We’ve always liked Andy Dwyer at our house and we hear the guy who plays him does some pretty nice things but I’m sharing this clip of Chris Pratt on The Ellen Show (heads up courtesy of Jezebel) because it illustrates some great parenting.
First, this guy knows about child development as evidenced by his understanding that the “terrible” twos are developmentally appropriate since many toddlers are frustrated by their inability to share the complex wants and wishes that drive their behavior. (This is why they freak out about details — the wrong shirt, the wrong spoon for the cereal, the wrong way to open a door and enter a room — they have a very specific idea about what they want and they can’t communicate it to you.) Knowing about child behavior can really help us be better parents because it explains so much; that helps us be more understanding and perhaps less frustrated. And having a grasp of our child’s development holds the keys to an effective response since knowing what drives the behavior helps point us in the direction to address it.
That bit about letting his son stay up later? See, that’s a parenting choice that I think is super personal and isn’t right or wrong. It’s not a problem if it’s not a problem and if it becomes a problem, well, that’s the time to change. I think people get hung up on details like this (how to do bedtime) but what we’re seeing at play here is the ongoing creation of a responsive relationship. You might do it differently. You might enforce bedtime anyway and that’s fine, too.
The second great thing he does is prepare his son for a potentially hectic situation. He does this gently in a way that suits his pretty articulate kid and he’s open to his son’s response. That shows terrific attunement, focusing on the situation and his son’s needs and then communicating in a way that allows his child room to create his own response. The holidays are rough for all of us and acknowledging that can be a huge, huge help in keeping everyone sane.
Ok watch the clip and then I’ve got a little more below.
Ok, so that thing where he warns his son and his son responds with a heartwarming platitude and Chris tears up just talking about it? That’s swell. But the thing that struck me is often we parents start with the platitude. We start with the expectation that this holiday is going to be fun, dangit! And wholesome! And everyone is going to have a really good time!!! And our children are saying (in words and deeds), Well, I’m overwhelmed. I find Santa terrifying. This mall is too crowded. This holiday food is too complicated. I want my routine. And we get super frustrated because we’re already stressed and then our grand plans are falling apart and our kids are melting down and Aunt Lucy is making that disapproving face she makes and ARGH!!!!!
So it’s a good reminder that before all this happens, we always have the opportunity to remember last time. We can remember how the last holiday went or how the last trip to the mall, the zoo, the visit to Dave & Buster’s or Chuck E. Cheese went and we can prepare ahead of time. We can also prepare our kids, “Do you remember how last time at Chuck E. Cheese you started feeling overwhelmed?” (this gives language to that feeling they have) “Remember it felt too loud?” (you can problem-solve for this, offer earplugs or a signal to get the heck out) Maybe your child will look up at you all doe-eyed and adorable (Chris Pratt’s son) and say, “It’s family.” Or maybe they’ll say what my son used to say, “I’m not going.” (My kid missed so many birthday parties as a sensitive toddler/preschooler/schoolager!) But you’ll get to process it and make good decisions before disaster strikes. (For the things my son could NOT miss, we did a lot of planning about how to manage it. Code words that meant, “Mom, Dad, please help me find someplace quiet to calm down,” Quiet days before the big event. Exit strategies. Plans to wind down after.)
Anyway, that Chris Pratt is charming. Good stuff. Good parenting. And nice to see on a daytime talk show.
We parent our kids to help them grow into the people we hope they can be. We parent them to be their best selves, to be the most resilient, to be successful (however we define it), to be loved and we make most of our decisions based on the future we want for them. That’s the point of parenting, right? To prepare our children for the future.
Well, kind of.
Even as we work to prepare our kids for their somedays, we also need to parent for today, right this very minute.
Many of the kids who come to see me have said things like, “In first grade they told me I needed this math for second grade and in second grade they told me I’d need this math for third grade and so on all the way up to high school, which they tell me is going to prepare me for college. But what about now? Can’t I just be in the now?”
In truth, now is all we have. We don’t know what will happen ten weeks, eight months or six years from now. We don’t know what the economy will look like or what the most in demand job skills will be or who our children will settle down with (if they settle down) or anything else. We are making our best guesses and we need to do that but we also need to remember that this moment is just as important. This moment, this interaction, it matters for its own sake and not for what it might owe to a future we can’t even see clearly.
Some of us are so future-focused that we start parenting from an urgency that makes our children’s simple mistakes or struggles seem overwhelmingly scary.
Sometimes when I’m working with a parent trying to help them understand why an issue feels so consuming — a child who sleeps through her alarm or who is struggling in his friendships — we follow the path all the way to a very specific fear. What if her inability to get up on her own will ruin her career because her boss won’t put up with her being late all of the time? What if his problems on the playground mean he’ll end up in an apartment with 43 stray cats and no one to call when he’s lonely?
Those often unspoken outsized fears can make it hard for us to allow room for developmentally appropriate bumps and bruises. If everything — future partners, future careers, future success and happiness — seems to depend on the SAT scores we may forget that there are other things to learn here, too. Things like preparing for big tests, dealing with pressure, confronting uncertainty, etc.
When parents allow their imaginations to run away with them — when they let themselves do it out loud instead of ignoring the fear so it sets up camp in their deep dark worries — then we can talk about it more realistically. Sometimes a slept-through alarm is just a slept-through alarm. Sometimes it is its own problem to be solved instead of a symptom of a greater issue.
And if there are greater issues at play, it makes more sense to focus on the moment as we contemplate our options than to let our fears take us down the road to hopelessness. Because this child, sleeping through her alarm, is just as important as the adult she will someday be.
There is not one way to be happy or successful. There isn’t one path to a really good life. We may get only one shot at a specific opportunity (winning the 5th grade spelling team or qualifying for the Olympics) but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other opportunities waiting for us.
It can be a tricky balance to both grow kids for the future and be here with the present child in front of us at the exact same time. But the dual perspective is necessary both for our child and for ourselves, so we don’t miss what’s happening right in front of us while we are looking out so far ahead.
I’ve been asked about my thoughts on Lena Dunham and the passages in her book that detail her sexual behavior with her sister. At first I declined to post them here because I felt like there have already been so many people talking about it that I really had nothing to add to the discussion. But then I realized that as a therapist and with the understanding that you might be wondering if I’m the right therapist for you or your child, I ought to weigh in for no other reason that my clients — current or potential — have the right to know where I stand on such a contentious and difficult issue. So here are my thoughts.
First, I haven’t read the book and I have no plans to; I’ve only read the quotes and passages (that link will allow you to read them, too) that have appeared on other sites. Because of this, I can’t really discuss the context in which those quotes and passages appear, which is one reason I can only speak in generalities. Also I don’t know Lena Dunham or her sister, Grace (obviously) and I don’t know the family in which they grew up and I don’t know the way their relationship was or is now. I only have these passages, which are in Lena’s words and further words in a memoir, which means they have been shaped for a general thesis. This means that I can’t really trust their reliability. Therefore any commentary I am making about Lena Dunham and her sister aren’t really about them; my commentary is more about our general discussion of child bodily exploration, sexual play and the potential & possibility for sexual abuse between siblings.
Child sex play is a normal, developmentally appropriate part of growing up. Some children keep to a mild “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” and some may do more graphic sexual play. What makes it play and not abuse is the absence of a power differential and coercion and this can be very hard to ferret out. A six year age difference — Lena is six years older than her sister — is always concerning. Always. Whether or not it is sexual abuse or a serious boundary issue depends a whole lot on exactly what happened, how and when. Is it a one time thing? A pattern of enmeshment? Is it straight forward bodily exploration or is the more powerful sibling using the younger sibling for his or her sexual satisfaction or to act out an unhealthy power dynamic? What is certain is that a relationship that Lena describes (while acknowledging that the reality of that particular relationship may be much different) deserves more attention from parents.
This leads me to a discussion of culture. Family cultures differ and so family boundaries differ. There are families where privacy and general touching (hugs and cuddling) are more or less important, which is another thing that needs to be considered as we talk about boundaries and the violation of boundaries. While there are values that we as a broader community can agree on, there are others that are murky. When I read the quoted passages I feel I’m also missing this important context. I do not know what (if anything) her parents did about their relationship. I don’t know if Lena was reprimanded for the intensity of any of her actions towards her sister (the bribes with candy and quarters). I don’t know if Grace protested or if she was silent (not that her silence equals consent but I don’t know how much her parents were aware of their dynamic). In my office I sometimes see some parents describe a closeness that I, as a therapist, find concerning but I can’t know at first glance. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and misunderstand what’s actually happening. It takes continued discussion, questions, and observation to get a better sense of what’s going on. So when I feel my antennae go up I remind myself to go slowly and listen hard.
I also want to honor Grace’s right to label and define her own experience. Grace has said she does not see herself as a victim; I believe her and want to give space for her assertion. I also want to give her space to think differently at some point if she chooses to. Many of us think about our family of origin in one way and then we grow to think about it in another way later on. This is our right and important part of growth and empowerment. Whatever I may think of how I might feel if I were Grace, I am not her and in this important conversation about violation, I do not want to participate in a violation of her right to speak her truth.
In other words, this is a discussion that we need to be having but I think it’s extremely important that we do not expect her to uphold our own take or Lena’s take on their relationship or the scenes Lena describes.
These are things I do know.
Kids make mistakes. Some of those mistakes will certainly be violating the boundaries of siblings, cousins, friends and pets. In some cases those boundary violations may be bodily (kids who hit, hug too hard, hold down a cat who wants to get up) and sometimes those bodily boundary violations may be sexual. It is normal and developmentally expected that a child’s self-centeredness would lead to boundary violations. Remember that normal does not mean OK; I am not excusing or shrugging off the seriousness of boundary violations.
I am also not saying that normal means that no one gets hurt. One child’s normal behavior can harm another child. I mean, it’s normal for toddlers to bite but that does not mean it’s ok and it does not mean that the child doing the biting does not hurt the child who is bitten. Normal does not mean we ignore things.
If the type of activity Lena describes truly was typical of her behavior then her parents should have been intervening. (They may have been; we don’t know because we only have Lena’s side of the story.)
If one child is treating another child as a toy or as an object, that’s concerning and needs interrupting whether or not that treatment includes sex play. If a parent only jumps because the play turns sexual, that’s a problem because I would argue that there is likely a pattern of coercive play that needs parental attention and intervention. To a child, dressing up a reluctant pet and coercing a sibling into allowing genital exploration may come from the same misunderstanding of the division between self and others.
It’s our job as parents to protect our children from each other and also from themselves. Many of carry a great deal of guilt for the way we treated our siblings when we were kids but we needed adult help to figure things out. We can own our responsibility but also acknowledge that our childhood selves did the best they could with what they were taught; many of us were not taught how to treat each other.
Sometimes parents have trouble intervening because they don’t know what good boundaries between siblings looks like since we were not protected from ourselves or from a violating sibling. We see a certain amount of roughhousing and conflict as perfectly normal and it’s true — some of that is normal. But we should pay special attention when:
- One child is always the victim;
- One child is much older or stronger or otherwise more powerful;
- If we detect real hostility in the interactions;
- If the hostility is pervasive (if they never really get along).
In the case of sexual boundary play, I would also check in to ask where the children got the idea. Sex play is common in kids, absolutely, but a check in can help us know if something is happening to the child who is acting out (did they learn this from another child? from sexual abuse at the hands of an adult? unsupervised time watching HBO?). I would ask parents not to react as if sex play is always concerning but I would ask them to remember that sometimes it is.
Interventions do not have to be shaming. Parents can and should interrupt inappropriate behavior in a way that promotes empathy, compassion and an understanding of where a child leaves off and the other person begins. This starts when we protect that child’s boundaries. That means no forced hugs, no forced kisses, no forced sitting on Santa’s lap. There are lots of times where we have no choice (diapers changes of wriggly toddlers!) so when we can protect our child’s right to say no, we need to do that.
Finally parents need to be aware of their own understanding of boundaries and violation. Many parents who are struggling with their children’s sibling relationships are acting out their own experiences growing up. When I talk to parents in my office I’m always interested to know where they are in their own family configurations because this can illuminate my understanding of dynamics they are repeating (or trying not to repeat) in their own homes.
It also helps me understand why some parents are reluctant or afraid to make changes. To say, “This should not be happening to my youngest” may mean saying, “This should not have happened to me” or “This is not something I should have done to my sibling.” These are painful things to confront and I see some of that happening in the discussion around Lena and her sister.
We all come to our reading loaded down with our own baggage and it’s pretty hard not to bring that to a discussion about someone else’s very biased, perhaps somewhat fictional, and certainly manipulative (in the way that all writing — even this — is meant to sway the reader) story.
I don’t know what happened between Lena and Grace, not really. I cannot speak to it. I can only speak to the general things I know to be true and hope that I can help the individuals and families who come to me for care, informed by what I know about kids, about siblings, about families and about the truly hard work we all do growing up.
So you’ve decided your child needs counseling. How do you explain to them what counseling is and why they’re going?
1. Tell them that a counselor is a person who helps people who are feeling stuck.
Many children (and adults) who are in therapy believe that they — their inherent selves — are problematic. Lots of children (and adults) have already been through the wringer by the time they come see me and their self-esteem is suffering for it. They may be feeling like they are root of all of their family’s problems. They may think that the people who love them really hate them. They may believe that they are in someway defective and that’s why they’ve got to come and see me. What I emphasize is that counselors help people who are feeling stuck. If your child is anxious you can say, “A counselor helps kids who are feeling stuck in their worrying.” If your teen is depressed you can say, “We’re seeing a counselor who helps people who are feeling stuck in their depression.” If your middle grade child is raging you can say, “The counselor will be able to help us figure out how to help you get better at managing your anger.” After all, your child is NOT her worrying or her depression or her challenging behavior. Your child is a whole, complicated person who is struggling. Counselors help with the struggle; they help people get unstuck from the struggle.
2. Let them know that the counselor will help everyone in the family do a better job with each other.
If I’m working with a child then I’m also working with her parents. As I said, sometimes the children who see me think they are at the root of all of their family’s problems. Kids are naturally self-centered (it’s a developmentally appropriate part of growing up) and so the divorce, the fighting, the tension — they think it all comes back to them. And if it is their behavior driving the decision to get counseling then they’re partially right. But kids don’t exist in a vacuum and if a child is struggling then the parents surely are, too. Counseling is meant to help everybody, which means helping the child be her best self and helping the parent be his best parenting self, too.
3. Explain that they will get to set the pace.
Kids who come to see me don’t always want to talk to me. That’s fine. Being guarded with a new person — particularly a new person who’s been enlisted to help the child over a sensitive topic — is appropriate. We can play Uno, we can play with the kinetic sand, I can watch the child build block towers or create art or otherwise orient herself to our relationship. I do not make children talk to me and even most reluctant teens will come around if we have time and space to learn how to work together. (Note: Once we’ve established rapport I will push when pushing makes sense but at the beginning we take it slow.)
4. Don’t insinuate that therapy is a punishment.
If children get the idea that seeing a counselor is one step away from being sent to juvenile detention it makes it awfully hard to build rapport. It goes back to #1 up there; if people believe that only screwed up people go to counseling then the threat of counseling might get seen as a weapon. “If you don’t get it together I’m taking you to a therapist to get your head on straight!” Or to other people, “He’s gotten so bad that we’ve had to start seeing a counselor!” Ugh. Not a great message. Even if you’re feeling discouraged and even if you feel like counseling is your last ditch effort, please remember that coming to therapy is a really smart and positive move.
5. It’s OK to acknowledge the problems that got you there.
No, you don’t want to make your child feel like the problem. No, you don’t want to put the whole burden of change on her either. But you can be frank about why you’re going. Sometimes parents will say, “Is it all right to talk about his tantrums here? In front of him?” Yes, it is. After all, he’s the one having them and he knows they’re an issue, trust me. There are some topics that aren’t for tender ears (or at least aren’t until we’ve made them age appropriate) but getting the problem out into the open without judgment and in the spirit of moving forward is a good thing.
If you’re still not quite sure how to talk to your child about it, bring it up with the therapist you’ve chosen to work with your child.
Part of what we do in the Problem-Solving Parenting classes is figure out whether or not our children’s behaviors are normal and to-be-expected from kids that age. There are some things we just need to accept as part of parenting (babies are messy eaters) and some things we can influence (all typically developing kids will potty train eventually but caregivers can speed up or slow things down).
Learning what is developmentally appropriate for your unique child is one of the most important things we can do as parents. It helps us have more realistic expectations. But sometimes when we’re talking about what’s developmentally appropriate, parents get confused. They’ll either argue that I’m giving their kids an excuse to misbehave or they decide that there’s nothing they can do with the problem behavior but live with it.
Neither is true.
Babies will always be messy eaters. That’s a non-negotiable. But when it comes to 2-year old tantrums and 4-year olds who dawdle in the morning and 9-year olds who talk back and teenagers who miss curfew, there’s some room to work.
Understanding child development in general and the behavior of our individual children specifically helps us respond more appropriately.
Why are babies messy? They don’t have great motor skills just yet. And they’re also learning about their environment with pretty broad strokes (smell, touch, taste).
Why do 2-year olds tantrum? They’re easily frustrated, are lousy at transitions, have limited communication skills and are working at being independent.
Messy babies at meal times make sense. 2-year olds who tantrum also makes sense.
There’s not much we can do to influence motor skills other than give lots of opportunity and practice. But tantruming toddlers? That we can address.
- Toddlers are easily frustrated; we can help them acknowledge their frustration.
- Toddlers are lousy at transitions; we can begin preparing them for transitions ahead of time.
- Toddlers have limited communication skills; we can give them words for their feelings and their wants and wishes.
- Toddlers need the opportunity to practice independence; we can build in some developmentally-appropriate independence into their lives.
It’s easy to see that behavior (tantrums) and want to know how to deal with that behavior. But to get it at its source, we need to know what developmental needs are driving the behavior. Just because it’s normal for a 2-year old to tantrum doesn’t mean that we don’t have tools to help our kids with the task of growing out of them.