I call it “psychological thinking,” referring to the tendency among parents of the last 50 years or so to attribute bad behavior on the part of a child to so-called “issues” that are thought to be causing emotional tensions of one sort or another. That is, in fact, precisely what my graduate school professors taught; to wit, that misbehavior was nothing more than a symptom of such tension, and for that reason, punishment would only make matters worse.
As psychological theory oozed into popular culture, this imaginary notion went, in contemporary terms, viral. During my private practice years, the typical parent(s) who solicited my advice concerning an ill-behaved child seemed to think that knowing the hypothetical source of the problem in question was tantamount to solving it and that discovering said source required a highly-trained psychologist – me. It pains me to admit that for more than a few years I believed I was capable of deep-diving into a child’s psyche and bringing up such buried treasure – or trash, as the case may be.
It slowly dawned on me that I was pulling this stuff out of thin air, that there was no empirical means by which such speculations could be verified; therefore, they bordered on delusional. I further realized that these delusions absolved ill-behaved children of responsibility for their various anti-social outbursts and projected said responsibility on the parents. By such pseudo-intellectual alchemy, the misbehaving child was transformed from a perpetrator into a victim deserving not of discipline but great understanding and sympathy.
An example is the single mother who recently sought my help regarding a young teenage boy who was behaving disrespectfully toward her. She believed her son was “angry” at her for divorcing his father who just happened to be verbally abusive. Mom wanted to know how she could help the boy resolve his “anger issues.” It did not help that another therapist had told her that her son’s verbal abuse was indicative of depression. Psychobabble knows no limits.
The inevitable consequence to a parent of psychological thinking is what I call “disciplinary paralysis.” As was the case with the mother in this example, parents who engage in psychological thinking are unable to discipline firmly. They believe, after all, that they are to blame for their children’s misbehavior. They believe, therefore, that they are the parties in need of correction. It’s as if they went to graduate school with me.
And so, the problem in question – whatever it might be – just keeps on getting worse. A disrespectful teen becomes more disrespectful. An anxious 5-year-old who demands that her parents cater to her anxieties becomes more anxious and demanding. A 10-year-old who throws tantrums becomes a completely out-of-control 13-year-old.
All too often, these kids receive diagnoses of one sort or another – ADHD, oppositional-defiant disorder, bipolar disorder and so on – and wind up on medication. By the way, none of these diagnoses can be verified empirically and none of the medications used to “treat” them reliably outperform placebos.
Back to the aforementioned single mom: When she stopped absolving her son of responsibility for his disrespect, stopped thinking he was a victim with “anger issues,” stopped her unwitting enabling and responded to his abuse by confiscating all of his electronic gear and suspending all discretionary driving privileges until he was disrespect-free for two months … guess what? Right! After the shock wore off, his anger issues abruptly “resolved” and he became the model of a dutiful son.
Firm, loving authority is hard to beat.