July 18, 2024
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Being a Dispassionate Parent

If you have begun to read this article, you may have already thought that the title above may seem to be odd for a parenting article. What parent would want to not reflect positivity or passion during interactions with their children! Furthermore, isn’t the expression of emotions healthy and vital for the emotional development of our children? The answer is yes; parents should reflect passion and express emotions to/with their children. However, it is also important that parents, at times, become dispassionate, or mitigate emotions, when dealing with their children.

Consider the example of nine-year-old Yosef who is constantly bothering his two younger siblings. Yosef’s parents are “fed up” with Yosef and desperately want him to stop teasing and hitting their younger children. They begin screaming and pleading with Yosef,

“Don’t you see that you are hurting your sister’s feelings? Don’t you care about what this is doing to her?”

This causes a temporary suspension of the behavior, but Yosef’s parents see a resumption of the negative behavior over the next few days. They are perplexed as to why their very bright and intelligent nine-year-old boy just won’t stop bothering his siblings!

While all situations are different, the above example highlights a case where the use of passion or emotions does not lead to a cessation of the presenting problem. This means that the use of emotional expression by the parents is not accepted as a valid reason to stop his behavior of bothering his siblings. Let’s offer a few different insights as to why this may be true:

Developmentally: Nine-year-old children are, by and large, still concrete thinkers who are still learning how to navigate the world of emotional expression. While parents are adept at expressing emotions, children are not as adept. Parents should not expect children to permanently stop negative behaviors after a brief lecture or outburst.

Cognitive Capacity: While parents may be trying to help their child infer what is wrong (inferential thinking), kids are still, by and large, linear thinkers. Let’s consider this in our above example:

Yosef’s Parents: Don’t you see how you are bothering your sister?

Yosef: Well, she started! She came over to me and broke my Legos.

Yosef’s parents: Okay, but you don’t have to hit her in the head each time!

Yosef: Yes, I do! If she breaks my Legos, I am going to hit her back!

This is an example of straight linear thinking, where A causes B, and action B (hitting) is justified because action A (breaking Legos) occurred.

Family Dynamics: Being egocentric is a quality that most children grow out of when they enter the world of sharing toys, daycare, school and other social situations. However, with the introduction of new siblings, research shows that children may revert back to being egocentric. This may be seen as a “rebellion” by parents, but in reality it may be a natural reaction to decreased focused attention or other family changes that are occurring in the household. Therefore, depending on the family dynamic, Yosef’s parents may need other strategies to reduce Yosef’s sudden egocentric attitude. A simple explanation of “don’t you see what you are doing” may not be sufficient.

So if we accept the idea of being dispassionate, how can parents express their point without the use of emotion or emotional overtones? Let’s suggest a few strategies.

Tone of Voice: Parents should express themselves in a regular tone of voice.

Being Clear and Direct: Parents should express themselves in a clear and direct fashion as to what they expect from their children. Utilizing our above example, Yosef’s parents can say the following:

“In our house, our rule is that there is no hitting. No one can hit for any reason, and if anyone breaks that rule there will be a consequence.” Expressing this dispassionately means monitoring tone of voice, the directness of the message and being prepared to be a little repetitive about what you expect.

Be prepared for an emotional response: Just because you are being dispassionate doesn’t mean that your child will model the behavior back to you! Be prepared for a very loud “that’s not fair” while you (the parent) will remain mild in your tone and firm in your rules.

In conclusion, let’s remember what dispassionate parenting attempts to accomplish. When utilized correctly (taking into account your child, yourself and your specific family dynamic), it can lead to open and direct communication even during times of unhappiness and anger. It can minimize long and drawn-out arguments, shouting matches and reduce parent/child conflict. Utilizing this, like any other parenting tool, requires practice and persistence. Self-awareness and managing your own emotions will allow you to utilize these techniques in a stronger and more effective fashion.

As with any issue, please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions should you wish to discuss this further.

Mark Staum, LCSW, is a licensed clinician specializing in child, adolescent and family psychotherapy. Mark specializes in child and family dynamics, drawing upon psychodynamic and behavioral techniques to strengthen the family unit. Mark can be reached for questions, consultations or speaking engagements.

By Mark Staum, LCSW

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