More About Limit Setting: Disengagement


The last posting was on the subject of  how family values can be used as a way of avoiding struggles when you are trying to set limits on a child’s behavior. Another way of avoiding struggles is to disengage from the struggle before it begins or in its early stages.

Before I discuss disengagement, let me say something about why avoiding struggles is so important. When struggle patterns take hold in a family they exert a powerful influence on family life. As in the example I have used before of the family landscape, the struggle pattern becomes a thriving population center that many big roads lead to, making it easy to get there. We do not want that. Another way to think about it is that practice strengthens the neural circuits in the brain, and although I do not have scientific evidence of this, I feel convinced that when a family repeats struggle patterns, it builds struggle neural circuits in the brains of your children. We do not want that either. What we want to do is to weaken the struggle pattern population centers in the family landscape, weaken the struggle pattern neural circuits in the brain, and build up the collaborative ones. We do that by practicing collaborative patterns and avoiding the struggle patterns.

In another digression, I would like to mention a common misconception caregivers often have that  can lead them straight into a struggle. The misconception is that they “have to show the child who is in charge”. The problem is that the intention to “show the child who is in charge” easily slides into the struggle pattern. The caregiver reiterates the command, and the child repeats the opposition, and the struggle kicks into gear. A more effective way to “show the child who is in charge” in a positive sense is to demonstrate an alternative way to work together more collaboratively. At the threshold of a struggle, however, it is not easy to shift gears. That is because when people are stirred up – in a stressed state – they are more likely to slip into a lower level of organization, into activity that takes less energy and maturity. One way of preparing to exit the invitation to a struggle is to disengage.

By disengage I do not mean abandon the child. I mean instead, disengage from the struggle. That means to reflect on what is going on, look at it from a distance instead of from the middle of it. Initially, it might help to stop thinking about the issues the child is challenging you about and think about something else instead – even if that is your shopping list or what you have to do tomorrow. Then when the compelling sense of the struggle is diminished, you can return to the issues at hand but from a different perspective. The more you practice disengaging from a struggle, the more you can build those collaborative neural circuits and collaborative population centers in the landscape of your family.


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