Dear Therapist:

Our 16 year old son was suffering from severe stomach pains. We took him to a specialist who basically said that he would have to make some small changes to his diet, and a follow a regimen every day, if he wanted to get better. In the beginning, he basically followed her instructions, but he started struggling with keeping to the regimen, and sure enough, the pain came back. Now he started following the instructions again, but soon slacked off. It seems that he has a very hard time doing these small things, like taking some vitamins, eating a fruit, and doing a quick exercise, even though he knows it will cause him pain. What could be the reason for this and what can we do to help him?

 

Response:

There appears to have been a major shift in parenting practices over the past generation or so. As with most such elemental changes, there can be positive as well as negative consequences. A generation ago, many parents were more socially aloof from their children. Although loving and caring, there was often a clear recognition that parents did not involve themselves in the minutiae of their children’s daily issues.

Because of this, children may have felt neglected or even unloved. A possible positive outcome, however, was earlier development of independence, proper decision-making, and a sense of responsibility. Kids were compelled to deal with their issues on their own. Some may have had trouble navigating complex issues, feeling uncomfortable asking their parents for help (or not knowing how to broach the subject, or even never considering it an option). Nonetheless, generally speaking, children seem to have “matured” earlier, developing the skills necessary for them to lead productive lives.

There are certainly positive effects of the closer relationship that many parents have with their kids today. Children seem to be more comfortable approaching their parents with questions and concerns. They seem more willing to involve their parents in their decisions and their lives in general. This can be a double-edged sword, however. When kids come to expect their parents’ involvement in all their decisions, it becomes more difficult for them to take responsibility for their own lives.

Another consequence of excessive parental involvement is parents’ natural tendency to become more emotionally involved in their children’s decisions. This can lead to fear of the child making the wrong decision, causing the parent to become overinvolved in the decision process. This, in turn, can cause the child to further expect parental intervention, thus turning into a vicious cycle.

In fact, the maturity process—which includes development of independence and responsibility—is closely associated with the necessity of dealing with the pain and consequences of making poor choices. When parents try to shield their children from the consequences of their actions (by becoming overly involved in their decision-making), they often impede the maturation process. Excessive protection within the short-term can lead to a child’s long-term difficulty in developing the skills necessary to attain a well-adjusted adulthood.

How much parental involvement is too much? On a general level, this can be a very difficult question to answer. It depends on many personal, situational, and relationship factors. Often, though, the answer becomes obvious when viewed from an unemotional perspective. It’s not that we, as parents, simply don’t know the proper response to a given situation. It’s often that we have trouble seeing the situation from a logical viewpoint.

Imagine that your son never had this type of problem. Imagine instead that a friend approached you with this exact set of circumstances. Would it be easier for you to reach a conclusion? What would you tell your friend? If your response to your friend would be more easily reached than it is now, this points to an emotional component within your decision-making.

It doesn’t sound as if your son’s neglectful approach to his condition will lead to physical damage—only to further pain. If his actions can cause future problems, your approach may differ from the way in which you might deal with other types of situations. Regardless, the way in which you determine your approach should be as objective as possible.

I think that most of us want to have a close, emotional connection with our kids. At the same time, it’s important to set our emotions aside when we need to make important decisions. As parents, there are times when we need to intervene and times when it is important for us to maintain our distance. It may be difficult to achieve a balance between a general emotional connection with our children and the emotional detachment that is necessary to allow them to work things out on their own. Recognizing this as a goal, however, can help us to be cognizant of the duality of our relationships with our children, thus helping us to identify those instances in which we need to take a more indirect tack.

Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

 psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer

 www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317