Managing Family Dynamics by Walking the Middle Path
By: Michelle Bottone, LMFT
It has been nearly a year since many of us have been working remotely along with our children who must also learn remotely in the same environment. It was difficult to navigate both work and family obligations pre-COVID 19. Given the current challenges,
the stress level of parents and children have been significantly exacerbated. Do you find yourself struggling with parenting during COVID? When you are in conflict with your child, do you feel like you are playing a game of Tug of War? Well, it is time to drop that Tug of War rope.
Walking the middle path is a skill in DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) that fosters balance and letting go of polarized perspectives.
Scenario: Mother notices her child curled up and crying.
1. Be Dialectical.
Stay away from stating extreme responses such as “always and never”. Search for the kernel of truth in what your child is saying to you. The dialectical approach is that there is no absolute truth and many alternative truths. Things are not black and white, there is a grey area, and that change is transactional and evitable.
Mother: “I see tears. I’d love for you to tell me what’s bothering you.”
Child: “I feel overwhelmed by my schoolwork and I miss my friends.”
2. Validate your child.
Validation is imperative for all relationships. When we validate someone, we are acknowledging their thoughts, feelings and behaviors based on the current situation. Avoid blaming and judging. Research indicates that a child’s emotional stress can elevate significantly with high levels of invalidation.
Mother: “It makes sense that you are overwhelmed by school and miss your friends.”
3. Changing behavior.
Reinforce small steps towards the behavior you would like to see. It is crucial to reinforce the positive behavior directly after it occurs and at every opportunity that it presents itself. Decrease undesired behaviors through reasonable consequences. Be mindful that extinction of a behavior leads first to a burst of the behavior and then it will start to decrease overtime. Also, realize that extinction and punishment do not teach a new behavior, therefore, a new positive behavior needs to put it in its place.
Mother: “I noticed earlier today that you were able to take a 10-minute break and then go back to doing your schoolwork. Great job! If you complete another hour of schoolwork, perhaps you would like to Facetime with one of your friends.”
When we are highly stressed, it can cause us to become reactive. We may become locked into a position of rigidity and unwilling to compromise. Walking the middle path opens up lines of communication between you and your child. By actively making an effort to reduce your own emotional responses, behaviors and ways of thinking, you are directly modeling healthy skills and flexibility. Particularly for a child living through this pandemic, feeling understood and connected can make the critical difference during this time of ongoing uncertainty.