky opened up. It did. She was for the first time she was not…she was always defensive and angry with me when I was trying to manage her behavior. Instead, she broke down crying, and I finally got an answer that I’d never heard. “He teases me and I don’t know what else to do.” How can I argue with that? Now, I made a dialectic statement which is “Wow, that feels awful. It’s not okay to be teased. And there’s no hitting in the house. We don’t hit people.”
So yes, I want to present the dialectic because it’s not like, “Oh good. Well, keep going. Now that you’ve got a reason to hit your brother, keep hitting him.” No, I made it clear that the reason may be justified, and we need to find another way. So use that line, “You must have a very good reason for filling in your application, but not taking it to the adult who needs it.” “You must have a very good reason for leaving the food and plates in your room.”
29:52 Sarah: And where do I go from there? Because I have no idea.
29:56 Leslie: Good question. Well, the one with the food…I would do more the one with the application, because it seems like he’ll be able to get to that one a little more. I would say with the food, I might take a different approach. But that line is just a go-to line every once in a while. Just a tool in your toolbox to say every once awhile when—because you said I’m bewildered—when you’re bewildered, get on his side and say, “You must have a very good reason for…” It brings lightness, it brings curiosity rather than judgment and shame. So even if you don’t get any answer, at least it sounds like you’re on his side.
So where we go from there…So if he says…let’s roleplay it. So Sarah, you be Andrew, again. I’m going to say, “All right, Andrew, I went in your room, cleaned up, I think you noticed that I cleaned up. But you must have a very good reason—help me out here—you must have a very good reason for leaving the plates and the food in your room. Help me out: what’s going on?”
31:01 Sarah: “It’s my room, and I’ll take care of it, eventually. I’ll just do it when I want. You don’t really need to worry about it. It’s fine.”
31:11 Leslie: “Okay, so the first thing you just said, Andrew, was it’s your room. Do you feel like you want to make sure I know it’s your room? Because that makes it your room. It doesn’t look like my room, probably doesn’t look like Dad’s room. It doesn’t look like the living room. It clearly is your room when you leave your food there. Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
Sarah: “I guess so.”
Leslie: “Okay, and it’s okay with you.”
Leslie: “Right. So is it possible…” Now I’m going to bring another statement in…”Is it possible that you really are okay, with those plates there and that you’ll clean it up yourself? And there might be another little part of you—maybe really little, but a little part of you—that also feels it’s not okay.”
Leslie: “So it’s possible that it’s fine. Because you said that, too. It’s fine that you leave the plates and things there. And then there is maybe a little part of you—maybe the part of you that knows that it’s disappointing? Is it the part of you that knows that it’s disappointing to me or aggravates me? Or is it a part of you that actually wants a clean room?”
32:25 Sarah: “Maybe the second one.”
32:27 Leslie: “Oh, maybe you want a clean room? Okay. Is there anything getting in your way? Is there an obstacle for you to clean up? Like, there must be…I’m also curious if there’s an obstacle for you cleaning up. If there’s a little part of you that wants a clean room, is there an obstacle that we don’t know about?”
Sarah: “Yes: it’s you.”
Leslie: “Great, tell me more.”
32:52 Sarah: “I don’t like it when you tell me to clean my room. I don’t like it when you come in my room and look at the food.”
32:57 Leslie: “When I tell you to clean your room, when I tell you to pick up the food, does it sound like I’m telling you that I need to fix you and that you’re bad and you’re doing something wrong?”
Leslie: “Okay, that’s not okay with me. I do like a clean room. I don’t like your dishes and the food sitting around in your room. And it is not okay with me for my message and my parenting to make you feel like you’re broken. So we’ve got a problem. Maybe it’s just my problem. Can you help me? I don’t want to make you feel broken. And I’d love to figure out how we can problem-solve this room.”
33:39 Sarah: And I don’t know what to say now. [Laughter]
33:41 Leslie: Okay, so if you get anything from him, don’t keep pushing it. Just say, “Okay, great. You know what? When we have dinner tonight, I’ll get paper and pencil, maybe we’ll brainstorm, maybe we’ll put on our thinking caps. And maybe we’ll brainstorm all the ways that there might be obstacles for why things are coming out of the room. Maybe what we can do about it. I’m not opposed to the idea of helping you. I’m not opposed to the idea of doing it once a week. I’m not opposed to the idea of…we can put down all different kinds of crazy ideas. Have a friend come over and help and actually brainstorming.”
Let me teach you this one little thing about brainstorming. Most of the time, when people brainstorm, they evaluate the idea immediately. So if your child comes to you and says, “Mommy, I’m bored; Daddy, I’m bored.” And you say, “Why don’t you go play outside.” “No, I don’t want to go outside.” “Why don’t you call a friend?” “Because there’s no one to play with.” Do you hear that every time you give a suggestion, someone’s evaluating it. Adults do the same thing. It’s not just kids, right? I say to my spouse or something, I might say, “You want to do that?” And there’s always reasons why you don’t. Brainstorming is without evaluation. Because we’re trying to teach people to have flexible thinking, when you evaluate and say, No, no, that’s good, that’s bad, that’s good,” you’re destroying the muscle of flexibility.
So brainstorming is just making a big fat list of ideas, and creative, out of the box. “Maybe we’ll set up the bathroom so that there’s a… we’ll go to the restaurant store and get a bucket, like the tubs that they have in a restaurant. That sounds like a brilliant idea. Maybe all the dishes go in one of those.” See, I just evaluated it. I just caught myself evaluating it, because I like my idea. [Laughter] Okay, I won’t get so excited. I do like that idea. But you can get a tub but think outside the box. “Your friends can come over and help you clean up. I can clean it up. You can clean it up, you can clean it up on the odd days or even days.” I mean, brainstorming is fine.
35:52 Sarah: Yeah. Okay. So, should I sort of look at this as like a bridge? Like, if we brainstorm and we come up with the idea that he’s going to clean it up once a week. On Saturday, before he leaves, or Sunday, whatever, before he leaves, everything’s going to get cleaned, thrown out, garbage taken care of, everything’s going to get cleaned once a week.
So in the meantime, there could be moldy food underneath his bed, that’s just going to be, like, for now. Because to me, I feel like, okay, if that’s the solution that we come up with. I would hope that we would evaluate it at some point, that review stage in which we evaluated, I would say once a week isn’t good enough, but that’s the best we could do. Say that was the only place we could get to once a week, then do I just look at this, “Well, at least it’s getting done once a week.” So do I just have to say this is a bridge? This is a temporary sort of solution and it’s a step towards…alright, we can do it that way this week. And then next week, we’re going to do it twice a week. And the next week, we’re going to…
36:52 Leslie: Yes, there is such a thing called shaping behavior. You’re right, you might start with the once-a-week. And as he gets exposed to doing it once a week, if he has some success with it, then in a month, you say we sit down again, and we brainstorm another idea. Because really, once a week is not the end goal at all, right? It’s eat and clean up. So it really is thinking about it in a step-by-step progression, where you’re working together, possibly in the idea that it’s shaping his behavior towards a goal. And you can say that, “Let’s work on shaping your behavior. Because I think that little part of you that wants your clean room—I think we’ll see if we can work towards that.” There needs to there’s a level of acceptance, you know, of accepting him as he is. And when you actually start to begin where he is, he will start to begin to feel a little bit more accepted. He’s got to accept himself at this point. His shame is keeping him from accepting himself and not seeing himself as broken and bad. So, try using some of those lines, try brainstorming to problem-solve, decide together what the goal is. Is the goal to be able to bring his dishes downstairs after he eats? Is his goal to have a clean room? Think about what his goal is, and then say “We can do it in steps. What’s the first step? Where should we begin?”
And, again, this is going to be hard when he is right now thinking that, “The way I get to be independent from my parents is I do what they don’t want. That’s the communication, I’m taking you back to that idea that, remember: this behavior is communicating. And we have to understand that until he no longer needs to communicate that to us because either—in your case, Zach, you might talk to him about the expectations you’ve had on him and that you want to understand the effect that they’ve had on him. Or that he may be a little anxious about growing up and doing these things are not easy for him. All of this connection begins to let him know that you see him for who he is. Not who he should be.
Because when people feel seen and heard, they’re much more capable of doing the things they need to do. So I do want to acknowledge that he’s feeling a lot of discomfort, and teaching him some coping skills. “This is uncomfortable, and I can do it anyway.” “This feeling will pass.” “This is a feeling not a fact.” “I’m uncomfortable, and this is going to pass.” “Can you give yourself permission to be uncomfortable? How long do you think you will be uncomfortable? Do you think the feeling will go away, once you hand in the application? Or do you think that feeling is going to stick around a little longer?”
Let’s experiment. He really needs exposure to his discomfort, he needs practice. And it’s okay, we don’t want to make him feel, “You have to do-do-do-do-do.” We do want to give him opportunity to be uncomfortable, because he’s got plenty of that. And help him cope with that.
40:29 Sarah: My head is swimming, there’s so many things that I want to remember. And I was madly trying to write a whole bunch of things down, but can’t really keep track of it all.
40:36 Leslie: I know. And this is a language. So when we are learning a language, we need to repeat it over and over again. He needs practice, you need practice. I realize it’s very overwhelming. I’m glad you said that. And we’ll take it slow. And we’ll repeat it, not because you’re not getting it, but because it needs to be repeated in order to learn it, and practiced. So, stay with anything that was a nugget today. As a matter of fact, let me ask you, what’s one thing that stood out today that you might try?
41:09 Zach: Well, I wanted to try this apology idea that I think that is really important. I have to think about how to do it, but I want to try that. And then I think, also, just this idea of acceptance. It’s going to be a learning process for me, because there’s things that I find so hard to understand and so destructive, but I need to try to get myself to think about them. From the point of view of Andrew, trying to figure out who he is and address his own discomfort and anxiety. And address probably a feeling that he is damaged or broken in some way.
41:59 Leslie: What you just said is beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful. He’s very lucky to have you as a dad. And I do believe that parenting involves a lot of faith—what is going to happen to my child? So hang in there, try to hang on to what you just said. Those are two beautiful takeaways for today. Sarah, do you have some takeaways?
42:19 Sarah: I think that I would like to experiment with, “You must have a very good reason for…whatever.” I also really want to try, “Can you give yourself permission to be uncomfortable or whatever.” I am a little worried, though, just about the language, that I’m going to have to try to find a way to convey that in a way where he’s not going to be like, “What? That’s not how moms talk.” [Laughter] Or, “What do you mean,” or just laughing.
42:52 Leslie: I actually think you should laugh together. When he makes a face like, “Who are you? Who do you think you are?” Use the line and get some humor, get mileage out of it. And remember, you might need to say that a thousand times. So yes, if you want to change the words, by all means, but there’s nothing wrong with sounding strange.
43:15 Sarah: …I do sound strange a lot of the time…you laugh a lot. And sometimes I’m able to laugh at me with him.
43:22 Leslie: Beautiful—that’s connection. Humor is so connecting, humor is healing. So if you can make that statement and then watch his face and say, “Okay, how strange was that?” and laugh. Then you have a moment of connection. That is so healing. Good, take away those lines. And try that magic, and, the dialectic of both.
43:47 Sarah: Okay, thank you so much.
43:50 Leslie: Okay, bye bye.
Leslie: Parents of teenagers can feel very alone. And I want to thank Sarah and Zach for breaking down the walls of isolation, because they are not alone. And as parents out in the community, you also are not alone in dealing with the challenging issues. In fact, we’re building a community of parents and caregivers on Facebook. In the Is My Child A Monster? Parenting Community Group—you can find a link in our show notes.
It’s so important to continue to assess your child’s behavior, and to get at the root of possible reasons why they may be struggling to accomplish tasks. In these two sessions, you hear me assess, assess and assess. I know that sounds really clinical, but it isn’t something only a therapist can do. As parents, you can and should ask questions, explore and seek understanding of your child and what their behavior is telling you. In examining Andrew’s behavior, Zach began to realize his role in Andrew’s emotional state. Zach and Sarah were able to step back and see how their own behavior was impacting Andrew. We’re looking at both sides of the equation.
Zach and Sarah needed to look at themselves. And they needed to understand that Andrew is dealing with a great deal of anxiety. Having intense feelings, such as you-are-not-good-enough, or that you can’t live up to the expectations of your parents, can cause major disruption to a child’s well-being and growth. I was so impressed with Zach’s willingness to consider the three-step apology and take responsibility for the unintended consequence of always trying to fix his son.
And I have an update: that strategy helped. Zach said there’s been progress, though it’s been uneven. And I want to reinforce and remind you that that’s normal. Remember, progress is rarely linear. Since the recording, Andrew has graduated high school and is headed off to college. Sarah says that using the strategies from our sessions, especially meeting him where he is, and managing her own expectations has really helped their relationship. She also said, “Starting where I think he should be has always ended badly. I still have to really prepare myself before attempting to communicate with him about certain things, but I feel my skills are getting stronger.” I’m so glad to hear that these skills are making a difference in people’s lives and relationships.
[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]
Join us next week where we meet May, who needs to overcome her own desire to keep the peace in order to better support her trans, non-binary child in their home. Subscribe to Is My Child A Monster? wherever you get your podcasts, so you don’t miss an episode. And if you like what you hear, please rate and review on Apple podcasts. You can find a full transcript of this episode, resources, and apply to be a guest on Season 2 by visiting ismychildamonster.com. The Is My Child A Monster? team is Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, Gabriela Glueck, and me. Special thanks to Eric Rubury. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music. I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for joining us. And this week, practice listening to your child. Remember, we have two ears and one mouth—listen twice as much as you talk
Transcribed by https://otter.ai edited by Eric Rubury