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Do Something Different

Colorado

 

In June of 2014, I attended a three-day seminar in beautiful Boulder, CO with Michele Weiner-Davis, a fellow social worker and internationally renowned relationship expert, author, and marriage therapist. Some of her articles were required reading in my graduate school courses on couples counseling. I’ve read several of her books and recently watched her Ted Talk on “the sex-starved marriage.”

 

Michele has spent over 30 years specializing in helping couples restore the most challenging relationships, many of which are on the brink of divorce. During the workshop, she trained us to use the model she developed for working with these couples.

 

Many of the principles and techniques she shared can be applied to any relationship, not just marriage.

 

One of them is called “Do something different.”

 

You’re probably familiar with the famous Albert Einstein quote that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

 

You can also probably think of an argument or a problem that occurs in your relationship with your child again and again, in exactly the same way, with a predictable outcome.

 

Here’s an example: Every day after school, Tommy complains about doing his homework. His mother nags, makes threats, and lectures him on the importance of doing well in school. In response, Tommy digs his heels in even further and refuses to do his work, which upsets his mother even more, so she lashes out at him by yelling. Feeling defeated, he goes to his room and slams the door. It happens the same way every. single. day.

 

Tommy’s mother wonders why he doesn’t change, and reasons that she just needs to nag, threaten, lecture, and yell MORE to get him to do what she wants.

 

But more of the same clearly isn’t working. In fact, it’s making things worse.

 

Here’s a situation from my own experience: Marissa can get clingy after we’ve been apart. She sometimes hangs on me, follows me around, or talks incessantly in an effort to connect.

 

Often, I need some time to shift back into Mommy mode after being apart from her, and her clinginess tends to push me farther away.

 

In the past, whenever I became irritated by this or tried to create some space between us, she experienced even greater disconnection and became more clingy and upset…and then I got more irritated. See the pattern?

 

I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t stop when I had made it perfectly clear that I wanted space.

 

Then I tried something different.

 

I remember it vividly. Marissa was three, and I had left her with a babysitter to run some errands. When I returned home, she greeted me enthusiastically. I needed to use the bathroom, so I said a quick hello and started up the stairs. Marissa followed me and clung to my leg as I tried to walk. I felt that sense of annoyance rise up in me as I asked her to let go of my leg.

 

When she didn’t, I sat down on the step and looked into her eyes. “You really missed Mommy, didn’t you?” I asked. She nodded and immediately quieted down. “I missed you, too,” I said, and gave her a big hug. Then I told her, “Mommy has to go to the bathroom and then I’ll be right back downstairs to play with you.” I was amazed when she happily went back to the babysitter until I returned. All she needed was that feeling of connection and for me to change our pattern of interacting.

 

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It sounds so simple, but often we aren’t able to see how we’re contributing to the problem. We think that if we just keep doing more of the same, eventually they’ll see the light and change their behavior. Not so.

 

Here are Michele’s questions to get you thinking about your more of the same behavior and how to change it.

 

1) What problem situation keeps coming up over and over again in your relationship?

2) What is your usual way of handling the situation? Be specific in describing your behavior.

3) How would the people around you say you deal with the situation? Your child reacts to you based on his interpretation of your behavior, which can be (and often is) different than your intention. In other words, try to see the situation from your child’s point of view. The fact that you may disagree with his perspective is irrelevant. You just need to know what it is.

 

Now you’ve identified your more of the same behavior. The next time you find yourself in the “dance” with your child, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. It can be anything — as long as it’s different from what you’ve been doing.

 

Brainstorm ideas and don’t filter anything out. Sometimes zany ideas work best.

 

So, what could Tommy’s mother do differently? Rather than continue to nag, she could:

  • Back off and let him experience the natural consequences of his behavior
  • Calmly ask him about his resistance to doing homework
  • Ask him to come up with a solution
  • Enroll him in the homework club at school or hire a tutor
  • Firmly set a limit (e.g. “when you finish your homework, then you can play video games) and then matter-of-factly follow through

 

In the comments below, tell us what your more of the same behavior is and what you’ll try that is different. If you need some help brainstorming, let us know!

 

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Comments

  • Dana says:

    My nearly 5-year-old typically has a great day at preschool/camp and has a melt down within minutes of my picking her up. I know this is normal but it is a rough way to start our time together. I feel like I have tried both connecting and distancing when she does this, and could use some help with other ideas! (PS: Often the negative behavior comes out in the car or immediately on returning home). Thanks!

    • Pam Howard says:

      Hi Dana,
      I tried to give some other readers a chance to respond to your comment before I jumped in. First of all, you’re absolutely right that this is normal. Many kids hold it together at school/camp and then let out all their pent-up emotions in the safety and comfort of their parents’ presence. I’m wondering if you could be a bit more specific about what you’ve tried in the past. How do you try to connect? What do you say or do? Are there ever any times when this isn’t an issue? Let’s keep the conversation going…

  • Dana says:

    Great- so, basically I always try to have physical contact and eye contact- a big hug, a real conversation of some sort. Then we get in the car (or sometimes we walk) and pretty much immediately she is mad at me for not doing something “right”- I didn’t close the door the way she wanted, I didn’t bring the right snack, whatever, and melt down ensues. Sometimes I move “toward” her- a big hug, saying “I see you’re upset, I hear you, I am here,” etc…. Other times I try saying things like “this behavior isn’t appropriate and I’d love to hear what you have to say when you calm down” in a matter of fact tone. Other times I’ve tried “this behavior isn’t ok and there’s a consequence which is…” I’ve even tried just distracting her with a new topic or whatever. Generally once she gets upset its hard to redirect. It occasionally doesn’t happen but I haven’t noticed any rhyme or reason. Input welcome! Thanks!

    • Pam Howard says:

      Ok, so we want to prevent the tantrum from happening in the first place because once she’s in meltdown mode, there’s really no way to reason with her. I’m wondering if you’ve ever tried to talk with her about this pattern at a different time — when things are calm? Also, I know you say you don’t notice and rhyme or reason to when it doesn’t happen, but I’m curious as to whether you’re aware of what you’re doing differently during those times? Love this thread:)

      • Dana says:

        I have tried to talk to her at other times, and now that you mention it, I think that helps. The next day, or whenever it happens next (which is typically soon) I can give her a little reminder and that often helps. 🙂
        The only thing I see that I’m doing differently when it gets avoided is that I do everything “right”, which is not a pattern I want to have as a prereq for a nice afternoon.
        What do you think of this idea? Talking to her about it in a calm time, and making a list with her of things she can do if she starts to feel upset/needs to calm down- ie: take deep breaths, look out the window, sing a song, ask for a hug, ask for space?? And then in those moments I could remind her of her choices. I’m thinking maybe three choices?

        • Pam Howard says:

          Dana, I think it’s great. You just need to experiment and see what works. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, do something different! Let us know how it goes. xoxo!

  • Tippy says:

    I tried changing scenery last night with my 5 yr old step son. He was non-stop crying over a trivial matter & his dad was at his wits end. So I told my step-son to put his shoes on cuz we were going for a walk. I took him on a walk for about a block & back. He cried/whined half the time & then he finally opened up. He wasnt totally smiling by the time we got home, but he wasnt crying anymore. Plus he learned his address! The rest of the night went smoothly because he got it all out & had focused attention from a parent who will listen. We all know that kids open up to each parent differently, so I figured I could take some of the burden off my husband since his dialogue was going nowhere. Your article re-iterated the power of relocating, even though I’ve been a firm believer in it for years! 🙂 kids open up when they have your full attention & feel safe.

  • I had to see what brought you to my part of the world when I saw you were in Colorado.

    I love reading your posts and your reframing of the exact situations I find myself in. It is so helpful. Thank you and please do keep posting, I relish all these tips.

    Love,
    Nicholette

    • Pam Howard says:

      Hi Nicholette! Your part of the world is amazing!!! I’m so glad that these posts are helpful to you. I’ll keep posting as long as you keep reading. Deal?

  • This has been really great food for thought. I am thinking of it terms of my marriage and the reoccurring arguments over the exact same (silly) things. I’m going to sit and think of what I could say differently in each of those situations so I can break the cycle. Thanks Pam 🙂

  • Tippy says:

    It’s me again! I remember when you first wrote this and it hit home with me! Our challenge as of late has been getting our 5 yr old to eat his dinner. We feel like we’ve tried it all. How can I do something different in this situation? Thanks!

    • Pam Howard says:

      Ack! Tippy, I’m sorry I’m just seeing this comment now! In order for me to help you do something different, I need to know what you’ve tried. But generally, when it comes to mealtimes, kids refuse to eat because they’re trying to assert their independence and feel a sense of control. So, provide a nutritious meal for him and let him decide whether he’ll eat it. The trick is to stay calm and non-reactive regardless of his choice.

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