Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. Through stories from my behavioral pediatrics practice (with details changed to protect privacy) I will show how contemporary research in child development can be applied to support parents in their efforts to facilitate their children’s healthy emotional development. I will address factors that converge to obstruct such support. These include limited access to quality mental health care, influences of a powerful health insurance industry and intensive marketing efforts by the pharmaceutical industry.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Parenting Toddlers and Teenagers: Much in Common

Psychoanalyst Peter Blos describes the "second individuation process of adolescence," referring to the way in which adolescence shares many qualities with toddlerhood in terms of developmental tasks. Sometimes when I listen to parents describe their struggles with their teenage children, I have an image of trying to contain a person, often bigger than themselves, who has advanced thinking skills. The tantrums of adolescence involve not thrashing arms and legs, but words, and often cruel and vicious words.

D. W.Winnicott, pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, offers some words of wisdom that can guide a parent through this challenging period. He writes, in his book Playing and Reality
If you do all you can to promote personal growth in your offspring, you will need to be able to deal with startling results. If your children find themselves at all they will not be contented to find anything but the whole of themselves, and that will include the aggression and destructive elements in themselves as well as the elements that can be labeled loving. There will be this long tussle which you will need to survive.
This idea resonated with Pam, mother of 16 year old Eva, who had come to see me for a consultation. She described the following scene. Pam and Eva had planned to have a nice lunch together. Eva was busy at school and had developed an increasingly serious relationship with her boyfriend, Chris. Eva and Pam had always been close and both eagerly anticipated this opportunity to spend a bit of time together. Things started off well enough. Eva excitedly told her mother about the latest social happenings at school and about a paper she was working on.

But then over some little thing, Pam couldn’t even remember what it was when she told me the story in my office, Eva had exploded with a burst of venomous rage. “You never think about my feelings,” she’d started with, calmly enough. But when Pam tried to get her to explain what she meant, Eva’s anger only increased. Vicious insults started flying at her. Caught off guard, Pam found herself becoming defensive.

Their discussion escalated into a shouting match as they quickly paid their bill and left the restaurant. Pam, in an effort to get home without being in an accident, stopped talking to Eva, who, she felt, was becoming increasingly irrational in her verbal assault on her mother. Pam’s silence only further enraged Eva and she screamed at her mother, who held tight to the wheel, hands shaking.

They made it home and immediately went their separate ways. Pam called her husband. As he was not the recipient of the full intensity of Eva’s distress he was able to support his wife and help her to calm down. Eva closed the door to her room and called her boyfriend. Several hours later Eva emerged from her room. “I’m sorry, Mom, she said. I’ve been feeling so much stress trying to balance work and friends and Chris.” “I understand that this is a very difficult time for you,” Pam had replied. “But," she went on to say, "it is not acceptable for you to speak to me the way you did.”

Pam was feeling beaten down by these repeated interactions with her daughter. While she had been able to negotiate the prior stages of development with Eva, the intensity of feelings directed at her from her teenage daughter sometimes was too much to bear. I told Pam that she was doing just what she needed to do, namely withstand the full intensity of her daughters feelings , both the negative and positive ones, yet set limits on her behavior. Pam needed to show Eva that she loved and supported her daughter, but would not allow her destroy her mother.

A toddler needs similar kinds of limits as he tries to make sense of who he is as a person separate from his parents. While two-year-olds will not say "thank you for setting limits," when parents contain both their behavior and their intense feelings, it helps them to feel safe and secure. This safety and security is needed just as much for teenagers as they begin to separate and develop their emerging identity. Ironically just when a teenager is most actively and aggressively pushing you away, she most need you to be there.

Winnicott offers a hopeful look at the future if a parent has withstood the “long tussle” of adolescence. He writes:
Your rewards come in the richness that may gradually appear in the personal potential of this or that boy or girl. And if you succeed you must be prepared to be jealous of your children who are getting better opportunities for personal development than you had yourselves. You will feel rewarded if one day your daughter asks you to do some baby-sitting for her, indicating thereby that she thinks you may be able to do this satisfactorily; or if your son wants to be like you in some way, or falls in love with a girl you would have liked yourself, if you had been younger. Rewards come indirectly. And of course you know you will not be thanked.

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