Avoiding Struggles: Breaking “Bad Habits”

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The mother of a family in my practice recently complained to me about her 11-yo son’s meltdowns. She told me that he provokes his siblings by criticizing them, getting into their space, or insulting them in some way or another. He is very reactive, and it takes very little to provoke him into a rage. He doesn’t seem to hold himself accountable for any of his actions. For example, the night before, he kicked her under the dinner table, and when she told him to stop, he said that he hadn’t done anything. This denial of responsibility is typical. She said she knows I say that if anyone in a family has a problem, then the whole family has a problem, but she can’t figure out what she and the boy’s father are doing to contribute to his meltdowns.
I told her that it is common for families to develop bad habits. I call this bad habit the “struggle pattern”. Usually, it is one child who generates the negative feelings that motivate the interactions that become organized into a family “habit”. In these habits, each family member plays a particular role, even though they don’t recognize that they are doing so. Typically, the “problem” child will provoke and the parent will respond with a prohibition. The child will then up the ante with further provocation, and the parent will continue to prohibit. Often, the actions on both the parent’s and child’s parts will escalate until everyone feels distraught and out of control.
It is interesting to consider what starts everything off. Sometimes the child has had a hard day and doesn’t have the resources to reflect on that experience and talk to the parents about it in order to be comforted. Often the child has the capacity to reflect on his inner experience when he is calm and comfortable but has difficulty with stress regulation and loses this important self-reflective capacity when he is stressed. This is also true of parents, and sometimes it is the parent who has had a hard day and unconsciously provokes the child (such as by making a slightly unreasonable demand at a time when the child might be expected to be vulnerable.) In either case, the spark of the provocation ignites a fight that gives everyone a chance to express their frustration and aggression, but in a highly maladaptive way. No one feels good after this kind of fight, and to make it worse, it just strengthens the struggle pattern within the family and inside each of the family members’ brains. Sometimes the resolution of the fight is a tearful reconciliation with professions of love. This is not the best resolution, because it usually does not unpack the interaction to allow for positive change and even adds a reward to trick everyone into thinking everything is all right.
What I suggested to this mother and to other parents to try to avoid these bad habits is 3 things:
1. Identify the turning point. Experiment with identifying the moment when the interaction could begin to escalate and ask the child to take some time out, or the parent can leave if that is more convenient. The main idea is for the parent to make some distance between them.
2. Change up the process. Do not respond to any provocation. If the child denies his action, ignore it. Do not try to reason with the child. Instead, say something about starting over or “press the reset button” or something like that. If that doesn’t work, move to item 4. When everyone is calm, then discuss what just happened without assigning blame. The focus should be on learning how to do things better in the future.
3. Practice the new way of doing things again and again. Families move like molasses in January. They change very slowly. That means that you have to practice new and better ways of interacting over and over again. Another good cliché is “neurons that fire together, wire together”, meaning that when you practice non-struggle patterns over and over, you are building new neural circuits in everyone in the family’s brains and they will gradually erode the neural circuits governing the struggle pattern.
In terms of what to do after the struggle has started,
4. Get space. Sometimes it only takes walking to the next room. Taking a deep breath and counting to 10 help too. Listening to music can help. Anything you can do to regulate yourself is good.
5. Take time. Time is also important to reestablish a calm regulatory state.
6. Reflect. When you are calm, you can reflect on what just happened and identify what you did to contribute to the old struggle pattern. When you rejoin your child to discuss the matter, do not over-apologize. That muddies the water. Take responsibility for your part, but not for the part played by your child. Once you separate out your part, his part should be easier for him to manage, if not this time, then after more practice.

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