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Opinion & Essays - Dec, 1998 Issue #55

What Am I Supposed To Do 
By: Cliff Johannsen, Ph.D. 
Lake Oswego, Oregon 
Copyright (c) 1999 by Clifford A. Johannsen 
Printed with permission 

(This article is part of a series written by a parent who also happens to be a therapist, trying to help parents understand their teenager better. –Lon) 

John and Mary each described their childhood families as “dysfunctional.” When they fell in love and planned a future together, they wanted their own children to be free of the confusion and hurt they experienced growing up. They set about providing a tolerant and warm household where their 3 children might feel like friends. But 2 of their children were out of control from an early age. There was yelling, hitting, obscene language, and refusal to comply with rules and chores. Occasionally, Mary and John reverted to the chaotic style of parenting they witnessed as children. Those episodes were followed by remorse and indulgence of the children. Within 5 years this couple attended 2 parenting classes and saw 3 therapists. They were variously taught by experts to ignore, let children work out problems themselves , speak using “I statements, ” negotiate responsibilities and privileges, use “active listening,” place their children in “time out,” avoid “rescuing,” use spanking, and give “tokens.” In the end they were exasperated and asked “who are we supposed to believe?” 

If you, like John and Mary, have sought advice on how to parent from more than 1 expert, you’ve probably read or heard conflicting opinions. Parents often complain to me about this. They are trying to figure out “the right way” to raise their child and they have no clue which expert to believe. They are tempted to say “If the experts can’t agree, then seeking their guidance is a waste of my time.”

Experts usually take a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting, even though they know better (i.e. that children have different parenting needs). I think this happens because experts write or speak from the point of view of their favorite theory or philosophy. It’s somewhat like an indoctrination when they offer advice. 

I think the different parenting approaches are helpful when they “fit” with a youth’s need for parenting. The continuum of coping abilities table (see column in the last issue of Woodbury Reports, #54) can be utilized to understand these relationships. 

Permissive Style. The child is assumed to be able to find their own way. And, in fact, the resilient and independent youth will usually learn from their mistakes and make the needed self- corrections. With such a child, the responsible parent will exercise “benign neglect.” They will provide oversight of the child’s growth and development, and be prepared to step in should the child falter to a serious degree. Parents in this circumstance may have the luxury of an affectionate friendship without much burden from negative feelings related to discipline. This is a happy state of affairs, but one that cannot be created by permissive parenting alone. 

Rational Style. This can be used when youth are open to being persuaded by their parents. Talking can lead to cessation of negative behavior or initiation of positive behavior. It can be described as “changing from the inside (thoughts and feelings) to the outside (behavior).” The parents’ role is to reason and explain. This includes approaches such as negotiation and improved communication. Ignoring, typical of the permissive style, will still sometimes work. But natural consequences often need to be supplemented with more artificial discipline. Use of “time out” is an example. Positive incentives and artificial structures (e.g. “token economies”) work well because children are generally eager to have a constructive relationship with their parents. 

Authoritative Style. This is necessary for “struggling teens” or “special needs” youth. If a parent is going to err with average or easier children, it is better to do so with over-use of authoritative parenting than with any other style. The parent stays firmly in control of, supervises, and structures their child’s daily activities. They use immediate, brief, related, and mild punishment appropriately. Youth can earn their way out of the “dog house” readily. There is about a 50%-50% balance of positive incentives and negative consequences. Youth have appropriately ambivalent (love-hate) relationships with their parents. Authoritative parents mostly use a calm and matter-of- fact tone of voice. But since parents are requiring that children do things, the children will “hate” them. Parental job descriptions include that duty, to “be hated” by their child. The wish for a “warm fuzzy” relationship becomes a long-term goal, perhaps achievable when the child is an adult. This can be thought of as “changing from the outside (behavior) to the inside (thoughts and feelings).” Research indicates that children raised in this style have better social and problem-solving skills. 

Supportive Style. This is when parents supplement the authoritative style with lower expectations, making life simpler (in order to compensate for unavoidable burdens or symptoms), teaching in a simple and repetitive manner, and liberal encouragement. For example, a child with Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) may do better with single-step instructions than with complex and multi-step directions. A depressed youth may need respectful reminders that they do have certain strengths. The choice of activities and pacing should correspond to the child’s abilities, so they experience success. Only those tasks which are beyond the child’s ability are done for them. Slow and steady progress is acceptable. This can be described as “changing because the world got easier.”

Note that the parenting styles tend to be different from what therapists do with adolescents. It is generally a mistake when experts advise parents to become more therapist-like. It is important to stress that a therapist’s job description is distinct from the job description of a parent. Therapists generally help youth to identify and express their inner thoughts and feelings. Unless children’s needs are in the average or better range, therapists do a very poor job of making them behave. Parents, or the staff of out-of-home placements, are the main individuals capable of changing the behaviors of “struggling teens” or “special needs youth.” Note also that two parenting approaches are not included here because they are not recommended. Those are the authoritarian (abusive) and neglectful styles. Parents with some common sense and who pause to think about it, understand that these are not options. 

In the authoritarian (abusive) style, parents give free reign to expression of their own hurt and angry emotions. Obscenities, insults, and unreasonable threats (of abandonment, death) and intimidation (severe punishments) are used to coerce children into compliant behavior. Thankfully, follow-through on such threats is usually lacking. Long lectures, interminable grounding, and spanking are usually ineffectual or only temporarily helpful. The parent’s presence can become so aversive that it is a punishment in and of itself. For youth, having a relationship with such a parent seems out of the question. Even parents who are usually competent may briefly slip into the authoritarian (abusive) style during moments of frustration and hopelessness. But they extract themselves, and think of the episode as a personal failure or mistake. Parents who were themselves raised in this style frequently over-correct by using the permissive style, whether it fits their child’s needs or not. 

In the neglectful style, parents simply attend to their own needs and fail to consider the vulnerability of their children. Such parents work too much, party too much, indulge themselves too much, or are too preoccupied by their troubles. Children’s needs for basic safety (don’t play in the street), nutrition (regular meals), stimulation (human interaction more than television), affection (positive looks, touch, and tone of voice), and discipline (clear rules and predictable consequences) are overlooked. The neglect is often related to parents’ economic, educational, mental, or substance abuse problems. 

Well, this approach to experts may help parents to be better consumers of parenting advice. Even if they just ask “for what kind of child does this work best?” Or, “what is required of my child to benefit from this?” I am also encouraging parents to think independently of their expert, “does this advice fit our child’s needs?” 

(Dr. Johannsen has worked in the mental health field for 30 years and has been a psychologist for the past 16 years. He currently has a private practice in Oregon’s north Willamette Valley and is the Clinical Director of Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Expeditions. He and his wife Linda have raised 2 daughters, some of it “struggling.”) 

Comments on this article are welcome on the Woodbury Reports Online Chatboard. Cliff regularly monitors the Board.

Copyright © 1998, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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