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George W. Doherty, M.S., LPC
A common occurrence in many homes is one involving a child who does something that doesn't fit the pattern of behavior that a parent has come to regard as usual or correct. The parent may respond to this behavior with instructions, directions, and moral judgments. When this happens, the child feels misunderstood, angry or defensive. A secondary result may be that they ignore what the parent is saying and attempt to protect themselves in any way they can. They may slouch; explode verbally or even physically; become apathetic; express indignation or communicate the physical pain of "hurt feelings". On the other hand, they may passively accept what is said and change their behavior accordingly. They may also bury their anger in a quiet rage. If they do this, they may hit back at a later time, possibly in some unexplainable outburst. The outburst may be masked, appearing as hostility, delinquency or physical symptoms. They may also take out their anger on themselves. In this case, it might appear as depression, drug use, or failing at school. A girl might become pregnant out of wedlock. This is the "You'll be sorry when I die" way of getting back. Parents often go through similar mental operations when they think that their values or authority are being challenged. However, because adults are older, often bigger, and in many ways more powerful, the results are different. The types of parental instructions, directions, and moral judgments mentioned earlier are all forms of defensiveness. It is interesting to note that the defensive reaction on the part of the parent or child may not occur in relation to someone else's child or parent, unless the other person is seen as a direct parent-substitute (as in the case of a policeman or other authority figure). Because of this, a teen-ager may talk openly and freely with a trusted adult confidant and may even take pretty strong criticism from them without feeling defensive or disenchented. Similarly an adult can often be a lot more tolerant and supportive of a neighbor's child than their own. Defensiveness results from feelings of being threatened. Things which are especially close to us are apt to appear more threatening during times of conflict. When someone we care about shows disapproval or anger, it means more than when it comes from a relative stranger. By the same token, the loss of someone we love is more important than that of a distant acquaintance. The failure of our own child is usually more important than the failure of a friend's or neighbor's. When faced with threat, human beings characteristically defend themselves by using attack, withdrawal, or any of a variety of psychological defense tactics. Many of the problems between adults and youth seem to have some of this defensiveness at their core. When in situations of conflict, each "side" boxes itself in. They become increasingly defensive of their position. As a result, they evoke still more defensiveness. The noise which results in these battles often hides what is being said. As the battle rages, neither parents nor children ever stop to think about what the battle may be about. For example, a minor disagreement over the use of the family car can erupt into an attack by a 17 year old son on the parents' alleged selfishness, preoccupation with material things, old fashioned attitudes toward sex, and incompetence in driving. The parents may respond with comments about their son's incompetent driving, low quality friends, tendency to eat or drink too much, poor grades, and political attitudes. Quite likely, none of these arguments may even be related to the fact that the son has asked for the car in an abrupt voice because he thought his girlfriend was mad at him that day and the parents refused to let him have it because the son of an acquaintance was injured in a recent accident. After such an exchange, it's likely that both sides have forgotten what they are arguing about. Unfortunately, everyone is left with an uncomfortable feeling of anger, which is usually followed by a sense of having been hurt for no apparent reason. Misunderstandings like this clearly indicate that one important step toward the improvement of parent-child relationships is the clarification of the substance of communications between parents and their children. If this can be done, then what is being transmitted and what is being received may more closely approximate each other and are more directly relevant to the issues at hand.


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