You’ve seen them. In restaurants, public parks, waiting rooms, malls, parking lots, you’ve definitely seen them. Hell, maybe they’re even yours, sitting — or rather jumping, climbing, screaming — right next to you, causing you headache, frustration and shame. Talking about them misbehavin’ babies.
Maybe you’ve watched hours of Supernanny on TV or scoured the internet for the latest parenting trend to help restore sanity in your home. (Attachment, Free-range, Helicopter, Tiger … Lordy! Sounds like an updated version of the Five Animals of Kung-fu. Wait, parenting as self-defense. Am I onto something here??)
Put all of that stuff away. There’s something, a book, that’s offering sound advice on how to get your family power dynamic in check and take you from “chaos to calm.” Enter Beyond Time-Out. Written by clinical child psychologist Beth A. Grosshans and (my mother-in-law!) Janet Burton, the book delves into what’s behind the current epidemic of unruly, unhappy kids and gives parents an effective action plan for getting the runaway train back on track.
We’re pleased to have Beth joining us in The Confab — in the first of a two-parter — about going beyond time-out.
Q: What pushed you to write this book?
Beth Grosshan: The families in need. Parents are so invested in being good parents. But the truth is, it’s not translating into to the outcomes parents are looking for. Family life is filled with headaches and difficulties; kids seem to have more and more tantrums, protests and unhappiness.
There are a lot of things that are weighing families down: they’re not finding the cooperation, the self-control and the sense of getting along that everyone is looking for. I discovered that the answer lies in power dynamics. It’s really the heart of the matter. I wrote this book because I wanted to educate parents about this whole issue of power dynamics, and help them to see that when kids have more power than parents — both behaviorally and emotionally — it doesn’t go well. The kids’ behavior deteriorates terribly and there is going to be a lot of disruption and disturbance in the parent-child relationship.
When parents have the power and are in the lead, this is the foundation for the kind of harmony that they’re looking for. Their kids can acquire self-control, respect and cooperation.
Q: How does a parent go about establishing a balance of power in the family?
BG: Parents need to understand what we mean when we talk about power. It has to do with who sets the agenda. It must be the parents. But the reality is, it’s often the children’s agenda.
Children are hardwired to test for power. They want to know what is it that gets them their way. I refer to it as a power drive, and every child is born with one. Like many things in the behavioral and the emotional realm, it occurs on a continuum. Some kids have a very strong power drive. These are the “you give them an inch and they’re going to take a yard” kind of kids. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the softer temperament kids.
From the time babies are five or six months old, developmentally they begin to have deliberate behavior. For example, rather than crying just because they have a need, babies cry because they want to achieve an affect. There are two verbalizations that children learn quickly in order to get parents to accommodate them: one is making distress noises like a weeping “eh eh eh” type of cry and the other is a protest verbalization where they sound more angry and frustrated. Those two noises are pre-verbal, and are very powerful in getting parents to respond and do something for the infant. That’s when power dynamics start to get established.
Q: How can a parent make that call — that this cry is a need versus a want?
BG: If parents start to have that active framework in their minds, it will make a really big difference in terms of how their responding to their kids. Sometimes kids can fuss and it doesn’t need immediate response. Parents tend to over-respond to children’s verbalizations of stress. They over-respond in terms of the frequency in which they are responding, and also the extent of response that they give. It gives kids the message that whenever they make a peep, their parents are going to jump.
Q: That’s an important point to make because there is so much anxiety around not wanting your child to be upset and many parents do fall into that trap of over-response. We need remind ourselves that crying is just babies doing what babies do, right?
BG: Exactly. Those are just the sounds the babies make. Granted that parents are very attuned to those sounds, and it’s very much in us to want to turn them off. Parents must have this framework of power dynamics to help the temper frequency and the intensity with which they are responding to those noises, and to understand that they’re very natural.
If kids fuss a little bit, this is hardly a problem for them. As you said, they’re doing what kids do. Parents need to be reassured that sometimes a low key response is not only fine, but it’s also the best response.
Q: What do you say to the parent who feels like the low key response is akin to not being a present parent?
BG: It’s a different framework. I know that my contribution to parenting advice goes against the grain. The current parenting culture is saturated with the notion of overdoing and over-attending. We have basically told parents that they need to be exquisitely sensitive to the needs of their infants and toddlers.
I think it all needs to be turned down significantly. We have a culture that is increasing anxiety in parents, and I’m saying we need to change the way we’re looking at it. This over-parenting style is fraught with difficulty. It is not going to lead parents down the path that they ultimately want. At some point, parents get sick of it because it’s not a path that is sustainable. Parenting becomes such a burden: the kids are not happy, the family unit is struggling, the kids become bratty, and the parents become bitter. They feel frustrated and are desperately looking for the answer to, “What do we do now?”
Imbalanced family power is not just an issue of a family living with headache; this is about a very compromised pathway for development in children. They struggle enormously with their personal selves and in their relational lives as a result of having had too much power. It’s a trajectory of all types of problems.
Q: When parents realize there’s an imbalance in the house, are there steps they can take to change the family dynamic?
BG: Absolutely. The thing that has been so gratifying and fun about working with this perspective with families through the years is watching how they transform. If parents learn how to utilize their natural power in service of their children’s well-being, things change and they change fast. This not a long drawn-out process, within a week you will see improvements. In two weeks you will see a lot of improvements and within a month things will be transformed.