Lucy and her mom, Jill, fight constantly. Lucy "couldn't care less what my mom thinks." Jill "loves her daughter, but just isn't going to try anymore." Lucy mostly does what she wants and any consequences that Jill tries to give her just don't seem to make a difference. In fact, Lucy says that she doesn't care what her mom does, she will find a way around it. Jill doesn't want to be thought of as a bad mom, so she doesn't say it, but she does not want to be around her daughter and has started to give up, feeling that the only solution is for her daughter to graduate and move out. Even as Jill thinks this, she can't imagine what awaits Lucy if she leaves home acting and thinking the way that she does. Jill just does not know what to do. Mom has tried tough love, soft love, behavior charts, rewards, bribes (those sometimes seem to work), grounding, taking away electronics, and even thought of boarding school. Nothing has worked to change her daughter's behavior, and things keep getting worse. Jill says that Lucy is selfish and self-centered, has no respect for anyone, most of all, herself, Lucy just uses her parents, and won't help out around the house. Jill is through doing anything for Lucy until Lucy learns that she affects others and needs to give back. The home is an emotional boxing ring with mom and daughter retreated to their corners until the next bell.
As a therapist, it can be hard to convince families that situations like this, situations that have been going on for a while, can get better. Parents feel that they have tried everything and they would give up (and some do give up), but they love their child and they fear for her future, so they've tried one last thing by coming to therapy. Some parents hope that a therapist can "fix" their kid. Some hope that the therapist will have some magic behavioral technique that will immediately get their child to behave. Unfortunately, I can't do either of those things. I tell my clients that they do not give us magic wands with our degrees, as much as I wish they did. Can this situation be turned around, then? It can. Here's how.
As I get to know Lucy and Jill more, I start to see some of the cracks in the armor they have built around themselves. I start to see that Lucy longs deeply to be accepted, to feel good about herself, and to feel competent. I also see that she feels none of these things and she seems to blame her mom. Lucy wants a better relationship, so her behavior can change. I start to see that Jill feels love for her daughter, yet has become so overwhelmed by her daughter's behavior that the focus of her feelings about Lucy are frustration, anger, disappointment, and worry. She wants Lucy's behavior to change, so they can have a good relationship. It is here that I can start to help mom discover that she is, after all, wearing the ruby slippers. The answer lies in the relationship, not the behavior, and it is the relationship that is within mom's control.
Let's think, for a moment, about relationships in general. The very best relationships, the ones that feel the best, that bring out the best in us, the one's we want to do the best for, are the relationships where we get our deepest needs met, the ones where we feel deeply seen, heard, accepted, and respected. These needs are most fundamentally met or unmet in the relationship we experience with our parents. Jill and I can explore her relationship with her mother, as well as other adults in her life who may have made her feel understood and accepted, or not. How did she behave around these adults? Who brought out the best in her? Who brought out the worst? What did these adults do that made the difference? As we explore these relationships, Jill can begin to see things, FEEL things, more from Lucy's perspective. Jill starts to realize that her constant focus on Lucy's behavior has caused her to lose sight of Lucy as a person and Lucy's needs. Jill recognizes that Lucy probably feels that her mother doesn't like her very much. As Jill thinks about what Lucy must be feeling, Jill realizes that Lucy is in pain and that Jill, as Lucy's mother, is most in a position to help. Jill decides to try some new things:
Jill is still hesitant. Jill acknowledges that it is hard for her to try again, especially to try to connect with Lucy through vulnerability, especially when she knows that Lucy will likely lash out at her. For a few weeks, Jill's fears were realized as Lucy continued to test her mother and worked through her own mistrust of her mother. Eventually, Lucy began to feel better around her mother. Lucy started to soften her tone and even agreed to spend some time with Jill going for walks. Lucy did not stop all of her destructive behaviors outside the home, but Lucy allowed Jill to give her guidance and help her problem-solve when situations and relationships got difficult. Lucy helped out more, and even began to acknowledge her mother's perspective. Whenever things got difficult again for Jill, she often realized that she had lost focus on the relationship and had returned to trying to control Lucy. A return to a focus on connection quickly turned things around again.
As parents, we often feel so responsible for managing our children's behavior that we lose sight of the very thing that gives us the best chance of doing that: connection. When we feel connected to someone, we give them our best. We feel connected when we feel understood and accepted. As parents, when we give our children our best connection, we will often get their best behavior.
Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C
As a therapist, mother, daughter, partner, and seeker, I am always on the journey toward a more peaceful, authentic life. I hope to share knowledge, insights, and the ongoing unknowns I find along the path...