Here is a common scenario that occurs in many families. Parents to try to have a discussion with their child about a topic that they assume will be helpful for the child. But the child balks at engaging in the discussion. The parents, feeling armed with good intentions try even harder to have the discussion, because as they say, “We are only trying to be helpful”. The parents end up being frustrated when the child continues to refuse to talk or listen. The topic differs in each family, but the underlying issue remains the same.
Here is an example of how this situation played out in one family. Let’s reflect on why the child refuses to engage and what the parents might do about.
The parents of a middle school girl with a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD) ask me for help. They want to teach their daughter about her condition but don’t know how. People with NLD are impaired in their ability to read and interpret non-verbal communication, such as facial expression and body language. This makes it very difficult for them in social situations. They don’t’ ‘get it’ when people are joking or being sarcastic. They can’t sense if a person is signaling discomfort or a friendliness. In this girl’s case, it made it especially hard with peers. She did well in school and had hobbies but had no friends.
These parents had the best of intentions. They were loving, dedicated parents who were supportive and accepting of their daughter. Like most parents, they want to give their daughter what she needs in order to do well in life. Father and mother both feel it would be good for their daughter to become more independent and socialize more with friends her own age. They believe the best way they can help her do that is to teach her about her condition and help her develop coping skills for dealing with it more on her own.
Me: You seem to have a fine goal, so I wonder what the problem is that you need help with.
Father: We need help with how to talk to her about it.
Me: Have you tried it already?
Father: Yes. We have, many times
Me: How did it go? How did she react?
Father: It did not go well. She holds her hands up to her ears and turns away from me.
Me: Do you have any idea why she does that?
Mother: No. We don’t.
Me: Do you think it might be possible that it makes her feel bad about herself? Like putting her nose in the fact that there is something wrong with her.
Father: Yes. That is exactly what it makes her feel.
Me: I think perhaps it also makes her feel as if she’s disappointing you and is a burden on you.
Mother: Yes. She totally feels that. We tell her all the time that it is not the case. That we are so proud of her and so happy she is our child. But it does not seem to make a difference. I am stymied and don’t know what to do.
Me: You are clearly trying to help her. You understand how important it is to have good coping skills. So, I assume you feel frustrated that it does not seem to be working.
Father: And helpless, because I don’t know what else to do to help her and she is clearly having a hard time in the social arena.
Me: Have you considered any other approach?
Mother: I don’t know any other way to do it.
Me: Have you thought of not doing it.
Father: Not doing what?
Me: Not trying to teach her about her condition. Just focus on being the wonderful parents you already seem to be. Enjoying her. Accepting her. Being empathic and supportive. That teaches her a great lesson. She is a good and lovable person and you are glad to be her parents.
Father: I am so glad you are giving us that reassurance and that permission to stop teaching her about her condition all the time. We both knew it was making her feel bad. But kept thinking we were not saying it correctly, that we needed someone else to tell us how we should do it.
Me: Your efforts to teach her coping skills and to become more independent and self-sufficient are well-intentioned. You just did not quite realize it was backfiring on you. Resulting in her feeling bad, rather than better. I am sure you will find other ways to encourage her independence and self-sufficiency.
Father: Yeah, like I do already by encouraging her to express her opinions about things, even if I don’t agree with her.
Me: Exactly. You treat her like she has a good mind. That will help her figure things out more on her own. When she is ready to ask for help learning about how to cope with her condition, the fact that you have a history of having communicated how positively you feel about her, will go a long way in helping her listen to you when you offer your coping suggestions.
My thoughts: Initially these parents kept assuming that since they had good intentions they should keep on doing what they were doing, even though it was not working as they had expected it to. I found it so interesting that the parents already had their own intuition about what their daughter was feeling and why she was behaving that way. They also already had an inclination about what they should do. But they behaved as if they did not. The dilemma was they did not trust, their own perspective on what to do. And because they did not trust themselves, it was as if they could not even get in touch with what their intuition was. The empathy, validation, and reassurance I gave helped them get more in touch with what they already knew and believed. Not only did they come away feeling like they knew what to do, but they also felt better and more confident about their parenting in general.
Conclusion: When your child pulls away for your good intentions, don’t keep going full steam ahead. Try and go a different way.
Written by Regina Pally, Founder and Co-Executive Director, CRC