Turning My Attention to the Quiet Wheel

Turning My Attention to the Quiet Wheel

A conversation last week made me realize with fresh tenderness why P.E.T. should be used as early as possible with each of our beloved children.

It's true that I do believe it's never too late to adopt these skills; regardless of timing, "kids respond positively when they see their mothers and fathers willing to change, willing to be human" (Dr. Thomas Gordon, P.E.T., page 70).

But that doesn't erase the fact that my earlier actions had consequences. 

There's a saying -- The squeaky wheel gets the oil -- which describes how people who complain, demand, or otherwise attract attention end up getting what they want. Forgive the labeling but I had one of those in Jake (14), my middle child. He was simply more emotional and autonomous than his siblings and he rebelled vociferously against the controlling way I often mothered. He got a lot of my attention, albeit not all of it positive.

Harrison and Jake, my two wheels

Harrison and Jake, my two wheels

It was because I worried about my relationship with Jake that I finally reached out to take a parenting class. And now, I revel in the way I interact with all three children.

But Harrison (16), who was always the quiet, well-oiled wheel in the workings of our family, had the old me the longest. In the past several months, I have been waking up to what those 13 years meant for him.  

Last week, at the orthodontist's office, Harrison and I were chatting casually about my soon-to-be upgrade to an iPhone 6 (we all take turns and it's now mine!). That then segued to Harrison's situation.

A couple of weeks ago, at the beginning of our Japan trip, he left his cell phone on the airport train. Luckily, someone found and returned it; unluckily, that happened one week later and outside the city limits of Tokyo! We were leaving early the next morning and the police station there was already (oddly) closed. We shifted into high gear and my husband found a former colleague who agreed to trek out there to retrieve it.

Back in Hong Kong, one of Harrison's friends loaned him a phone to use. And it was bothering him, though he spoke in measured tones. "If I didn't have this phone, I wouldn't have anything to use right now. You know, Dad is not even concerned. When I ask whether his friend has gone out there, he just says, 'You'll get it back when you get it back.'"

He continued, "Do you remember that both times when Jake lost his phone, it got replaced RIGHT away?"  

I was taken aback. I had been so busy that it barely registered that Harrison was using a borrowed phone. Nor did I have a strong recollection of what the circumstances were with Jake. I remembered one shiny new Samsung was definitely gone forever, forgotten on a plane that had taken off again. 

But I was there to listen, not to drill Harrison on the accuracy of his memory or his assessment of the different parental responses.

He went on, "The point is, Mom, Jake always complains and makes everyone's life hard and Dad doesn't like it so he goes out and gets him a new one just to make it stop. Whereas, if I just keep quiet and act 'good,' then it pretty much sucks."

Rather than point out that Daddy and Jake often do have conflict, I Active Listened him several more rounds. When I felt an energy shift, I said, "These are pretty important feelings you have -- it would be good for your relationship if Dad heard this too. What would you like to do?"

"It's fine, Mom. At least I have this one to use right now. It's fine." But I could tell from his stiff body language that it wasn't.

Active Listening is a chance for us to reflect back to the child the entirety of his message, which we pick up from gestures, posture, tone of voice as well as from words. 

Active Listening is a chance for us to reflect back to the child the entirety of his message, which we pick up from gestures, posture, tone of voice as well as from words. 

I noted for Harrison, "While it's good you have a phone to use in the interim, it doesn't feel good AT ALL that Daddy seems very casual about it and that I have been, well, oblivious! Sometimes it's really nice to be acknowledged for what you just told me. You've observed a pattern in our family where the 'squeaky wheel gets the oil' and you have made a decision NOT to complain loudly."

"Mom," he pointed out, "It's not like I'm going to change who I am."

"Yes," I replied, "but it's comforting to be understood that, even though that's your way, you DO feel a sense of unfairness, and how hard it is to accept Dad's answer that 'circumstances are just different this time and that's why you are not getting a new phone.'"

"Yeah!" Harrison underscored his exasperation. "I've already told him that I've never lost a phone before and this one is not even lost! I don't think it's fair that I have to wait so long when Jake got his replacements so fast." 

Father and son were definitely locking horns over a solution (new phone now!). And, like Dr. Gordon wrote, that can sabotage a peaceful resolution:

Separating needs from solutions can be very difficult because even when people use the word need, what they are saying is often a solution that would meet a need . . . If the underlying needs . . . are not clearly understood and expressed, the process [of problem-solving] will bog down . . . the conflict won’t be resolved.”
— Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 265

I gently asked the P.E.T. question for teasing out needs: "What would Dad getting you a new phone today do for you?"

He thought about it. "Communication!" he said. But, I pointed out, he actually had a phone to use, so it could not be that need.

Harrison reflected more but was stumped. I explored with him and he came to see that his needs were understanding and fairness. We discussed the fact that he doesn't enjoy feeling like the "sacrificial lamb for the peace of the family" (his words).

I'm pretty sure I know exactly where that feeling comes from. 

When I didn't have P.E.T. strategies or skills to use in those out of control moments with Jake, my energy was split 90/5/5 among my three children. (No exaggeration - that is how I have always described those chaotic days.) Over and over again, Harrison must have received verbal and nonverbal messages such as these:

"Not now Harrison, can't you see I have my hands full?"

"Harrison, thank goodness for you, my peaceful child."

"Go somewhere else if you're going to fight! I literally can't take any more stress!!!" 

One of the saddest moments in my mothering history happened when Harrison was about 5. He was at the kitchen table chattering away (boy, could he talk!) and asking me questions. I was busy either making lunch, cleaning up, or heating up a bottle for Claudia. My Line of Acceptance was high with lack of sleep, feeling deprived of me time and the irritation that I wasn't accomplishing anything except for mundane, household tasks.

I suddenly turned to Harrison and demanded, "Stop it, just stop it! Can you just stop needing me so much?!"

I will never, ever, in all my remaining days forget the look of bewilderment and hurt as Harrison attempted to put on a brave face.


He tried to smile!

I think he had already picked up a certain lesson: Oh gosh, Mommy's love is not for sure. I must stop needing her so much because maybe she won't love me anymore.

This blog entry is my small way of honoring how hard it was for my young Harrison to sense repeatedly that Mommy didn't understand his feelings, that Mommy didn't like demanding children, that it wasn't ok for him to be upset, "selfish" or in meltdown mode. 

In contrast, the P.E.T. method helps our children embrace all sides of themselves:

  • When we Active Listen them, we give the basic, humane message that it's ok to have the emotion -- here, let me name it for you, let's acknowledge how rough it is to feel that way! 
  • When we use Confrontive I-Messages, we model for them that they too are free to express feelings and needs without shame and in a way that others hear and connect with them.
  • When we Method III Problem-Solve, we commit to meeting everyone's needs and listen for feelings of frustration that show we are falling short. 

In response to the question that Carl Jung posed -- Do you want to be good or do you want to be whole? -- I had long ago chosen "good" for Harrison.

Now, however belated it is, I am committed to helping him choose "whole."

My son is already a high school junior. I vow to make up for lost time. I want Harrison to leave for college not only knowing my unconditional love but also embracing his own squeakiness. Strong emotions, discontent and confrontation do not have to seem so scary, like he might lose someone's love. 

You mean the world to me, Harrison.

You mean the world to me, Harrison.

Writing this entry was painful. The vivid memory I share today is something I've forgiven myself for only after a lot of work (to be included one day in a PGD post).

As we gain insight into ourselves as parents, I believe it's important to be open and honest with our children so they can come to make sense of their own life stories. I have discussed this memory with Harrison (yes, with tears). This way, he can feel clearer about why he may be reacting a certain way, come to have more self-acceptance and be better able to make change.

This process of moving toward mindfully choosing responses instead of being driven by reactions that began as survival tactics when we were small is all brilliantly laid out in Dr. Dan Siegel's book Mindsight, a book that absolutely floored me.

Credits: Wagon at http://charityteambuildingevents.com/team-building-build-wagon-deal-squeaky-wheel/; Listening quote at https://www.facebook.com/ParentEffectivenessTraining; Carl Jung quote at http://www.randomnotesofgratitude.com/system/images/BAhbB1sHOgZmSSI5MjAxMy8xMS8wNS8yMF8yNl8wN182NTVfQ2FybF9KdW5nX1F1b3RlX01vZGlmaWVkLmpwZwY6BkVUWwg6BnA6CnRodW1iSSINNDUweDQ1MD4GOwZG/Carl%20Jung%20Quote%20Modified.jpg