Roadblocks I - Child Owns Problem

The 12 Communication Roadblocks are all around us - gosh, everyday we must hear dozens of them! 

Dr. Thomas Gordon laid them all out for parents to see that, despite best intentions, our efforts to help our children can backfire. 

It’s quite an eye-opener for parents in the course to experience Roadblocks when I role-play the mom and they the collective child. Invariably, their responses range from agreeing just to get me off their back to outright hostility. Most significantly, they just want to stop talking.

Feeling for themselves what it’s like to be on the receiving end helps many mothers and fathers to make a shift:

  • "OMG, I can’t believe how disempowering that feels."
  • "It reminded me of how I just wanted to rage at my mother, actually, but never could."
  • "I can see how that makes me feel like you don’t understand me and now I am SO NOT going to tell you anything else."

After this exercise, participants are chomping at the bit to learn an alternative that helps kids when they have a problem, namely Active Listening.

And then, get this, a few sessions later, we find that we often shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot and rely on Roadblocks even when we are trying to help ourselves! (That’s my next post: Roadblocks II - Parent Owns Problem.)

It might help to walk through a Child Owns Problem scenario: 

Imagine that you have been noticing your daughter spending a lot of time in her room reading books. She seems a bit listless. One day, she tells you that she doesn’t have too many friends at school. 

Can you imagine yourself responding in the following ways? 

1. Ordering, Directing

"I don’t want you to be a loner. You’ve got to make some effort to reach out."

"Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You have it so good and complaining gets you nowhere."

Hidden messages:

  • I don't accept the way you are
  • Your feelings and needs are not important; you must comply with what I feel and need
  • I am going to take over solving your problem

Possible upshot:

  • Child feels misunderstood and alone with her problem
  • She may feel resentful or angry and resist your commands
  • Child may fear your power

2. Warning, Admonishing, Threatening

"If you don’t at least try to fit in, you might get a reputation for being anti-social and then you’ll really have a hard time."

"If you can't be more personable, maybe I need to do more and take matters into my own hands to help you!"

Hidden messages:

  • You are unacceptable the way you are 
  • I don't respect your needs or wishes
  • I don't trust your judgment or competence

Possible upshot:

  • Child feels fearful and submissive
  • Child responds with hostility or with “I don’t care what happens, I still feel this way.”
  • These messages also invite testing – are you really gonna follow through?

3. Exhorting, Moralizing, Preaching

"You really shouldn’t be so shy and timid. All children need at least one buddy and friendship is a two-way street."

Hidden messages:

  • The way you are is not ok
  • You better accept what others think is right
  • You must comply with external duties, obligations and norms 

Possible upshot:

  • Child may respond to these "should" statements by resisting or digging in her heels
  • Child may feel guilty or that she is "bad" or to blame 
  • Feeling alienated, child may withdraw
  • Child counter-moralizes: "Well, you're shy too! How many real friends do you have?" 

4. Advising, Giving Solutions or Suggestions

"Why don’t you invite Sarah over this weekend?" 

Hidden messages:

  • You are not smart enough to come up with your own solution, so let me take over
  • I know better than you

Possible upshot:

  • Child is prevented from thinking through her problem, considering alternative solutions and trying them out
  • Child grows dependent on your problem-solving rather than developing her own ideas 
  • Child may resent and resist the solution or advice (especially if she is autonomous like one of my kids!)
  • Child feels like you don't understand AT ALL

5. Arguing, Lecturing, Teaching, Persuading with Logic

"Moping on your own is not the way to make friends though. The only way you’ll ever make friends is to just go out and take some risks!" 

Hidden messages:

  • I have all the answers

Possible upshot:

  • Child thinks you consider her inferior, subordinate, inadequate
  • Upon hearing the “facts” or how she is wrong, child becomes defensive or takes desperate measures to discount your position
  • If she already knows the facts, child resents the implication that she is uninformed
  • Child tunes out the parental lectures

6. Judging, Criticizing, Disagreeing, Blaming

"You know what my opinion is? You just have too-high standards, thinking others are not as smart as you are or saying they are too concerned with their looks."  

Hidden messages:

  • You are incompetent, stupid or "a bad kid" in some way (here, an intellectual snob)
  • I don't love you

Possible upshot:

  • Child shutters up and hides emotions and life events, fearing negative judgment
  • Child accepts evaluation as true, with a feebler sense of self
  • Child experiences anger and hatred toward parent, regardless of the accuracy of the comments
  • Child feels unloved and unlovable

7. Praising, Agreeing

"You’re always such a good kid and so likeable. It’s such a shame people can’t see that."

"Well, I think you are pretty great."

Hidden messages:

  • I want to encourage you to behave in certain ways by buttering you up
  • I evaluate you positively!

Possible upshot:

  • Child may be hostile to a positive evaluation that doesn't fit her self-image
  • Child can feel insecure about not living up to your expectations 
  • Child feels like you don't really understand her -- You wouldn't think that if you really knew me.
  • Child believes parent is being patronizing or manipulative to get the desired behavior
  • Child may realize you can also judge negatively or withhold praise (which then feels like a criticism)
  • Praise in general may lead to child becoming dependent on external evaluation rather than being intrinsically motivated

8. Name-calling, Labeling, Ridiculing, Shaming

"Well, you are a homebody and you’ve always been the silent type. It’s no wonder people find it difficult to break that hard shell you have around you." 

"What a whiner."

Hidden messages:

  • I have you pegged - your character is immutable
  • You are unworthy, bad and unloved

Possible upshot:

  • Child's self-image plummets
  • Child retaliates verbally to your ridicule, zeroing in on your shortcomings 
  • Child is much less likely to change by looking at herself realistically

9. Interpreting, Analyzing, Diagnosing

"You don’t give people enough of a chance. You have certain expectations and as soon as someone doesn’t live up to them you shut them out." 

Hidden messages:

  • I KNOW you, I GET you, I can read you like a book
  • I am superior and more clever than you

Possible upshot:

  • Child feels threatened and frustrated, even if you are accurate
  • Child stops sharing for fear of distortion or exposure
  • If the interpretation or analysis is wrong, child may feel unjustly accused

10. Reassuring, Sympathizing, Consoling, Supporting

"Don’t worry, everyone goes through lonely periods. You will have friends, I assure you." 

Hidden messages:

  • Your concerns, fears and worries are not that serious
  • It's not ok for you to feel badly

Possible upshot:

  • Child can think parent doesn’t get it: “That’s easy for you to say!”
  • Child feels hostile and distrustful: “You’re only saying that to make me feel better”
  • Child stops talking to you since she picks up on the fact that her negative feelings are unacceptable to you
  • Child believes strong feelings of hurt, upset or discouragement should be suppressed, not processed

11. Probing, Questioning, Interrogating

"Well, do you think there is anyone who would like to be your friend? Who was that girl the other day that said “Bye” to you when I picked you up? What about her? Do you have her number?" 

“When did you start feeling this way?” 

"What's wrong?"

Hidden messages:

  • When I have all the data, I will provide the solution
  • I must help you solve your problem
  • I harbor doubts and suspicions that there is something wrong with you

Possible upshot:

  • Child can feel anxious and threatened by questions: What is she implying?
  • Child may become resistant to your suggestions and reply with non-answers, half-truths or lies
  • If the child is unsure or does not know the answer to your question, it distracts her from exploring her own problem
  • In response to the common questions “What’s wrong?” or “What’s bothering you?” child may get defensive because she feels attacked and bad for not knowing
  • Child may, over time, become dependent on your solutions

12. Diverting, Using Sarcasm, Withdrawing, Distracting, Humoring

"Let’s just forget about it right now. We’ll talk about it later!  Tell me something interesting about school."

"Well, you're not exactly the definition of Ms. Social Butterfly."


Hidden Messages:

  • The problem is not worthy of discussion
  • I'm not interested in talking about this
  • Difficulties are best avoided
  • I reject who you are

Possible upshot

  • Child learns that she doesn’t feel heard or understood by parent and so takes her problems elsewhere
  • Child responds to sarcastic remarks with a weaker sense of self-worth


After I throw these all out, parents easily see the the overarching message of Roadblocks: I don't accept the way you are at the moment. They feel chagrined in hearing themselves in one or more of these responses.

Yet P.E.T. is not about guilt! 

Throughout our lives, we have learned a variety of ways to help children as well as adults when they have strong feelings, thoughts or problems. We want to be helpful, yet many of our responses actually make it more difficult for the person to express himself, make a decision or solve a problem. . . . You are not a ‘bad’ parent because you use roadblocks. You are doing what you have been taught to do to help others. P.E.T. will provide you with more effective alternatives to begin using instead of these common roadblocks.
— P.E.T. Workbook, page 24

We all take a step back from the exercise to acknowledge the fact that hearing our beloved child tell us that they have no friends brings out our fear, sorrow and worry; perhaps it even reminds us of our own shy personality or lonely childhood. The parents see that we come from a place of good, wanting desperately to help our child but without skills in line with our intentions

These communication Roadblocks roll off our tongues because we ourselves have heard them a million times over the course of our lives -- from parents and caregivers, teachers and friends, spouses and bosses

And now, as our kids’ first counselors, we're just doing our best BUT WE'VE NEVER BEEN TRAINED.  

So, after a pause for some much needed self-compassion, parents are pumped at that point to learn Active Listening for all it can do:

  • Maintain close and open communication
  • Help children gain insight into their own problem 
  • Accompany them on their journey to find their own creative solutions 
  • Assist kids in processing emotions

Huge Point! 

Lest you feel paralyzed and not know what to say to your kid ever, let me point out that, when used in the No Problem Area, many of these messages seldom act as Roadblocks and can be used without causing any problems. For instance:

  • “Everyone, come eat dinner!” (Ordering)
  • “Where is your book bag?” (Questioning)
  • “I think you need a jacket.” (Advising)

Some, however, are almost never appropriate and run the risk of creating a problem in the child (e.g. hurt feelings, worry, fear). That's why they are listed in red:

#6. Judging
#8. Name-calling 
#12. Being Sarcastic

So perhaps you'd like to begin noticing the many Roadblocks arrayed against our children (and even ourselves, colleagues and spouses -- in short, everyone in the entire universe). 

Because making any change at all starts with awareness.

Another Massive Point!

When we throw Roadblocks at our children, we abort the natural probing and exploring that allows a child to gain insight as to what’s really bothering her and how best to remedy the situation.

Sometimes the presenting problem -- here "I have no friends" -- is not actually the underlying issue. We simply don't know yet but it’s possible that this daughter is dealing with any number of things:

  • bullying
  • anxiety based on a remark her grandfather made (yet again!) about her lack of social graces
  • racism at school

The emotional release and shift in energy that comes from feeling truly heard, seen and accepted helps children develop resilience and problem-solving skills.

And at that point, you may want to jump in with some advice or teaching (no longer Roadblocks since we are not in the Child Owns Problem box any longer) and share how you overcame shyness, or your handy retort for a homophobic slur or the powerful creativity and benefits that come from being an introvert.

Roadblocks hinder important cognitive processes, interpersonal connection and emotional growth and well-being.

P.E.T., on the other hand, provides support for parents learning a better way of helping kids in need. That's why I love what I do.

You can read more in-depth about Roadblocks in Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children on pp. 47-56, 350-356 and in the course workbook on pp. 24-26. 

And check out the next entry: Roadblocks II: Parent Owns Problem!

Credits: Roadblocks (; Eckhart Tolle quote (