Health Family Connections Podcast

This Common Problem Hurts The Whole Family

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 255 · Duration: 00:25:36

Now here is something to think about. When you and your partner approach standards and consequences very differently, it could be fine, or you could be making a very big mistake. Neil explains how polarized positions are triangulating and confusing for teens and how to end this destructive dynamic. We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, This Common Problem Hurts The Whole Family.

Please remember this podcast is for educational purposes only; it is not a substitute for psychotherapy when you need it.

Healthy Family Connections, the number one rated family therapy podcast, is sponsored by Neil D Brown, LCSW, and I’m your host, Neil D Brown and I’m here to help you get that enjoyable family you work for every day.

Today I’m with my podcast co-host Robin Holland. And we're hearing from Don from Salt Lake City.

Dear Neil,

I hope you can settle a dispute between me and my wife about expectations and consequences for our 14-year-old daughter. Our daughter avoids her homework until the last minute and then rushes through it. She’s very smart so still gets A’s and B’s. She would be on her phone all the time if we let her. She is very social and communicates with her friends and wants to be with friends every chance she gets. She is much harder to parent than her older brother who is far more responsible and independent. At this point we have a fair-sized control battle going on. Getting her to do her work, clean her room, get off her phone, get ready to go to school, and be there on time are all challenges. She’s rude to us if we ask her to do anything. On the face of it, things are pretty good with A’s and B’s, friends, no drugs and she is on the school swim team. The problem is her attitude towards us, not really applying herself, and not really having any specific passions, only being with friends.

Personally, I’m not that worried about her. She’s a good kid. She simply isn’t terribly serious about school and is social and surly towards her parents. Seems normal to me and I wasn’t much better at her age. My wife thinks she should be applying herself and getting all A’s and wants me to support her in losing her phone and being grounded for talking back and not cooperating. I can’t support something I don’t believe in. I’ve agreed with my wife to go along with your decision about the best way to handle this. I’m right and she’s wrong, right? Just kidding but we do need to know what’s best here.

Now to Don’s question ….

I wish I could tell you one of you is right and the other is wrong, but it’s slightly more complicated than that. Let’s start with you’re both right. You’re right to see her as normal and doing what is common among her peers. Your wife is right to think that she should apply herself and have a better attitude.
Unfortunately, the fact that the two of you have polarized has TRIANGULATED your daughter, and that’s bad for all three of you.

Triangulation includes several forms of control battles:

  • You and your wife are in a CB, and each of you is in a CB with your daughter.
  • Triangulation can take several forms, and it seems like yours is the most common form with you and your daughter in a subtle coalition with your wife on the outside, or the “bad guy” in this dynamic. I’m sure Mom’s very frustrated in that role and likely the expression of her frustration supports the perception of her as a negative person and a bad guy.

Notice I say perception because she loves her daughter and she loves you and would like to be respected and appreciated in her role.

Let’s talk for a minute about high standards. High standards are important for kids and for all of us, but especially for kids because their brains are developing.

Carol Dweck, an educational researcher at Stanford University, wrote the book Mindset based on her research. You may be very familiar with it because it was a very popular book and concept when it came out about 8 years ago. Very briefly, her research demonstrates that those kids who believe they can do well and get better at something by applying themselves, are motivated and apply themselves. She refers to this population as having a growth mindset. Those kids who view challenges as barriers to success, who become intimidated when they don’t know the answer or don’t immediately have a skill, are less motivated or unmotivated to apply themselves. She calls this having a fixed mindset.

The bottom line here is that it’s important for our kids to embrace learning and growing their abilities in order to build their capacity for success and related to that, self-esteem and happiness.

If however, in trying to get your daughter to embrace challenges and do her best, you bring a tone of demands and punishment, that will be clearly demotivating and will defeat the purpose and undermine developing a growth mindset.

Don, we need a combination of your faith in and acceptance of your daughter for who she is, and your wife’s high standards, not all As because that’s an artificial standard. Instead, we want her best effort and embracing her assignments and her classwork. With a gifted kid, that may well be all As but that’s not the point.

Don even if you are less inclined to require high standards and accountability than your wife, it will be critical that you support your wife. If she takes your daughter’s phone, it is destructive for you not to support that. Instead of believing that your wife is being mean or too strict, you need to change your narrative to she loves our daughter and knows she is capable of better than she is doing. Then you need to have faith in your daughter that she can and will deal with her mother on her mother’s terms and be the better for it.

The message to Don’s wife has to be that creating appropriately high standards for your daughter is important. And you and Don have to bring those to her in a positive and affirming way.

Now that I’ve weighed in here, it probably isn’t going to solve anything because you are in a control battle and control battles are self-perpetuating. So you want to do two things simultaneously, raise standards and end the control battles. Chapter 6 in my book, Ending The Parent-Teen Control Battle gives you an outline for how to do that, but we’re creating a shift in dynamics here, and in order to do that we’re changing the narrative.

  • The narrative has to be VERY positive about and towards your daughter.
  • You and your wife take responsibility for being unclear and inconsistent about the standards and the accountability to those standards.
  • Introduce earned privileges as an alternative to consequences.

It could go something like this...

Dad to Claire: We’ve been struggling as a family and that hasn’t been good for you or for any of us.

Mom to Claire: I’ve been frustrated with your attitude and your effort, but my way of dealing with it has been very negative, and that’s not okay. I know how bright and talented you are. And beyond that you’re you, and I love you unconditionally. I’m upset with the way I’ve expressed my frustration. And I apologize for that.

Dad to Mom: And I apologize to you Dear. I’ve undermined your message to Claire, and that’s been hurtful to you and confusing to her. Dad to Claire, I apologize to you for the confusion and for making your mother seem like the “bad guy”. Mom loves and believes in you and wants you to apply yourself.

Claire: Mom wants me to be like my brother, but I can’t be and I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be a straight “A” nerd.

Mom to Claire: I can see how you would feel that way, but of course you’re you. You have your interests, abilities, and talent, and your brother has his. I want you to feel loved and supported for who you are, not for how well you do. When I’ve said you need all As, it’s because I know that if you apply yourself, that’s what you’ll get, but actually, it’s not about grades; it’s about applying yourself and learning. It’s about doing your best and learning.

Dad to Claire: Claire it’s important to know that doing your work, doing it well, and having a good attitude are commitments we need to see you make. Being on your devices comes after that and only when you are committed to that. These are privileges you earn. It’s like with eating, first we eat the nutritious, important food that we need for energy and health, and then we can have dessert that is just for pleasure. Cell phone use is dessert.

We covered a lot of ground in answering your question Don, so let’s do a brief recap.

  • Triangulation is unhealthy for kids and the whole family. It’s okay to have different skills as parents, but we don’t want to polarize or undermine each other.
  • Having appropriately high standards is important for learning and developing a Growth Mindset. Having high standards for kids must be presented positively. Anger, control, and fighting will be counterproductive.
  • It’s easy for gifted youth to skate by without investing and challenging themselves. It’s important to recognize that, and find ways for them to experience challenges.

Hope this answers the question of which one of you is right. We can't be one right and the other wrong because we are one family and we’re either a healthy one or an unhealthy one.

Thanks for tuning in today and special thanks to you Don for giving me so much influence in your next steps. Parents, you won’t be effective at the many challenges in your lives in a state of burnout. So take time for yourselves. Every problem doesn’t need to be fixed today, and you don’t have to be the solution to every problem. So take care of yourselves. You need it, you deserve it and YOU’RE WORTH IT. Bye for now.


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