Psychologists tend to develop an ability to foresee issues that may arise long before they have manifested. This comes not from being able to ‘see into the future’ per say, but rather from noticing predictable patterns from the hundreds to thousands of people we have worked with before. A common pattern that I am sure we can all relate to is our natural tendency to avoid discomfort, even when it impacts us negatively in the long-run. What psychologists refer to as experiential avoidance reflects a natural default tendency to shy away from emotional and physical discomfort, pain and uncertainty. Regardless of our resistance to having a difficult conversation, setting a boundary when the other person’s response will be uncertain, or making a necessary change, there is almost always discomfort. When it comes to parenting, our patterns of experiential avoidance tend to compound until we wake up wondering how on earth we have found ourselves in such vicious and unhealthy cycles.
I like to story tell with relatable case studies* through sharing insights of the predictable patterns that psychologists are lucky enough to observe behind closed doors and read within the lines of academic research papers. This is to share not only our innate humanness, but also to give all parents access to knowledge and information, so they are empowered to make more conscious personal decisions. We will start with bold examples and then explore others that are more subtle. A mother of a 20-year-old young man comes in to see me and is in a state of despair. Her son, she tells me, is out of control. He physically and verbally abusive of her and her husband, and if she doesn’t comply to his demands, he exerts his size and power over them. He spends almost all of his time at home online gaming, is not well socially connected, and does not have many hopes or dreams. She is fearful of not only their safety and wellbeing, but also for his future.
The parents of a 12-year-old girl attend their first session. It’s too late they feel, she is already “out of control”. Everything is a fight, a negotiation, an argument. She is addicted to Youtube, they tell me, and all hell breaks loose when they try to get her off or set boundaries around it. When they set boundaries, they fear her big reactions as family tensions escalate. It does not seem ‘worth it’, so they continue to dismiss, avoid and enable her. Later that day, I meet with the parents of a 6-year-old boy, who is described as aggressive, emotionally labile, and explosive. He too shows aggressive behaviour when the iPad is removed. Some days, his parents admit, they just let him have it and ignore his agreed time-limit because it’s just not worth “the fight”. Setting technology limits is now an unavoidable part of parenting. It’s one that so many parents struggle with on a daily basis. The amount of stress and disconnection these little devices – that we buy for them – is quite unbelievable.
Everyone is on their own journey in life and in parenting, but I do often wonder what the parents of the 20-year-old young man would say with hindsight to the parents who are struggling to manage similar behaviour in their six-year-old. Although in childhood, it is developmentally expected that children are still learning to manage their intense emotional experiences, it doesn’t mean that we need to surrender to the child’s behaviour even when it’s hard. Setting boundaries is an essential aspect of providing attachment and emotional security for children (and adolescents for that matter). As they cannot yet effectively contain their own environment and emotional landscape, they rely on their parents for containment by attuning to their emotions and setting predictable and age expected boundaries. So, we know that we should change our behaviour as parents, but why is it so hard to actually do?
Well, adults are human too which makes us also subject to the same behavioural positive and negative reinforcements as children are (think, token chart). When we do change our behaviour – say in this example, by setting a clear boundary and following through – we are exposed to (or punished by) the adverse reactions of our children and the internal discomfort (anxiety, fear, hopelessness). On the other hand, if we turn a blind eye because we just don’t have the energy to deal with it on a particular day, we are reinforced and rewarded because we effectively avoid dealing with challenging behaviour, we escape the possibility of family conflict, and we don’t expose our internal emotional state to the anxiety, fear, hopelessness and depletion that comes when trying to manage challenging behaviours. As we have negative personal consequences for setting a boundary with our children and are internally rewarded for turning a blind eye, it is completely understandable as to how we fall into such patterns. I mean, who wouldn’t want to avoid conflict, discomfort and sustain family peace?
The main problem that has been highlighted is that while we are subject to these consequences and reinforcements in the short-term, they are only effective in escaping discomfort in the short-term. The relief is temporary at the expense of maintaining and worsening these patterns in the long-term, until our six-year-old turns twenty and we are wondering how on earth things got to this point. When children and adolescents demonstrate challenging behaviour, there has almost always been a slow escalation that has led to the current point. While psychologists are skilled in supporting families with such issues at any age or stage of life – so it’s never too late to seek help – it is always better to learn skills to manage such difficulties in the present. From a scientific perspective, early intervention is always better. However, as parents, it’s helpful to reflect on what the costs are for not addressing it for another 6 months, 2 years, 5 years, or even 10 years. The lost moments of connection, the lost opportunities for learning prosocial skills, the lost moments of family connectedness and joy, the lost years to isolation and so on.
If you have a personal situation or challenge that you are currently having with your children in mind while reading this, I encourage you to self-reflect on these prompts: what is the situation that I need to address? What uncomfortable feelings, sensations and experiences do I need to make space for? What stories am I getting caught up in that are holding me back? Why is this change deeply important to me (my values)? What is an example of my new behaviour that will support this change?
I encourage you to lean into the discomfort of change. You do not have to do it alone; there is plenty of support that can help you to address whatever it is that you’re struggling with right now despite the voices that might tell you ‘but it won’t work for me’ or ‘I’ve done it before’. There is always a way through such difficulties, particularly while building your own internal resources and emotional-regulation stamina at the same time. What is hard now is likely exactly what we need to look at to make positive long-term changes that are meaningful and sustainable for us. And not from a place of relentless self-discipline and criticism to constantly improve, but from a place of self-care, self-respect and self-compassion because you are worthy of a healthier internal and external environment.
*All case studies have been written for educational purposes. They do not reflect real life clients.
Dr Renee Cachia is an Australian–based psychologist in private practice specialising in childhood, adolescent and parenting development. Her first book is Parenting Freedom: Transform Stress and Depletion to Connectedness and Meaning. To connect on socials, follow @reneecachiaphd.