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When Parents Feel Helpless

Do you feel helpless many times during the week when your child or teen presents a problem you aren’t ready for?

Your child may be in a very irritable mood, and you think you know what’s cooking with friends and school. You’re bewildered and don’t know where to start to address this irritability.

Your teen may be slamming doors and picking fights with everyone. You think you have a sense of how things are going with friends and school, but you are at a loss to know where to begin to manage the situation.

When Behaviors Can’t Be Accounted For

If you have no idea what the behavior is about, how can you know what to do about it? Random punishing, yelling, even calm, firm instructions can fall on deaf ears and the behavior persists. Why? Because you don’t know what you’re actually trying to address.

Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior: Using Parental Intelligence

An approach that turns the clueless parent into a knowledgeable one is using Parental Intelligence that helps you find meaning in your child’s behavior. Here are the 5 steps.

Step One: Stepping Back

Whatever the behavior, suspend your judgment, and just observe the sequences leading up to the behavior.

Step Two: Self-Reflecting

Let’s say your teen is slamming doors for several days. You’ve had it and nothing’s worked. So you stepped back, stopped yelling, and decided to trust your feelings, but first you need to know what they are. You notice when you hear the slam, you feel jolted, on edge, maybe angry along with a sense of panic. Using those feelings, you begin to wonder if maybe those are feelings your teen is having, too. Suddenly you feel a lot less clueless about what your teen’s experiencing even though you don’t know why yet. So, what you’re feeling may be what your child is feeling to even though you don’t know why yet.

Step Three: Understanding Your Child’s Mind

This step often means some general conversations are in order with your child or teen. Just hanging out together and finding out what she’s thinking about might help a great deal. You’re looking to discover what her feelings, thoughts, intentions, and imaginings are. Chatting loosely, opening doors to talk about school and home lead to unexpected places.

Without probing, you make comments like, “Hey what’s going on lately?” “Wanna’ snack in the den?” “Tell me more about that.” Just see where it goes. Don’t look for any solutions. Just listen. Listening without advice or judgment is essential at this point.

Step Four: Understanding Your Child’s Development

Your eleven-year-old is irritable for hours. You know her grades are good. She just had a sleep-over with good friends. Then you consider her stage of development. Gee, her body is changing. Her skin is becoming sensitive. She’s developing more interest in her appearance. You wonder when she might begin her menses. Her irritability comes more into focus as potentially a sign of bodily changes. Your intuition tells you you may be on to something. But you need to check it out by casually observing without embarrassing your child. You may notice lots of time in front of the mirror. Excessive amounts of changing hair styles and trying on different clothes. Maybe clothes and make up are all over the place suggesting pretty strongly that this is what’s on her mind.

Step Five: Problem Solving.

By this point you know a lot more about your child or teen. The behavior that made you feel so helpless now has a context. The behavior now has meaning given what you’ve learned about your child’s or teen’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, and stage of development.

You know so much more about what your child needs and the stressors coming from inside their minds and also from their environment.

Let’s say you discovered your irritable child is feeling uncomfortable with her changing body. You discuss openly and honestly the changes she can expect and offer to talk anytime she wants, respecting her privacy.

Let’s say you find out your daughter’s been slamming doors because her hoped for boyfriend stopped answering her texts. You let her know how such disappointment hurts and the slamming doors ends because she feels understood and less alone.

Your helpless parenting has turned into effective parenting and the parent-child bond has grown. This is the beginning of the great feeling of using your Parental Intelligence.

Photography Credit: Shutterstock 

Like the article? We bet you’ll love this book:

In Unlocking Parental Intelligence, long-experienced psychoanalyst, Laurie Hollman, PhD, encourages parents to find the significance behind their child’s behaviors by becoming “meaning-ma…

Unlocking Parental Intelligence

Laurie Hollman

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I am a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy. I write extensively for parents about child development, mental health, Parental Intelligence, and a broad range of parenting topics… Read More


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