Why ‘Bad’ Moms Still Should Parent Their Kids

Post of the week comes from Standing with the Kids. I’ve been reading Julia’s blog regularly since I discovered it back in July and she is the kind of voice that folks who make decisions about youth and families, on a policy and practice level, need to hear. I don’t always agree with her positions, but her arguments are thoughtful and well written. This post resonated with me because it speaks to the experiences I’ve had over the years in working with youth and families who have been involved with the “system”. In NJ we are getting better at keeping kids in the home by helping families improve capacity. There was a time when residential facilities were being used as a holding ground for kids who were removed from the home because of safety concerns within the family. Residential facilities are designed to treat kids with severe emotional and behavioral problems, and many of these kids simply did not meet this level of need – in the end these placements ended up hurting more than they helped. Although improvements have been made there is still a good deal of work that needs to be done in ensuring that youth are not further harmed by the systems created to protect them.

Posts for this feature are selected each week and posted on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Posts selected are not necessarily featured the week they were originally posted.

Standing With the Kids

Published by EducationNews.org — Teach incompetent parents responsive, responsible parenting to avoid taking babies away from the people they love.

In her own opinion, Dr. Brenda Harden has made serious mistakes with other people’s lives.

Thirty years ago Harden was a front-line social worker for Child Protective Services in New York City, frequently removing children from troubled, violent or drug-addled homes.  But now, as an Associate Professor at University of Maryland College Park, she develops remedies for what she now considers to be flat-out damage inflicted on vulnerable children.

Speaking at a recent conference, she says, “I’ve done a lot of bad service in my life.  I have moved children with clothes in black trash bags, and with all the metaphor that goes along with it, about being throw-aways.  I can’t tell you how many attached family relationships I’ve interrupted.  Sometimes there were good reasons.  But mostly we (social services) are…

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Good Manners and Mixed Messages

alpinist rope I do not work with young children but being a parent of two young girls has caused me to become more interested and active in researching different aspects of development during this time frame. I found that I have some real disagreements when it comes to how the larger culture expects young children to act and the assumptions that drive the thinking behind these expectations. I recently came across this article, which appears to be a re-post of an article written for Parents Magazine a year earlier, on manners. There were a few items on the list of manners in the article that caught my eye.

Do not interrupt grown-ups who are speaking with each other unless there is an emergency. They will notice you and respond when they are finished talking.

Never use foul language in front of adults. Grown-ups already know all those words, and they find them boring and unpleasant.

When an adult asks you for a favor, do it without grumbling and with a smile.

emphasis added by me

The last one almost made me spit iced tea out of my mouth and onto my screen.

One thing that my work with trauma survivors has taught me is that programming kids to automatically respect people because they are older can open up some bad doors.  Automatic respect based on some arbitrary value like age leaves folks open to being more vulnerable.  Teaching young children who are still not fully aware of “how the world works” to live according to this idea pushes their thinking about relationships away from reason, reciprocity and evidence to values that may not only be irrelevant to context but even dangerous.

Manners are rules of engagement that are expected to be followed in social situations. In order for them to have any meaning or value, everyone in the game needs to play fair.  Being that there is no “enforcer”, this expectation is built on nothing more than blind faith.  As adults I know we all understand this but young children don’t think that way.

Which brings me to my next point about manners; they set up expectations on how other people will behave. Young children have not yet developed the capacity to understand the whole idea behind “trust but verify”.  When you tell them this is how people should act, they assume that this is how people will act which can create confusion when the expectation falls through.

This is not to say that the items on the list are always bad or always wrong; in fact I have probably talked to my kids about most of what is on there.  I think the problem is more about having a list of “to-do’s” with regard to social relationships that are expected to be followed without consideration of context or relationship.

So I decided to come up with a different list.  These aren’t a list of manners; it’s more about how I handle my parenting when it comes to social expectations and relationships.

I don’t compel my children to refer to adults as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” .

I know the argument. Using “Mr.” and “Mrs.” teaches kids to respect their elders but, what are you teaching your child when you compel them to demonstrate a higher level of respect to someone who hasn’t yet earned it in any meaningful way?  My kids refer to adults, other than their family members, by first name.  We explain that the titles they call family members have more to do with roles they play in the family – whether they grow to respect, trust and love their family members will be a product of the relationships they have with each of them.  Our kids go to private schools and so we are clear that referring to their teacher as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” is a rule that the school has – it is a sign of authority but that authority has limits and it is accountable to a higher authority, namely their mother and I.

I don’t compel my children to disclose to adults or show affection to them if they do not want to.

The relationships my children have with their extended family are probably no different than what you would see in other  families. It is clear, however, that they are more open and trusting of those who have been more present for them than those that have not. Our children have the freedom to make those decisions and act accordingly. They have the right not to like everyone they are related to even if we like them.  We don’t force them to kiss family members or hold conversations with people they are not comfortable with, regardless of who they are.  Forcing kids to behave in ways that feel disproportionate to the real value and meaning of the relationship teaches the lesson, again, that their investment in relationships does not need to be earned.  We also run the risk of confusing the decision making surrounding acts of affection or disclosure of information.

I don’t compel my children to return a strangers “hello”.

We tell our kids time and time again not to talk to strangers and then I see parents pushing their kids to interact with complete strangers on the check-out line at shop-rite.  Parents can effectively model resisting behaviors for their kids by telling strangers who attempt to strike up conversations with them something like “Hey, nothing personal but we teach our kids not to talk to people they don’t know.” “Do as I say and not as I do” isn’t always a bad principle – there are things adults can and should do, that young children should not be allowed to do.  But, where possible and relevant, modeling allows kids to observe the behaviors we ask them to engage in.

I don’t compel my children to “share” with people  that have not historically returned the favor or who have been mean to them.

This is about self -respect. Children can learn early on that relationships are not a one way street. Pushing children to go above and beyond in their generosity to others without expectation of return may set them up for some pretty nasty relationships later on.  This also reinforces unrealistic expectations about relationships for the other child – sending the message that they could be mean and still get what they want. I get there’s a whole lot of theology working against me here but given what I’ve learned about relationships over the years, I’m going with my conscience on this one.

I encourage my children to be assertive in telling anyone about a behavior or action that they don’t like.

Allowing them to be open to adults about how they feel and having permission to set boundaries makes them less of a target. It also provides rich opportunities to develop key interpersonal skills. If they go too far, you can talk to them about bringing it down a bit after the fact- I want my kids to make authentic mistakes because it opens the door for authentic and substantial growth. I know it’s a lot harder than telling them to follow a list of rules but the payoff down the road will be well worth it. I have to understand that how my 4 year old sets a boundary is going to look a lot different than how I would, but my job is to praise the courage she demonstrates when communicating the need while providing guidance on how it ought to be done in a given context.

I allow my children to face the natural consequences of their relationship mistakes.

If my daughter acts badly towards another child and becomes upset when that child no longer wishes to play with her I try to explore, using language she understands, the cost of her behavior.  She can continue doing what she’s doing but she runs the risk of losing friends and getting in trouble with teachers.  I also inject our family’s values into the discussion and tie their importance to the current situation, reinforcing the idea that values have pragmatic benefits as well as costs that need to be balanced according to the situation in front of them.

I don’t let table manners get in the way of dinner.

My oldest is 4 years old (this list applies mainly to her at this point) and to be honest, my table manners leave a bit to be desired..but I’m doing ok for myself.  Do I point out egregious behaviors or pick on moderate to minor infractions here or there? Sure.  But my goal in life is not to appear on some sort of reality TV show as the poster parent for good manners.  When I’m on my death bed, “My children had impeccable table manners” is not the crowning achievement I hope to have rolling around in my mind.  Table manners are fine but the real value to meals is the relationship building that happens during them.  Part of it, of course, is negotiating and modeling respect in the way we conduct ourselves at the table.  But, like any other social situation, being relaxed and rolling with the punches is equally if not more valuable to the purpose of the interactions taking place.

I remember that my children are young girls.

I constantly explore whether I would let a behavior go or actually encourage a behavior if my children were boys.  I have to be mindful that I was raised in a culture that had very different expectations of boys and girls.  Some of these I agree with and hold onto because they have wisdom and make practical sense to me but some of them are just plain horrible.  I tend to be most mindful of the urge I sometimes have to push my kids to show more restraint, be less active or be quiet which has helped me bite my tongue on more than a few occasions.

I try to point out, reinforce and model the idea that being polite doesn’t mean you like or trust a person.

This one is hard to explain without using an example.  About a year ago I had a really annoying situation with my bank.  I received a notice that my car was going to be repossessed because they failed to have me sign a form when I purchased my car.  I never missed a payment; in fact I pay early and usually pay more than what is required.  When I went to the bank I expressed my dissatisfaction with the way they handled the matter and indicated that I was strongly considering changing banks as a result.  When we left, my daughter looked at the bank employee and said

Bye-Bye little guy

I had her apologize for the remark and later explained why the remark was hurtful. I also explained that we can be angry and firm with people without being insulting.  That by insulting others, we could make things worse for ourselves.  Lastly, I explained that the bank rep didn’t really have anything to do with what happened but that I communicated my aggravation with the whole thing to him so he could talk to the people who made the decisions.  I reminded her that I shook his hand and thanked him for his time.

The intended take away for this post isn’t that you agree with how I do things or that you buy into my values.  It has more to do with encouraging folks to drop “lists” or rigid expectations as a way of teaching kids how to behave and to focus more on value informed thinking and self interest while actively seeking opportunities to help children negotiate these principles using situations and problems as they come up. My list isn’t a “what you should do” but more an example of how to approach the issue in a way that is both value driven and contextual.

Understanding the Enabler

photo_18851_20100918 The term “enabler” is used to describe an individual who consistently acts in a way that protects another individual from the consequences of engaging in maladaptive behaviors OR actually encourages and supports that individual in their maladaptive behaviors. While the term is used heavily in understanding and treating families affected by addiction, it is a relevant concept in thinking about family systems that have a member struggling with an eating disorder, borderline personality disorder or other mental health issue.  For our purposes we’ll stick with addictions, understanding that much of what we talk about can be applied to other issues.

Some examples of enabling behaviors include:

-Parents who continue to provide their teen with a cash allowance despite knowing that their teen uses substances.

-A husband who calls his wife’s employer to inform them that she will not be at work that day because of a stomach bug when in reality, the wife is unable to attend work as a result of a drinking binge the night before.

-A wife frustrated with her husbands lack of motivation and lack of “production” in the household, takes over his responsibilities to avoid an argument and to just “get it done”

There is a strong tendency for folks who enable to equate their emotional well being with that of the individual struggling with an addiction.  Because of the hyper-vigilance typically created in families as a result of the addiction; one or more members may feel a need to anticipate or predict emotions and behaviors. This kind of relationship leads to rigidly entrenched patterns involving triggers, use and rescuing behaviors.  As a result of the rescuing behaviors, the individual struggling with addiction relies on the relationship as a means of maintaining the addiction.

Enablers possess certain traits that leave them vulnerable to taking on the role.  They tend to derive their sense of self worth from the opinions of the people they are in relationships with. As a result, they look to “over perform” in these relationships to receive validation and to satiate an exaggerated fear of abandonment. Within the relationship itself, enablers tend to modulate positional intensity poorly going from one extreme (passivity) to another (aggression).

Despite the substantial challenges, enablers can also possess and demonstrate many strengths.

They tend to present with a great deal of resiliency and while their actions have contributed to the problem they’ve also worked to protect the family. These behaviors can be viewed as survival skills that, from the enabler’s perspective, have strong short term benefits.  This up front benefit may be based in reality but the actions also carry higher long term costs.  This is not to say that what they do is always good or great, enablers have been complicit in some pretty bad horror stories.

They also tend to be highly resourceful and flexible in situations that demand quick action.  Enablers are often put into seemingly urgent situations where quick decisions feel necessary.  Granted, they are put in this position because they have accepted this role in the past but given their circumstances, they may feel their decisions were the lesser of many evils. When people feel obligated to make quick decisions on substantive issues or problems on a frequent basis, the likelihood of collateral damage to the rest of the system is high. photo_19387_20110127

The enabler is not the only person who enables – they just tend to do it more often and don’t quit.  Folks who struggle with addictions tend to have a revolving door of folks who, in some way, have enabled their behaviors. In some families, the larger family system may encourage the enabler to continue with their way of handling problems because not doing so may be viewed as disloyal. These are also the same people, by the way, who throw their hands up in the air and blame the enabler for everything that goes wrong.

Folks who struggle with addiction are probably not where they are because of the enabler.  The absence of a proximate enabler only makes the behaviors more difficult to perform which changes the cost benefit ratio of the behavior. While this may increase motivation for change, it is not a guarantee.  I’ve had more than a few clients tell me that they would adapt to any consequence their family may impose in order to maintain access to their drug of choice and actually followed through with it.

One of the biggest challenges in treatment is to help enablers redefine their role within the family as they may continue to use survival strategies that can unintentionally trigger urge inducing thoughts or emotions for the person in recovery. Enablers usually grow up in households where addiction was an organizing principle and so they are desensitized to many behaviors that would cause others to set hard boundaries up front or leave the situation altogether.  Because of this programming, they usually have to learn what healthy relationships look like before making any significant changes on the ground.

photo_27338_20130821 Enablers probably have tried to stop the other person from using but have been unsuccessful in their attempts. A priority in family work is to help the enabler stop many of the use controlling behaviors they exhibited during a persons active use because they are risk factors for sustained recovery.

One thing to keep in mind when working with family systems in early recovery is that the shame and guilt associated with addiction doesn’t stop with the individual who has the addiction. Enablers have morals and try to keep with their virtues like the rest of us. Many times what they feel they need to do to protect the system presents as a contradiction to their moral framework.  This tends to be the basis for the guilt and shame many enablers tend to carry when they enter treatment.

It’s also important to recognize their strengths and to view their actions within the context of their reality.  Dismissing the behaviors as simply pathological while demanding radical change oversimplifies the problem, hurts the therapeutic relationship and creates barriers to progress. People live according to equations that pertain to their histories and current realities – not a textbook.  Clients who struggle with addiction step in and out of different phases of recovery. Families have to assess whether they can trust the treatment process and the changes they may be seeing enough to let go of the strategies they believed have helped them survive not just their current relationships but the households they grew up in.

Clinicians can help family members develop a different understanding of love and loyalty; that how they are demonstrating love and loyalty in the current context is only making the problem worse.  This acknowledges, when appropriate, that the actions the family took came from a noble source they just weren’t grounded in the right skill set or logic.

Lastly, enablers need to get comfortable with self interest and identity formation.  I usually begin by describing how self interest is something that helps systems maintain accountability to and relevance for other family members. For the enabler, acting out of self-interest is a selfless act.

What are these boundaries that you speak of?

Directional Signs in California I know, another therapist writing about boundaries.  The thought of it makes me nauseous too, so let’s get through this together.

We hear a lot about why boundaries are important. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “you need to have some boundaries girlfriend” on the Jerry Springer Show. That show that would mercilessly play on every single television set in the University cafeteria during my undergrad years.

Did I watch?  You bet I did.  I was young…er and the prospect of bearing witness to a chair flying incident was too great of an incentive to look away, at that time in my life.

God, I feel so ashamed.

Anyway, depending on the school of thought you subscribe to, boundaries can be thick or thin, permeable or impermeable, clear or unclear…the list is endless.  These are certainly useful concepts that can help guide folks in evaluating their relationship skills but skips over the initial and more important questions surrounding the “stuff” that makes up a boundary.

Interpersonal boundaries are analogous to geopolitical boundaries because, in many ways, they serve the same purpose on a smaller scale. Boundaries exist because of our differences across a wide variety of areas- religion, finances, philosophy, spatial needs, to name a few. They are a concrete demarcation between person A and person B. It would be difficult to recognize an identity without boundaries; they represent what makes us different

Boundaries consist of many things so let’s take a stab at some of the stuff that good ones are made of-

Effective boundaries are informed by values, emotion and logic-

Effective boundaries are not the product of a purely logical or emotional impulse;  they are anchored in an approach a person has chosen to follow in living their life.  This approach seeks to honor what they feel and think is right.

I’m pretty sure 99% of the world shares a similar “top 25” list when it comes to values. Differences exist on which values are prioritized and how issues are perceived to either support or violate a value.  The healthcare debate we’ve had in this country for the past 100 years (yes it has been going on that long) is really an issue of competing values.  Both sides of the issue would agree that people should get the healthcare they need.  Both sides place a priority on individual freedom and life but the moral equations they use to answer the question of “should we have it?” end up coming back with different answers.  Those opposed to universal healthcare don’t want people to die and those for it don’t want government cameras installed in our kitchens.  We may believe they do because we’ve developed this nasty tendency to confuse hyperbole with fact; but if we were really fair about it we’d recognize how silly this whole thing has become.

Considering values in boundary setting can help us feel confident that our actions are consistent with what it means to be a good person. They are also protective because they ask us to consider the impact our behaviors have on others and ourselves before acting.  Not being mindful of our values or being unnecessarily rigid in their application leads to similar outcomes- regret and poor relationship stability. The keys to incorporating values in boundary setting are awareness, flexibility and consistency.

Awareness means coming to a working definition of virtue and understanding what that virtue looks like when applied. Flexibility is important because we don’t live in a black and white world. If we are too rigid in our expectations, we neglect the sensibilities that allow relationships to flourish (forgiveness, understanding, negotiation). Consistency is important because it allows other people to know where we stand.  If our values are moving targets then people may continue to push back believing that your position has more to do with how you feel in a given moment versus conviction or principle.

Effective boundaries are not driven by impulse-

If you feel like a demand that is being made of you is pushy or wrong but you’re not clear as to why then take the time to think about it before reacting.  Things are usually not as urgent or as critical as they may feel in a given moment. If 15 years of doing therapy has taught me anything it’s that “just doing something” can lead to worse consequences than letting a situation play itself out. You have a legitimate right not to be pushed or bullied into a decision. If someone takes it to that point, you have greater cause to take a break and do a little more homework before committing to anything.

Effective boundaries take available resources into consideration-

Resources are another important factor to consider when it comes to boundaries.

Wealth, time and emotional capacity are finite resources that play a large part in who we hang with and can also influence whether a relationship is going to work. They are connected to boundaries because what we have and are willing to give influences expectations others may have on what they could expect to get from us.

Being too available or giving leads to burnout and resentment. This becomes more true if the recipient isn’t willing or able to reciprocate.  Remaining constantly detached and not involved means taking a hit on reciprocity and relationship proximity. Don’t expect others to do for you or feel close to you if you’re not willing to make an investment in their lives.

In both cases it’s about being mindful of the excess or deficit your inclination leads you to in setting and evaluating boundaries.

Effective boundaries are flexible and reasonable –

The terrain surrounding your life, as it looks right now should be considered in setting boundaries.   Holding onto expectations that we had of ourselves or others in the past may not make sense for what our life looks like today.  This is usually true when we experience significant changes in our lives (job loss, promotions, new child etc.) or when the folks we care about move to a different stage of development.

When I threw out my back a couple of months ago I had a really difficult time accepting that I couldn’t work or play with my kids the way I did before it happened.  I had everyone change their schedules and routine in order to accommodate that nonsense.  On some level, the desire to maintain routine wasn’t horrible but the fact that I wasn’t willing to give an inch in adjusting to the reality was unfair and created way more distress for everyone. The expectations I had of myself didn’t reap the same benefits as they had in the past, there was more of a cost in trying to meet them.

By the way, I’m much better now. Thanks for caring.

Effective boundaries sweat the small stuff-

Effective boundaries create ripples not waves.  When we are upfront, clear and assertive on the small stuff we avoid situations that trigger us to anger and urgency.   So if someone borrowing your pen without asking annoys you, then assert your need when it happens the first time.  Doing so may prevent you from calling the cops when he decides to take your Porsche out for a spin three months later.

The take away, I hope, is that boundaries aren’t just about how you handle other people. That’s a big part of it for sure, but equally important are factors that relate to yourself and your idea of what life is about. Boundaries are not a spur of the moment reaction to a request or issue; they are an extension of a larger thought out plan that will probably change throughout the course of your life.