Where There Is A Family

By Geneviève Hone

Where There Is A Family

What's up, Kid?

Hone, small image.

Spend time with a family and you will hear innumerable questions most of them concerning the daily arrangements for living communally as harmoniously as possible. “What’s for dinner?” “Who left the back door open?” “When will you get home?” “Have you finished your homework?” You will hear these questions because they are asked clearly, perhaps loudly. However, you may sense, rather than actually hear, other questions that reflect the efforts of family members striving to grow together in love and respect: “How can I be with you, you whom I dearly love? We are so different, you and I. How can I still be on your side when we disagree on so many issues, when our behaviours and attitudes hurt each other?”

Here is one situation where there were more questions than solutions.

  Cartoon: Looking for an answer
  Image by Julien Mercure.

Dear Granny Witch,

Please help me solve a problem I have with my 13 year old son, Steve. I have tried many things, none of which have helped much. I write to you as you claim to be a witch, and therefore an expert on the witching hour. You know about the “witching hour” in families, the hour before dinner when everybody is hungry, tired and cranky. Well, in my family, witching hour does not happen at dinnertime. It happens every school day morning and lasts for 90 minutes. Steve has always been slow to prepare for school. He literally drags his feet from the moment he awakens to the moment he leaves to catch the school bus. He’s uncooperative and if I try to help him hurry up and get on with it, he becomes angry and rude or he plays the victim. I’ve asked him to tell me what the problem is, but he says that I’m the one with the problem, and tells me to shove off. I just don’t understand what’s going on. I have never thought of Steve as a problem child, but I am afraid he’s picking up very bad habits that will damage his chances of leading a good life.

Our family physician says that Steve is fine, just sorting himself out, and that 13 can be a bumpy age. I’ve also consulted a mental health practitioner in case Steve might be suffering from depression. It’s not depression, it seems, but it could be separation anxiety. I looked that up on the internet since psychology is not my field. I am a land survey technician and am really comfortable only with what I can see with my own eyes. Other than that, Steve and I are happy together. I probably should add that Steve has no father that I know of. Read between the lines, Granny Witch. I was 17 when he was born, nine months after a bad party, but I did manage to learn a good trade and I am able to support us both.

I thank you in advance.

Signed: Looking for an answer with Steve

Dear Looking for an answer,

Before I attempt to help you solve your problem, let me share a couple of thoughts that guide me when working with people. Firstly, I firmly believe that you and Steve are both doing what you can at any given moment. If you could do something else than argue in the morning, I assume you would. If together you are not yet doing what might work better, it is simply because you both haven’t yet learned how to do so. You and Steve have the capacity to learn together. You have done so innumerable times.

Secondly, and just to get this out of the way, I must say that I rather dislike labels such as “separation anxiety”, simply because once we have given a name to something or someone, we think we have found the answer and we tend to stop observing, searching and contemplating. You looked up “separation anxiety” on the internet. I did too, just for the fun of it, and Google, bless its dear soul, offered 9,860,000 sites for my perusal. Oh my!  But do look up this excellent site: http://www.livesinthebalance.org/   Consider inviting Steve to explore this site with you. Arm yourselves with a big bowl of popcorn, put your feet up and together, enjoy the videos and the conversations that will no doubt follow.

I now suggest that you try considering Steve’s behaviour as if it were a mystery as opposed to a problem. The mystery of Steve during those difficult 90 minutes.  Take a few deep breaths, yes, right now, and as you do so, imagine that you are making space in your heart and mind for the many answers you may obtain while really observing Steve and listening to him. Let yourself be curious about Steve at 13. Who is he today? Certainly not what he was yesterday. And certainly not what he will be tomorrow. Visualise yourselves as you go through your days together, without judgement, without imposing pressure on yourself. Fresh ideas will emerge from this meditation.

Remember when you were teaching Steve how to safely cross a street. You held his hand firmly and said: “Stop, Look and Listen!” You were able to obtain his collaboration. Your little guy wanted to cross the street to the park with the big slides, and you wanted to help him do that safely. You were in this together!

Today, you may use that knowledge and experience to cross over to where Steve seems to be on school day mornings and elicit his collaboration to solve problems that affect you both. You already know the three steps:  STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN.

1). STOP proposing solutions for the time being. Later, you and Steve will work on creating solutions that you both can agree on.

2). LOOK. You are good at observing, land surveyors have to be. Observe Steve’s behaviour over a period of several days. Take notes. Break down those 90 minutes into smaller chunks of time. You might notice quite soon that Steve is not always dragging his feet, complaining and being rude. He probably does come up for breath once in a while! You will begin to detect patterns, for instance, that he calms down after he’s had some orange juice, or that things are worse if his clothes have not been set out the previous evening.

3) LISTEN. At one point, you will feel ready to take the “empathy step”. This is a term proposed by a psychologist whose work I admire greatly, Dr. Ross W. Greene. Dr. Greene is the author of Lost at School[1]and The Explosive Child[2]. You may learn a lot from these books because you like to see with your own eyes: there are lots of examples throughout.  Expressing empathy is basically sharing an observation with someone in a non-judgmental way, and then manifesting that you are interested in what the other has to say. Very simple… yet one needs to practice!  

Choose a time when you and Steve are both calm and able to take a few minutes together to share ideas. Find words that are “neutral”, words that will simply transmit one of your observations, and nothing else. Dr. Greene suggests starting with “I’ve noticed that…” and ending with a very simple question: “What’s up?” For example, “I’ve noticed that school mornings have become a real struggle for us since September. What’s up?” You will get an answer. Listen to it whatever it happens to be.

“I’ve noticed that….  What’s up?” Again and again.  You will soon get the hang of it. You and Steve are learning together. Enjoy the process!

Granny Witch

[1]Greene, R. W. Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them. New York: Scribner, 2009.

[2]Greene, R.W. The Explosive Child. 4th ed. New York, Harper, 2010.