For families raising children and teens to thrive, there needs to be a structure within which kids can grow.
Kids need to know…
- the rules,
- the culture,
- and the parameters of their environment.
It is within this structure that they grow and develop.
This way they develop and grow their competencies, have opportunities for creativity and healthy risk taking, and build their confidence and self-esteem.
Some kids will easily understand the structure and the expectations and — on their own — seek to work within them.
Other kids, for reasons of basic temperament, will require a stronger enforcement of and clarification of the expectations and structure.
These are just normal differences between kids… some look for the structure to follow, and others will predictably test the limits of the structure. This doesn’t mean that one type of kid is better than the other, they are just differences that require different parenting approaches.
The Value of Clearly Set & Enforced Limits
In my office, I see a lot of families where the child or teenager has a strong tendency to test limits, with parents who are uncomfortable setting and enforcing clear limits.
Needless to say, this predictably leads to a lot of parent-child struggle, often building into a dangerous Control Battle.
BONUS: Not sure if what’s happening in your family is a healthy power struggle or an unhealthy Control Battle? Just below this post, I am offering you a free download of my self-assessment checklist.
As I’ve written about previously, Control Battles are unproductive repeating patterns of interaction between parents and kids, where parents are continually trying to get their kid under control, and the kid is continually resisting parental control.
So in these situations where parents are uncomfortable setting limits with their kid who needs strong limits, we have the table set for problems.
That’s why it’s important for there to be at least one parent who is comfortable enforcing limits in families where kids strongly test those limits.At least one parent must be comfortable enforcing limits in families, especially where kids test those limits.Click To Tweet
As long as the less comfortable parent supports the stronger limit-setting parent, kids will get the message that the structure is real and they need to work within it.
When both parents are uncomfortable setting and enforcing clear limits, I call it the Double Softy Syndrome.
Here’s What Happens if Neither Parent Is Comfortable Enforcing Limits:
Angel and Perla were a happily married couple.
They got along beautifully because Angel was so warm, loving and supportive with Perla.
Perla felt like she hit the jackpot with Angel since she came from a family where there was little warmth and significant stress.
In the family in which Angel grew up, he was the oldest child and was treated like a prince and Perla felt like she found her prince.
Angel and Perla were great together.
They both had good careers and they agreed together that Perla would take the lead with limiting her work hours and parenting the kids.
When I met Angel and Perla, they had three teenagers:
- their oldest daughter (19) was away at college,
- their second daughter (17) was doing well as a junior in high school,
- and their youngest, Carlos (15), a high school sophomore, was their third child and only boy.
Perla called for an appointment when Carlos had been suspended from school for being in possession of marijuana and I had Perla, Angel and Carlos all come in.
I learned that they had been struggling with Carlos since the seventh grade.
He often missed school assignments… his grades would plummet and he would barely pass classes that he could easily get B’s in — and with a good effort — A’s.
Carlos loved soccer but now with the marijuana violation, was ineligible to play.
Carlos was a personable and well-spoken young man. He reported that he smoked marijuana and drank alcohol, but only occasionally. He happened to have marijuana in his backpack because he knew someone he could get it from, and a friend asked him to buy some for him.
Carlos explained that he was just doing his friend a favor.
Perla and Angel were extremely upset and confused.
Everyone loved Carlos!
He had a great personality and always apologized for his screw-ups.
He didn’t usually ask for school help, but when it was clear he had gotten behind, his sisters were always there to help him catch up, edit his work, and help him study for tests.
As I probed, I learned that while Carlos got along with everyone, he was extremely irresponsible. He didn’t pick up after himself and it was Perla who cleaned his room and organized his things.
His sisters were often upset with Carlos for leaving messes, but they simply cleaned up after him and Carlos would entertain them with his stories and charming personality.
When Carlos was late coming home, his sisters would text him and prompt him to get home and if that didn’t work, they’d text his friends to tell them to get him home.
I learned that this wasn’t the first school behavior problem Carlos had. Going back to middle school, Carlos was often getting in trouble for some minor violation or another…
- skipping classes,
- talking back to teachers,
- and more significantly — on two occasions — drawing graffiti in a bathroom.
All of these incidences were reasonably dealt with, but they continued to pile up.
Angel loved playing sports with Carlos and had coached his little league and youth soccer league teams and continued to enjoy time and activities with his son. He couldn’t understand why Carlos didn’t step up, be more responsible, and quit making stupid decisions.
At this point, both Angel and Perla were very concerned. They loved and enjoyed Carlos, but couldn’t figure out what else to do to get Carlos to change his behavior.
Double Softy Syndrome Leads to Control Battles
It was clear to me that Angel and Perla as well as both sisters were all in a major Control Battle with Carlos.
It’s just that the Control Battle was not loud and angry. It was soft and supportive, but it was a Control Battle all the same, with parents and sisters trying to get Carlos to manage his behavior, and Carlos resisting with avoidance and charm.Not all Control Battles are loud and angry. They can be soft and supportive, too.Click To Tweet
The result was quite simply that Carlos was remaining immature and irresponsible. If things didn’t change, Carlos was at risk for ongoing problems and being unprepared for his upcoming young adult stage of life.
I was able to help Perla and Angel see that everyone in the family was trying to manage Carlos and his responsibilities — everyone except Carlos that is.
The family needed to make a shift, whereby the family members were there to love and support Carlos, but Carlos would be in charge of managing his own behavior and his own responsibilities.
I helped Angel and Perla realize that they were suffering from Double Softy Syndrome, where neither parent is comfortable enforcing limits.Double Softy Syndrome occurs when neither parent is comfortable enforcing limits.Click To Tweet
Neither of their daughters required strong limits and neither Angel nor Perla did when they were growing up either. So they simply didn’t understand that dimension of parenting.
I was able to help Carlos, who loved his family and didn’t like disappointing them, to understand that…
- he’d been relying on his charm and lovability,
- and not his responsibility and capability.
With the whole family involved, we put a plan in place whereby Carlos would have to earn his privileges by managing his responsibilities.
I showed Angel and Perla that they didn’t need to be angry or mean to enforce limits.
They could stay positive and loving with Carlos, but it needed to be up to Carlos to earn his privileges. He needed to step up and make regular contributions to the household as well as be on top of his school and personal responsibilities.
- His Mom showed him how to arrange and clean his room, and Carlos was charged with doing it on his own.
- His sister helped him organize and track his school assignments, but it was up to Carlos to stay on top of and actually do his work.
- Angel and Perla established daily study time for Carlos and there was to be no going out or other activity other than organizing schoolwork, homework and studying during this time.
Things immediately got on the right track as everyone — including Carlos — wanted to see a more mature and responsible Carlos.
There were setbacks along the way, but each setback was a learning opportunity and things continually got better.
Eventually, Carlos became the “A” student he was capable of being and he starting thinking about colleges to apply to.
So if you’re giving your wonderful teenager lots of love and support, and they still aren’t learning to be responsible, you just might ask yourself…
“Are we suffering from Double Softy Syndrome?”
Leave your thoughts in the comments below.