• Parenting

  • I can’t think of any relationship that is more difficult or complicated than being a parent; I really don’t think it’s even close.  Making matters even more complicated, it’s very hard to find good information or support that doesn’t come with some level of judgment.  And like people’s photos on social media, most parents are hesitant to share anything but their children’s successes, hiding the struggles and frustrations that are baked into this role.  The most common problem that leads parents to seek help for their children is misbehavior: acting out, arguing, breaking rules, or getting into trouble at school. Other times, parents seek help with their children’s mood or problems with anxiety, which often first show up as stomach problems or headaches.  

    Every situation is different and requires an informed and tailored plan, a plan made in partnership with the parents, but that also is able to engage the children.  This means that helping with parenting should be a positive experience for everyone, and as simple, fun and efficient as possible. When I work with parents, the main things I help them to bring to their parenting is a better understanding of child development and children’s developmental needs.  While that may sound like a lot, it can be made very simple and intuitive. The key is to learn to sit back and wonder, “what is leading to this misbehavior?” For example, the first trick to making parenting simpler is to understand and rely on development. Most parenting problems are caused by doing too much, not too little.  “Don’t just do something, sit there!”  This is one of my favorite reminders that most problem behaviors are developmental and will correct themselves without any parenting response.  If I write a book on parenting, I already know the title will be “Just try not to make them worse” (half kidding of course).  

    Of course, there are also many behaviors that require discipline too.  Here is the quick breakdown on discipline. First, “discipline” is not a bad word.  It comes from the word “disciple,” which means “devout learner.” This is what your child is to you, a devout learner, which is important to remember, especially when they don’t seem to be acting that way.  To be the ultimate teacher of your child, it is key to understand their basic needs and how they drive behavior.  

    Luckily they only need two categories of things from parents:  structure and support. Structure is the set of rules, habits and values that you expect your child to work on as they develop.  And support is your role in helping them to live up to those expectations. Structure and support work together, they are not opposed to one another, and children need both to develop correctly.  And so there is never a need to withdraw support in response to misbehavior, just as there is never a need to do away with important expectations simply because you want to be nice. Of course, development makes things a lot more complicated.  First, every child needs a different combination of structure and support. Some kids, for example, need very few rules or corrections – they are already over-regulated and hard on themselves and so too many rules tend to backfire. Other children have the opposite temperament, they are under-regulated and need a lot more consistency, clarity and frequent communication about what is expected.  

    The other thing that makes things hard for parents is that children’s needs for structure and support change over time.  Generally, they need a lot more of both early on, and less as they grow up. Obviously a baby requires near constant support – they need to be held, changed, fed and interacted with.  Structure for a baby comes in the form of very gradually establishing routines for sleeping, feeding, and self-soothing. A 17 year-old obviously shouldn’t need the levels of support of an infant.  But every parent knows that children of all ages, even when they are grown, can shift forward and backward in the needs they demand of their parents. One day, a 16 year-old may need much more structure and support, for example if they break some important rule.  A few weeks later, the same teen may show much greater independence, genuinely needing parents to back off on both structure and support. If this shuffling around wasn’t hard enough, teens tend to be shut down too, especially toward parents, and so it’s especially hard to get information about what they need from one day to the next.  

    Like any master-disciple relationship, the ultimate goal is to make yourself more and more obsolete, to move your young disciple toward independence.  Most of the greatest difficulties in this process come from the uneven, back and forth periods of development. The good news is that no parent has to be perfect.  In fact, if you try to be perfect, you’ll end up being lousy, because, not only is perfection impossible, it’s also really not about you right? It’s about trying to give your child what they need on this day or that.  So go ahead and screw up, make mistakes, and aim to be just good enough. And when all else fails, just try not to make them worse.           

    Couples/Marriage Therapy

    With approximately half of marriages ending in divorce, and perhaps as many as half of those who staying together being less than fully satisfied, one could easily say that it is completely normal for marriages to need some professional help from time to time.  Unfortunately, most couples who need help delay getting help for five to ten years. One of the ways I like to picture a marriage is like a shirt that you wear, but that your partner wears too. Sharing a shirt is tricky, just like sharing a life. It requires a lot of good communication, coordination, and conflict resolution.  Ideally, a marriage should be comfortable for both people, and should be flexible enough to remain that way for a lifetime. As such, it’s as great a challenge as it is an opportunity.  

    There are two main approaches to marital therapy:  (1) communication and skills oriented approaches (the most popular currently is the Gottman approach); and (2) emotion and relational approaches (the most popular today is Sue Johnson’s approach).  Thirty years ago these two approaches were much more distinctive, while today they share a lot of overlap. I don’t really view them as distinct. The ultimate goal is the same: improve a couple’s capacity for intimacy and for conflict resolution.  Both of these goals are met through a combination of helping couples communicate more effectively (approach 1) and simultaneously helping couples to open up to one another and feel safe enough to share their more vulnerable feelings, such as fear, and needs, such as understanding.  

    I try to make the work of couple’s therapy as enjoyable and positive as it is meaningful, because it is always involves significant amounts of personal challenge and stress.  It’s as difficult as it is rewarding. The logistics of getting two people to adjust their schedules to come in can be challenging too. For these reasons, I always do longer sessions with couples (75 minutes instead of 45), but less frequently (every other week instead of weekly).  Once we know what we are working on, most of the couples I see are able to carry out most of the work on their own, between sessions. This allows couple’s work to be brief (8 to 12 sessions usually), and for the adjustments the couple makes to be long-lasting.