Blog by Miriam

A Nervous Condition

Taken from “Friedman’s Fables:”
“…One day, as she was walking home, Little John’s wife chanced upon a mother cat giving suck to her newborn kittens. As they scrambled over one another in their thirst, the mother carefully guided each one to its turn, stretching out a firm but gentle paw as she lay contentedly on her side. Then Little John’s wife noticed that one of the kittens had been born lame; its leg had not been fully formed, and it had more difficulty maneuvering than the others. Strangely, it was also the most aggressive. While the other kittens, when satisfied, went off to sleep, this one kept coming back to wiggle its way in front. Each time, however, the mother cat pushed it away, at first gently, and then with successively harder whacks…”
A Nervous Condition by Edwin Friedman

Is it a cruel mother cat or is there something here we might learn? Would her lame kitten be better served by sensitivity or care or was the kitten being served well by the discipline her mother instinctively delivered? When it comes to raising our children when is it about discipline and when is it about sensitivity?

What do we do when one or more of our children seems to have been born “lame” in some way, when they seem to be struggling more than the other(s)? Has your child been diagnosed with ADD or with some behavioral or emotional problem? Does your child seem to struggle with anxiety? If you’re like me, when you see your child having a problem, you worry…and worry…and THEN you get busy. Busy learning about what to do for the lame little beast. What do I feed him? Do we vaccinate? How do I discipline her properly? What is too much discipline? What is too little? How do I make sure she is growing up in a calm environment so as not to disturb her more delicate state? And when we do the best we can and they respond with increasing cantankerousness, ill-humor, and dyspepsia, those of us on the more neurotic side of the scale…just sayin’… ask the fatal and seemingly unavoidable question: WHAT-DID-I-DO-WRONG?!

We can rack our brains for years wondering what we did wrong and what we could do better, and when this automatic emotional process goes on long enough, and things get worse, we reason that we have done everything possible for the ungrateful little beasts-who-are-now-bigger-beasts, so it must be THEM!


But it’s a fallacy to think in such black and white terms when it comes to such complex issues and challenges as raising a child. It’s either them or me…it’s either the husband or the wife…it was either too much discipline or too little sensitivity. These black and white terms block us from thinking about things more objectively, from being able reflect upon the part we play, the part our ancestors play, the part our culture and physical environment play, and the part our children play—without the blame.

But what the heck does that mean…the part we play? The part we play in what?!

Dr. Murray Bowen, father of family therapy, identified and described 4 patterns of interaction that all families find themselves living out in one relationship or another. Knowing what these patterns are helps us identify not only which pattern(s) we may be enacting but also the part we play in keeping them going. Dr. Bowen’s idea was that emotional problems in families are merely the symptoms or direct results of these interactional patterns. Change your part and you change the pattern. If you want to read about them, I’ll copy a link later in this post.

The steps to change in any family relationship are simple enough but certainly not easy.

Step 1 is Education. What are the interactional patterns we get into when anxiety is high in any relationship? You can read about the 4 typical patterns here.

Step 2 is to Observe. Which of the 4 pattern(s) do you fall into with your lame little beasts? What part do you play in keeping it going? What part does your spouse play? Your children? The environment?

Step 3 is to Change YOUR part and to resist trying to change or “help” your child (or your spouse…or your mother-in-law) with HIS or HER part. Learning to tell the difference between what is yours and what belongs to someone else is key. If you find yourself having difficulty, find a family therapist. A neutral 3rd party can make all the difference.

Steps 2 and 3 in particular are more effective when you can approach things with an attitude of curiosity and an unwavering willingness to experiment and to learn from what you experience. Without thoughtful reflection, we are at the mercy of our automatic fears and worries, and so are our children.

The cool thing about Mama Cat wasn’t that she swatted her kitten. I’m not advocating going back to the good ol’ days of spanking children into submission. The cool thing about Mama Cat was that she wasn’t worried or angry. She was clear. Our children have real problems, ill-formed legs and all, but when we forget that our own anxiety and anger is more important to deal with than anything else, it is we the parents who grow lame.


Got Milk?

So, my 13 year old came to us several weeks ago. She wanted us to write a note to excuse her from a club meeting so she could go to IHOP with some friends for free pancake day. It happened to be St. Patrick’s day, so not only would the pancakes have been free, they would have been green. A once in a lifetime kind of morning! For REAL dude! When she realized we weren’t going to write the note, in her tirade and tears, she passionately let us know that if we didn’t let her go THAT day, she’d have to wait an entire year before she could have this experience again. She’d have to wait until NEXT St. Patrick’s Day. How could we?! How COULD we?!

Let’s face it. Our children aren’t always the best at making decisions. Kids are completely emotional and erratic, and teenagers…ahem…as I’m now discovering… are a more formidable version of the littler ones! My 13 year old wanted to not only miss her service club meeting that morning, she was ready to quit the club over it.

To our credit, my husband and I started out well that night. We came out of the gate with a principled response: Keeping one’s commitments is important. We will not write you a note. You will not be going to IHOP for free pancakes, green as they may be. To my daughter’s credit, she listened to our response, got a little upset, but then went upstairs to pull herself together. The trouble started when she came back down to make her case…as teenagers should…as to why we should let her go.

The arguments went on and on…and on. Aspiring to be “good parents” we listened to every single one…and tried to respond and explain and be logical…which was exactly where the evening went down hill. It wasn’t up for discussion, but in our…okay…MY… fear of “wounding” my child, I felt I had to listen and empathize and give her room to express herself.

What I missed is that she wasn’t expressing herself as much as she was trying to get ME to EXPRESS a little breast milk. A little oh-my-poor-baby-I-just-have-to-give-in-so-as-not-to-scar-you-for-life milk. Ugh! Well…I’m sorry to say…it worked. I leaked… But just a little.

We still didn’t write the note.

We just got wrapped up in a convoluted process of trying to reason with someone who wasn’t about to see reason. Instead of just reiterating the principle—keeping commitments is important—and walking away, we got sucked into her emotion. As it turns out, her friend later canceled the IHOP trip, and another friend begged her not to quit the club. But this didn’t happen until an hour or so into it. Great.

Lesson learned.

But what lesson?


Need I say more?


Her Life…Her Problems

My youngest, God bless her, has an interesting approach to school work. Well…OK…it’s not as much “interesting” as it is really annoying. Big picture is that it’s all OK in the end. There are no developmental delays, and she is well liked by her friends and teachers. Academically speaking, she has begun reading independently and keeping up with her many reading related requirements on her own in the last 4 months, and her report cards have reflected A’s and B’s so far.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, let me see…she’s had 5 or 6 tardies this year. She regularly leaves the house without her homework, school forms, books, lunch, etc. She inconsistently keeps up with assignments and due dates, and she often does not know when tests are coming up. She’s had F’s in at least one subject in the middle of each of the 9 weeks so far this year…that she’s brought up to A’s or B’s come report card time…but still…Ugh! She also has some health issues that effect clarity of thought, mood, and focus. At times talking with her is like talking with a disorderly, angry drunk. (Can you feel me, mothers of the world?) Her emotionality and irrationality can reach extraordinary levels at times…(making me WANT to become a disorderly drunk for real!). I can feel the anxiety building as I write this paragraph…and as I lose sight of the first paragraph…and lose sight of the #1 principle that keeps me solid and focused and calm while she figures out school (and life) for herself.

The Number One Principle

This is her life, and these are her problems. Maybe this sounds cold, but I can assure you, this principle is what keeps me warm and supportive of her. I love the way Hal Runkel of says it. “We are not raising children,” says Hal. “We are launching adults.” If I treat my daughter’s problems and challenges, no matter how painful they are for me, as if they were mine, then I’ll be keeping her a child when she is capable of quite a bit more.  And so I resist my urge to save her…or worse, to take over for her.

When anxiety or anger or frustration is in charge, the lessons for our kids are caught, not taught.

We can lecture all we’d like. We can try to force obedience or structure or…healthy lunches. But the only message they’ll hear is that of our anxiety or anger or fear. The good news is the same thing is true of times when calm, principled, leadership is in charge. Calm is caught as readily as anxiety. In other words, it’s not what we say, it’s who we are that shapes our children.

Here are some of the ways I keep my calm, principled leadership in charge instead of anxiety.

1. What happens with school is between her and the school.

This is not a “hands off” or “do nothing/laissez faire” kind of approach. The degree to which parents have to work to stay focused on this principle takes a great deal of effort, personal vigilance, and determination. I have MY relationship with her school, and she has HERS. But the urge to meddle is significant. I’d like to take TV away on weeknights. I’d like to get rigid and strict about homework time. I’d like to nag. I’d like to try to get her teachers to give her heavy consequences for the times she screws up. I’d like to micromanage her backpack…and make sure she has everything every day…I could go on and on.

But then my daughter’s relationship with school would get muddled up in her relationship with me. She’d start fighting me on what she should be working out with her teachers…and herself. If I micromanaged her, as my anxiety would dictate, her academic career as well as her sense of self would become an issue between us…a fight…not what it needs to be…which is essentially and primarily hers. She must own her own failures and foibles, with me next to her…shoulder to shoulder rather than toe to toe…so that she can one day own her own sense of confidence in meeting life head on.

(For those of you studying Bowen Theory, you’ll notice the concept of triangles here…me, her, the school.)

2. Focus on the bigger picture.

Getting to the bigger picture is tricky. Our anxiety insists that something is REALLY WRONG when our children screw up at school (or elsewhere). We start thinking our children’s failures or struggles are EMERGENCIES!

They are not emergencies.

They are important opportunities.

Nothing steers a person’s ship like a mistake. And that, my friend, is the bigger picture we need to hold on to, even when our children (or our spouses) cannot. If we freak out, the situation becomes more our problem than our children’s, and we rob them of the opportunity to learn something valuable.

The really REALLY big picture is that YOU have an opportunity. An opportunity to back up, calm down, and lead your family to a better place. If you’d like a little help, give me a call. Or check out Hal Runkel’s book: ScreamFree Parenting.