Obstacles to Validating Effectively: The Obligation to Educate Our Dysregulated Child and/or Her Siblings

Q: How can you let your child act inappropriately? Don’t you have an obligation to educate her? If you don’t say anything, won’t this affect her siblings?

Firstly, it is important to note that when I speak about educating your child or telling your child what to do, I am not talking about a case where your child’s life is in danger. In such a case, you need to do whatever is necessary to preserve life. In the broad range between the threat to life and asking your child to take out the garbage, there is the question of threats to the health or well-being of your child (from garden variety obesity and smoking to more exotic addictions or drug use). Whether you have an obligation to educate and whether, even if you do, speaking up will be the most effective strategy is open to further conjecture, but some of my comments below also clearly relate to such issues.

The answer to this question, of course, depends on your child’s age and circumstances. However, if you have already told your child not to behave in a certain fashion (cursing, leaving dirty clothing on the floor) or demanded that he behave in a certain fashion (set the table, take out the garbage) and he knows full well what your expectations are then (no matter whether your child is seven or twenty-seven) you have to ask yourself what you gain by repeating these requests and trying to enforce them. In fact repeating your requests might be detrimental because your child knows what you want and repeated requests, sound like “nagging” to your child, which is almost sure to elicit a negative response, so that even if the garbage is taken out, it will be with such ill grace that even if you win the battle, you will have lost the war for his heart and mind.

If your attempt to educate actually results in this opposite result then you clearly need to reconsider your strategy. It is worth taking a different approach, and I would suggest beginning with curiosity. Ask yourself why your child is ignoring the lessons you have definitely taught him. Is he actually so dysregulated and overwhelmed at the moment that he is objectively incapable of handling even taking out the garbage or is he merely going through a normal teenage phase “where he would like you to get out of his life but first take him to the mall”? Is his behavior a manifestation of his personal disdain for you, or does it have absolutely nothing to do with you?

Depending on your answers to the above questions, you have several different responses to the behavior. If the child is younger and suffering severe emotionally dysregulation (sometimes diagnosed as ADHD or ODD), collaborative problem solving, as delineated by Ross Green may be effective (https://www.livesinthebalance.org). For older dysregulated children the Family Connection’s approach, validation and empathy combined with radical acceptance in the moment (if you cannot change the situation or your relationship to it) may be the best course of action.

In both cases, it is wise to also discuss the situation with your child later when he or she is not in the midst of an emotional storm. At that time you can gently restate your values and even prepare a plan (preferably, in writing) for what you both agree to do next time such an emotional storm rages. Such a “cope-ahead” will allow you to take action when the crisis comes without invalidating your child. When your child protests in the moment, you can unemotionally point out his prior agreement. Creating a cope-ahead will also allow you to include “reinforcers” that automatically come into effect as a result of certain predetermined behaviors (loss of certain privileges, increase of privileges, and so forth).

In some cases, it is absolutely necessary to set your limits (beyond which you cannot go) for severely emotionally dysregulated children (whether older or younger), but even if this is the case and you cannot radically accept the situation, you must carefully consider the pros and cons of actually delineating them: Will this achieve the desired results? Will this honor both your own needs for your limits to be met and your desire to continue to have a relationship with your child? How far have your limits been stretched? What limits does the child need in the moment? Remember that you should only “validate the valid” and that sometimes limits are valuable for both yourself and your loved one (I will only wash your clothes, if you put them in the hamper; I will only put dinner on the table, if you wash the dishes.), but make sure to cloak these limits in a heap of validation, compassion, curiosity, and empathy.

In contrast, if the child is merely being a teenager than it may be even more important to communicate your limits, but understand that they will not always be met. On this point, Anthony E. Wolf (Get Out of My Life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?, FSG, 1991) and a system like Ayeka (http://ayeka-merkaz.com/) seem to disagree about how far you should go to ensure that your limits are met, though both urge you to set them.

It is certainly worth trying to internalize the fact that in most cases your child’s behavior is probably not a personal attack on you and your values. Whether the child is dysregulated or a teenager, they are really only thinking about satisfying their own needs and desires in the moment. If you can internalize this message then you can approach the situation in Wise Mind, without having as many of your emotional buttons pushed. You can lay down the burden of needing to educate the child, and you can maintain the position of an external observer, calmly empathizing with your child while also rationally evaluating the most effective course of action.

If you find it difficult to validate the valid and feel compassion for your loved one, don’t be surprised. Certainly, do not beat yourself up about it. This will only make you feel worse about yourself and the situation and will impede your thinking clearly about the situation and finding a good resolution. Remember that it is very difficult to feel compassion (and even love) for someone when they are constantly berating you and yelling at you, or worse. If you cannot bring yourself to validate and empathize, it will be most helpful for you to consider what emotional or cognitive blocks are preventing you from acting in the way that you know will be most effective. You might consider how you feel when your child, for instance, does not do what you want. Do you feel like such a failure that it seems to you that the only way for you to feel better is to force them to obey? Do you assume that you are ultimately responsible for their actions and, therefore, feel like you must ensure the proper outcomes?

Along with the drive to educate often, unfortunately, comes the need to be “right,” to fix the situation by assuming control. If you can forego your instincts on this front too, you will be more effective, especially since your child is just as likely to be aware of and ignore your sage words as he did your request. The need to be effective now is far greater than the need to be right and see that your plan is carried out. Some have even suggested that the most effective course of action in any given situation is, by definition, “the right thing” to do. And even if this is not the case, doubtless your loved one has heard you trumpet your values many times. You do not need to do so again to make your point. What you need to do now is be effective.

As for siblings, as long as it is clear to them what your limits are than you are educating them properly. The fact that their unwell sibling does not always observe your limits does not mean that these limits and values have not been made clear. Explaining to them why they get punished (get the natural consequences) for breaking or stretching these limits, while their sibling does not may entail a conversation about how different children need to be educated differently so that they will grow well (some plants are dandelions and some are daffodils). Alternatively, you can point out that children of different ages have different rights and levels of responsibility, ranging from when to go to bed to whether they can drive the car. Finally, you can encourage them to ask these tough questions and even to express their frustration, while admitting that even if you cannot provide them with entirely satisfactory answers as their parent you still feel this is the right way to go and you have the right in your house to expect your limits to be met.

At the end of the day, do not get caught up in the need to educate the well-siblings, to the detriment of dealing with their unwell sibling effectively. This is a red herring! If they hear their sibling cursing without being reprimanded, this does not mean that they will come to the conclusion that they can curse as well with impunity. And if you really fear this to be the case, you can and should speak with them privately later and clarify the situation.

Ultimately, education takes place when we talk to our children, engaging in dialogue with them when we are emotionally balanced. It also occurs nonverbally, in crisis situations, when we manage not to lose our self-control and remain effective. This modeling provides our children with what is perhaps the most vital educational message—we have been educated to live our lives based upon values that we can talk about, but we must learn to be effective, balanced, problem solvers, when we meet unpredictable, destabilizing situations.