One of the biggest problems among today’s parents, especially mothers, is their tendency to think in psychological terms about their children’s behavior problems, because mothers are the primary consumers of parenting material.
Unfortunately, the stuff mothers (and some fathers) read is largely baloney, written by professional parenting babblers who mostly come from mental health fields. Consequently, the mothers wind up believing (among other unhelpful things) that their children’s behavior problems have arcane psychological meaning. (The alternative is to think of these problems as the inevitable consequence of raising offspring who, unlike those of other species, are naturally inclined toward believing that what they want, they are entitled to have, and that no one is qualified to tell them what to do.)
Take, for example, the parents I recently spoke with concerning the tantrums their 7-year-old son let fly when things didn’t go his way. The parents were worried. They’d read all sorts of stuff that had led them to believe he was bipolar, autistic (or on the “spectrum”), manic-depressive, and/or maybe even schizophrenic. They imagined him locked up in a mental institution by age 20 in a stainless-steel straitjacket. (It is significant to note that he functioned reasonably well outside the home with other adults and playmates.)
All this worry and apocalyptic thinking had induced what I term “disciplinary paralysis.” This little brat’s (my diagnosis) parents were afraid of him and also feared that any firm discipline would make matters worse and hasten his admission to the looney bin. So instead of disciplining, they talked, reasoned and explained, and got nowhere.
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Not surprisingly, the more they talked, reasoned and explained, the worse the brat’s brattiness became. And the worse he became, the more his parents worried and the more paralyzed they became, and the more they talked, reasoned and explained, and around and around and around they went. That describes the inevitable consequence of psychological thinking. Such thinking leads one down rabbit hole after rabbit hole.
The brat was in complete control of the family. Lacking insight, he had no idea that he wielded such power; therefore, he was not — as several therapists had naively suggested — being manipulative. Nonetheless, everyone in the family was dancing to his tune.
By the time I spoke with the parents, he was out of control. And when people of any age feel they are losing or have lost control, one response is to try desperately and obsessively to control — other people, usually. This is not mental illness, but it sure looks crazy.
The parents needed to stop thinking psychologically to take firm control of their son’s life. They stopped talking and began teaching him — with calm purpose — that one bad thing deserves another.
Being reasonably intelligent, the little fellow learned this fundamental life principle fairly quickly. Begrudgingly, he began to accept that he was but a little fish in a big pond. Best of all, perhaps, his parents reclaimed that which psycho-babble had stolen from them: common sense and a sense of humor.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website, Rosemond.com.
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