“It is 11:00pm on Friday night and Sarah said she’d be home by 9.”
“Reggie said he was going to hang out at Steve’s house, but I just saw Steve’s mom at the supermarket and she said Reggie wasn’t there.”
“I just received another email from Jay’s English teacher saying he hasn’t submitted his last two assignments.”
“Jo was caught on the train without a valid ticket. Again.”
These are the type of situations frequently described by the families I work with – parents describe feeling angry, frustrated, and overwhelmed. And yet, within these stories is a seed of hope that can reduce parent stress and teen distress, and help rebuild relationships between parents and their children.
We are story tellers
We are story-tellers and story receivers. It is an essential part of the psychology of being human to tell stories. This helps explain the Hollywood blockbuster, the must-see TV series, and the New York Times Best Seller list.
But our connection with stories is much deeper than entertainment. We create our own stories every day, sharing them with our friends and family, and listening to their stories in return. We also tell stories to ourselves — constantly.
We tell ourselves stories about our bosses, our colleagues, our partners, our children. We have stories about our haircut and why the lawnmower broke down. These stories help us understand the world, inform our choices and shape our emotions. They help us know if we are living according to our values and making progress toward our goals.
But our stories are also shaped by our thoughts and emotions. When our stories describe events accurately, but we focus our thoughts and emotions in ways that limit our ability to respond effectively, they are less than helpful. They pull us away from the life we want and the hopes we have for our children.
Sometimes, Our Stories are “Wrong”
All too often, our stories mislead us. Sometimes, they are completely wrong.
People’s actions are caused by:
- their own attitudes and beliefs (internal factors)
- the situations they find themselves in (external factors)
- or a combination of the two
A basic psychological principle, called the Fundamental Attribution Error, describes our tendency to overestimate the role of attitude, and underestimate the role of external factors, when considering the behaviour of others. Our explanations, the stories we tell ourselves, develop automatically. They are the normal way we explain the cause of an event.
So even when we describe the external factors of “what happened,” we often make assumptions about the internal factors — the attitudes — that shape them. For example, when parents tell me stories of teens like Sarah, Reggie, Jay and Jo, they may say things like:
“Sarah is just doing whatever she wants just to spite me!”
“This is the third time this month Reggie has deliberately lied to me.”
“Jay just doesn’t care about school anymore. He just wants to drop out and expects us to look after him for the rest of his life!”
“I don’t know why Jo is so attracted to the risk of getting caught without a ticket, I guess she just likes the thrill.”
It’s not surprising that these explanations trigger more anger, more frustration, and perhaps even despair for parents. These are natural responses to the parents’ belief — the story we tell ourselves — that our child’s actions are deliberate.
Sadly, a parent’s most likely response to these thoughts and emotions is to become more irritable, more disapproving, more controlling, and apply more punishments.
Why Tightening the Reins Doesn’t Necessarily Help
“Why is my child doing this to me?”
“Obviously I’m too soft. I need to make her understand the consequences of her actions.”
When things don’t go well in our lives, the natural response is to “tighten up,” to exert more control to prevent things getting worse. In this case, we try to control our children’s lives in order to protect them.
But instead of getting the help they need to develop the knowledge and skills to avoid these kinds of situations in the future, our kids learn to expect assumptions and shame, added to their own frustration at their mistake. No wonder they become defensive and withdrawn. They become less likely to ask for help from the people most able to give it – their parents.
Although it is normal for parents to create these kinds of stories, it is particularly unhelpful with teenagers, even more so if they have ADHD. Even if our explanations about their behavior were 100% true, our controlling responses are almost guaranteed to maintain the problem behaviors we hope to change.
What Else Might Also Be True?
Now imagine if we were wrong. What if these teens’ actions were not deliberate? What if they feel as bad as we do, if not worse, about what they did? What else might also be true? Get curious, and imagine stories that offer alternative explanations:
Sarah was late because she lost track of time (ADHD time blindness).
Reggie made an ADHD-impulsive decision to see a movie with Steve and it didn’t even occur to him that meant he wouldn’t be where he told you.
Jay stayed up late to complete his last assignment, with a typical ADHD last-minute rush, but then did an equally ADHD thing and forgot to hand it in.
Jo had money for a train ticket but was distracted by sending you a text message when she arrived at the station and forgot to buy one. Ironically, she was trying to do the right thing by texting you to say where she was going.
What’s different for you, as a parent, when your story focuses your attention on helping your child learn to manage a challenge, rather than assume they are doing things “to you” or because they are willfully “bad”?
Pause the story
Despite our best intentions, our stories are likely to include both external and internal explanations. We can’t stop thinking them just because we want to.
We can, however, pause the story and choose to respond differently.
This is even simpler than it sounds. We literally just need to pause and separate what we know (e.g. “Sarah was late…”) from the explanatory stories we tell ourselves (“…just to spite me!”). While it can be helpful to think of some alternatives (“Maybe she was having a good time and lost track of time.”), it is okay if we can’t think of any in that moment.
The most important part is to pause. The pause helps reduce the emotional impact of the automatic story, and it also helps us choose responses that will more likely be helpful.
If we can pause long enough to see the explanatory story for what it is, an automatic interpretation of events rather than a full explanation, we can choose to respond with compassion.This may still involve consequences, but now we can tailor those consequences in ways that will help build our child’s capacity.