Here’s the full-length film of Tony’s work with Hannah. Then scroll down for 3 strategies for you to use at home with your child
Despite the great variety of family and parenting styles in the world, there is one basic assumption we Strategic Interventionists find to be helpful in most any situation. The assumption is: in any family unit, the child is trying to be helpful, even if it takes an unhelpful form. Hannah was a loving, reasonable, intelligent thirteen year old girl who suffered from despondency and suicide attempts. Why? Well, turns out that her negative behavior was a benevolent but misguided attempt to keep her parents together. By keeping the parents distracted, in a state of emergency, they were “forced” to cooperate and cohabitate. And so Hannah’s emotional troubles served, in a weird way that was only perceived by her, to “rescue” the family. Now, the truth is that these unhelpful behaviors weren’t actually helping her parents. Hannah’s crisis didn’t make the parents happy, it kept them distracted. When Tony understood her underlying intention, when he understood her helpful reasons for her unhelpful behaviors, he understood how she could change her behavior permanently within that one conversation.
Here are three take-aways for you from this session:
1. UNDERSTAND THE INTENTION
Children are often trying to help, even if it takes an unhelpful form. When a child has a challenge or behavior that is hard to understand, consider the possibility that the problem behavior is the child’s way of trying to distract you from something else. A child has very little power in the family – except to demand and direct your attention. For instance, a small child’s tantrums may be benevolent attempts to distract the parents from other problems in the family – for instance a disagreement between the parents. A teenager’s sulkiness may mask concern about the family, the parents, or a sibling. The child’s behavior may actually be unhelpful, because children don’t understand the adult world, but the behavior succeeds in distracting people from a more threatening relationship problem.
Your take-away: If a child is continuously displaying a behavior that disrupts the family pattern, ask yourself: how could he/she be trying to help the family? How is this problem distracting our focus from another source of tension or stress?
2. REASSURE THE CHILD
If you want to replace an unhelpful behavior, show your child in a reassuring way that the behavior is not necessary. If a child’s problem has been distracting from, for examples, the parents’ arguments, then reassure the child that the parents will be able to manage their relationship in a good way. For instance, the parents can reassure the child that they love each other, or they can unite in positive family activities. When the parents reassure the child that they can get along, they show the child that they don’t need to be “rescued” by a problem or crisis. How can you reassure your child that you’re doing well? Parents can do something concrete to improve their relationship – like setting up a date night once or twice a week. When the child sees the parents are able to handle any tensions or issues with each other, the child won’t feel needed as a “rescuer” and will be more able to let go of the distracting behavior.
Your take-away: When your child has a disruptive problem, ask yourself, “how could I reassure my child in a loving way that I can handle this?” Remember – the child is doing this from love and care. You need to respond with love, reassurance, and care as well.
3. GUIDE THE NEW BEHAVIOR
Guide the child find other more positive ways of helping you. If he or she has been getting your attention with their tantrums, give them something else they can do that will automatically get your attention. For instance, create a ritual where every evening he or she can invite you to play a board game, and you must accept the invitation. Take up a hobby together that you do for 15 minutes a day. Sometimes a child will take great pride in organizing a special dinner for the parents at home, with special table settings and candlelight. Empower your child to get your attention in good ways, and to help you in ways that are positive and not destructive, and the old behaviors will be replaced.
Your take away: If your child is getting your attention through tantrums and problem behaviors, give your child MANY ways to get your full attention without requiring the problem. You can even give you child a “code word.” Tell your child “Whenever you use this magic word, you will always get my full attention, and I will help you.” This will reassure your child and teach them to find better ways to get your input.
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