Tag Archives: Setting Limits

Co-Parenting II

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Co-parenting frequently breaks down in parents’ efforts to organize home life or set limits. That may be in part due to the emergence of different parental styles in the planning process, such as when the parents are deciding on a bedtime for their child or establishing family rules. One parent may feel that the organizational plan (for example, setting a regular bedtime, the number of warnings a child is allowed before a consequence, whether a child is allowed an alternative meal choice, etc.) is too rigid, while the other parent feels it is not strict enough. These conflicts often arise from what seems natural or necessary because of the parent’s own experience as a child. Sometimes the parent believes that the way their parents treated them shaped them in helpful ways. Other times the parent believes that the way they were brought up was hurtful and insensitive to their needs. In addition to differences in the way they grew up, problems in “co-parenting” may also arise from basic difficulties the parents have negotiating a common agenda. One parent may tend to be more controlling or bossy than the other, provoking the second parent to dig in their heels or resentfully submit, etc.

When these problems occur, it is important to return to a focus on the child. What is the child telling you that she needs? If she is tired the next day, perhaps she needs an earlier bedtime or some other change in her bedtime routine. (Of course, telling her this when you are trying to get her to go to bed will not usually lead to a good result!) If she requests something else to eat at the dinner table, perhaps an alternative meal choice is justified. It is good to be flexible within limits. The problem comes when parent and child – or parent and parent – get into an escalating control struggle and share the perception that only one winner will emerge from the battle. The truth of the matter is that in a struggle, there are always two losers. That is because both parents and child want the child to grow up healthy and strong, but struggles build unhealthy and maladaptive patterns in the child’s mind which are reinforced with subsequent struggles. The pull to get into a struggle, often against a background of family tension, can interfere with generating or establishing healthier patterns of interaction. Good co-parenting occurs when one parent can see that the other parent is in danger of falling into a struggle pattern and can give them the emotional support they need to avoid it.

Children need routines and predictability, especially in families with co-parenting difficulties, or in families of children with school or behavior problems. Often these two things go together because difficulty co-parenting clearly interferes with effective parenting, and also because some children are harder to parent and generate more than usual stress in their parents. Children with school and behavior problems may lack the personal resources to accommodate to the typical demands of school and family life. A common set of problems that cause trouble in school and at home are problems organizing oneself in time and space. That makes transitions particularly challenging – the transition from sleep to an awake state or from an awake state to sleep, from an activity to homework, from a video game to supper, from a quiet indoor activity to outdoor play, from free play to paying attention to the teacher, etc. One way to help children in all these circumstances is to create routines and stick to them. Often children benefit from “visual cues” such as words or pictures on calendars. These cues must be kept in a visible place that is commonly visited, such as the kitchen or the bathroom. However, none of these aids will be useful if they are not practiced regularly and frequently. For example, it is helpful to refer to a calendar of the day’s events both at bedtime and at breakfast. This is an area of parenting that often breaks down. If two parents can maintain a routine, they are doing something right.


Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 


Recently, a couple of parents came to consult me to ask me about “co-parenting”. This is a term that parents typically use to refer to working together as parents when they are divorced. In this case, the parents were married, but they still had trouble coordinating their parenting behavior. They attributed this difficulty to difference in parenting style. I have heard of this kind of difficulty many times before, and I particularly appreciated these parents seeking consultation about it.

Let me first say a few things about “different parenting styles”. Conflicts between parents may arise for a number of reasons. Three common reasons include: different experiences of being parented as children; chronic stress in the family; underlying conflict in the marriage. Often more than one of these factors is present at the same time. Let’s take them one at a time.

Suppose that the father was raised in an authoritarian family in which his parents were strict and what they said was law. The children would not dream of speaking disrespectfully to them, and discipline for transgressions was swift and sometimes harsh. The mother, on the other hand, was raised in a household with progressive values and style of discipline. In practice, that meant that the father was the “bad guy” disciplinarian and the mother the reluctant protector the child ran to when he fled the father’s discipline. This meant that the father felt unsupported in setting limits on the child’s behavior and the mother felt burdened with having to respond both to her partner’s and her child’s distress.

There is an answer to how to think about how to change this situation. Note that I do not say, “resolve the problem”. The answer about how to think about the situation is to put aside the conflict between the two parents and focus on the needs of the particular child. I will follow this line of reasoning in responding to the questions the parents in my practice brought to me.

The first question the mother asked me was how to manage the morning transition. She explained that her 8-yo son was always forgetting what he had to bring to school, and he not infrequently called her from school because he forgot some sports equipment or a piece of homework. The father expressed his frustration about his son’s disorganization and insisted that the mother ignore his calls and let him “learn from experience”, but the mother felt that to do that set her son up for failure.

Further exploration suggested that their son had a more general problem with organization that impeded his ability to make transitions. (Remember that to make a transition you have to take apart your current state of organization, such as eating breakfast at your kitchen table, and reorganize it in a new place and with new expectations, such as school.) With this in mind, the parents and I set up a routine (remember that routine and ritual are parents’ best friends!) for how to manage the morning transition. Children need routines and predictability, especially children with organizational problems (sometimes referred to as “executive function disorder”, though I do not like to use the term “disorder” in children if I can avoid it). Once we established their child’s need for external predictability and order, we could move on to discuss how each of them – with their different parenting styles – could work together to provide that for him. The father took in my explanation about how the child could build organizational capacities that were not yet in his repertoire by practicing routines created by both parents, and he volunteered to keep an eye on how the family maintained the routines. The mother said that she could validate the child’s feelings about being confused, overwhelmed, and criticized, while also holding to the routine. Both parents agreed to try to learn from each other in the process of helping their child grow stronger.

In my next blog posting I will consider the parents’ next question: “How do we translate the difference between our two parenting styles for our son so that he understands where we are coming from?”

Teenage Trouble

girl friendsImportant Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Teenage Trouble

Mother: “Jamie asked for a special privilege to extend his curfew from 11:00 to 1:00 tonight, but it is the third time this week he has asked for this. My husband thinks it is good that he is asking us instead of just disobeying the curfew. I just said, “So what are you going to do with Jack and BJ until 1:00?” Jamie stormed out of the room and went to talk to his father. His father said, “Sure, OK, have fun and be careful.” “Be careful!” If we trusted that he would be careful, we wouldn’t be in this situation. He has done dangerous things. Those kids he has been hanging around with are big trouble. I think one of them is dealing for sure. But he won’t speak to me now – only to his father. His father says, “Let me deal with it!” But what does that mean? I guess it means set no limits at all. He is afraid to say no to him. That makes him the good guy and me the bad guy. I am always the bad guy. He acts as if he hates me. I feel as though I have lost my son.”

Father: “She is so negative and judgmental that I can’t blame Jamie for avoiding her. I hear them downstairs getting into it and I want to shut the door and pretend it isn’t going on, but I am afraid for him. She gets Jamie so upset; I don’t know what he will do. So I try to go down and intervene. That only makes her enraged at me, and he just leaves. Don’t get me wrong. She has been a good mother in many ways. I know she loves him. But I don’t know why she can’t leave him alone. She really doesn’t listen to me when I tell her to give him space, to let me handle it. She just has to control the situation.”

Son: “I really can’t stand her. I feel bad about it, but just being around her is too much for me. She doesn’t understand me at all. She wants me to be someone that isn’t me, like some of the kids of her friends. She is always thinking the worst about me. She won’t let me have any freedom, won’t let me be with my friends – and she criticizes my friends – says really bad things about them. She thinks they are criminals or something. All my friends think she is crazy. They don’t want to come to my house. I just have to stay away. Sometimes I think I will run away. Just to get away from her.

How do we understand this situation? This mother and father have such different points of view. As a matter of fact, you could describe their points of view as “polarized” – extreme, without any elaboration in between. Would you be surprised to hear that both mother and father have the capacity to be reasonable human beings, have friends, function well in society? I would not. Something has disrupted their relationship and has disrupted the functioning of the family. Nothing tears parents apart more than feeling helpless when their child is in danger. Remember John Bowlby’s “Attachment Theory”? He thought that the primary motivating factor in human behavior was the desire for safety, security. His theory takes the perspective of the child.

But it is not that one-sided. In real life, Bowlby’s theory is just as valid for the parent as for the child. I would say that the primary motivating factor in parenting behavior is keeping their child safe. When children are very young, parents are highly stressed when their child has a medical illness or steps into the street in front of a car. Some parents of teenagers tell me with tears in their eyes about a childhood illness when their child reached out to them and they were able to comfort him. That felt so good, so right. How they wish they could “make it better” in the same way now. But in the case of an adolescent, the situation is much more difficult. The teenager wants to “do it myself’ even more than when he was 2-yo, so the parent can’t just swoop in and take over and make things better. Yet, some teenagers are just as unable to “do it myself” as they were when they were 2, and the consequences of letting them do it themselves are much more dire.

One reason for teenager’s poor judgment – among many – is the pruning of the brain that takes place in adolescence. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls judgment (an over simplification as are all such attributive statements about the brain), is undergoing disorganization for the sake of adaptive change. Before the adaptive change is organized, the brain’s functioning is disrupted. That’s why many – but not all – teenagers take crazy risks that they never would have taken before. Jamie’s parents are afraid that he is in danger, and indeed he is. But what can they do to keep him safe? Their options are many fewer than when he was small.

There are many other reasons that families fall apart when teenagers have problems. Sometimes the parents begin to behave in problematic ways that make the teenager feel like a failure, a bad kid, or unrecognized for who he is. In fact, some parents have always had tendencies to have unrealistic expectations for their child or lacked a degree of empathy for their child’s inner life, but these vulnerabilities didn’t have the same impact as they did when the child tried to come into his own in adolescence. Another reason is that the parents have always had deep fault lines in their marriage, and when their beloved child started to suffer, these marital weaknesses were amplified in response to the pull to polarize that is generated by threat. In fact, this polarization is often – maybe even usually – a family pattern from early on, one parent (usually the mother) taking the role of the bad guy and the other parent (usually the father) taking the opposite role. In addition, beginning independence is such a watershed in one’s life that one’s own experience (the “way I did it”) is often stirred up

Jamie’s Mind: Jamie thinks that BJ is cool because he is on his own, living with other guys, making his own money – so what if he is dealing? Is it his fault more than the kids who buy the drugs? He doesn’t have to listen to his mother. She doesn’t bug him about school because he doesn’t have to listen to her. Ever since she moved in with her boyfriend, BJ has been on his own. Sometimes he comes to school and sometimes he doesn’t.

Jamie has struggled in school since about third grade, when the curriculum became more challenging and he started to get real homework. His mother helped him then. She checked his school bag to make sure she knew what his homework was and that he had all his books. She went over all his assignments with him. Sometimes when he got too discouraged or too tired she did some of it for him. She said the main point was that he learns the material, not that he torture himself. It did feel like torture. As the schoolwork got harder, things got worse. He left some of his assignments at school just so that he wouldn’t have to look at them. He convinced himself that he didn’t have any homework some nights even though it wasn’t true. He started to sleep when he got home from school. He was tired from texting his friends late at night, but he also wanted to escape from his life.

Where can we start to help this family? There are many “ports of entry”, but here I would like to talk about Jamie’s parents. Both Jamie’s parents love him and desperately want to help him. Yet, they can’t seem to break out of this destructive pattern of polarization. As a psychoanalyst I am aware of the value of understanding unconscious processes and the importance of one’s own parenting experiences on one’s behavior as a parent. Exploring one’s past experiences as a child is key. On the other hand, I also believe that things are not going to change fast enough with this approach. The way to change is to break the pattern that is keeping the destructive cycle going. I also like to talk in terms of “breaking” the pattern because it connotes aggression, and it takes aggression to make this change. Let’s look at some ways this can happen.

I am going to refer to the “original bad guy parent” as “OBG” and the “original good guy parent” as “OGG”. In order to break the pattern, the OBG has to immediately stop the BG behavior and the OGG has to step into the limit setting position, setting him or her up to be the BG. On the surface this seems simple; it is anything but simple. There will be huge resistance from both parents to this change. The resistance is driven by anxiety.

One way of beginning is for the parents to make a temporary plan about how to handle a hot button issue, such as curfew. The plan should be temporary to make it easier to agree. It is something that is going to be tried out. For example, “we are going to allow two extensions of curfew per week”. Then when the teenager presents the challenge, the OBG has to disappear and allow the OGG to take over. After the OGG negotiates something with the teenager, the two parents should not communicate about what happened for a period of time to allow both of them to manage their emotions. If possible, it is better to wait until the next day. When they talk about it, they should try very hard to avoid criticizing each other. If one slips and criticizes the other, the other should just remind him or her once of their agreement not to criticize. They should give the “temporary plan” about one week if possible. Then they should review the plan and decide if they want to change it. This process will take multiple iterations in order for it to work, but it can work.

What about getting professional help? It is a good idea to get professional help, but it is hard for professionals to deal with this situation. That is because the professionals tend to get pulled into the polarization and see one parent as the bad guy and the other as the good guy. They know they should not succumb to this temptation, but they often cannot avoid it. The parents can help by looking out for this tendency on the part of the professional and both of them objecting to it. If only, the OBG, points it out, it just strengthens the bad pattern.

Family Fights: Changing “Bad Habits”


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 (PC) will provoke and the parent will respond with a prohibition. The PC 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 PC 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 PC 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 below. 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.
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.

Avoiding Struggles: Strategizing


One of the biggest challenges a parent or other caregiver faces is avoiding struggles with the child. Struggles are a no-win situation. Many children, like junior lawyers, are great at arguing. Caregivers (CG) often cannot resist getting pulled into a lengthy argument, in which the child usually gets the upper hand. Although some parents tell me about their child’s arguing skills with pride, I know that parents letting children litigate is making a fool’s bargain.

The argument usually starts with the CG setting a limit. For example, the teenager comes home from school, drops his back pack on the floor, and lunges for the couch and the t.v. remote. The CG asks, “How much homework do you have tonight?” Child responds, “Not much. I did most of it in study hall.” The CG represses her skepticism and asks, “What about that English paper that is due Friday?” The child says, “Why are you always always acting like that? My teacher says that kids need to relax when they get home from school! I’ve had a hard day, and I need to chill a little bit before I do anything like homework!” CG: “I’m sorry. What was hard about your day?” Child: “None of your business. Don’t be so nosy. I wish you were like Jason’s parents. They leave him alone when he needs his space!”

One can empathize with the CG. By now she has three people aligned against her – her child, the teacher, and (maybe 4) Jason’s parents! Also, she hears the stress in his voice and she agrees that he needs time to relax. At the same time, she replays in her mind the past few weeks, when he has stayed up until midnight struggling with homework with diminishing returns, or given up, after “relaxing” in front of t.v. or texting with friends for hours after coming home from school. What should she do?

Before giving suggestions, let me point out that this problem most likely started long ago. It is a pattern that has old roots. Consider this situation. Preschool child is in a bad mood when she wakes up. First, she wants her red pants that are in the wash, and nothing else can satisfy her. Then she decides that she will make do with her silver Cinderella sandals, but it is 10 degrees outside and there is snow everywhere. Her mother has left for work and her father (CG) is trying to get her ready for school, where she has pronounced she is not going.He is thinking of a difficult client he has an appointment with first thing, and he is feeling stretched to the limit. Finally he gets his princess downstairs to the kitchen, and she demands coffee cake for breakfast, remembering the special treat they served to a guest the morning before. He thinks for a moment about what her mother will say if he gives in, but he says, “OK, coffee cake and then eggs (pointing to the eggs he has already prepared). She says “OK” but after the coffee cake, she touches the eggs with a fork and proclaims, “These are not the kind of eggs Mommy makes. I don’t want them.” Sound familiar?

The solution to both of these situations (and one does indeed follow the other) is strategy. When you are on the front lines of the battle, you can’t make strategy; you can only shoot or surrender. It is the generals who make strategy, and they don’t make strategy on the front lines but in the “war room”, protected and far away from the storm of battle. Strategy is also best made with at least two collaborators. They can bounce ideas off each other, balance each other’s extremes, recall data that the other has missed. They can make a plan. After they make a plan, they have to execute it, and then they have to practice it over and over again until it becomes a habit. When it is a habit, the old bad habit – the struggle pattern – starts to unravel and make way for the new pattern, a more secure and potentially collaborative one not just between generals but between generals and soldiers.

Let’s look at how strategy works in our two examples. With out teenager, CG says, “Well, I totally sympathize with you for needing to relax, but we agreed that there were no screens except computer for homework until homework is done. That lets you relax afterwards and get to bed in time for you to be rested. Can I get you a snack before you begin? I got you your favorite popcorn and a new vitamin drink of the kind you like.” If the child protests, the CG responds, “I’m so sorry, but you know that is what we (she and other CG) decided, and we all agreed that was best. I know it is hard.” Then she leaves the room. This last part is crucial, because if she stays, he may persuade her to give in or get into a struggle with him that takes up his homework time and drains her of all her emotional energy.

Now the preschooler: The CG says, “You know we said no coffee cake. You can have eggs or an energy bar in the car (he and his partner agreed on this beforehand). Which will it be? And, by the way, you can wear your Cinderella slippers in the car but your boots are going with you, and I am putting them in your cubby when we get there.” If she has a total meltdown, he can carry her to the car. CG’s of preschoolers, remember the example of the teenager when you feel tempted to give in. You can’t carry teenagers to the car, or anywhere. Start building healthy habits early. It is hard in the beginning, but it pays off.

Conflict and Repair


This series of photographs illustrates a beautiful example of the repair of a conflict between two children, with many magic moments. E, in the blue shorts, is a 6-yo boy who hit K, the boy in the blue jeans, with a ball. The hit was most likely accidental, but K, who is 4-years old, began to cry and went to get the caregiver, L. In this photo, L is listening to E’s account of the story. A 7-yo girl, B, is the audience. In the the first photo, J has just finished voicing his complaint, and L is looking at D questioningly, waiting for an explanation. 


In the second photo, E is defending himself, proclaiming his innocence of the charges. K is watching silently. B stands silently as witness. L explains that K was crying, and that E needs to apologize to K and help him feel better, even if it were an accident. B continues to stand, watching, her little hands on her hips. E is refusing to apologize to K. L is firm but gentle, her voice quiet and slow-paced. This is a magic moment, because L does not express anger or impatience, yet she persists.


In the third photo, L bends down to talk to E. E looks as if he is going to run away, and L takes hold of his arm. E is kicking his foot, rebelliously. At last, E says he is sorry, but he growls it out with a scowl. L tells him that he must say it again in a nicer way. E repeats his angry apology, and L quietly insists again that he say it nicely. This is another magic moment, because instead of getting angry, she persists in a quiet, non-reactive way. E finally says he is sorry – not exactly “nicely” – but without a growl. Here is another magic moment, in that L accepts a gesture that is less than perfect. She must have had the sense that at this point she could help bring the situation to a good resolution. 


In the fourth photo, L tells E that he should give K a hug to make him feel better. This is too much for E, so in another magic moment, she opens her own arms and encloses the two little boys in a group embrace. 

In the fifth photo, the embrace continues, but L is preparing to let them go. The boys are giggling.

The magic moments in this set of photos focus on L’s patience, calm, and slow pace. These factors in addition to her quietly loving attitude allow her to side-step provocation into a struggle and generate the creative solution of the group hug. As she watches the scenario, B takes in the gestalt of the repair of conflict scaffolded by an adult, including the magic moments. All three children are more likely to repeat at least one of the elements of this repair in future conflicts.