In therapy as in life, there is always too much information being communicated from moment to moment to use it all. The therapist must deliberately choose the point of entry, the strategic portions of the event flow on which to apply change techniques. We have already suggested that the most important task for the therapist in treating self-esteem difficulties in the family is to assist the par-ents in resolving their personal self-esteem problems.
Now we turn to two final considerations, one in which the task is little more than helping parents recognize the implications of the choices in the parenting dimensions, and another that transposes some of the verbal concepts of the model for parents.
I. If parents must choose among parenting dimensions, the acceptance/bonding dimension is the most important.
Given that therapists will be working with families because something has gone wrong, they must frequently assist the family to restore or, perhaps, create for the first time the balance of the parenting dimensions discussed. We suggest that many parents come to therapy agitated because their control techniques are not working. Their predictable response to problems with children is to intensify their efforts, in effect to try harder to do what is already not working. Therapists must frequently assist parents to choose a more adaptive ordering of priorities among the dimensions, “picking their fights,” as it were.
While it is certainly true that occasionally parents may need to intensify their control of the child, we propose that most often the primary dimension to re-store is the sense of acceptance and belonging, which provides leverage for parental control. Parents certainly have had more experience than the child with the exigencies of life, and their relatively broader purview pro-vides perspective that the child does not possess. Their influence on the child as guides in developing self-esteem obtains as they continue to be accepted as credible authorities.
Yet the time comes in all children’s lives when the only reason they will continue to value their parents’ counsel or direction is that they cannot deny their parents’ commitment to them. Other parental means of exercising control, such as intimidation or guilt, diminish with the child’s developing maturity and frequently even become the sources of unreasoning opposition.
Adolescents especially are sensitive to disingenuousness, reacting immediately to the perception of being manipulated, even when they know it may be in their best interests. (Ironically, a son may express the effectiveness of Dad’s modeling by being as stubborn and willful as he is; Dad’s determination to control is vitiated by his very demand.)
Manipulation is anathema to a person engaged in defining the self as an individual. Thus even parents who perceive themselves as desiring their child’s success may find themselves shut out by dint of their overweening attempts to control. Again the importance of the personal authenticity of parents looms large.
Children who enjoy a strong sense of identification with and respect toward their parents will feel the pull of reciprocity to be considerate of their parents wishes, because the children recognize the parents’ desire to be responsive to legitimate concerns. Children can trust their parents’ motives for them, knowing that they are prized but acknowledged as separate entities.
Children will feel free to express concerns, doubts, or hopes when they know their parents will not attempt to force their solutions to problems on the children. Parents will find that their counsel, while it must compete with other sources as the child grows, maintains its favored position of trust. Just as importantly, they will find the child apt to forgive parental mistakes, recognizing their abiding concern in spite of occasional lapses.
2. As the child matures, parents can utilize the verbal concepts of the model.
Herein, the therapist can act somewhat like a behavioral coach. Earlier we discussed how important it is that the parents are authentic themselves. The degree of their congruence and self-es-teem will do much to encourage the child’s own efforts.The child, observing and identifying with the parents’ determination to face conflict situations, will be more apt to accept the anxiety inherent in such circumstances as unwanted but also unavoidable and therefore acceptable.
Parents must use their experiences and those of the child as they observe them to talk about the events, their feelings, and their perception of the outcome. Without preaching, they can use activities as they occur as in vivo experiments in self-esteem enhancement. Knowing that they serve as models for imitative learning, parents can augment the learning effect by verbalizing the process as it takes place. An example might be: The parent verbalizes the conflict situation.
“1 think there is a misunderstanding between me and Mrs. Jones, our neighbor. I need to talk to her about [situation].” Next the parent verbalizes the anxieties attendant on coping with the conflict. “But I don’t want to say anything about it. I might get mad and say something I would regret, or she might misunderstand me and the situation would get even worse. I wish she would just realize [solution]. I get nervous when I think about having to say something difficult to someone I don’t know well.” Now the parent verbalizes the consequences of avoiding the conflict and models the decision to confront instead. “But I know if I don’t say anything, probably nothing will improve. And I won’t feel good about myself, because I never feel good about me when I feel as though I’ve been too afraid to do what needs to be done. So I’m going to do my best to work this out with Mrs. Jones. It still may not work, but I’ll feel better for having tried.”
Of course, it is essential that the parent then proceed to confront the situation and report its consequences, emphasizing self-evaluative thoughts. “Well, I’m really glad I did that. [Describe the resolu-tion.] You know, whenever 1 face these situations instead of avoiding them, I feel good about myself. I feel as though I can handle the problems that occur.” Thus, children will become familiar with the concepts as well as their own self-evaluations, moving toward the quintessential question for the model:
“What must I do in this circumstance in order to approve of myself?” Recognizing the importance of facing and coping with difficult situations, parents will also watch for situations in which children feel anxiety and unwillingness to face something; the parents then support them as they face it anyway. It is most important that parents gently and judiciously insist that children face their conflict circumstances. The parents can then discuss the process of coping, helping the child to learn.