The Healthy Family Connections Podcast
Episode 144 · Duration: 00:15:50
Your Control Battle Is In Your DNA
What do you do, when your 12-year-old son has an undiagnosed neurological disorder so that he’s always angry, hostile, and has everyone walking on eggshells?
This week, we answer a question from Ben, who is writing from outside of Chicago. Ben writes:
We have a 12 year old son who is more than a handful, he is downright non-compliant. He is angry with us virtually all the time. He calls us names, accuses us of hating him and favoring his sister. He screams and rages when we try to get him to do anything. He has been diagnosed with ADHD but his mother and I believe that there must be something more going on neurologically. We adopted him at birth and he’s been difficult since. We’ve tried every parenting technique that’s been suggested, but nothing works with him. We’ve offered the things he wants as rewards and we’ve tried just giving him things he wants but removing them when he acts up as consequences. I find myself yelling and threatening just like my father and I don’t like being like that. A learning specialist suggested that he likely has sensory integration issues. We have him in a K-6 school that’s flexible and works with him, but we’re concerned about educational options for next year. Medication was not helpful and he refuses to go to counseling. Right now being at home 24/7 is hard on him because he’s unable to go to school where he is calmer and happier and our home is filled with stress and everyone’s walking on eggshells and either he’s blowing up or I am. His sister holds up in her room and his Mom and I are suffering from parental burnout. At this point, what can we do?
Thanks for your question Ben.. You’re describing a long-term problem that’s only getting worse. At the root of the problem is what you believe is an undiagnosed neurological problem. Somehow the diagnosis of ADHD was made but that isn’t being treated medically. Wisely, you have him in an educational environment that works for him and that’s terrific, good job. But now being at home and always having a stressful relationship with him has everyone living with the ravaging impact of a powerful long-term Control Battle.
Putting An End To The Control Battle
Ben, it will be terrific to have him evaluated by an experienced pediatric neurologist or pediatric psychiatrist, and perhaps a pediatric neuropsychologist as well, but one thing they won’t be able to do for you is end the Control Battle at home. They can offer insight into what’s going on with him neurologically and the neurologist or psychiatrist can offer mediation that can help with his mood and that might be able to give some support for changing the home dynamic, but Ben, you and his Mom have some work to do here.
Yes, you undoubtedly have a differently wired child here, but you are back on your heels and not providing the leadership and support your son, and in fact your whole family needs, including you. Everyone in the family is suffering and that needs to change.
Let’s look at what’s going on between you and your son from a basic human biological perspective. Human beings have evolved a very sophisticated way of reading the social environment. From our earliest origins as a species, we built the ability to read faces, voice tones, and body movements. Why? In order to decide if a person was safe or a threat. You can see how this was an important development for our survival. Naively going up to someone who wants to kill you would not be good for our ancient ancestors, hence we evolved this ability. So in our DNA is this skill for reading and interpreting safe or unsafe people and situations with people. This information goes right to our nervous system and after making a determination, (completely automatically, not consciously), we either react with fight, flight, or freeze, or we open up and allow connection.Human beings have evolved a very sophisticated way of reading the social environment. From our earliest origins as a species, we built the ability to read faces, voice tones, and body movements. Why? In order to decide if a person was safe or a threat.Click To Tweet
At this point, you and your son are in a reciprocal pattern of activating your defensive nervous systems. These systems are chronically activated by each other. In other words, you are both reacting to each other and activating each other. That’s the biological underpinning of Control Battles. If there is any hope of changing this pattern you are going to need to stop activating your son’s defensive reactions.
In order to do that, you’re going to have to get yourself out of burnout and find a way to bring a calm self to your interactions with him. Yes, your son may very well have a neurological difference that needs professional assessment and medication, but you need to be his ally in getting this care.
Becoming An Empowered Parent
In your question, you mentioned that when you yell, you’re acting like your father did. Ben, you very likely have some PTSD from your own childhood and your father’s expressions of anger. You may have a high level of reactivity to your son’s anger left over from your childhood without you knowing it.
Here is the plan, Ben. You and your wife are going to create the calmest, warmest, most positive household in America. If we were to make your family a reality TV show, it would go on the Hallmark Channel. Now, how are we going to be able to do that with our son swearing at us and calling us names you ask?
It certainly won't be easy, but here is how you can do it. First off, do some things to reduce your stress and get your healthy best self, ready to engage. I don’t know what kind of work you do but let’s say you have a customer who’s abusive towards you. You wouldn’t hit him and you wouldn’t yell at him. You’d simply let him know that you hear his concerns and will do your best to address them. You’d try to help this individual feel heard and supported so they’d calm down. They might be looking for a fight, but if you keep showing up as a calm, caring person, the other guy isn’t being activated and they will be inclined to calm down. You’re going to use the same technique with your son.
Bring your positive professional self and realize ahead of time that he’s likely to activate old trauma from your childhood. Use your self-calming skills and your emotional management skills to stay positive with your son.
Just like in the example I gave with the hostile customer, you start by helping your son feel heard, and empathizing with his feelings.
For instance, he says, “You only give me things because you enjoy controlling me by threatening to take things away.”
Rather than getting into a fight you can respond with something like, (using your best Mr. Rogers voice), “Wow, that’s a terrible way to feel; that your Dad only gives you things so he can take them away and control you. That’s just terrible.” And leave it there.
Now suppose he says, probably looking to engage the familiar fight, “If you care so much, why do you do it?”
You might respond with, “First of all son, I want you to know that I love you and the last thing I want to do is hurt you in any way. And if you really want to know the reason I give you things and then take them away, I’ll tell you but I don’t want to fight. Fighting is hurtful and I don’t want to hurt you.”
My guess is that at this point, he’d tell you to f**k off or shut up and walk away.
If he ever wanted to actually hear the reason, you’d tell him that you give him things he wants because you love him and want him to enjoy the things he likes. You don’t expect him to be perfect in his behavior, but when he calls names or refuses to cooperate or try to be his best self, then you have to take things away, otherwise, you’d be a bad parent. You would be giving him a wrong message that it’s okay to do those negative behaviors and be rewarded for it. If he was still listening, you could add that the rewards are actually privileges that he earns by having a good attitude and doing his best.You don’t expect your teen to be perfect, but when he refuses to cooperate, then you have to take things away, otherwise, you’d be a bad parent. You would be giving him a wrong message that it’s okay to do those negative behaviors and be rewarded for it.Click To Tweet
Ben, stay with this tone. You and his Mom can stay positive, play soothing music in the house and maybe sang along with it. You could say a warm loving prayer before dinner expressing gratitude for the wonderful things you have in life, and particularly each other. Try some other things you can do to create the experience of emotional safety. Stay empathetic to your son’s mood disorder. Things will improve dramatically. Eventually, he’ll be able to see that his discomfort is coming from within and it isn’t because his parents don’t like him. Then when he sees the right specialists, you’ll be supporting him in getting the help he needs, not hoping that someone will find the magic pill to get him to behave.
Parents, therapists, and others who work with parents and kids, let’s remember that we’re all mammals looking for safety. When children or teens are emotionally unregulated, we have to work double-time to bring emotional safety to the environment. That may be hard if parents have had childhood trauma yet it can also be a time for those who were traumatized as kids to be conscious of it, manage it, and no longer let it manage them.We’re all mammals looking for safety. When children or teens are emotionally unregulated, we have to work double-time to bring emotional safety to the environment.Click To Tweet
Thanks for tuning in today everyone, and special thanks to Ben for sharing his situation with us.
I want you all to know that I’m thinking about you and caring about the struggles you as families of every variety are going through. There are still more unknowns than things we know, so patience and persistence are required. I’ve got plenty of persistence in me but I’m having to muster more patience than I’m used to. How about you how are you managing? Drop me a line and let me know.
During this very challenging time for our respective countries, and in our communities and families, many folks will experience feelings and situations that are overwhelming and I want to encourage you all to reach out to your mental health community. Many individual therapists and community mental health centers are providing services by phone and video platforms. If you’d like a consultation with me, give me a call or email and we can set up a meeting in a Zoom meeting room.
If you're looking for a resource to help keep you productive at home while also helping you become a better parent, I've prepared a free gift just for you. It’s called Parenting Through Your Child's Second 12 Years. I know you’re thinking, "What the heck, 12 more years of parenting?" Adolescence neurologically, socially and emotionally, and often financially goes to around age 24. Yes, parenting your 20-year-olds is different than the teens. Download my gift and read and learn about the different stages of adolescence and critical strategies parents can use to avoid control battles and best support their adolescents’ quest for happy successful independence.
If you are a therapist who works in a behavioral health treatment program and would like to talk with me about improving outcomes in your program, come on over to my website neildbrown.com and shoot me an email or give me a call. I’ll be happy to talk with you.
Please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.
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