Dear Dejected Mom At Church

Dear Dejected Mom At Church

Dear Dejected Mom,

I was distracted last weekend.

You were in the pew in front of me with your daughters (who look about 11 and 8?) I got an inkling something was wrong when you leaned over with a stern look. That's when I noticed the two girls were sucking their hands, on that fleshy part right under the thumbs.

Your older daughter just looked at you and kept at it. Then the girls smiled at each other, discreetly comparing marks.

The whole routine happened four more times. (Sorry, I was counting.)

Each time I saw you straighten up and shake your head ever so slightly. You seemed to be getting more and more perturbed, judging by how long the shaking lasted. When we all kneeled, you rested your head into your hands and stayed that way even after we had stood up.

You may never read this, but you are not alone. Many parents in the course despair when their kids pretend they don't hear or simply walk away while they're talking. I recall the times when I have felt I don't matter in my interactions with my kids.

May I share some P.E.T. perspective you can use as a way out?

P.E.T. Helps Us Achieve Our Highest Aspirations

For so many parents, myself included, Dr. Thomas Gordon's insistence on a fair, democratic relationship as the right of both parent and child comes as a huge relief. 

Beyond just goal setting, P.E.T. gives us a framework -- called the Behavior Window -- for actually bringing about such mutual respect. 

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So, let's look at your situation in terms of problem ownership. Once we understand this, then we know which skills to reach for.

Who Owned the Problem at Church?

Let's take it box by box.

Was it in the Child Owns Problem area?

No. Your girls seemed totally fine even when you spoke to them the third, fourth and fifth times. My daughter Claudia (12) maintains that they were just having fun, being mischievous.

Was it in the No Problem area?

No. You were feeling irritated. It was under your Line of Acceptance!

Was it in the Parent Owns Problem area?

Yes. There was a concrete and tangible negative impact on you meeting your needs that your daughters will probably buy: You were prevented from praying and following the mass in peace and had to repeat your request several times.

(Some parents wonder if #3 applies - for a discussion, see below.) 

Was it in the Both Own Problem area?

Conflict of Needs -- Maybe. If you repeatedly confront the P.E.T. way (see next section) but your daughters continue their behavior, it moves down to this box. (We understand this to mean they are acting to fulfill an overriding need of theirs; Method III Problem-Solving helps ensure everyone's needs are met.) But, in top-down fashion, the first step is to use the skills in the Parent Owns Problem area (the focus of this post).

Values Collision -- Probably. I would guess you have values you want to share with your daughters around this situation. But it almost always helps first to deal with meeting needs -- here, yours.

(For a discussion of Values Collisions, see this entry on when I lost my temper with my daughter over punctuality and this one on how I used the values-sharing skills in the context of too much gaming.)

P.E.T.-Style Confrontation

First, let me say that I realize church is not the ideal place to have a lengthy conversation. Perhaps you could have a full talk once you get home or, at least, before the next mass? And just so you know -- the long-term payoff of using P.E.T. skills regularly is that problems pop up less frequently and, when they do, are more quickly resolved.

That being said, P.E.T. has two confrontation skills:

  1. Confrontive I-Message (behavior, feelings, effects)**
  2. Shifting Gears to Active Listen (and then to re-confront)**

You might construct your Confrontive I-Message in the following manner:

"When you suck your hands and look at each other and compare marks (behavior), I feel really aggravated (feelings) because I can see it happening and am distracted instead of being able to focus on what the priest is saying." (effects)

Sometimes, that's enough.

Children, not unlike adults, often don’t know how their behavior affects others. In the pursuit of their own goals they are often totally unaware of the impact their behavior might have. Once they are told, they usually want to be more considerate. Thoughtlessness frequently turns into thoughtfulness, once a child understands the impact of his behavior on others.
— Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 147

Suppose, on the other hand, your daughters ignore your Confrontive I-Message. When that happens, Gordon models language for a second, stronger set of I-Messages: 

"Hey, I'm telling you how I feel. This is important to me. And I don't like to be ignored. I hate it when you just walk away from me and don't even listen to my feelings. That doesn't sit well with me. I don't feel it's very fair to me when I really have a problem." 

-- P.E.T., page 152

What if your daughters verbally show resistance or defensiveness? 

"We're not hurting anyone and we're being totally quiet!"


"It's my hand. I can do whatever I want with my hand." 

If, as a result of your confrontation, your daughters now have a problem, it helps to Shift Gears to Active Listen. Active Listening is reflecting back the facts of what they are communicating and guessing at the underlying feelings. AL helps kids identify their emotions by giving them a chance to confirm or tweak what you've said. More importantly, they experience your attitude of acceptance which helps them process emotions, move toward solutions and feel more empathy for others. 

Maybe you could offer an Active Listening response like this:

"You seem really annoyed that I'm asking you to change your behavior when you don't see any harm from it."

You might have to keep on Active Listening a couple of times -- they may have many unexpressed emotions from past incidents that have to come out! -- until they feel heard, calmer and ready to listen to your point of view. 

Reasserting to meet your own needs might take this form:

"I hear that both of you are frustrated. You feel I control you a lot and that seems so unfair. I'd like to think about that and how I can change. Right now, when you do this, I can't focus on the mass so I am still feeling very unsettled."

Here, by your Active Listening you are recognizing that the girls are trying to meet important needs like mattering, choice and fairness. By reasserting, you are sending the message that you would like them, in turn, to help you meet your own needs. Hopefully, your daughters will sense your commitment to help them and want to do that for you by changing their unacceptable behavior. 

This is the sweet goal of mutuality we strive for, with parents and children alike seeing and believing in each other's goodness. 

So, dear dejected mom, I know you may never see this, but I will be sending you good vibes whenever I see you at church!

Note on Question #3 of the Concrete and Tangible Effects Test:

I don't think this applies in your case. Even if your heart was pounding and your palms were sweating, it wouldn't be physical distress in the way this test intended.

Compare this to when, say, a child pulls your chair away as you're sitting down so that you fall on your behind. Do you sense the difference? The child would immediately see the impact on you with the fall, whereas they might not as easily accept that your physical symptoms are a direct result of them trying to give themselves a hickey on the hand. 

** For a clear walkthrough of the Behavior Window and all the terms (with examples), please read my P.E.T. Glossary.

I see parents struggling all the time with their children and usually feel I have no way to help them that doesn't seem threatening or incredibly arrogant. This is my small way of making a difference. Please note that I change details of events to preserve anonymity.

If you like this, you might want to read my letter to the Angry Father in the Cafe.

Credits: Head bowed in prayer (