What Do Patients Think About Their Therapist? What a Counselor Does About “Transference”

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Patients wonder what their therapist is thinking. Therapists wonder what their patients are thinking. It is not much different from what happens between husbands and wives, parents and children, bosses and employees — or is it?

I’ve written about what doctors think about their patients before: What is Your Therapist Thinking? But today I’ll focus on what the patients are thinking about their counselor and how therapists are “supposed to” handle that. I say supposed to, because we don’t always do it well. It is one of the trickiest parts of a counselor’s job.

Patients have feelings and expectations about a counselor, in part, because he resembles someone else. This is called transference. In other words, the client’s sense of this new person is transferred from someone else who is important to him, simply because the new acquaintance resembles the old one. It happens automatically and without thinking; a kind of mistaken identity.

No, you don’t think your therapist has red hair if his hair isn’t actually red. But you do see him through the lens of your past experiences, and react to him because of certain real or imagined similarities to others. All of us do this in all sorts of relationships. It occurs whenever we have unconscious feelings and assumptions about someone who reminds us of someone else; which is a lot, even if we don’t know it. The feelings toward the old person (be it a parent, a sibling, a boss, or a lover) can become quite mixed up with the real human qualities of any new individual, including a new therapist.

Indeed, this is made easier by the fact that the therapist limits how much the patient knows about his personal life. In effect, the shrink is a kind of blank slate upon which the client “fills in the blanks” left empty by a lack of real information. Not surprisingly, all of us are prone to repeating old behavior patterns in new relationships; and, to the extent that a new person evokes old feelings about what the relationship is and what it can become, the transference can play out the patient’s repeated relationship difficulties right in the therapist’s office.

Take a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that your dad was a hard guy. He was critical of you, didn’t give you enough attention, and seemed to favor your siblings. Now, many years later, you meet your new therapist. Is he any of these things? To some extent it doesn’t matter. For example, the fact that your shrink only sees you once a week can reopen the tender wound of your neediness — your failure to win your father’s time and attention. You might feel that your doctor isn’t as available as you’d like him to be, in person or on the phone. You might interpret some of his statements as being disinterested, even when they are not so intended.

The counselor can be more important to you than he would otherwise be because of your unresolved, unconscious desire to get the affection and approval of this admired authority figure, who, like all authority figures, can easily remind you of dad. The hurt and/or anger that you feel when the shrink does not fill your need for a “good” father is almost inevitable. You might want to leave therapy because of it.

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What is a therapist supposed to do when this happens? If he reacts defensively to the patient’s demands or disappointments, he is unlikely to do him any good. In fact, the counselor who responds angrily can create one more injury of the same kind that was inflicted by the patient’s father, thereby adding to the client’s mistrust and misery. Even if the healer tries hard to give him what only a father can give, the patient will still not be satisfied. After all, the therapist cannot literally fulfill the childhood yearnings that come from anyone’s vanished youth. The hunger of a 10-year-old for good parenting can no more be satisfied when he is 30 than can a literal hunger for a good meal at age 10 by a delicious dinner 20 years later.

What the therapist can do is the following. First, he can be compassionate and understanding. He often anticipates that the patient’s old losses and resentments (his past disappointments concerning his dad) are likely to play out in the therapeutic relationship. When they do, the psychologist will try to gently assist the client to see that the feelings bubbling up are not fully appropriate, but come from the historical emotions attached to the father that have been superimposed onto the shrink. If the patient is open to exploring this, he will gradually be able to purge his internally complicated connection to his parent. This is a grieving process, a cathartic expression and understanding of the sadness and/or anger that continue to live inside of him, even if the parent is dead.

If all goes well in therapy, the therapist will eventually no longer evoke the transferential emotions; no longer remind the patient of the parent. And not only will his relationship with the therapist be less complicated, but so will all those other interactions with lovers, bosses, or friends which used to unconsciously trigger the same feelings. Finally, the old injuries will be healed sufficiently to be set aside, clearing the way to better social interactions in the future.

I am certainly not saying that all of the feelings that patients have about their doctors are mistaken. Therapists have the same potential flaws as everyone else. They can be good or bad, attentive or unreliable, too easily hurt or too distant. Some want your admiration and some don’t much care. They have feelings about the patient that grow out of their own relationship history. This is called a countertransference. Regardless, the potential for the transferential issues I’ve described is always there, just as the therapist’s countertransference toward the patient must be carefully watched to prevent the damage that it can do.

Do you find all of the above some sort of psychobabble that doesn’t apply to you? Trust me, transference is real. The more that you believe your relationships are “logical” and that your past doesn’t reach into your present, the more that it probably does, unless of course you have dealt adequately with it in some sort of therapeutic process, whether in treatment with a professional or in your own self-analysis.

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Therapy and transference are much more complicated than I’ve described. What you’ve read is a simplification based on a hypothetical relationship between a father and his adult child who is in therapy. If you are not in therapy, even if your relationships are going quite well, it still may benefit you to take a look at patterns of connection you make with friends or lovers: the kind of people you are drawn to and the types of individuals who usually “push your buttons,” get you angry, or disappoint you in some way. We can all learn a lot by just connecting-the-dots of our life history, seeing the resemblances among the people who keep returning, even if their names are different the second or twenty-second time around.

It is easy to blame others when relationships fail. Relationships aren’t easy. But, the more unsatisfactory and repetitious your social life is, the more likely that something in you needs attention.

The top painting is called Therapy by Gerhard Gepp. Apparently, the patient (a soccer ball or football) is thinking about being kicked around. Might he have transferential feelings toward the therapist and feel badly treated by him, as well? The second image is a photograph of Sigmund Freud in Session with a Patient, from the Seventh International Sand Sculpture Festival in Portugal. The artist is RHaworth. Finally, a cartoon of Freud Treating Moses by Moa1. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Christmas Story: Telling the Truth and Breaking the Heart

Was she seven years old? I don’t remember my eldest daughter’s exact age when she asked the question:

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend in school) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the value and importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps could not see just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I could see, however, was that she trusted me. And, in the few moments before I answered, I quickly determined that I could not break that trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still see her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

It was not the last time that I caused pain to someone I love, but I think it was the first time I’d done this to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” tells you something that breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead; something to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was there a possible Socratic dialogue — an artfully crafted sequence of questions leading her to the same truth and not hurt so much?

Could I have tried to change the subject, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have simply lied? “Of course there is a Santa, Sweetie.” And then left her open to the potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen road for a while, before you realize it isn’t quite as good as you had hoped. Eventually you conclude, “I probably should have taken the other path.”

It really doesn’t matter which road you choose. Nothing in life is perfect. But in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind, in the world of abstraction and fantasy, does perfection reside — the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life there is no ideal solution, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. And, of course, we never know what it would have been like to choose the other road at that precise moment. Because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Meaning that with the passage of time, the river has changed, and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heart breaks, whenever they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain what would have happened had we lived it differently.

Ultimately, one can only accept the terms life allows. The contract we (metaphorically) sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at the moment of our birth allows for no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered so innocently that day, not just the knowledge about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think about it, it isn’t the knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, it is from the pain of life itself.

But, such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also have the compensations of beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.

“In Defeat, Defiance:” Suicide and the Danger of Giving Up Too Soon

When is suicide justified? When is it permissible to give in to the despair and hopelessness that life sends to some of us?

Before you answer, a cautionary tale.

The little girl was born in approximately 1889. She was five years old when her parents died in a home fire. Two older brothers, themselves only in their late teens, were now heads of a household that lacked a house.

The farming community in which they lived in Lithuania (then a part of Russia) offered few vocational prospects and certainly no way for them to support their two younger siblings. A neighboring family made them an offer. In return for the promised work services of the five-year old and the slightly older sister for the next seven years, the head of that family would advance the two boys enough money for passage to the USA. By then, it was hoped, the brothers would have sufficient funds to arrange for the transport overseas of their little sisters.

And thus, this poor little five-year old, already having lost her parents, now separated from the older brothers she loved.

What is seven years to a five-year old?

Eternity.

But the family with which these children lived was good to them, and the brothers made good on their promise. They kept in contact by writing letters to their sisters and, after seven years, had enough money to arrange for a reunion with them in the USA.

The now 12-year-old girl was named Johanna. And it was not too terribly long after, when she was 16, that she met the man who was to be her husband. Her brothers had been supporting her, as well as their own young families. It was time for her to marry, she was told. She had to choose among the suitors available in their small town of LaSalle, Illinois.

The man she chose was 16 years her senior — 32 years old. A coal miner. Farming and coal mining were the chief ways of making a living in that time and place.

Johanna had the first of her five children when she was 18. Life was relatively peaceful and she made the best of the marriage that her brothers had required of her. But, in her 37th year, Johanna began to feel less than her best. At first, she thought little of the fatigue and shortness of breath. Others noticed her pallor. Meanwhile, her appetite diminished and she suffered from diarrhea.

Eventually, the symptoms could not be ignored. The physician diagnosed her as having pernicious anemia, a disturbance in the formation of normal red blood cells.

There was no cure. Her doctor estimated that she might live for one year.

LaSalle, Illinois was a small, largely Lithuanian community. And in that place, at the same time that Johanna received her death sentence, so did another young woman, also a mother.

That person became profoundly depressed and hung herself.

Johanna did not. She did not want to leave her children and her husband in such a fashion. There were things yet to do for her children, messages to impart, care to deliver.

Johanna informed her children that she was going to die before long. She instructed them in what they needed to know in order to take over her household duties and become independent themselves. And, she told them that they would almost certainly have a step-mother eventually, and to welcome her as if she were their own mother.

In 1926, the year of her preparation for death, Johanna Grigalunas could not know that there would be a second World War 13 years in the future and that the country of her birth would be consumed by it. She might have heard of Winston Churchill, however, the man who became Prime Minister of England for most of that conflict. But she would not have been aware that Churchill battled depression himself.

Things were particularly dark for England in 1940. All of continental Europe had been conquered by the Nazis and night after night, the great cities of that island nation were bombed by the Luftwaffe, Hitler’s air force. The British Empire stood alone against the Third Reich and expected a land invasion. The United States had not yet entered the War and there was no certainty that it would. Virtually no one thought England would survive. But Churchill did and the Nazis were defeated.

In October of 1941, Churchill was asked to speak to the students of Harrow School, an independent boarding school that was his alma mater. Most of his words that day are now forgotten. But his job was to rally and inspire a nation, as well as the young men to whom he said:

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in…”

Just as she could not know of the geo-political events ahead for the world, Johanna did not know that two separate research teams, one in England and one in the USA, were searching for a cure for the disease that afflicted her.

Thus, in 1926, George Richards Minot and William Perry Murphy fed large amounts of beef liver to their pernicious anemia patients, based on the pioneering work of George Whipple, who had demonstrated that the creation of red blood cells in dogs could be enhanced in this way. It was determined that a daily diet rich in liver would prolong the life of those with this disease. All three scientists received the 1934 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology. Eventually, the crucial healing component in the liver, vitamin B 12, became deliverable by injection.

Johanna Grigalunas lived to be 93, more than a half-century beyond the medical death sentence that she received in the 1920s.

Now, you might ask, how is it that I know this story?

Well, I met Johanna Grigalunas, almost blind but full of life,  when she was over 90.

You see, Johanna was my wife’s grandmother.

The above image is of Winston Churchill. The quotation in the title is also from Churchill: “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.”

Churchill is reported to have suffered from depression off and on throughout his life. He referred to it as his “black dog.” On the subject of suicide, he said the following:

I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.


Off to College and Saying Goodbye

Paintings Reproductions David, Jacques -Louis The Farewell of  Telemachus and Eucharis

It is that time of year. Some kids are going to college for the first time. A difficult moment for all concerned.

If you are a parent, your child may have been spending much of the last year or two pushing you away; being disagreeable; wanting to spend more time alone; confiding in you less.

It could be adolescent rebellion in a fairly moderate form, but, more likely, it is his striving for independence; and his anticipation of the real break — the one that finds him living in a different state; both a state of mind and a State of the Union.

As most of us know, it usually feels better to be the one who ends a relationship first or enacts a change in it — separates, creates a distance — than to be on the receiving end of that action. But, whatever it is, it is tough for sure.

The farewells can be tearful and terrifying, mostly for parents. The kids have their anxieties too, but don’t want to betray them as openly as the elders do. The students’ brave front is as much to persuade themselves that everything will be fine outside the nest as to keep their ambivalence in check, lest they encourage mom and dad to show even more emotion and make the parting harder.

I remember spending a good portion of our drive back home from an off-to-college goodbye with tears in my eyes, having taken our eldest to the Champaign/Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. Within a few days we heard from her though. Sure enough, homesickness.

Letting go of your children is hard, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog. You have to have faith that your offspring have learned something by age 18 and that they will survive, bruised but unbowed. Not much you can do anyway, unless you are prepared to keep them hostage in your basement forever.

They will return of course, but they won’t be the same. That too is a good, if  ambivalent thing, a sword that cuts both ways. As a parent, you’ll remember the cuddly and loving stage, the moment when you were everything to them and they couldn’t get enough of you. In trade, you get to see your children flourish (one hopes) as adults, a wondrous thing when you remember back to how little and helpless they once were.

But, be patient. The “full bloom” just might take some time and some struggle. Keep the faith.

Regardless, you do get more peace, quiet, and privacy as a bonus.

A new relationship, then — something different rather than better or worse.

The “saying goodbye” comes by degrees. At first, they return for summer vacation and holidays. Later, they will live away and see you less often. Such is life.

My wife and I kept a very old car for our daughters to use when they were home, even after both had graduated college and gone on to grad school. Finally, a minor accident rendered it beyond repair and we donated it to charity.

For a few days after the auto had been taken away, my wife and I both felt a little bit low. We talked about it. Of course, it wasn’t hard to figure out. The car was a symbol, something tied to the time they lived with us, and something that said they would be coming back. Now, with the car gone, we both had to face  that there was no coming back with the regularity of the past.

Their lives were elsewhere.

When I gave the toast at my eldest’s wedding, I told the following story:

I remember the day that we took Jorie to Champaign/Urbana to the Illini Towers dorm, to begin her college education at the University of Illinois. We thought we would be clever about it, so we woke up very early that Saturday morning and drove fast so that we would be among the first to get into the building and unloaded. But we were out foxed by several hundred people, who had gotten up earlier and driven faster and were already way ahead of us in line to use the couple of elevators and the small number of carts to get their child moved in.

It was a long, hot, late summer day. And as we stood in line  waiting, I had a feeling of familiarity, as if I had done this before. Of course, I had never moved Jorie into any new place, so I couldn’t easily figure it out.

As the morning changed to afternoon (and we were still in line), I thought back to the day that Jorie was born. At 1:00 AM, that is to say, in the dead of night, Jorie gave the signal and we were off to the hospital. And that too was a long day as we waited for the labor to progress. Finally, at 9:34 PM, over 20 hours later, Jorie arrived in this new world. And I realized that the long day of waiting for her to be born was what the long day of waiting at Illini Towers reminded me of.

The only difference was that on that day at the hospital we were waiting to say hello to her, and on the day at Illini Towers we were waiting to say goodbye.

Shakespeare was right.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

But, life does go on.

The image above is The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis by Jacques-Louis David.

Watching Your Parents Age

There comes a time in life when you notice that your parents are aging — particularly if you live at some distance from them — see them only once or twice a year. A few more wrinkles, a little less hair with a little less color, an infinitesimally small decline in the speed of the mind or the body.

As spectator sports go, this one isn’t much fun to watch.

Of course, it touches the heart of the child who, like most children, loves her parents. And, if the parent is wise or observant, he or she can see the concern in the child’s eyes as the offspring anticipates worse to come, up to and including the death of the people who once-upon-a-time meant everything to her, and still mean almost as much. Such a parent might remember back to the experience of witnessing something akin to the “time-lapse photography” of her own parents, with all the same attendant concerns now felt by her offspring.

As the famous Latin phrase reminds us, “sic transit gloria mundi.” So pass away the glories of the earth.

What is one to do?

Well, at the most basic level, there is nothing one can do to stop the aging process, one can only slow it. Perhaps your parents can be encouraged to exercise more, eat better, take their vitamins, and get regular medical check-ups. Or, if you are the parent, you can do this without encouragement, realizing that the longer you remain fit, the more satisfying your life can be and the less concern you will visit upon your kids.

But, at a relationship-level, there are some things that can be done. In fact, quite a few.

The first, is to ask yourself what is the status of the relationship. Are you able to be yourself around your folks? Do they really know you? Do you have to bite your tongue for fear of setting-off a conflict? Do you speak with them about things more personal than the weather, the score of the Cubs game, and other small talk? Do you say “I love you” to them and do they let you know that they love you and are proud of you, in words and deeds? Are they too critical? Do they treat your children (their grandchildren) well?

And if there are problems between you and mom or dad, what then?

The first thing to consider is how long you have carried this concern inside yourself. Is it something minor or something that has caused great pain? Are you contributing to the problem by your own comments, actions, or inactions? Would therapy help to process the sense of injury or anger and the feeling of not measuring up to what your parent(s) expected; the failure to obtain your parents’ whole-hearted approval, dedicated time, and expressions of affection?

Most adults want to think the best of their parents, and attempt to put the past behind them, however unfortunate it might have been. Trust me, there are almost always parents who were worse than yours. But this does not mean that yours were good, or that the issues you carry inside of yourself are finished just because you rarely think about them.

I know, you have thought to yourself, “they did the best they could.” But as Winston Churchill said (and could have applied to any of us): “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”

If there are things still unfinished between you and your folks, it is often helpful to make a final effort to put them right (unless you have already done this or your folks are clearly beyond redemption). While aging parents are not regularly open to a reconsideration of what they have done for you or to you, at the very least such an attempt sometimes serves to relieve you of the regret you might feel once they are gone, as you say to yourself “If only I had…”

And, if such an effort fails, this can open the door to needed therapy to grieve the injuries, losses, and unhappiness of that relationship — the things that never got resolved. If, on the other hand, you come to a new understanding or intimacy with your parents, all the better, while you still have time — the time of their lives — to enjoy this reformed and improved connection.

But what should you do if you get along well with your folks, feel loved and have always felt loved by them? How can you deal with their aging?

First, don’t forget about them. If they made time for you, you should make time for them. A good way can be to talk with each of them about their early life, one-on-one. You might discover some interesting information about your family history and even see patterns in your parents’ lives that you are repeating in your own; some good, some not so good.

You may discover that your parent lights up when talking about the past. Their heartbreaks and disappointments in life can also be of no small assistance in forming your own understanding of how your folks came to be the people who they are, and parented you in the way that they did.

And, while they still have life, enjoy them and let them know how much they mean to you. Say the things you would say in giving a eulogy, only do it while they can still hear it. (Good advice in relating to your friends, as well).

Talk with them about what is really important. What have they learned in life that they might want to pass on to you? How do they feel about aging? How do they feel about death and whether there is anything beyond death?

I know this can be touchy stuff. Here is some more: speak to them about writing a will and take a look at it, if they will allow you. Yes, this makes it seem like you are only interested in cashing-in on their worldly goods once they are gone. But, a properly written will that the heirs find acceptable can make the distribution of their estate much easier for all of their kids and avoid court battles and life-long enmity among those relations.

Even more important, ask them how they would like to approach medical emergencies, life support, and extraordinary medical procedures. And, if you can, persuade them to write a “living will” and designate someone to have their “power of attorney” for health care decisions in the event that they should become unable to exercise such judgment on their own.

Here is a story about how this can come in handy, as well as about the difficulty of following your parents’ wishes in just such a situation.

In my mother’s last days, at age 82, she lay unconscious in a hospital bed. She’d lost my dad about seven months before. My two brothers and I knew her to be depressed following his death and in chronic pain from a variety of ailments. She had told me that she prayed every night to her mother and my father that she should die. My folks had assigned the medical power of attorney to my brother Ed, and we all knew by what was written and what was said to each of us, that she did not want anything extraordinary done to keep her alive.

A few days before she died, during one of Eddie’s visits to the hospital, one of her physicians approached my brother and strenuously urged him to authorize an extraordinary procedure. My brother listened as the man attempted to “guilt” him into acting in a way that he knew my mother would have objected to had she been conscious. Eventually the brow-beating ended with Ed still steadfast in upholding my mother’s wishes — but he had been shaken.

Shortly after, I arrived to join stalwart Ed in our vigil at the hospital. Almost before he could say “hello” to me, Ed told me what had happened and, totally unlike him, broke down in my arms. Unless you have “been there” as Ed was, having to say “no” to a medical professional insisting that you should do everything possible, however small the odds, to keep your loved one alive, I don’t think that you can know what such an experience feels like.

This was the woman who had given him life and had comforted him in difficult moments; who protected him, fed him, laughed with him, and cried for him.

But, he did the right thing, the thing my brother Jack and I knew was necessary, and the thing that my mother had unequivocally expressed to be her desire.

Churchill’s words apply here too: “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”

Ed did exactly that, displaying a kind of courage not to be found even in war-time.

So, if you are lucky enough to have an acceptable relationship to parents who are still around, take advantage of the time. And if you are parents who are lucky enough to have healthy and devoted children — same message.

Treat the time as precious — the time and the people.

The image at the top is Rembrandt’s Head of an Old Man in a Cap.

The image at the bottom is my brother Ed, hitting a double in a 16″ softball game at Chicago’s Peterson Park, a number of years ago.

Therapist Humor

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b1/Laughing.jpg/500px-Laughing.jpg

It seems that the psychiatrist and his wife found themselves unexpectedly alone at home on a Sunday afternoon. The youngest of their children, the only one living with them, had departed for an event anticipated to keep him away for a few hours. And so, the long married couple decided that love in the afternoon was in the offing.

But, much to their surprise, the teenager returned a good deal earlier than planned — in the middle of everything. Their bedroom had two doors, and they quickly sprang up to lock them both, so that the boy wouldn’t catch them in an embarrassing situation.

Just then, their offspring yelled to see if they were home.

No answer.

He ran up the stairs and tried the near door of their bedroom, once again calling for them.

No answer.

He ran around to try the far door of the bedroom, again knocking and turning the door handle, still loudly crying their names.

No answer.

Finally, he stopped moving, staying in front of the far bedroom door.

This time, he called not for them, but yelled something a bit different.

“What, sex makes you deaf?”

The above image, Laughing, was created by Eric Ward and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Children Need From Parents III: Beware the Extinction Burst!

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1d/Albino_Rat.jpg

Popular culture gives us just enough information to be confused.

Not surprisingly, many parents who have never taken a psychology course know it is important to set limits on their children and to be consistent in enforcing those limits. Despite this, a good many parents don’t have the strength of will to withstand the repeated pleading of their kids, or the energy to do so.

If your child wants you to buy him a candy bar or a toy while you are in the store, many parents believe it is simply easier to give in than to listen to the endless entreaties of their offspring.

In some cases it can be too exhausting or overwhelming to have to deal with a persistent child, in other instances the parent might fear losing the child’s affection if the desired treat isn’t forthcoming, and in still other situations the parent feels guilty if he or she deprives the youngster of something.

For all the reasons I’ve just mentioned, I always tell parents before they intend to change their style from one that inconsistently reinforces their child’s misbehavior, they have to be strong enough and knowledgeable enough to be prepared for what comes next.

And what comes next is something pretty powerful.

Its called an “extinction burst.”

First, what is “extinction?” Extinction occurs when a behavior that has been previously “reinforced” (some would use the word “rewarded”), no longer receives reinforcement. Eventually, the organism (animal or person) will stop performing the behavior. Put differently, the undesirable behavior is “extinguished.”

Take, for example, a laboratory rat. You can teach these creatures to press a bar in order to get a food pellet. Rats are good at this. But, if you no longer give the rat food pellets for pressing the bar, the critter will eventually stop doing the bar press. But there is a catch here and it relates to the word eventually. And the catch is what is called an “extinction burst.”

Let us assume your child, like the lab rat, has learned something about how you deliver reinforcers. The reinforcer could be the aforementioned candy bar or toy; it could be money; it could be your attention; it could be staying home from school; it could be a lot of things.

And, let’s further assume that you no  longer want the child to keep pestering you for whatever it is that he wants. Now, remember he hasn’t gotten what he wanted every time, but often enough to learn to be persistent and keep at it until you “break” under the assault.

The “extinction burst” consists of the young-one doing even more of the behavior you want to eliminate at the point you stop reinforcing him.

That might mean he will be louder, or pursue you longer, or repeat more often whatever has worked before. It can go on for a very long time until, finally, the child learns the lesson you want to teach him; in other words, learns he will no longer receive what he wants for his inappropriate actions.

But if you finally do break down and reinforce the child with what he wants during the “extinction burst,” he will have learned an awful truth: “Well, maybe I just have to do this behavior longer or more or louder in order to get what I want.” Indeed, the child doesn’t even have to be able to think or say this to himself.

Even laboratory rats operate according to the same rules of learning, and no one I know has had a very deep conversation with a rat lately.

At least, not the four-legged kind.

Parents sometimes tell therapists they have tried to be consistent and it failed. In other words, that the science regarding “extinction” and setting limits is inaccurate.

But what has really happened in this kind of case is the parent wasn’t ready to deal with the extinction burst. Their inability to tolerate the “burst” of seemingly relentless pestering or complaining eventually led them to reinforce the child once again for the undesirable behavior; and, in so doing, made it harder to extinguish the behavior than when they started.

Had the mom or dad only be able to stay-the-course and resist the child a bit longer, the “extinction burst” would have ended.

The moral of the story is to prepare yourself before changing your parenting-style in an effort to become more consistent. If you aren’t absolutely sure you have the organization, energy, strength, patience, and self-confidence to withstand the “extinction burst,” don’t even try. You will only make things worse.

And don’t expect your child to really believe you when you say “this is the last time I will let you do this” while you once again reinforce troublesome behavior.

Talk is cheap and, like those same lab rats who can’t understand your language, your child will pay attention to what you do and not what you say.

But, if you do have the requisite qualities that any good parent needs and you are fully prepared to hold your ground with your child, you might be quite pleased at how you have reasserted yourself and gotten control over the home situation.

To do that, the earlier you start in your child’s life, the better.

You may be interested in the following post on the topic of consistency: What Children Need From Parents II: On Slot Machines and Candy Machines.

The photo of an Albino Rat was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Children Need From Parents II: On Slot Machines and Candy Machines

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Slot_machine.jpg/500px-Slot_machine.jpg

Do your kids see you as more like a candy machine or a slot machine?

It’s not a silly question.

The two machines are rather alike. Both require you to insert some money. Both then demand that you engage the machine, set it in motion. In the case of the candy machine, you press a button or pull a lever to make your choice. The slot machine waits for your follow-through on its lever or “arm,” hence the name, “one-armed bandit.”

That is where the similarity ends and the answer to the question becomes essential: do your kids see you as more like a candy machine or a slot machine?

The reason is as simple as it is important. The candy machine is dependable, reliable, and consistent. Every time you insert your coins and make  the selection, it provides you with the item you have chosen. If, by chance, it should not, you would quickly stop inserting coins because your knowledge and experience tell you that no matter how many more coins you deposit, the machine will not do what you want. It is broken.

The slot machine, however,  is another story. Your knowledge and experience tell you that the machine’s failure to provide you with winnings on one occasion doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be a winner the next time, or the time after that. It might take you a very long period of failure and much expenditure of hard-earned silver dollars before you would come to the conclusion that the machine is broken. The machine, when its working correctly delivers winnings on an intermittent (or inconsistent) reinforcement schedule.

Getting the picture? If your children see you as consistent and reliable (like the candy machine) in responding to their requests and their pleadings, they will know that asking for what they want more than once will do them no good: the answer will be the same on the 10th request as it is on the first. And once they have learned this, they will make very few additional requests of you beyond the first one.

But if they see you as similar to the slot machine, boy are you in trouble! They will keep at you, over and over, because they know that one failure at winning doesn’t mean the game is lost. Perhaps the second try will work, or the fifth, or the fiftieth. They will know you better than you know yourself. Simply put, they will know that they have a good chance of wearing you down so that they can have the toy, the TV show, the attention, or the food they want; they will know that the punishment you are trying to enforce also can be changed, maybe not by pleading their case only once, but by repeated appeals to you. Your goose will be cooked.

Kids, of course, have more energy for this sort of “back and forth” than most parents do, so time is not on your side. And the longer they have experienced your inconsistency, the longer it will take for them to “unlearn” what you have taught them about yourself.

The message is simple. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Do what you say that you will do. It will easier on you and better for your children. But before you get started, be prepared for the “extinction burst.”

What is that, you say? I’ll cover that topic in my next blog.

The above image is a Slot Machine by Jeff Kubina from the milky way galaxy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Letting Go of Your Children

One of the hardest things a parent has to do for his child’s well-being is “letting go.” The attachment between a parent and child, at its best, is profoundly intense and rewarding to both parties. But, at some point, earlier than most parents think, the tie must be loosened. There are at least two reasons for this.

The first involves the danger of overprotection. While the world is a harsh place at times, children who are not seriously disabled need to begin to obtain some mastery of that world. They will not do so if the parent hovers too closely, watches every move, makes every decision, and doesn’t permit the child to get a sense of accomplishment and independence, that is, to get a sense of their own mastery of the world.

Secondly, if the child is ultimately to break-free, the parent must prepare him and encourage him. Kids will make bad decisions; they will get hurt by life. All that is a part of growing up and, in fact, a part of life as an adult, too. If they are to succeed in life, attach to others outside the family (mate), produce children, and develop a personality that is different from that of either parent, they will profit from the permission and encouragement to do so.

There is no perfect guidebook for how to disengage–how to, little-by-little, give your child more freedom, less oversight. It is easier, of course, if the young one is reasonably outgoing, a good student, and doesn’t get into much trouble with authorities. But even with kids who are having difficulty, micro-management can create resentment and rebellion, while constant criticism can be depressing and efface the child’s shaky self-esteem. A parent needs to know which children need a heavy hand, which a light touch, when to praise, when to correct, and when to punish. No one can provide  precise direction to this in the abstract, because each child is different and each parent is different. That said, here are a few pitfalls to watch out for:

1. Don’t try to raise each of your children the same way. While this should be obvious, it rarely is. Some parents even brag: “I treated all my kids the same.” This is preposterous, but, even if you came close, you probably shouldn’t have. All children aren’t the same and therefore require the kind of individually tailored attention that works for them. Why would it make sense to raise an active child in the same way as a passive one, or an outgoing offspring just like an introspective little person? One size doesn’t fit all.

2. Don’t “own” your child’s life. He isn’t you. He needs to have his own ideas, not some Xeroxed version of what you think he should be. He ultimately needs to “own” his direction in life, meaning that the desire to do well in school and in other things needs to be his. If he only does his school work because he is required to, even when he is in high school, somehow the transfer of responsibility from you to him hasn’t been made. You’ve got about 15 years to accomplish that hand-off; after that, demands from parents to “do better” usually generate diminishing returns.

3. Don’t set unreasonable expectations. Most middle-class folks see their children, at least a little, as a reflection of themselves; someone to carry the family banner into the future. But, you can make yourself a little crazy by wanting great fortune and fame for your kids, and letting them know you will settle for nothing less. Harvard isn’t for everyone and there is no guarantee of a good life that comes with admission to Princeton, Northwestern, Yale, etc. If your child can make a living, find love in his life, behave honorably, and experience some measure of fulfillment, that just might be quite enough.

4. Don’t make your child feel guilty over leading his own life, not providing you with grandchildren, and not being as close to you as he was when he was little. He needs to break-free and take care of himself. He should (and probably will) want to have you in his life, but don’t be an anchor around his ankle.

5. Don’t live and die with every success and failure on your son or daughter’s path. Easier said than done, by the way. Learn to accept things as they are. Get some distance. Meditate. Get a life of your own. As a famous basketball coach once said, “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem. You are going to die a lot.”

6. As your kids move into adulthood, don’t preach and do be careful about giving advice, especially if it hasn’t been requested. Let your children know that you are proud of them. Not because they became captains of industry, but because they are good, decent, and loving people. Give your grown kids support and encouragement. Enjoy them, don’t manage them.

7. Remember that they aren’t you, they won’t always do what you would do, what you think wise, believe what you believe to be true. They might belong to a different political party, root for a different baseball team (God forbid!), change religion or give up religion. They might marry someone you don’t completely fit with. Remind yourself that what is important is your child’s happiness and fulfillment and decency.

8. Take good care of yourself. Find a meaning in life that is not 100% about your adult children. Try to get there gradually, not on his or her 21st birthday.

If you are lucky, your children will turn out well, and be grateful for all you did, and for your wisdom in not “doing it all” for them forever. It’s quite an adventure for the concerned parent, and you will never stop being concerned. As Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “He that hath wife and children, hath given hostages to fortune…” But, with practice, you will sleep at night even on many of the nights that your adult child is having some bumps in the road.

When you look at her, fast asleep in her crib, all of that seems impossible and impossibly far away. But it can happen.

I’ve been there.