When Only One Child Cooperates - Aaghh!

When Only One Child Cooperates - Aaghh! 

A graduate -- I’ll call her Kayla -- wanted to organise a birthday celebration for her children before the holidays. Constance (12 and not her real name) wrote out her invitations three weeks ahead of time while her brother Jack (11 and a pseudonym) did not.

Kayla wrote about her aggravation: "If I go ahead with the joint party, I give Jack the message that it's ok to leave the 'work' of sending out invites to Constance and me, but if I hold it only for Constance I’ll feel guilty for snubbing Jack." Doing a separate party for Jack when he "got his act together" felt out of the question; they were leaving soon after school got out and would be busy in the new term.

Kayla ended up cancelling and treating Constance to afternoon tea and a first manicure. Though Jack claimed he understood, he acted resentful during their break.

Kayla acknowledged that her own stress had led to a “less than ideal, one-size-fits-all (namely selfish ME!) approach!!!” Calling off the party was “punishment” but, she lamented, “to be honest, I was nowhere close to the frame of mind to do a Method III Problem-Solve!”


Let’s pick this apart. 

We’re In Charge of Our Own Line of Acceptance

This is Parent Effectiveness Training's paradigm: the Behavior Window.

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Thomas Gordon says we have one of two reactions to what our child does or says: we either accept it or we don't.

Far from fixed, the Line of Acceptance is in a constant state of flux based on three factors: 

  1. Environment -- crowded plane v. home

  2. Child -- 10 yo v. 4 yo

  3. Self -- stressed v. elated that we got that new client!

Many parents come to see that #3 -- what's going on inside us -- really drives feelings of unacceptance. A child's meltdown in public doesn't CAUSE us to lose it; lack of sleep or recent fight with our co-parent might have more to do with it. Most often, it's our judgments, expectations and sense of embarrassment (even shame) playing a major role.

We can’t change the environment where a behavior is occurring and we can't swap out the actor. So if all we have, really, is to work on ourselves where to start?

By making a habit of noticing where our Line is.

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If it's low, we celebrate and register what's contributing to that equanimity!

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If it's high, we gently wonder:

  • What’s driving my Line upwards? or

  • I wonder why my Line is always so high for this particular child of mine? or

  • What important needs am I not meeting?

Curiosity can lead to more spaciousness, where we experience strong emotions (even anger!) but are not swept up in the story we are telling ourselves. It's so easy to feel aggressive when we impute bad intentions to our kids -- e.g. He's deliberately NOT writing the invites to get a rise out of me. If we pause to contemplate the spins we put on kids' behaviors, we just might choose not to believe them.

This self-awareness and self-regulation lowers our Line of Acceptance and then: 

We can observe more calmly the reality unfolding in front of us.

We are better able to pick up on cues that our kids might be having a problem.

We can think through the Behavior Window and use the P.E.T. skills that we can't when we're emotionally dysregulated.

There are many strategies to nudge our Line downward (I share some of mine below) yet let's be honest; we probably won't be DYING to journal about our high Line of Acceptance or to brainstorm ways to meet our own needs. We. just. might. want. a. break! And so we choose a reality show over reflection.

Yet the only one to step off the emotional roller-coaster is us. Kids are way less equipped. And so we try to do something before the next gut-wrenching nosedive.

Once on firm, even ground, P.E.T. work can go more smoothly. Let’s turn to that now.

Who Owns the Problem? 

We look to behavioral clues to answer the question -- Who Owns the Problem? -- that forms the cornerstone of the P.E.T. approach. Once we have our answer, our role and the skills to use seem natural and wise.

Child Owns Problem

When Jack does not send out invitations to his own party does he seem like something has got him down? For example, he might be nervous that his best friend will be mad if he invites a new buddy.

If Kayla picks up on verbal cues (“It’s so hard to know who to ask”) or non-verbal ones (picking up the pen and putting it down repeatedly and then flopping on the couch), she might move in with the Helping Skills.

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  • Door-Opener -- "Hey, if you have something bothering you and you wanna talk about it, I’m here." (Door-Openers are invitations to talk.)
  • Active Listening -- "You look ambivalent; it’s tough to decide the guest list." (Active Listening is reflecting back the child's total communication picked up from things like words, body language and tone of voice so the child feels felt and thus calmer.)

When Jack is able to explore his problem with an accepting person, he can gain insight and the energy to solve it. If his solution negatively affects Kayla, she can use the skills below.

Parent Owns Problem

What if Jack is utterly content not writing, choosing instead to play a game on his phone or go to the trampoline park? In that case, Kayla is the one who's got a problem.

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To confront in a way that preserves the relationship and gives Jack the opportunity to help meet her needs, Kayla will want to use a three part Confrontive I-Message: 

“Ooooh, when there are two weeks until December 9th and you haven’t yet sent invitations (non-blameful description of behavior),

I feel nervous and antsy
(primary feelings)

because I want very much to hold the party for you and your sister and to know it’s done before we go away and I don’t want to spend time inviting or contacting the parents on my own." (effects)

Jack might, at that point, defend himself: “I was going to do it! My friends don’t need umpteen years worth of notice! I already told them!”

Oh dear. Kayla did not ask for this kind of outburst. And yet there it is. She has a decision to make.

On the tip of her tongue may be You-messages:

  • "Excuse me!? Who are you to talk to me like that?" 
  • "I’m done. I can only take so much insolence."
  • "I’m supposed to know what you’ve told your friends? Gee, I better brush up on my mind-reading."

Seriously, there are so many ways I can imagine to Roadblock.

Instead, however, when kids resist our confrontation, P.E.T. guides us to ask just now, in this very moment, Who Owns the Problem? Without forgetting that we still have our own unmet needs, we can see that our confrontation has led to a spike in our child's emotional temperature. If we Shift Gears to Active Listen (and then reassert), we are more likely to get behavioral change while keeping in each others’ good graces.

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Kayla: “So you’re saying you’d like credit for already having invited them. You don’t like to hear my worries when you’re feeling it’s taken care of without the formality of a written note.” (Active Listening)

Jack: “Exactly. Duh.”

Kayla: “Yeah. You don’t like it when I assume the worst.” (Active Listening)

Jack: “Right. . . I am turning 12.”

Kayla: “You’d like to be treated differently now that you’re getting older.” (Active Listening)

If Kayla senses he's cooled off a bit, she can reconfront and share that she feels anxious not knowing how many kids she'll be hosting. Chances are higher that her message will register and Jack might say: “Ok mom. Sorry I didn’t tell you but two of them can come. Two can’t because they’re already going away skiing. And I don’t really know who else I can invite . . ."

This may develop into a longer conversation with Jack willing to open up more now that he feels Kayla is listening.

Say it goes a totally different way and Jack promises to send invites by the end of the weekend but doesn’t. Kayla can send another Confrontive I-Message -- “I’m really worried that the day’s going to come and only your sister’s friends will show up and you will be super unhappy and want me to schedule another time for you!" 

When Confronting and Shifting Gears does not get you to the sweet spot, that means Jack, despite wanting to help Kayla meet her needs, has his own needs that he can’t seem to meet otherwise.

It’s time to treat this as an ongoing conflict and seek a collaborative resolution.

Both Own the Problem

In P.E.T., Method III Problem-Solving involves six steps that focus on identifying and meeting everyone's needs. 

By the way, in case you're wondering, Method I is authoritarian (parents' needs trump) and Method II is permissive (parents' needs are trampled). Method III is democratic (parents' needs equally as important as kids').

By the way, in case you're wondering, Method I is authoritarian (parents' needs trump) and Method II is permissive (parents' needs are trampled). Method III is democratic (parents' needs equally as important as kids').

Beforehand, Kayla may want to jot down the following:

  • Description of the problem 
  • Her needs (I like this list) - Note: needs are different from solutions! Kayla may have her heart set on a joint party but that is only a solution that will help her achieve ease and rest.
  • What she guesses are Jack's needs
  • Possible solutions (to raise during brainstorming after eliciting Jack's ideas)

The first step of a Problem-Solve is the most time-consuming. It starts with a Confrontive I-Message followed by a lot of Active Listening. 

“Constance’s guests are confirmed; yours are not. I’m concerned because this is taking a lot of energy out of me. I need rest after this crazy semester and I thought a joint celebration before we pack up and leave made sense.”

Whatever comes up, now's the time to meet Jack with openness. If Kayla can grasp his conceptualization of the issue, she'll get to his underlying needs (which may or may not dovetail with her earlier guesses).

Active Listening during Step 1 may uncover that:

  • Jack needs fairness and mattering but Kayla and Constance decided on the bowling alley without his input.
  • Jack craves independence and would rather be in charge of his own quieter celebration.
  • Jack has a need for understanding and compassion. Maybe his friends made fun of him as a mama’s boy or said his sister is smarter than he is, which is why he is wary of sharing his special day with her.

Kayla simply cannot know until Jack feels comfortable enough to say. Active Listening creates that safe space.

Once the problem has been crystallized in terms of his needs and Kayla's, then they can brainstorm ideas that meet both sets. Step 2 is fast and furious with any evaluation left for Step 3.

In Step 4, they decide together on one or more solutions and in Step 5 get specific on who’s going to do which tasks starting when.

Finally, in Step 6, at a designated time, they check in with each other’s happiness levels. If they're not both satisfied, they owe it to themselves to go back to Step 1 and see if they failed to discover a true need or if needs have changed. 

Kayla, I hope that helps! Best of luck as you deepen your P.E.T. parenting.

xo Catherine

Note: Depending on the circumstances, Kayla could choose to involve Constance in the Problem-Solve. 


Here are some resources I am soooooo grateful for:

Credits: Girl writing (https://fineartamerica.com/products/birthday-party-invitations-joyce-geleynse-art-print.html).