KNOW WHAT I MEAN!
(What is Meant)
||I don’t like your choice.
down, watch out.
||I’m scared you might get hurt
know better than that!
||I’m disgusted with you!
||Don’t embarrass me.
are you doing?
really is a good one.
||Choose this one.
did I say?
||I’m disappointed in you.
that’s what I think.
||You’re about to get into BIG trouble!
do this all the time.
||Agree or be damned!
|| I am disappointed, disgusted, and hurt.
you say is often not what you mean. In
addition, it is often not what is understood by your child or other person you
are talking to. Every communication
contains both the explicit message and the implicit message.
Children are very intuitive about recognizing what the "real"
message is (whether or not the adult recognizes or admits what his/her own
“real” message is!). Sometimes,
adults claim to present a reasonable and fair message, but actually are
expressing frustration, disappointment, and anger quite clearly with their
implicit message. When I work with
couples in therapy, they often have disagreements about what was meant in an
earlier discussion or argument. Normally,
the verbal communication was relatively straightforward. However the nonverbal communication was open to
interpretation. Often times, the
interpretation would be highly negative. Relatively
simple comments would be interpreted like negatively.
For example, the question, "Did you take out the garbage?" is
interpreted as an accusation, "You never take out the garbage. You don't
follow through. I'm tired of asking you. You don't do your share...” Or,
"You're doubting me. You're trying to control me. You're pushing me. You
think I'm unreliable..." (I actually had a couple spend half a session
arguing about taking out the garbage! They
were unable to explicitly communicate with each other, but attacked each other
implicitly around the garbage!). Sometimes,
the interpretation of the implicit messages is absolutely correct!
messages become a sneaky way to attack or criticize the other person while
claiming to be reasonable and innocent. This
inherent dishonesty complicates the relationship between any two people.
An adult is more likely to challenge the discrepancy between the overt
message and the covert message. He
or she will note the difference between the verbal message and the nonverbal
message -- the tone, the facial expression or body language, and action or lack
of action. For example, the truth of the verbal statement "I'm
listening" will be negated by nonverbal communication if spoken in a harsh
cold tone, or accompanied by a frown, or with arms folded across the chest, or
is spoken while reading a newspaper. Young
children, on the other hand, can be confused by the discrepancy between the
verbal and non-verbal messages. Or,
when they are older and more sophisticated (as sophisticated as teens can be!),
they recognize the discrepancy and may ascribe it to a fundamental dishonesty of
particular or all adults. They then may distrust everything those particular or all
is important to be honest with yourself about how you feel and what you want to
communicate. There are many times
in frustration and anger that we may want to lash out, but inhibit ourselves
from doing so. This is often quite
appropriate. Lashing out can often
cause great harm. However, is
normal to be frustrated and angry, and important to acknowledge and accept the
reality of the feelings. If you do
not accept your own humanity, you will attempt to deceive yourself and others in
your communication- “I am not angry!!”
Unfortunately, when you do this, you often present a mismatched
communication, where the verbal is contradicted by the nonverbal.
Children usually are accepting of the communication from adults as being
straightforward and consistent. However,
they are also very intuitive regarding the nonverbal communications.
They will get the verbal communication and be confused that the nonverbal
communications does not match. If
the adult denies the dishonesty in the communication, then the child will be
even further confused. The child
will begin to doubt his/her own ability to correctly interpret the world.
This will create insecurity not only about his/her relationship with the
adult, but also about his/her safety in the world at-large.
TOLD YOU THAT!
not say, “You need to cooperate,” when you mean, “Do what I say.”
Do not say, “You need to share,” when you really mean, “Stop
arguing.” Do not say, “Be
good,” when your deeper fear and command is, “ Don't embarrass me.”
Such deeper messages may be difficult to comply with, but they are even
more difficult when they are not clearly presented and are obscured by the
explicit verbal message. In
addition, some of these covert messages are impossible for a child to comply
with. If the embarrassment fear
comes from the adult’s childhood stresses and traumas and has become an
ingrained sense of shame, then “Don’t embarrass me,” becomes far too deep
and complex a command for a child to handle.
That would make the child feel incompetent or inadequate.
Other communications can be even more directly harmful.
The statement, “I told you that!” can be particularly
dangerous. That statement is not
merely a reminder of earlier commands or even of current frustration. It clearly implies that there is something very wrong about
the child because he/she did not remember.
The child will be consumed with guilt that he/she failed at what he/she
should have remembered. As opposed
to having been very human… very much a child and had been distracted or had
forgotten what was not particularly an urgency with him/her.
a parent is very upset (anxious, fearful, worried), the upset often becomes
anger. This can be especially true
for men. One of the consequences of
male cultural training is the tendency for boys and men to be very uncomfortable
with their more vulnerable emotions. As
boys and men were trained to be warriors, their vulnerable and gentle feelings
(sadness, loss, distress, anxiety, fear, and such) were discouraged as
unsuitable and even hazardous to the demands of warfare.
This training continues today to a large degree, as boys are trained (and
shamed) to deny and avoid such feelings as not masculine and weak.
As these aspects of their humanity are denied, the emotional energy is
often diverted to (even encouraged to express as) anger.
Unfortunately, this means that when some boys and men feel any of these
vulnerable feelings, they quickly jump away from them and express and act out
with anger. Domestic violence can
be seen as a direct consequence of some men’s inability to handle the
emotional challenges of intimacy- to be sad, disappointed, distressed, anxious,
or hurt in a relationship without descending into anger and the violence that it
may precipitate. While men may be
particularly culturally vulnerable to this distress or upset to anger dynamic,
many women are also so inclined from the experiences of their lives.
“DON’T” TO “DO”
discussed in the previous article, intense anger can be very distracting from
the point of discipline- teaching appropriate behavior.
Interpreting the intended or desirable (not the same thing) message often
becomes difficult for children. Or,
a message may be incompletely understood.
For example when you give, a "Don't…" command to a child, do
you also give “Do…” options? “Don’t
run inside” clearly defines what your child should not or cannot do- run
inside. However it does not tell
him/her what to do.
It does not give any guidance or suggestion as to what he/she is to do
with his/her physical energy and need to be active. What is the opposite of “Don’t run inside?”
Many people will answer, “walk inside.”
However “walk inside” while it helps manage household safety and
lessons the likelihood of unexpected crashes and destruction and helps with your
peace of mind, it does nothing for the high energy within the child seeking
expression. “Go outside and run
around,” “Put on some music so you can dance,” or
“Let’s take a walk,” are ways to complete the “don’t” command
with “do” options.
often, parents are quite adept at telling a child what NOT to do- things the
child shouldn’t do because they are dangerous, or messy, or inconvenient.
However, what can result is a kid with pent-up energy and no way to
express it. He/she become like a
hot water kettle under heat that needs to let off steam, but has it’s spout
stopped up. And, like such a
kettle, the child is also likely to explode dangerously.
Unlike a kettle, a child can keep it all inside if parents are demanding
and harsh. However, the pent-up
energy will cause internal harm- emotional and psychological harm. It is
important to train yourself to use
affirmative phrases when disciplining children.
“Stop it,” tells the child to terminate activity that is immediately
satisfying. “Finish it later,” tells the child to delay the satisfaction of
being active and involved in the moment. Both
need to be counter-balanced with “Do this other rewarding and energy
satisfying activity (which is more suited to indoor activity, the occasion, the
circumstances, and so forth) instead.” When
I was the owner and director (and head teacher) of my own preschool program, I
spent considerable energy and was largely able to train myself to balance each
“no” and “don’t” with a “yes, do this instead.”
The result was a far more positive atmosphere in the program; children
whose energy was more respected and who learn more productive ways to express
such energy; and a greater serenity on my part as I felt more positive and less
of a negative and punitive enforcer. And
it wasn’t easy! It took me quite
a while and a lot of energy to be able to be positive consistently with the
preschool children- and of course, I would still lapse sometimes!
A definite additional benefit was that when there was an urgency- a need
to say “no”, the children would respond more quickly and completely to a
strong “no” from me since they didn’t get “no’s” from me all day
long. Repeated telling children
“no” and “don’t…” leads children to ignore or minimize such commands
HOW MANY TIMES DO I NEED TO TELL YOU THAT?
often have learned to communicate using rhetorical
questions. The problem with
rhetorical questions is that they are normally statements spoken in the form of
questions. This often confuses
young children. Once when we took
our small preschool of 30 children out a walking field trip in out neighborhood.
There was a wide and busy street (two lanes each way for a total of 4
lanes) that we wanted to cross. When
the red light turned to green, we started to cross- a long line of fifteen pairs
of children holding hands with one teacher in front, one in the back, and two in
the middle. As you can imagine, the
children were not the most efficient hustling across the street.
The light turned to yellow while the end of the line of children was
still in the middle of the street. As
usual, some of the children were distracted by the cars, the people, the stores,
and whatever else they could see, and were walking very slowly.
One of the teachers got a bit flustered with the imminent red light, and
said to the kids, “What do you think you’re doing?”
You or I as adults would recognize the rhetorical question as a
complaint, “I don’t like what you are doing (walking slowly).”
And, a command, “I want you to do change what you are doing (walk
faster).” Unfortunately, the
children did not understand it that way. They
did understand that they had been asked a question, and that when adults ask
questions, children are expected to give an answer. So, several of the children (who can have difficulty doing
more than one thing at a time), stopped in the middle of the street as
they thought, “What am I doing? Must
be a trick question because I thought I was walking across the street… like
the teacher wanted… but maybe she doesn’t want me to walk across the street,
because I can tell by her tone and face that’s she’s upset… maybe mad at
me. What did I do wrong?
What am I doing wrong? What
am I doing?” And then,
the teacher became even more flustered as part of the line of children stalled
out in the middle of the street! And
more upset with the children… upset because they were not cognitively and
socially sophisticated enough to understand rhetorical questions.
It was confusing for the children because they did understand that the
teacher was upset with them but they did not know what for.
attempt to answer rhetorical questions becomes automatically an admission to the
truth or relevance of the implicit statement underlying it.
The frustration question, “How many times do I need to tell you
that?” may not only be confusing to a child, but it can also be a particularly
dangerous rhetorical question. The implicit statement is that “I have told you many times
before, and yet you still don’t understand or obey. Therefore, you must be extremely stupid, that you still
don’t understand or obey. Or, are
being purposely defiant because you are such a bad child!” If the child attempts to answer the question, he/she admits
to being either stupid or bad. Don’t
trap your children with rhetorical questions.
Be aware of your frustration and other emotions so that they don’t come
out in ways that harm your children’s emotional well being.
Your communication can be clearer and cleaner when you’re self-aware-
you can say what you mean, and your children will receive communication as it is
intended and be able to respond more appropriately.
In discipline communication, this is even more critical because you are
shaping your child’s current and future successes or failures with social
interactions and relationships.
DEVELOPMENT- WHEN WINNING MEANS LOSING
woman was near death from cancer. A
druggist had discovered a drug that could save her.
The druggist was charging $2000 for a small dose of the drug- 10 times
what it cost him to make. The sick
woman’s husband, Heinz, borrowed as much as he could, but could get together
only about $1000. He told the
druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him
pay later. But the druggist said,
“No. I discovered the drug and
I’m going to make money from it.” Heinz,
desperate, broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have done that?
Why or why not? (Lawrence Kohlberg, 1969).
Heinz will get into trouble. The
druggist isn’t bad. He has a
right to make money.
||Yes, it’s okay. It’s not
worth that much
money. His wife needs it.
He has to steal it to save her.
stealing is bad. And it’s not his fault the
druggist is greedy. But it’s still wrong.
||Yes, it’s what he has to do as a good husband
He can’t let his wife die. He’s
although you can’t blame him, you can’t
have people defying the law when they feel
justified- consider the community values.
||Yes, it isn’t right, but it is justified.
preserve the life of his wife has greater moral
justification than the rule not to steal.
constantly face choices in their lives. As
they make choices, the consequences of their choices determine the principles
around which they follow throughout their lives.
Power and control are among the motivations that determine such choices.
Children constantly try to get more power and control in their lives (and
more candy, and more toys, and more TV time, and more and more!).
Adults continue this struggle with employment, education, housing,
luxuries, and so forth. When the
drive for power and control becomes the overwhelming driving force for anyone,
then other issues including morality, social responsibility, others’ well
being, and the community welfare can be lost.
There are times when adults must not allow a child to “win” a power
struggle (and many times, when a child should be allowed to win- another article
at another time). Sometimes a child
will try to prevail around some issue or circumstance because of short-term
gratuitous motivations that may have significant harmful long-term consequences:
gaining an extra cookie that leads to an upset stomach… or a loss of appetite
for the healthy meal… or poor lifelong eating habits… or eventual
nutritional and health problems; or a delay in going to bed to watch more
television that leads to difficulty waking up the next morning… or poor
concentration in class… or moodiness that harms relationships with peers… or
an enduring habit of intimidation to force his/her will upon others… or an
irresponsible sense of entitlement. The
potential for negative learning, the development of harmful habits, and of
dysfunctional processes to deal with life and relationships becomes high if
children “win” such negative power struggles.
Adults need to provide the discipline- the boundaries and consequences to
shape children into becoming healthy individually sound and socially responsible
are extremely practical. They have
a functional logic- a functional morality.
“If it works, then it’s good… if it doesn’t work, then it’s
bad.” Or, “if I can get away
with it, then it’s good… if I can’t get away with it, then it’s bad.” Unfortunately, that sounds like a lot of adults as well.
It becomes vital to make sure (with proper discipline) that poor choices
do not “work”- that is, they are not rewarded for the poor choices; and that
positive choices “work”- that is, they are rewarded for the positive choice.
Do not let the children “win” when they make poor choices.
If they “win” this way, they will lose.
Be sure to have them “win” when they make positive choices. If they
“win” this way, they will win in life.
This simple functional morality needs to be understood, “accepted,”
and then used to move them toward more sophisticated and higher morality.
Adults will often try to teach higher and more advanced forms of morality
to young children whether or not they are developmentally (cognitively,
emotionally, psychologically, or socially) ready to understand.
While the children often can respond verbatim with the correct answers to
moral dilemmas as presented by adults, when faced with actual choices, they are
driven by morality that is largely determined by their developmental stage. This also means that children can make the “right”
(correct) choices that adults want them to make, but often for the “wrong”
(incorrect) reasons. The choices
often come from a functional morality rather than from internalizing the
principles and values of adults such as parents or teachers.
If not approached developmentally, but instead with rigidity and demands
for compliance, children will stay in functional morality into adulthood and be
removed from the higher morality of autonomous individuals who are socially and
community conscious adults. Recognizing
and accepting the simple morality of young children allows adults to more
successfully move them forward to higher more authentic morality.
In other words, you cannot simply make a child into a moral person with
demands and harshness. If you attempt this, they become vulnerable to responding
rigidly and without any evaluative skills of their own.
You see children who are paralyzed… who are unable make even simple
choices, because they need definition from authority figures as to what the
“right” choice is. There are
many adults who do not have enough ego strength and require someone else (a
political figure, a religious leader, a guru, a psychic, or other authoritative
and charismatic personality) to tell them what life choices to make.
Uncertainty becomes certain only “because Mommy says it’s ok.”
Eventually, it can become “Because such and such leader says it’s
this certainty often remains only words rather than expressed in subsequent
behavior. How many times has you
seen a child (your child, perhaps!) spout the morality of the family or
classroom (or of the Christmas “naughty or nice” doctrine) and then turn
around immediately to sneak an extra cookie, push to grab, or tell Santa how
well behaved he/she has been because he/she thinks he/she can get away with it!? Or, of a child graving committing to the rules of the home or
of the circumstance (not to beg for a toy or treat during a visit to the store,
for example), and then seize the moment to violate his/her commitment, because
he/she knows he/she can get the toy or treat?
How terribly similar to the numerous community, government, business,
military, and even religious leaders who too often chose selfish gratification
over their most fundamental moral commitments to serve their peoples, charges,
and societies. There have been many
in positions of power and influence who have transgressed with impunity because
they could get away with it. Because
it was possible and they felt they would go unpunished, they indulged in
temptations of money, sexual improprieties, power, property, and crimes against
people and institutions. Yet, they
then still claim to be “nice” rather than admit to having been
“naughty!” To claim to have
been righteous despite destroying the lives and livelihoods of thousands and
corrupting the integrity of organizations and companies.
And, refuse to take responsibility and blame others instead.
“Uh uh! I didn’t do it.
He did it! I’m a good
boy!” Sometimes, the denial of complicity works, and children (or
adults) get away with the mischievous and even the reprehensible.
And learns both that they can get away with the morally improper
behavior… and that denial and lying works as well.
Unaddressed, this methodology carries into adulthood in the most horrible
OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT
Kohlberg presented a very useful theory of moral development that is based on
both cognitive development and interaction with the world.
It is important to note that these are principles rather than rigid
standards. The ages should be
viewed as age ranges rather than absolutes.
He broke moral development into three levels each with two stages:
I: Preconventional Morality (ages 4-10).
The emphasis in this level is on external control.
The standards are those of others, and they are observed either to avoid
punishment or to reap rewards.
Stage 1: Orientation toward
punishment and obedience. “What
will happen to me?” Children obey
rules of others to avoid punishment. They
ignore the motives of an act and focus on its physical form (such as the size of
a lie) or its consequences (for example, the amount of physical damage).
Stage 2: Instrumental
purpose and exchange. “You
scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Children conform to rules out of self-interest and
consideration for what others can do for them in return.
They look at an act in terms of the human needs it meets and
differentiate this value from the act’s physical form and consequences.
II: Morality of Conventional Role Conformity (ages 10-13).
Children now want to please other people.
They still observe the standards of others, but they have internalized
these standards to some extent. Now
they want to be considered “good” by those persons whose opinions are
important to them. They are now
able to take the roles of authority figures well enough to decide whether an
action is good by their standards.
Stage 3: Maintaining mutual
relations, approval of others, the golden rule.
Am I a good boy or girl?” Children
want to please and help others, can judge the intentions of others, and develop
their own ideas of what a good person is. They
evaluate an act according to the motive behind it or the person performing it,
and they take circumstances into account.
Stage 4: Social concern and
conscience. “What if
everybody did it?” People are
concerned with doing their duty, showing respect for higher authority, and
maintaining the social order. They
consider an act always wrong, regardless of motive or circumstances, if it
violates a rule and harms others.
III: Morality of Autonomous Moral Principles (ages 13, or not until young
adulthood, or never). This level marks the attainment of true morality.
For the first time, the person acknowledges the possibility of conflict
between two socially accepted standards and tries to decide between them.
The control of conduct is not internal, both in the standards observed
and in the reasoning about right and wrong.
Stages 5 and 6 may be alternative methods of the highest level or moral
Stage 5: Morality of
contract, of individual rights, and of democratically accepted law.
People think in rational terms, valuing the will of the majority and the
welfare of society. They generally
see these values best supported by adherence to the law.
While they recognize that there are times when human need and the law
conflict, they believe that it is better for society in the long run if they
obey the law.
Stage 6: Morality of
universal ethical principles. People do what they as individuals think right, regardless of
legal restrictions or the opinions of others.
They act in accordance with internalized standards, knowing that they
could condemn themselves if they did not. (adapted from Kohlberg, 1969, 1976).
are often drawn to the highest levels of morality as expressed in Level 3,
Stages 5 and 6, and wish to instill such values in their children.
However, children cannot jump ahead to these levels without successfully
going through the earlier stages. As
with all developmental theories, the rules of sequence, progression, and the
requirement for satiation of each developmental stage hold true.
Attempting to skip or rush through stages will inevitably cause one to be
pulled back to that stage again. Stress,
trauma, or abuse will cause people to regress back to or cause people to get
stuck at earlier stages. Moral
development can also get stuck at earlier stages, or people can regress to
earlier less autonomous moral stages- Level 1 morality.
“HIGHER” AND “LOWER” MORALITY
your child functions at a “lower” moral level, consider your child’s age. If his/her moral reasoning matches up with his/her
developmental level, then the extent of your concern need not be as great.
Verbalize and teach the “higher” moral principles but do not expect
children to necessarily internalize such principles.
In addition to verbalizing the “higher” moral principles, be sure to
set expectations, boundaries, and consequences that are appropriate to their
developmental stage. For example,
it can be appropriate for you explain that they should not lie about doing their
homework because of how it harms the trust between you and them- a sacred
relationship, of how a person’s word is the foundation to his/her self-respect
and affects his/her self-esteem and reputation in the community, and how you
want them to live up to high moral standards so they can have lives of integrity
and fulfillment (Level 3: Stages 5 & 6 morality).
However (as they look at you with open mouths, wondering, “What is s/he
talking about!?”), you also need express and discipline in the “lower”
moral language. Direct them toward
how such behavior if common (“What if everybody did it?”) harms communities
(families, classrooms, workplace, etc.), how it causes people see them
negatively and harm their reputation (“Not what a good kid does”) (Level 2:
Stages 3 & 4); and how it will cause others to do bad things back to them
(“Do you want people to lie to you?”), and that they will suffer negative
consequences if they lie (“And, you will be on timeout for lying and won’t
get to play”) (Level 1: Stages 1 & 2).
foundation of the higher levels of morality is in the first level.
It cannot be skipped. And,
it also needs to be surpassed for children to lead moral lives in adulthood.
It may be frustrating when you expect your child (and he/she is old
enough) to function at higher levels of morality and he/she functions at a lower
level (avoidance of punishment, for example).
The recovery process to help your child to more appropriate morality can
be complex, but regardless, the foundation is to reassert the Preconventional
Morality principles and consequences in disciplining him/her.
If you waver and let him/her “win” inappropriately, none of the
higher principles will ever be accepted or internalized.
AND OPEN OR CLOSED COMMUNICATION
my preschool and daycare program, we used to have all kinds of animals.
In the backyard, we kept a duck that roamed around most of the time.
One day, the children found a duck egg in the bushes!
This brought about a frenzied search throughout the yard for more eggs.
The duck had been very busy- there were more than a dozen eggs!
The kids came inside to tell me about their discoveries, “The duck laid
eggs… the duck laid eggs!” Bright
eyed and flushed with excitement, little four year old Tammy asked THE QUESTION,
“Are we going to have baby ducks!?” Oh
oh… the birds and the bees sex education question!
Or the ducks and the eggs question!
to give a good answer, I said, “Well, no Tammy… we’re not going to have
baby ducks. You see our duck, Uggy
could be the mommy duck, but there can’t be any baby ducks unless there’s a
daddy duck too. Because the mommy
duck has the eggs but the daddy duck has to give the mommy duck a little
thing… uh… called a sperm, like a seed to make the egg grow to be a baby
duck. And, we don’t have a daddy
duck, just a mommy duck. So Uggy
can lay eggs but the eggs won’t have baby ducks.”
Not bad, huh? And, I could
have stopped there… but Noooo, I had to continue because I am an educator!
see, like you Tammy. When you’re
older, you will have eggs in your body all the time too… but you won’t lay
eggs! They’ll be inside you. But
you won’t have babies grow all the time!
You can’t have a baby grow from your egg unless there’s a daddy
(someone very special, we hope) to give you the sperm to make the egg grow.”
I was rolling! Clear…
honest… developmentally appropriate… what an educator!
That college education was showing!
Tammy stared at me with a deep serious look.
Then her face broke into a big smile, and with a gleam in her eyes she
said teasingly, “Silly man! I’m
not a duck!”
we are so interested in seizing a teachable moment, that we teach what children
are not interested in, or teach beyond their capacity to understand. “No Tammy, we’re not going to have any baby ducks! There
has to be a daddy duck too,” would have been enough… maybe just a “no”
would have been enough. However,
discipline is very much about education. You
just have to be clear about what the children are learning versus what you are
trying to teach. Good
communications are key to good education and good discipline.
Good communications convey validation that the other person is valued,
and connection between the speaker and the other person.
The communication is more than the words spoken.
As I mentioned before, it includes gestures, body language, facial
expressions, voice tone, touch, action and the lack of action.
When the non-verbal does not match up with the verbal, for example, you
say “I’ll be there in a minute,” but don’t show up as you are
distracted, the lack of action communicates that the other person does not count
(is invalidating) and is not connected.
oriented relationship building is based on the theory that poor communication
and misunderstandings create a loss of self-esteem and, thus are the basis of
dysfunctional relationships. Better
and improved skills in giving and receiving communication become the key to
giving and gaining self-esteem, improving relationships and facilitating healthy
strong children. Members of a
family must learn how to identify the implicit aspects of communication within
the family- the covert communication.
These are the messages that are sensed, assessed, and responded to
consciously and subconsciously in addition to the overt communication (the words
spoken). Children make guesses at
what may be the underlying communication. Tammy,
in the above situation, since she did not understand my well intended but
confusing over-explanations and comparisons, made a guess that I was joking-
teasing her. In this case, it was a
benign misinterpretation. However,
there are often situations where the misinterpretation can be harmful.
For example, if I had found the question about baby ducks uncomfortable,
any answer I may have given could have been tainted with my anxiety about a sex
education question. My anxiety
could have inadvertently communicated to the kids that I was upset with them for
bringing up such a question. That
they were “bad” to ask such questions.
They may then refrain from asking such questions again.
In addition, what they interpret and “learn” from their families
becomes transferred to their interactions with other people in other
circumstances: another family, at school, with grandparents, and so forth.
Such assumptions can be very problematic if they do not match up well
with the expectations of new group. For
example, if a child is told that he/she is to try harder and the implicit
message through tone, facial expressions, and body posture is of anger and
disappointment, then when he/she is urged by his/her teacher to try harder on a
project, the child may interpret the encouragement as criticism from a
disappointed upset adult. Recently,
a major supermarket chain, began requiring its staff to constantly smile and
greet their customers with a “How are you?” and/or “Could I help you?”
The intention was create a friendlier customer-pleasing atmosphere in the
supermarkets. Unfortunately, some
customers misinterpreted the implicit message.
Many of the female supermarket employees became unhappy with the results
of their smiles and greetings, as various male customers responded with
sexualized overtures as they interpreted their courtesies as flirting!
VS. CLOSED COMMUNICATION
communication styles close off communication, while others keep communication
open between and among members of the family, classroom, group, or other system.
Rhetorical questions that come out of frustration can close off
communication. “How stupid do you
think I am!?” pretty much traps the child.
“About this stupid… not too stupid” obviously won’t, but even
saying “I don’t think you’re stupid” would only bring the retort, “So
why do you act like I’m stupid?” Any reply implies agreement with the
stupidity accusation. And a denial
would also provoke more anger. It
is important to identify closed communication styles versus open styles.
Here are eight examples of conversation or communication stoppers.
Earl: I got a new dog!
He’s so smart. He…
Glen: Joe got a new cat.
Earl: Well, my dog is really a puppy.
Glen: Joe’s cat is full-grown.
Earl: Oh, how come he didn’t get a kitten?
I dunno. Her cat is real
fluffy with brown and orange spots. It’s
real friendly. It has a real loud
Oh. My puppy…
I don’t want to toilet train a puppy.
That’s why we don’t have one. Cats
a person is trying to express him/herself, the communication becomes the flow of
his/her expression… actually of his/her essence.
Interrupting has the effect of stopping or of denying that flow of
energy. It has the effect of
denying the person’s right to express- essentially the right to exist.
Hi, guess what?
Remember my friend who you met at the Valentines Day party?
Yeah, I think. His name
Is he your friend from church or from your old school?
I know him from my old school. Anyway,
Juan and I saw you and Michael the other night, and…
Where did you see us?
At the movie theater.
When? Was it at night or
during the day?
I’m not sure. I guess it
was on Saturday night.
What was the movie?
I don’t know. Uh… I
don’t remember. It was
It was the new movie with that guy from the TV series.
Did you like the scene where the guy was stuck in the water?
Yeah… that happened to me before.
Last year I guess.
When last year? During the
It was during the summer… about middle of July.
Where’d it happen?
In the river.
What river? You mean the
Hey, I was trying to tell you something about Juan and me!
What?! You’re trying to
evade my questions. Just answer me!
original speaker has found important enough to try to convey.
When someone probes, it can have the effect of redirecting the
communication to what the receiver wants to know, rather than what the original
communicator was trying to express or share.
The implicit message is what the originator is trying to express is
unimportant. On the other hand, probing if it extends what the person is
expressing can be a sign of interest in the communication.
Jen, could you help me with this please?
Poor Raj… Always needing help.
Well, I need help this time. It’s
hard to lift. Could you help me
with the other end?
Sure, I’ll help. Not
strong enough, huh?
Whatever. Let’s lift this
Well, you certainly try hard. Such
a hard worker. Keep it up.
All right already. Grab it
and we’ll put it over there I think.
Why you want to put it there? That’s
a lousy place to put it. Stupid!
It might rain. If we put it
over there, it won’t get wet.
Oh yeah. Smart guy!
It’s going to rain tonight. You’re
smarter than I thought.
cripples communication as the originator will become wary or even paralyzed by
fear that his/her thoughts or feelings will be attacked, critiqued, and found
wanting. Instead of focusing on the
topic the speaker has found to be urgent or interesting, the receiver of the
communication focuses on the fallibility of the speaker’s opinions.
Open communication is shut down.
I’ll meet you at the flagpole so we can walk home together.
Uh, I can’t. I’m going
to stay after school for a bit. I
need to talk to the teacher.
Uh oh! You got into trouble
No, I didn’t. I just need
to talk to the teacher about the project I’m working on.
Yeah, right. You’re just
trying to kiss up to the teacher.
Nah… I need to ask the teacher about something.
Trying to get the teacher to give you all the answers- that’s what
Uh uh. I just need to get
some help on a couple of parts.
Sure you are! Hmmm?
You just don’t want to walk home with me!
a therapist, I am allowed (sometimes!) to interpret what my clients are saying.
However, if I interpret what my wife or kids are saying all the time,
I’d be in deep trouble! While it
can be a useful therapeutic process, interpreting also implies that what is
being said has a deeper alternative meaning that the speaker is unaware of.
Clients in therapy give permission for the therapist to make such
interpretations. Your partner or
your child or other family or friend normally does NOT give such permission, and
experiences it as invalidating. However,
it can be beneficial if permission is given.
Wow. I’ve got so much
I have more homework than you.
You’re always trying to outdo me.
Yeah. If I say I have a lot
of homework, you always have more. If
I’m good at something, you always want to be better.
Whatever. You didn’t give
me back my book.
Yes, I did. I gave it back
I don’t think so. Just
check your backpack.
I can’t help it if you lost track of your book.
I don’t lose my stuff. Just
more organized than you are. Oh…
here it is.
You make me nuts!
a person communicates, he/she is normally sharing something important or
interesting in his/her life with someone important to him/her.
It is a process and dynamic between two equals with mutual interests.
The power is equal or not relevant.
However, when one is confronted with a competition for supremacy, then
sharing becomes allowing oneself vulnerable to a hostile party.
This is particularly unhealthy between a parent and a child.
Unfortunately, some parents with low self-esteem do compete against their
children. And of course, the
children will lose… in many ways.
Looks like something is bugging you.
Yeah… I got a bad grade on the History test.
Oh… that’s too bad. Why
don’t you ask the teacher for another chance at the test?
You mean take the test all over again.
Yep. And next time, be sure
to study. You need to study for a
test if you want to get a good grade.
Yeah. I know that. The problem is that I did study for it.
Well, you probably didn’t study long enough.
Listen to my advice; you need to study at least a couple of hours to do
well on any classroom test. And,
you have to have a good quiet place to study- not the kitchen table.
And having a study partner is really good.
My buddy, Arturo studied with me.
No wonder. That won’t
work. You need a tutor or an adult to help you.
You should get a tutor or your Mom to help you.
Yep. That always was what I did.
Really? How’d you do on
tests? Did you get good History
What? Don’t worry about
that. Just be sure you study the
right way for the next test.
are many situations where a person may seek advice.
When someone seeks advice, he/she places him/herself in a supplicant
position symbolically. One seeks
advice from someone who is more knowledgeable, more experienced, or wiser; or to
get an alternative perspective because one’s own perspective may not be clear
enough to act. Responding to a
sharing of information with advice changes the dynamic of communication-
normally without the speaker’s permission, often putting the speaker in the
one down position. There will be
times when your child asks for advice (and many times when you want to give
advice), but knowing when it is desired or not- whether it will be well received
or considered or not is vital to the overall relationship.
Hey. I just got back from
camping with my family. We went to
We were at the lake a month or two ago.
We camped out too. My uncle
taught me how to fish. It was cool;
I caught more than he did. He was
the expert, but I caught the most fish. The
lake is real nice. I really like
it… especially camping by it. I
learned how to start a fire… a campfire from scratch.
We did our cooking on the campfire.
Hot dogs, s’mores, and even coffee for the adults.
Uh… we did a fire too.
It was great! I wish we
could have stayed longer. We stayed
two weeks. I didn’t want to go
home. My cousin hid when it was
time to leave! We couldn’t find
him for 15 minutes. He just
didn’t want to go home. Boy, that
fish was good to eat too. We
ate a whole bunch. Fried with some
green onions. Yum!
I got a new fishing pole too. I
had an old one but this was a new model. Really
cool. Caught a lot of fish.
You know, there’s a lot of different fish in that lake.
I like fishing too. I
Big mouth bass. That’s my
favorite. There were some of those
too. I got some.
My uncle caught some too. I
didn’t like cleaning them though. Too
messy and slippery. But I had to
clean my own fish. Yuk.
But yum to eat later! We saw
some deer up there too. A mother
and two fawns walked right pass our camp. Oh
well, it’s getting late. I have
to go now. Thanks for telling me about your trip.
are not interested in the other person’s sharing.
They are most interested in turning any speaker into an audience.
Gaining the other person’s attention is the point of any interaction.
Sharing the attention or allowing for a mutual reciprocal relationship is
not desirable. Dominators do not
allow others to have a voice… to count.
Did you go to the game yesterday?
Yeah, I was there, but I didn’t see you.
Were you there too?
You blind or what? Can’t
see straight? I was there the whole
Hmmm. Well, I didn’t see
you at all.
Dang idiot! I did the
scoreboard the first quarter of the game. I
was at the scorer’s table.
I must have missed it. I
came a little late.
Late… late… later… slowpoke that’s you.
Don’t you ever get anywhere on time?
Sure I do. I’m here today
For once in your life.
I’m not that late all the time. You
should talk. You were late
yesterday to meeting. And last
week, you were late too.
No way, Kim-head. I was on
No, you were late.
No I wasn’t, punk breath!
Yes you were, noodle noggin!
people are playfully tease each other AND the teasing is received playfully.
Clear non-verbal messages of affection and playfulness AND permission
distinguish this playful teasing from putdowns.
Putdowns are intended to take people down in status and there is not the
reciprocal permission in playful mutual teasing.
When there exists an already inherent power or status difference between
two people, then “playful” teasing is more likely to be experienced as
putdowns. In any relationship, when
someone handles communication by habitually attacking the other person, he/she
turns a conversation into a battle. Enough
of these battles, the relationship turns into a war.
Unfortunately, this happens between couples and within families between
parents and children.
eight conversation stoppers are harmful in any communication but become
especially dangerous when involved in the communication of discipline.
Interrupting, probing, judging, interpreting, confronting, and advising
can have appropriate application at times in communication and discipline
communication, but one needs to be wary of them becoming over exercised.
Dominating and put downs, however, are always dangerous.
Although, I missed in discussing eggs and ducks with Tammy, the
communication stayed open. Tammy
misinterpreted my message but still felt safe to tease me back.
Positive interactions had kept the relationship healthy so that it could
tolerate a well-intended “educator.” The
next article will continue on the role of communication in discipline and
CAN’T TELL GRANDMA THAT!”- RULES AND RITUALS
time in therapy working with a teenage boy Alberto, the topic of his grandmother
who lived with him and his parents came up.
Grandma had suffered a minor injury in her right leg as a result of a car
accident. As a result, Grandma was
using a cane to get around the house for the time being.
She was expected to have a full recovery within a month or so.
However, Grandma, who was fiercely independent would not slow down or
restrict her activities one bit. Fortunately,
since the injury to her leg made it impossible for her to drive, the family was
able to control her activities somewhat since she would need them to drive her
to places. But at home, she would
insist on moving around, carrying her things (such as her plate to the TV tray
from the kitchen) while balancing on her bad leg and cane. Alberto told me that
the whole family was stressed worrying that she might fall down and really hurt
suggested to Alberto, that he tell his grandmother that everyone knew and
respected that she was very independent but that she needed to take it easy for
a little while until her leg got better… to let the others in the family help
her out a little bit. Immediately,
a look of surprise and shock spread across his face, “I can’t tell Grandma
couldn’t Alberto tell his grandmother? It was simple, honest, straightforward, loving, and caring.
But it also would have been violating a huge secret rule of the family.
When I asked Alberto, why he couldn’t tell his grandmother, he
responded, “You just can’t.” When
I insisted “why not?” Alberto didn’t know what to say.
Alberto clearly knew that he couldn’t tell his grandmother that, but he
didn’t know exactly what that actually was! In every family, in every group, in every organization there
are rules that everyone knows and are obligated to follow.
They may be simple household rules such as closing the closet door after
getting your jacket or writing thank-you notes that are openly expressed,
acknowledged, and enforced. Anyone
entering the system of the home, workplace, lunch table, team, etc. usually is
quickly informed of or directed to the rules overtly or covertly, or through the
disapproval of the “violations.” There
is a classic scene in the movie, “The Ten Commandments” where Moses is not
so subtly communicated to by his host to burp his approval over the just
completed dinner. Moses, not knowing the gracious rule of appreciation in his
host’s culture initially is perplexed but eventually comes to the realization
of appropriate behavior. His host
is delighted when Moses finally burps. Moses
received the communication and had learned the “rule” of his host’s
experience this type of implicit learning constantly in their daily lives.
When you enter the DMV to register your car, you quickly scan the office
for communication cues as to where to go. Entering
a new restaurant, you scan to determine whether to seat yourself or to wait for
a host or hostess. Or, when you
enter your new boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s house, you try to figure out
where to sit (or stand!). As your
child enters a new classroom, scout meeting, team meeting, friend’s or
relative’s house, he/she tries to figure out what is ok and what is death to
his/her social status. Outsiders
eventually are told (called an “orientation”), discover, or stumble over
(making social gaffes) the various rules. Insiders
born into a family (or well established over time in a group or job) learn all
the rules through a systemic osmosis- ongoing family communication, gradually
absorbing all the rules and all their nuances and exceptions.
families/systems, in addition to overt rules, also have secrets.
Secrets are often truths that everyone is aware of at some level, but no
one feels safe to communicate. Secrets
are tightly held by individuals and systems to avoid the discomfort that open
acknowledgement of the secret would create.
For example, although everyone knows or has experienced a particular
person in the system (mom, for example) as having trouble with controlling
his/her alcohol use, no one mentions it since acknowledging it would hurt the
person's feelings and/or create tension from the possibility of the person
losing his/her status/position. Or,
everyone knows that a family member has a characterological flaw (a violent
temper, for example) that impedes successful family functioning, but no one
acknowledges it in the group (although two members may acknowledge it between
know not only the rules and all their nuances and exceptions, but also the
secret unexpressed rules. As an
outsider (the therapist), I didn’t know the rules of Alberto’s family, much
less the secret rules. I didn’t
know that breaking the rule would make Grandma uncomfortable… would make
Alberto uncomfortable. Alberto
“knew” the rule in that he was bound by it, but since it was a secret rule,
he had never spoken it out loud nor had it overtly
taught to him out loud. Only
when I, in my ignorance of the family rules, had the audacity to suggest a
violation of that rule, did he have an inkling that there was a rule!
fiercely independent grandmother always asserted her continued competence
despite her advancing age. In fact,
as she faced the normal decline of ambulatory abilities and minor memory, she
was terrified that her decline would leave her senile and helpless (as she had
observed with horror, her grandparents and parents deterioration).
Any hint that she was changing for the worse or mentioning of reduced
competency- even signs of normal and benign aging made her very upset that she
would go into a frantic and angry denial. The
family had learned to defer to her when this happened.
They deferred even though they were often anxious (sometimes, scared to
death!) because her “independence” created dangerous situations for herself
and the family- a forgotten pot cooking on the stove, shaky transit up and down
the stairs, and erratic driving. Her
son and daughter-in-law knew her secret fear consciously, but Alberto and his
siblings obeyed the secret “rule”- never to remind Grandma of her mortality
or aging, or even hint at it. My
query to him to tell his grandmother to ease up while her leg healed was
tantamount to asking him to betray this secret family rule.
family/system has rules about communication (and behavior): who may speak up,
when, and how. For example, there
may be a rule that no one is allowed to directly criticize anyone- or quite
commonly, that no one is allowed to openly criticize dad in particular.
Then in a family meeting, if someone has a criticism of how dad is
acting, s/he will present it in an abstract form rather than specifically naming
dad and his behavior. The family
member might not specifically complain that dad does not do chores and he
should. Such rules can be
transferred unknowingly and in an unhealthy manner into new groups including
marriage and work. I had such
an experience in one of my prior jobs. The
supervisor had a specific issue with one of the staff.
The staff person was not being responsible with some duties and as a
result, caused impediments for other staff in doing their jobs.
As we all sat in the staff meeting, the supervisor began by reiterating
the general expectations and the problems that non-compliance caused.
I remember pondering with great consternation, was he talking about me?
Had I done something? I
glanced at the other staff people, and saw the same looks of confusion- had they
done something? Finally, as he continued with additional issues of concern, I
recognized what the specific issue and the actual person to whom this was all
directed towards, that is, the person who had been irresponsible.
Of course, that person had a look of blissful ignorance and innocence on
his face! That’s another story!
Somehow the supervisor had transferred a rule of communication (probably
from his family experiences)- not to directly confront someone with criticism to
the work situation. Because
this was ineffective, other staff were stuck with the irresponsible co-worker
and had to make up for his deficiencies. Resentment
grew and a distrust that the administration valued their concerns developed.
The staff eventually became acclimated (seduced… intimidated…) to the
secret rule since they were “punished” by the supervisor whenever they broke
the rule by criticizing specifically. When I assumed a supervisory position, it
was difficult to get others to break the rule and be direct, or to accept my
direct feedback and expectations. The
consequence of the prior dysfunction made it more difficult to have an honest
and healthier organization with greater personal accountability and
of these kinds of rules are explicit and recognized by all members; others are
implicit, and are generally only recognized when they are broken. Implicit rules tend to be extremely powerful and problematic.
They are often harmful. Identifying
the implicit rules and eliminating dysfunctional rules and clarifying
well-intended rules are important to positive relationships.
Alberto was bound by such an implicit rule and it caused him and others
in the family great distress. In
fact, it jeopardized the physical safety of his grandmother and others in the
family. The otherwise
straightforward and logical rules and boundaries of discipline become harmed as
well, if there are secret nuances and exceptions to those rules and boundaries.
learn that they are to ask for help if something is too hard for them to do on
their own but are stymied with the secret rule- but do not
“interrupt” mom if she is in a bad mood.
Children are encourage to be open and candid with their parents with
their concerns without fear, but are blocked by the mood exception- better
not bring anything difficult up to dad when he’s stressed from work.
Children are taught to emulate their parents and treat everyone with
respect but another secret rule confuses them- their parents hold the
exception to the rule if they feel wronged (the self-righteous exception)
and thus feel justified to be disrespectful to others.
Children are expected to do their chores but the secret “school
priority” rule interferes- that they don’t have to do the chores if there
is a school function to attend or homework to do, even if there had been
time to do chores and the child had wasted the time with television, video
games, or other fooling around. Often parents hold children to these secret rules while
having amnesia about the existence of the rules themselves! And then, be upset that the child didn’t interrupt and
bring up the earlier concern that they now see is important (or was important)
and now has negative consequences, or be surprised at their children’s
self-righteous indignation and sense of being wronged, or that their children
are nonchalant about getting chores done.
OF TURKEY LEGS
family/system also has rituals (sets and patterns of behavior) that members are
required to follow. Like rules,
some are implicit rather than explicit, and some are harmful, while others serve
the system. The father and mother
putting the children to bed every night (bath, brushing teeth, putting on PJ’s,
reading a book, tucking in, placement of snugglies, etc.) is an explicit ritual
that serves the system in that it helps both the children and their parents feel
connected to each other. It also is
a transition ritual to move from the waking to the sleeping world. This ritual serves to increase communication and self-esteem.
Rituals give security to its members.
Identifying and creating positive rituals lead to better communication
and cohesion. Some
rituals have origins that have lost meaning, yet still direct and even restrict
functioning arbitrarily. Such
rituals should be examined to determine current applicability.
Still other rituals are so ingrained that they continue to define current
functioning despite the loss of their original relevance.
classic story is the turkey legs story to illustrate forgotten origins.
The children of the family come to realize that the cooks of the family
always cut the turkey legs off and roasted them and the rest of the turkey
separately for the Thanksgiving dinner. Their
curiosity as to its origins of this odd ritual, led them to ask their parents,
“Why do we cut off the turkey legs when we cook Thanksgiving turkey?”
Their parents, the assorted aunts and uncles, replied, “Why, that’s
what we always do. That’s what
your grandparents always did, so we just kept up the tradition.”
Unsatisfied, the children went to their grandmother and great-aunt, and
asked them, “Why do we cut off the turkey legs when we cook Thanksgiving
turkey?” Their grandmother
responded, “That’s how our mom- your great-grandmother always cooked it, so
we just continued the family tradition.”
That still didn’t make sense, so they found their great-grandmother who
was sitting quietly in the corner, enjoying her large extended family.
“Nana,” they asked, “Why do we cut off the turkey legs when we cook
Thanksgiving turkey? Everybody says
they learned that from you as the family tradition.” Nana smiled and replied in a quiet but strong voice, “I
don’t know about everybody else, but I didn’t have a pan that was big
of the rituals and traditions of families and of discipline come from older
times where the family and social situations were very different.
What developed helped families and communities survive the demands of the
times. However, as the demands of
the times have changed, some rituals and traditions have been carried forward
without any examination for their current relevance. For example, unquestioned obedience to the authority and
demands of adult authority figures may have been vital to learning the social
behavior for survival in less civilized communities and times, when a mistake
could be literally fatal. Having a
question or an alternative perspective was considered defiant and blasphemous.
In modern times, when critical thinking in a democratic and evolving
society is vital to success, then questioning rules, rituals, and tradition
(questioning authority- the mantra of the 60’s hippie generation!) becomes
important to meeting the new demands and challenges of a never experienced and
often unanticipated changing world community.
the other hand, some traditions or rituals are so ingrained into the fabric of
our society that they cannot be altered without major and unacceptable
consequences. The space shuttle and
the Roman war chariot is such an example. The
space shuttle technology is among the most advanced in modern times (despite two
horrific accidents). The space
shuttle has a large rocket to which it is attached that provides some of the
major propulsion for its liftoff. Interestingly,
it is only so wide in diameter. A
rocket wider in diameter would hold a greater supply of fuel, thus providing
greater power upon liftoff. Despite
this, the size is smaller than it could be.
The reason for the smaller diameter is that the rocket is built at a
factory that is far from Cape Canaveral and needs to be transported by train
there. The trains sometimes need to
go through tunnels only slightly wider than the width of the train itself which
limits the diameter the rocket can be. So,
why are the trains (and tunnels) only that wide? Why are the tracks that wide- a
bit wider than a meter or almost four feet?
The tracks are that wide because the first trains in America were built
by the early wagon and carriage makers in America, and they used the same
dimensions they used for the wagons and carriages. Where did they get those measurements? Well, those early American wagon and carriage makers were
from Great Britain and they were continuing the style and make (and
measurements) of the British wagons and carriage makers.
And, Great Britain wagon and carriage measurements?
In the roads of Great Britain, were ruts that any vehicle with either
wider or shorter axles than the ruts could not transverse without the axles
breaking, so all wagons and carriages were built with axles that were the same
width as the ruts. And the ruts? The
ruts turned out to have been worn into the roads by the great Roman war
chariots. Many of the early roads
of Europe were built as part of the conquest of Europe by the Roman Empire’s
legions. So, why did the Roman war
chariot have those particular measurements?
The Roman war chariot was designed (from over two thousand years ago) to
fit the two horses that side by side were required to pull it.
So in other words, some of the most advanced technology in the world- the
rocket that propels the space shuttle out of earth’s gravitational pull, was
determined by the width of two Italian horses’ butts over two thousand years
from being a cute story (less cute with the recent Columbia shuttle disaster),
it illustrates a tradition or present day consequence of a very old set of
circumstances. However, while it would be relatively easy to get a larger
pan so as not to need to cut off the turkey legs, although the roads are now
paved and there are not the same ruts that force axles to be any particular
widths, to change the widths of the thousands of miles of railroad tracks,
retool and re-engineer the axles of all the existing train engines and railcars,
and to widen all the train tunnels in America would be impractical, not to
mention outrageous and needlessly expensive.
traditions, rituals, and developed behaviors and other expressions from older
demands although no longer functionally relevant, the traditions, rituals, and
developed behaviors and other expressions may have become so integrated and
intertwined into current functioning that they cannot be easily dropped.
The cost to benefit ratio is too high or it’s change is not time or
energy efficient. For example, if a
family may have established over many years that the father is the head of the
household especially with regard to matters of discipline. While it may be
beneficial overall for the family to re-balance its authoritative hierarchy
between the mother and father, the situation may be so demanding that it is not
possible or prudent. If a teenager
is in crisis… out of control with drug, sexual, or violent behavior, the
situation may not tolerate the time and energy to resort the family dynamic. Then,
using the authority (or even authoritarian intimidation) of the father to stop
an imminent disaster becomes acceptable now, even if it is part of the
family dysfunction and needs to be changed for long-term health.
The immediate crisis- life threatening behavior endangering the teenager
(which even may have been precipitated by the family dysfunction including the
father’s domination) needs immediate intervention, which arguably justifies
“allowing” the old dysfunction to exist and be exercised (the father
stepping in and demanding obedience) if it stops the immediate danger to the
RULES AND RITUALS
the implicit rules and rituals of a family enables a family (parents, in
particular) to accept and maintain the positive ones, have choice as to whether
to keep the benign ones, eliminate the dysfunctional ones, and helps to clarify
the well-intended but problematic ones. Rules
and rituals when positive give stability, predictability, and security to family
members, especially children. When parents try to enforce (discipline around) harmful
rules and rituals, children are triplely hurt.
First, they are harmed as they learn non-sensical rules and rituals that
take time, energy, and spirit from them both during childhood and potentially
for life (and into subsequent generations).
Second, they are harmed as they are punished unreasonably for their
“violations” of such rules and rituals. And, third, their sense of logic and
reason becomes distorted, perhaps chronically, as the secrets and implicit
meanings are denied and a psuedo-logic is indoctrinated into them.
What are your rules and rituals in the family?
What rules and rituals did you bring into the family from your family of
origin? What are you communicating? Question
the authority of what was given to you from your family of origin.
Question your own authority!
THIS GAME AND EVERYONE LOSES
Damn, look at this credit card bill!
(is he mad?)
What are all these charges?
Uh, what charges? (Is he really asking about the charges? Or, is he getting mad?)
You need to watch your spending.
Yes, I'll watch my spending. (Agree
with him... maybe that will calm him down)
You always spend too much money with those credit cards!
I know... I know... I'm sorry. (Please...
please don't get mad)
There's a nasty smell in the bedroom.
What!? What did you say?
Nasty smell? Where? What did you do now!?
Satir, a well-known family theorist and therapist believed that good
communication led to high self-esteem. When
someone speaks to you in a manner that conveys his/her respect of you, that
conveys that he or she cares about you, and that your feelings and thoughts are
important to him or her, then your self-esteem rises.
Poor communication, on the other hand causes you to lose self-esteem.
Communication that conveys disrespect, a disregard of your feelings and
thoughts implies that you have no basic worth.
Poor communication that harms self-esteem does not have to be obviously
and overtly negative, that is you don't need to call someone stupid to make them
feel stupid; you don't need to call someone incompetent to imply that you think
they are incompetent. While name-calling clearly can be harmful, there are also
insidious other styles of communication that can be even more harmful.
In healthy families with healthy individuals, good communication builds
unhealthy families with unhealthy individuals, poor communication constantly
tears down the self-esteem of every member.
Communication is not only the verbal messages that are given to each
other, but also the nonverbal messages. Nonverbal
messages include tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, actions, and
lack of actions or behavior. Individuals often end up taking characteristic roles in
communication dyads and triads. Many
of the roles expressed in "games" that are played between members are
dysfunctional. For example, there
is the rescue game. In the rescue
game, one person agrees although he/she may not really agree, but does so in
order to placate the other person or people -- the avoiding conflict hopefully.
A second person will disagree and blame someone else.
Finding this distressful, a third person will do something that will
distract person everyone's attention away from the conflict.
the vignette above, as mom and dad are talking about the credit card bill, the
tension starts to increase between them. The
dad begins to get angry looking at the expenses and says angrily, "You need
to watch your spending." The phrase "You need to..." implies
clearly that she has not done so -- that she needed to, but obviously didn't...
a slam against her competency in managing money.
Her self-esteem goes down. The
mother hurriedly agrees, "Yes, I’ll watch my spending," hoping this
quick agreement will prevent an argument. In the tone of the response, a little
bit of anxiety or fear is expressed. His
self-esteem is attacked as the implicit message is that his wife experiences him
as a bit dangerous or unreasonable. Rather than addressing this, he gets
defensive. The blaming starts, "You always spend too much money with those
credit cards!" The word
“always” (likewise “never” and “all the time”) is restrictive,
trapping, and condemning. Her
self-esteem takes another blow. Still
trying to placate him, she responds meekly, " I know... I know... I'm
sorry." The meek apology
implies that he is an overbearing hurtful and insensitive ogre.
Even if he is been an ogre, it is insulting to be treated as one.
Strong, strong-willed, assertive... are all acceptable in his
self-identification, however overbearing, hurtful, or insensitive insults or
demeans his self-image. His face
reddens and his eyes bulge. Sensing an ugly fight about to begin, the kid blurts
out, "There's a nasty smell in the bedroom."
The kid hopes that this will distract his parents from fighting; the
distraction will also rescue his mother from his father's anger.
Sometimes the kid is successful in distracting the anger from his mother,
but unfortunately the anger may be directed at him instead.
"What!? What did you say? Nasty
smell? Where? What did you do now?!"
Or, "Don't interrupt us when we're talking!"
The kid will persist in drawing the attention to himself until he is sure
that the fight between the parents will be avoided.
In doing so he may infuriate both parents.
The discipline that follows -- the punishments that follow are the
sacrifices the child endures to prevent him other pain in the family. His
self-esteem is damaged severely. In
this kind of scenario, the family looks at how to discipline the child when in
actuality, it is the family or the couple that needs to be disciplined about how
they interact with each other. Unfortunately,
in some families the acting out behavior of children that draw discipline, is
actually a consequence of deeper issues within the family -- often serious
conflict between the parents. Sometimes,
it easier (less dangerous) for the parents to direct their attention (and their
anger) toward disciplining children, than addressing the deep issues and
problems in their couples relationship. The children become scapegoated for the
parents’ issues. In this type of
situation, the discipline may "work" or not "work" on the
children. However, the underlying
distress and pain in the family will most likely erupt in some other manner at
some other point. Play this game and everyone loses. This is not the only game
that is dysfunctional. There is
also the coalition game- two people placate (two agree), one person blames
(disagrees); or one placates, and the other two blame.
Another is the lethal game- everybody placates (acts like they agree or
give in, or give up) at the expense of his or her own needs.
healthier game -- the growth game, allows for each person to agree or disagree
as he or she sees fit. Everyone is
included and no one ignores his/her own
needs. In the example above, the
father would be able to express his anger and frustration, but without blaming
and attacking his wife. He would be
able to handle the insecurity that the bills cause him.
He would activate internal and external processes -- a deep breath, a
quick mental accounting of financial resources, and perhaps saying, "Yikes,
this is a big bill!" A simple rule from couples therapy would be useful
here -- avoid starting a sentence with the word "you" and instead, use
"we." "You need to
stop..." is an accusation and an attack. "We need to figure this out" expresses unity and
joint responsibility -- and caring not only about the bill, but also about the
partner. Figuring out who made
which purchases would be done in a more respectful manner. The mother would be
able to assert her needs, her rights, and take appropriate responsibility.
Acknowledging which purchases that she made, would be an acceptance of
responsibility rather than an acceptance of blame.
Negotiating the priorities and the limits of expenses that can be
incurred for the family becomes a practical matter as opposed to a way to assign
degrees of fault -- to be forced to accept the designation of being the
negligent, careless, and irresponsible one.
As she is approached as a responsible member of the family partnership, a
clear message of worth is given to
her. Her self-esteem rises. Their
interaction is more likely to be successful -- a financial plan is derived.
Her interest and concern validates this concern.
Her participation as a partner -- that he is not in this situation alone
reassures him. His self-esteem also
rises. The little boy would not have to sacrifice his own self-esteem in order
to try to protect his parents from a battle.
His needs would be met -- to be a little boy!
He could effectively ignore the discussion or listened with interest
without feeling compelled to keep his parents from their interaction.
He also gets to experience this parents negotiating a charged issue in a
healthy manner with mutual respect. His
security is increased because of his growing confidence that his parents can
handle difficult situations well. This
becomes his model for how he will handle interactions in his adulthood.
He will have greater confidence having experienced this model.
His self-esteem also grows. The growth game is only healthy game that
builds self-esteem for everyone without losing self-esteem for others.
OF POOR COMMUNICATION
therapeutic implication of this theory is that families need to teach themselves
to communicate with respect and caring even when they are anxious, angry, or
under a lot of stress. They need to
be aware when the communication tears down self-esteem as well.
There are certain indicators of poor communication in a family.
When these indicators are recognized, then the family can activate to
work on improving communication, and thus improve self-esteem within family
members. If feelings are blocked or
inappropriately expressed, such as crying when something happy has happened or
being unable to cry when being sad, then that is a clear indication that
communication work needs to be done. In the family and couples therapy that I
have provided, there have been individuals who have been unable to express
sadness or anger when clearly they are sad or angry. For example, occasionally I will have a man who says that he
does not let himself be angry. This
would be right after his wife has clearly said something hurtful and
provocative. When I point out that
I expected him to be angry, he denies it. "I
don't let myself be angry." At that point, I have to grip my chair tightly
to restrain myself from jumping up, crossing over to him and kicking him in the
knees! And, then asking, "Please show me how you don't get
angry, now!" Getting angry is not a choice -- is something that happens
immediately and instinctively. Afterwards,
then the person chooses how to respond to his/her anger and how to act,
depending on training and modeling. When someone denies their anger, they also deny it to the
people they interact with. The
other person experiences the anger (in the facial expression, in the body
language, in the tone of voice, in small action, and in the absence of action).
Yet, the angry person continues to deny that they are angry.
And the other person may become confused and
uncertain about their own abilities to evaluate the people and the world
around them. Self-esteem is harmed.
indicator of poor communication is when the communication is not clear and
overt. Messages have to be
interpreted and interpreted from particular perspectives that may or may not be
obvious. While the communication is
covert, there is still the expectation that the other person will clearly
understand what is actually intended. Of
course, this means that there will be misinterpretations and consequences of
those misinterpretations -- hurt feelings and missed connections.
The symbolism of the communication is missed.
In one couple that I worked with, the husband's childhood experience of
being loved was defined by his mother making a hot dinner for him and his
siblings and father every evening. The
making of dinner was a message of love from her to the rest of the family. Now married, when he was able to get off of work early, he
would go to the grocery store to shop and rush home to make a hot meal for his
wife and him. When she got home, as
a busy professional she often had to make some last-minute calls, send a quick
fax or e-mail before settling down to dinner and the evening routine.
He would call out to her, "Honey, dinner is ready."
Sitting at the computer, she would call back, "Go ahead and start
eating without me." Somewhat
in shock, he would insist, "Come eat while it's hot."
His first communication actually was the communication of caring and love
in the dinner that he had made for his wife. Inadvertently, she had rejected his love.
She had missed the first covert communication.
Then when he insisted, he had given an additional communication whose
underlying message was that it was very important for her to accept his love --
that is, dinner. She missed the
second communication. And, he was
afterwards, when she came to dinner, he commented/complained that the dinner was
cold now. The covert communication
this time was that he was disappointed or hurt that she had rejected his
affection -- effectively rejecting his love.
Again, she missed the covert communication so she addressed the
temperature of the meal! As opposed
to his rising temperature! "It's
not too cold." Since she
missed the communication, he tried again (but not addressing his actual issue or
hurt), "It doesn't taste as good when it's cold," which really meant
"I really need and want you to receive my love."
Since this was still covert communication, she missed it again and
responded to the taste issue! "It
tastes fine." At this point,
she started to get impatient and upset because all the talk about the coldness
and the taste of the food did not make any sense to her.
However, she could tell by his tone and his facial expression that he was
upset. They then proceeded to have
a tense meal but not before they had a 15 minute fight about food temperature
and taste! Never did they even talk
about the offer of love that he had tried to make, that is, until they came to
therapy later in the week.
END COMMUNICATION AND STANCES
the previous example, the communication went around and around without ever
getting anywhere. The comments and
points that were made, were made over and over w/o ever getting the couple any
farther along in understanding or intimacy.
In closed communication, instead of continuing in an endless cycle,
communication hits a dead end. "Because
I say so!" "If that's
what you really think." "So,
you think I'm stupid or something?" "You
don't really care." "No,
no, never mind." These types
of communication get people stuck without any place to go emotionally or
intellectually. They are left
holding their issues, concerns, or grievances without recourse.
"Too bad." This
leads to frustration and sometimes, a sense of powerlessness and bitterness.
Self-esteem again is harmed. Dysfunctional
rules and rituals can develop in order to help people do with their sense of
powerlessness and most self-esteem. In
the previous article we discussed some of these rituals and secrets that are
held. Low self-esteem, in of itself
is an indicator of poor communication in a family.
order to survive the low self-esteem, individuals in the family may take on
particular roles or stances. A
person may take on the victim role. He/she
will see him/herself as a victim of other people’s actions.
The basic stance is that there is nothing that the person can do to
control his/her destiny. Whatever "fate" or those in control of the world
(family, playground, neighborhood) decides, he or she is the victim and has to
take the consequences. The victim
personality will fail to see the power that he/she has been his/her world.
Victims seeking the little power they feel they can have, do so through the
kindness or the pity of other people. They
look always to be rescued. Fortunately
(or unfortunately, because it perpetuates the victim mentality), there are other
individuals who take on the role of rescuers.
Rescuers do not have a sense of self-esteem unless there is someone to
rescue. There are professional
rescuers who become human service professionals such as therapists, social
workers, teachers, and the like. While
rescuers love to save victims, at a deeper level they actually need victims to
stay victims so that they can keep fulfilling their roles in as rescuers.
Some individuals who feel always that they are under attack and subject
to be blamed, become the blamers. They
always blame other people for the problems of the world and the problems they
themselves suffer. At the core,
blamers are similar to victims in their sense of helplessness.
The difference is that blamers rather than simply and passively accepting
their fate, loudly bemoan their fate as being caused by others.
In a sense they are the loud and vocal victims!
Unfortunately, as blamers accuse everyone else, they bring reprisals upon
themselves. Other people get sick
of their whining and begin to avoid them.
stereotypes and cultural training may push some people toward particular
stances. The historical weaker
power of women economically and socially may guide females toward the victim
role. On the other hand, the
traditional role of men as dominant and as problem solvers in communities and
families, tend to push them toward the computer role.
The computer role is nonemotional (not unemotional) and asserts that is
all is logical and rational. In the
computer role, a person asserts that the other person is being emotional and
irrational, unable to see the clear logic that he/she is so securely and
self-righteously attuned. Again, in a couples therapy setting, I have often run
across this when often a man (but sometimes, a woman) asserts that the other
person is irrationally emotional, that his clear analytical thinking is superior
in evaluating the dynamics and circumstances in the relationship. I find amusing when I assert to such an individual, that
eliminating emotion from the dynamic is illogical! That not only is emotion of a logical component of every
interaction and relationship, but that is logical to assert that a relationship
without emotion is pointless. Computer
types often find emotion to be overwhelming -- or at least, very difficult to
handle. Eliminating it, is an
attempt to keep their sense of power and control -- their self-esteem intact.
Highly intellectual types will do this and present, what I call a type of
people call it BS!
I gave an example of the distracter who also became a scapegoat.
However, a distracter can serve the family quite well by being funny,
charming, cute, or even a very high achiever or performer.
His/her behavior draws the family's attention to him/herself, for better
or worse for his/her self-esteem. The distracter’s self-esteem becomes
dependent on how well he/she can successfully draw the family's attention away
from their pain or conflict. The
scapegoat’s, on the other hand, basic methodology is to be bad.
To misbehave, be outrageous, be defiant, or otherwise disruptive in any
manner to draw the attention and ire of the family towards him/her. Again, this draws the family away from its pain.
The scapegoat has his/her self-esteem under constant assault as he/she
draws discipline and punishment -- clear messages that he/she is bad.
Ironically, the scapegoat gains a kind of perverse self-esteem at how
outrageous and how disruptive -- how bad, she/he can be.
Often only able to be accepted by other scapegoat types -- the bad kids,
the more antisocial they are, the more status they have in the group of social
people think that discipline is about affecting the behavior of children.
They feel that children need to learn discipline.
They look at children's behavior in isolation, and thus they discipline
in isolation as well. The most
important... the most effective discipline may be in the family's ability to
discipline itself. The greatest
cause of inappropriate children's behavior may not be some internal process in
the children or some character or moral flaw in the children, but the failure of
the family to discipline itself -- to discipline its own processes including its
communication processes. The
will look at the classic dysfunctional family and how it promotes dysfunctional
and harmful behavior and roles in its children.