Love and Limits

The principle that most parents have a difficult time accepting is that setting limits is an act of love. It is not an act of cruelty, although you may sometimes believe it is and your children will probably do everything in their power to convince you that you are unreasonable, mean and behind the times. This is true whether the child is six or sixteen.

A family was referred for counseling recently because the school was concerned that their son Jonathon, a tall fifteen-year-old, had the smell of alcohol on his breath when he returned from lunch. Jonathon's parents were extremely upset and felt at a loss. They wanted to forbid him to drink alcohol, yet they had no idea how to go about it. He was taller than his mother, maybe stronger than his father, had a vocabulary at least equal to that of his parents, and the facility to argue forcibly to indicate that the situation was under his control, and that it was his business anyway.

The initial approach the parents used was to discuss the hazards of alcohol, which Jonathon knew more about than they did. The second thing they tried was to explain to Jonathon how upset they were that he was doing this to them. The third thing they tried was to threaten Jonathon with some undefined consequence, to which Jonathon replied that he would move out of the house and live on the street or stay with friends as his counter threat. The fourth thing Jonathon's parents did was to make an appointment to talk to a therapist.

Jonathon's parents are well-educated successful professionals who felt responsible for their son's problems. Jonathon's mother felt guilty because she had decided to go back to work full-time when Jonathon was younger. His father was guilty because he traveled frequently and believed that he had deprived his son of time they should have been together. In addition, both felt they had made a mistake in deciding to have only one child.

Focus On The Problem

The real problem, however, was that neither parent wanted to get involved in setting limits for their son. Jonathon's mother did not want her time with her son spent on the bad feelings that discipline might create, so she would tend to ignore or overlook behaviors that she found troublesome. Jonathon's father was around even less than his wife and in the short time he had with Jonathon, he wanted to create a fun filled father-son connection that was not contaminated by conflicts over control. With the help of the therapist the parents began increasingly to focus on Jonathon's behavior rather than on the damage that their guilt might be propelling them into. Since Jonathon's behavior was the problem, it was the behavior that needed to be addressed. Once the parents were freed from talking about their own emotional responses, and focused on what Jonathon was doing to himself, the balance of power shifted from Jonathon to his parents...where it belonged. Once Jonathon's behavior started to improve, a discussion of feelings was initiated. This improved the parents' position in relation to their son both because the focus on Jonathon's behavior was not dropped and because Jonathon and his parents started looking at each other as real people rather than as cardboard cut-outs.

There was no doubt that Jonathon's parents loved their son. However, until they knew how to take a strong enough stand, freed from the confusions of their guilt, they were unable to help him give up his self-destructive behavior.