One of the biggest problems among today’s parents — especially mothers — concerns their tendency to think in psychological terms about their children’s behavior problems. Mothers are more prone to this intellectual wandering than fathers not because of some gender-related characteristic but simply 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 come, mostly, from various mental health fields. Consequently, they wind up believing (among other equally unhelpful things) that their children’s behavior problems have arcane psychological meaning. (The alternative is to think of these problems as simply the inevitable consequence of raising offspring who, unlike those of any 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 wild tantrums their 7-year-old son let fly when things — just about anything — didn’t go his way. The parents were worried sick. 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 a touch 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 fearful that any firm discipline on their part would make matters worse and hasten his admission to the aforementioned looney bin. So instead of disciplining, they talked, reasoned and explained and got nowhere.
Not surprisingly, the more they talked, reasoned and explained, the worse said 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 almost 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 a person of any age feels they are losing or have lost control, one response (of several) 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 and apocalyptically and take firm, resolute 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.
Visit family psychologist John Rosemond’s website at www.johnrosemond.com; readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org; due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.