What do I do when…?

What do I do when…

As you might expect, I hear this question a lot in my practice: What do I do when my child keeps getting out of bed? What do I do when my child refuses to do homework? What do I do when my teen stays up until midnight on school nights?

The answer is always the same: It depends.

It depends on why the thing that is happening is happening. The first step in solving any problem is to figure out why it’s happening. What is the real problem? What are the factors that are contributing to the problem? Uncovering the answers to these questions will tell you a lot about what to do.

12 Best Questions to Ask Yourself When Solving Parenting Dilemmas

  1. Why do I think this is happening?
  2. Are there times this problem isn’t a problem? (e.g., Are there nights my child does stay in bed? Does do his homework? Goes to bed at a reasonable time?)
  3. What is different about the times it is a problem and when it is not a problem?
  4. What does the situation look like when things are going well? What does my child say or do that let’s me know the situation is going well?
  5. What is my child or teen thinking and feeling about the situation when things are not going well? When things are going well?
  6. What does my child or teen think and feel about ME when things are not going well? When things are going well?
  7. What skills does my child need in order to handle this situation well?
  8. What skills do I need in order to handle this situation well?
  9. What is making it difficult for my child to learn these skills? What is getting in the way?
  10. What is making it difficult for me to learn these skills?
  11. What is making it difficult for my child to use these skills when it matters most?
  12. What makes it difficult for ME to use MY skills when it matters most?

You may find that you do not readily know the answers to these questions. Talking with your child when things are calm and no one is in trouble, about how they see the situation can be extremely valuable. The most effective solutions come from having a clear understanding of the problem, which includes your child’s point of view.

Listen, Don’t Lecture

If ever there was a one size fits all parenting strategy, it would be empathy. I cannot think of a single scenario in which you could go wrong with empathy. Empathy simply means looking at and seeing the world as another person sees it. There are times when this is easy–like when someone experiences a loss and feels sadness and grief, or experiences a traumatic event and feels fear, or experiences exclusion from a friend group and feels hurt and betrayed. When the other person’s experience makes sense to us, empathy comes more naturally. But when someone’s reaction doesn’t make sense, empathy can be challenging. How often do your child’s reactions make sense to you? What happens when your teens reactions don’t make sense to you?

The Power of Empathy

Using empathy as a “strategy” means you take the time to provide your child the opportunity to tell you their “why” while you listen, your only goal being to understand (not agree with) the way in which your child is experiencing the world and the people in it. I feel compelled to point out that “understanding” is NOT the same as “agreeing.” Be careful of this trap. People believe (incorrectly) that if they take time to understand a position they disagree with, then they send an implicit message of agreement. But this is simply not true. You can understand another person’s point of view and disagree at the same time. The problem is that if you lead with why you are right and your child is wrong, then the likelihood your child will hear you drops dramatically. On the other had, if you listen and ask thoughtful questions that help you understand how your child is thinking and feeling, you build a connection with your child in that moment. That connection allows your child the opportunity to feel understood, which in turn makes it easier for them to hear your concerns.

When you do disagree, chose your words carefully. Thank your child or teen for sharing their point of view. Perhaps they have given you something to think about, or provided you with information you didn’t have before. That’s important, and it is a good idea to acknowledge and validate that, even if you disagree. If you have a different understanding of the situation, consider using phrases like, “My concern about X situation is…” or “I understand that the reason you do X is Y. The problem is…” and “How can we work together to find a way for both of us to feel better about this problem?”

You may find that as you talk with your child and discover the answers to the 12 questions, solutions begin to present themselves. You may also find that involving your child or teen in this type of collaborative approach leaves you both feeling empowered and connected.