Jul 30, 2009

The Not-So-Obvious Roadblock: Praising

Most of us instantly recognize why Criticizing, Threatening, Name-Calling, and Diverting (withdrawing or using humor) make it onto the list of the 12 Communication Roadblocks. However, I am often asked why "Praising" is a roadblock to communication.

Contrary to the common belief that praise is always beneficial to children, it often has very negative effects. A positive evaluation that does not fit the child's self-image may evoke hostility: "I am not pretty, I'm ugly." "I hate my hair." "I did not play well, I was lousy."

Children infer that if a parent judges positively, they can also judge negatively someo ther time. Also, the absence of praise in a family where praise is used frequently can be interpreted by the child as criticism: "You didn't say anything nice about my hair so you must not like it."

Praise is often felt by the child as manipulative--a subtle way of influenceing the child to do what the parent wants: "You're just saying that so I'll study harder."

Children sometimes infer that their parents don't understand them when they praise: "You wouldn't say that if you knew how I really felt about myself."

Children are often embarrassed and uncomfortable when praise is given, especially in front of their friends: "Oh, Dad, that's not true!"

Children who are praised a lot may grow to depend on it and even demand it: "You didn't say anything about my cleaning up my room." "How do I look, Mother?" "Wasn't I a good little boy?" "Isn't that a good drawing?"

Jul 29, 2009

Active Listening At the Wrong Times

Unsuccessful experiences of parents who first try Active Listening often occur because parents use it at inappropriate times. As with any good thing, Active Listening can be overdone.

There are times when kids don't wnt to talk about their feelings, even to two empathic ears. They may want to live with their feelings for awhile. They may find it too painful at the moment to talk. They may not have the time to enter into a lengthy cathartic session with a parent. Parents should respect the child's need for privacy in her world of feelings and not try to push her to talk.

No matter how good a door-opener Active Listening is, kids often don't want to walk through. One mother told how her daughter found a way to tell her when she did not feel like talking: "Knock it off! I know it might help to talk, but I just don't feel like it now. So, please, no Active Listening right now, Mother."

Sometimes parents open the door with Active Listening when they lack time to stick around and hear all the feelings bottled up within the child. Such hit-and-run tactics are not only unfair to the child, but hurt the relationship. The child will come to feel her parents do not care enough to hear her out. We tell parents: "Don't start Active Listening unless you have the time to hear all of the feelings this skill so often releases."

Some parents have experienced resistance because they used Active Listening when a child needs different help. When a child is legitimately asking for information, for a helping hand, or for some special resource of the parent, she may have no need to talk out or work through something.

Parents sometimes gro so enamored of Active Listening that they employ it when the child does not need to be "drawn out" or encouraged to get in touch with her deeper feelings. It will be obvious how inappropriate Active Listening is in the following theoretical situations:

CHILD: Hey, Mom, can you give me a ride downtown Saturday? I've got to do some shopping.
MOM: You'd like a ride downtown Saturday.

CHILD: What time are you and Mom coming home?
PARENT: You are really puzzled as to when we are coming home.

CHILD: How much will I have to pay for insurance if I buy my own car?
PARENT: You're worried about the cost of your insurance.

These children probably do not need to be encouraged to communicate more. They are asking for a specific kind of help that is quite different from the help that Active Listening provides. They are not transmitting feelings. They are asking for factual information. To respond to such requests with Active Listening will not only seem strange to teh child; it will often produce frustration and irritation. These are times when a direct answer is what is wanted and called for.

Parents also discover that their children become perturbed when the parent continues to try Active Listening long after the child is finished sending messages. Parents need to know when to quit. Generally, clues will be forthcoming from the child--a facial expression, getting up to leave, silence, being fidgety, looking at her watch, and so on--or the child may say such things as:

"Well, I guess that's about it."
"I don't have time to talk anymore."
"I see things kinda different now."
"Maybe that's enough for now."
"I got a lot of studying tonight."
"Well, I'm taking a lot of your time."

Wise parents back off when they get these clues or messages, even though it does not seem to them that the particular problem has been solved by the child. As professional therapists realize, Active Listening only starts children on the first step of problem-solving--getting the feelings out and the problem defined. Frequently, the children themselves take it from there, eventually winding up with a solution on their own.

Jul 22, 2009

Withdrawing, Escaping, Daydreaming, Regression

When it becomes too difficult for children to cope with parental authority, they may try to escape or withdraw. The power of parents may cause withdrawal if punishment is too severe for the child, if parents are inconsistent in adminitsering rewards, if rewards are too difficult to earn, or if it is too difficult to learn behaviors required to avoid punishment. Any of these conditions may cause a child to give up trying to learn "the rules of the game." She simply quits trying to cope with reality--it has become too painful or too complex to figure out. This child cannot find suitable adjustment to the forces in her environment. She can't win. So her organism somehow tells her it is safer to escape.

The forms of withdrawal and escape may range from almost total to only occasional withdrawal from reality, including:

  • Daydreaming and fantasizing.
  • Inactivity, passivity, apathy.
  • Regressing to infantile behavior.
  • Excessive TV watching and video game playing.
  • Solitary play (often with imaginary playmates).
  • Getting sick.
  • Running away.
  • Joining gangs.
  • Using drugs.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Depression.

Jul 21, 2009

Conformity, Lack of Creativity, Fear of Trying Something New, Requiring Prior Assurance of Success

Parental authority fosters conformity rather than creativity in children, much as an authoritarian work climate in an organization stifles innovation. Creativity comes from freedom to experiment, to try new things and new combinations. Children reared in a climate of strong rewards and punishment are not as likely to feel such freedom as children reared in a more accepting climate. Power produces fear and fear stifles creativity and fosters conformity. The formula is simple: "In order to get rewards I will keep my nose clean and conform to what is considered proper behavior. I dare not do anything out of the ordinary--this would risk my getting punished."

Jul 20, 2009

Apple Polishing, Courting Favor

One way of coping with a person who has power to reward or punish is to "get on her good side," to win her over by special efforts to make her like you. Some children adopt this approach with parents and other adults. The formula: "If I can do something ncie for you and get you to favor me, then perhaps you will give me your rewards and withhold your punishment." Children learn early that rewards and punishments are not metered out equitably by adults. Adults can be won over; they can have "favorites." Some children learn how to take advantage of this and resort to behavior know as "buttering someone up," "getting to be teacher's pet," and other terms less acceptable in polite society.

Unfortunately, while children may become quite skillful in winning adults over, this is usually strongly resented by other children; the child who "butters up" people is often ridiculed or rejected by her peers, who suspect her motives and envy her favored position.

Jul 18, 2009

Family Connection: Can you become more accepting of yourself?

Studies show that a direct relationship exists between how accepting people are of others and how accepting they are of themselves. A person who accepts himself as a person is likely to feel a lot of acceptance for others. People who cannot tolerate a lot of things about themselves usually find it difficult to tolerate a lot in others.

A parent needs to ask himself a penetrating question: "How much do I like who I am?"

If the honest answer indicates a lack of acceptance of himself as a person, that parent needs to reexamine his own life to find ways to become more fulfilled from his own achievements. Persons with high self-acceptance and self-regard are generally productive achievers who are using their own talents, who are actualizing their own potential, who accomplish things, who are doers.

Parents who satisfy their own needs through independent productive effort not only accept themselves but also needn't seek gratification of their needs from the way their children behave. They don't need their children to turn out in a particular way. People with high self-esteem, resting on a firm foundation of their own independent achievement, are more accepting of their children and the way they behave.

On the other hand, if a parent has few or no sources of satisfaction and self-esteem from his own life and must depend heavily on getting satisfaction from the way others evaluate his children, he is likely to be unaccepting of his children--especially those behaviors that he fears may make him look like a bad parent.

Relying upon this "indirect self-acceptance," such a parent will need to have his children behave in certain specified ways. And he is more likely to be unaccepting of them and upset with them when they deviate from his blueprint.

Producing "good children"--high achievers in school, socially successful, competent in athletics, and so on--has become a status symbol for many parents. They "need" to be proud of their children; they need their children to behave in a way that will make them look like good parents to others.

In a sense, many parents are using their children to bring themselves a feeling of self-worth and self-esteem. If a parent has no other source of self-worth and self-esteem, which is unhappily true of many parents whose lives are limited to raising "good" children, the stage is set for a dependency on children that makes the parent overanxious and severely needful that the children behave in particular ways.

Jul 17, 2009

Submission, Obedience, Compliance

Some children choose to submit to the authority of their parents for reasons that are not usually well understood. They cope through submission, obedience, and compliance. This response to parental authority often occurs when the parents have been very severe in their use of power. Particularly when punishment has been strong, children learn to submit out of a strong fear of the punishment. Children may react to parental power just as dogs become cowed and fearful from severe punishment. When children are quite young, severe punishment is more likely to cause submission because a reaction such as rebelling or resisting may seem to risky. They almost have to respond to parental power by becoming obedient and compliant. As children approach adolescence, this response might change abruptly because they have acquired more strength and courage to try resistance and rebellion.

Some children continue to be submissive and compliant through adolescence and often into adulthood. These children suffer the most from early parental power, for they are the ones who retain a deep fear of people in power positions wherever they encounter them. These are the adults who remain children throughout their lives, passively submitting to authority, denying their own needs, fearing to be themselves, frightened of conflict, too compliant to stand up for their own convictions. These are adults who fill the offices of psychologists and psychiatrists.

Jul 16, 2009

Forming Alliances, Organizing Against Parents

Children whose parents control and direct by authority and power learn, as they grow older, yet another way of coping with that power. This is the all-too-familiar pattern of forming alliances with other children, either in the family or out of it. Children discover that "in union there is strength"--they can "organize" much like workers in America have organized to cope with the power of employers and management.

Children frequently form alliances to present a common front to parents by:

  • Agreeing among themselves to tell the same story.
  • Telling their parents that all the other kids are permitted to do a certain thing, so why can't they?
  • Influencing other children to join them in some questionable activity, hoping that then their parents won't single them out for punishment.
Today's crop of adolescents feels the real power that comes from organizing and acting in union against parental or adult authority--witness the growing numbers of kids doing drugs with thier friends, not doing homework, ditching school with friends to go to the mall, and the proliferation of cliques and gangs.

Because authority has continued to be the preferred method of controlling and directing the behavior of children, parents and other adults bring about the very thing they most lament--adolescents forming alliances to pit their power against the power of adults. And so society is polarizing into two warring groups--young people organized against adults, or, if you will, the "have-nots" against the "haves." Instead of children identifying with the family, they are increasingly identifying with their own peer group to combat the combined power of all adults.

Jul 15, 2009

Blaming Others, Tattling, Cheating

In families with more than one child, the children are obviously competing to get parental rewards and avoid punishment. They soon learn another coping mechanism: put the others at a disadvantage, discredit the other children, make them look bad, tattle, shift the blame. This formula is simple--"By making the other guy look bad, maybe I will look good." How defeating for parents; they want cooperative behavior from their kids, but by using rewards and punishment they breed competitive behavior--sibling rivalry, fighting, ratting on brother or sister:

"She got more ice cream than I did."
"How come I have to work int he yard when Joe doesn't?"
"He hit me first--he started it all."
"You never punished Ericka when she was my age and did the same things I'm doing now."
"How come you let Eddie get by with everything?"

Much of the competitive bickering and mutual blaming among children can be attributed to the parents' use of rewards and punishment in child-rearing. Since no one has the time, temperament, or wisdom to dispense rewards or punishments fairly and equally at all times, parents are inevitably going to create competition. It is only natural that each child wants to get most of the rewards and see her brothers and sisters get most of the punishment.

Jul 14, 2009

Dominating, Bossiness, Bullying

Why does a child try to dominate or bully younger children? One reason is that her parents used their power to dominate her. Therefore, whenever she is in a power position over another child, she too tries to dominate and boss. This can be observed when children play with dolls. They gernerally treat their dolls (their own "children") as their parents treat them, and psychologists have known for some time that they can find out how a parent treats a child by watching that child play with dolls. If the child is dominating, bossy, and punitive to her doll when she plays the role of a mother, she has almost certainly been treated the same way by her own mother.

Parents, therefore, unwittingly run a high risk of rearing a child who will be authoritarian with other children if they use their own authority to direct and control their child.

Jul 13, 2009

Needing To Win, Hating to Lose

When children are reared in a climate full of rewards and punishment, they may develop strong needs to look "good" or to win, and strong needs to avoid looking "bad" or losing. This is particularly true in families with very reward-oriented parents who rely heavily on positive evaluation, money rewards, gold stars, bonuses, and the like.

Unfortunately, there are many such parents, particularly in middle- and upper-class families. While I do find some parents who philosophically reject punishment as a method of control, I seldom find parents who even question the value of using rewards. The American parent has been inundated by articles and books advising frequent praise and rewards. Most parents have bought this advice unquestioningly, with the result that a large percentage of children in America are daily manipulated by their parents through commendation, special privileges, awards, candy, ice cream, money, and the like. It is no wonder that this generation of "brownie point" children is so oriented to winning, looking good, coming out on top, and above all, avoiding losing.

Another negative effect of reward-oriented child-rearing is what generally happens to a child who is so limited in ability, intellectually or physically, that it is difficult for her to earn brownie points. I refer to tehc hild whose siblings and peers are genetically better endowed, which makes her a "loser" in most of her endeavors at home, on the playground, or at school. Many families have one or more such children, who are destined to go through life experiencing the pain of frequent failure and the frustration of seeing others get the rewards. Such children acquire low self-esteem, and build up attitudes of hopelessness and defeatism. The point is: a family climate heavy with rewards may be more harmful to children who cannot earn them than to those who can.

Jul 10, 2009

Lying, Hiding Feelings

Some children learn early in life that if they lie they can avoid a great deal of punishment. On occasion lying can even bring them rewards. Children invariably begin to earn their parents' values--they get to know accurately what their parents will approve or disapprove of. Without exception, every child I have seen in therapy whose parents used a heavy dose of rewards and punishment, revealed how much they lied to their parents. One adolescent girl told me:

"My mother won't let me go out with this one guy, so I have my girlfriend pick me up and tell Mom we're going to the moview or something. Then I go meet my boyfriend."

Another said:

"My mother won't let me wear low-cut shirts, so I wear another shirt over the low-cut one, and when I leave the house, I take it off a few blocks away and then put it back on before I come home."

While children lie a lot because so many parente rely hevaily on rewards and punishment, I firmly believe that the tendency to lie is not natural in youngsters. It is a learned response--a coping mechanism to handle the parents' attempts to control by manipulation of rewards and punishment. Children are not likely to lie in families where they are accepted and their freedom is respected.

Parents who complain that their children do not share their problems or talk about what is going on in their lives are also generally parents who have used a lot of punishment. Children learn how to play the game, and one way is to keep quiet.

Jul 9, 2009

Aggression, Retaliation, Striking Back

Because parental domination by authority often frustrates the needs of the child, and frustration so often leads to aggression, parents who rely on authority can expect their children to show aggression in some way. Children retaliate, try to cut the parent down to size, are severely critical, talk back nastily, employ "the silent treatment," or do any one of the hundreds of aggressive things that they feel may get back at the parents or hurt them.

The formula for this way of coping seems to be "You hurt me, so I'll hurt you--then maybe you won't hurt me in the future." Its extreme manifestation are cases, frequently reported in newspapers, of children who kill their parents. No doubt many acts of aggression against school authorities (vandalism), against the police, or against political leaders are motivated by a desire to retaliate or get back at someone.

Jul 8, 2009

Effects of Parental Power: Resentment, Anger, Hostility

Children resent those who have power over them. It feels unfair and often unjust. They resent the fact that parents or teachers are bigger and stronger, if such advantage is used to control them or restrict their freedom.

"Pick on someone your own size" is a frequent feeling of children when an adult uses his or her power.

It seems to be a universal response of human beings at any age to feel deeply resentful and angry toward someone on whom they are, to a greater or lesser degree, dependent for providing gratification of their needs. Most people don't respond favorably to those who hold power to dispense or withhold rewards. They resent the fact that someone else controls the means for satisfying their needs. They wish they themselves were in control. Also, most people crave this independence because it is risky to depend on another. There is the risk that the person on whom one is dependent will turn out to be less than dependable--unfair, prejudiced, inconsistent, unreasonable; or the person with the power may demand conformity to her own values and standards as a price of her rewards.

This is why employees of highly paternalistic employers--those who are generous in giving "benefits" and "bonuses" (on condition that the employees will gratefully acced to management's efforts to control by authority) are frequently resentful and hostile "to the hand that feeds them." Historians of industrial relations have pointed out that some of the most violent strikes hit companies where the management had been "benevolently paternalistic." This is also why the policy of a "have" nation giving handouts to a "have-not" nation so frequently results in the dependent nation's hostility toward the stronger one, much to the consternation of the "giver."

Jul 6, 2009

Effects of Parental Power: Resistance, Defiance, Rebellion, Negativism

A parent recalled this typical incident with her father:

PARENT: If you don't stop talking, you're going to get my hand across your face.
CHILD: Go ahead, hit me!
PARENT: (Hits child.)
CHILD: Hit me again, harder. I won't stop!

Some children rebel against parents' use of authority by doing exactly the opposite of what their parents desire them to do. One mother told us:

"There were three main things we used our authority to try to get our daughter to do--be neat and orderly, go to church, and refrain from drinking. We were always strict about these things. Now we know that her house is a mess, she doesn't set foot in church, and she has cocktails almost every night."

An adolescent revealed in one of his therapy sessions with me:

"I won't even try to get good grades in school, 'cause my parents have pushed me so hard to be a good student. If I got good grades it would make them feel pleased--like they were right or like they won. I'm not going to let them feel that way. So I don't study."

Another adolescent talked about his reaction to his parents' "hassling" him about his long hair:

"I guess I might cut it if they didn't hassle me so much. But as long as they try to make me cut it, I'm going to keep it long."

Such reactions to adult authority are almost universal. Children have been defying and rebelling against adult authority for generations. History suggests little differences between today's youth and those at other times. Children, like adults, fight furiously when their freedom is threatened, and there have been threats to the freedom of children at all stages in history. One way for children to cope with threats to their freedom and independence is to fight against those who would take it away.

The Effects of Parental Power On The Child

Despite all the serious limitations of power, it strangely enough remains the method of choice for most parents, no matter what their education, social class, or economic level.

P.E.T. instructors invariably find that parents in their classes are surprisingly aware of the harmful effects of power. All we have to do is ask parents to draw from their own experience and tell us how they were affected when their parents used power over them. It is a strange paradox that parents remember how power felt to tehm as children but "forget" when they use power with their own children. We ask those in each class to list what they did as children to cope with their parents' use of power. Each class develops a list of coping mechanisms not too dissimilar from the following:

  1. Resistance, defiance, rebellion, negativism
  2. Resentment, anger, hostility
  3. Aggression, retaliation, striking back
  4. Lying, hiding feelings
  5. Blaming others, tattling, cheating
  6. Dominating, bossing, bullying
  7. Needing to win, hating to lose
  8. Forming alliances, organizing against parents
  9. Submission, obedience, compliance
  10. Apple-polishing, courting favor
  11. Conformity, lack of creativity, fear of trying something new, requiring prior assurance of success
  12. Withdrawing, escaping, fantasizing, regression
Watch the blog this week for more in-depth descriptions of what these coping mechanisms look like, and what's going on behind them.