I have been learning an interesting lesson lately.
The lesson itself sounds too simple to be something someone should need to learn, nevertheless, I have needed to learn it. The lesson is that one way of doing things may be helpful and fit well for one individual but be exactly the wrong thing for another in the same situation.
I was talking to a lady with two teenaged sons. She and her husband separated about a year ago, about the same time she started to recover from her alcoholism. She was always the softer touch, responding to the boys out of guilt. In response, the father took a tougher and increasingly rigid stand, thinking he needed to make up for their mom’s lack of firmness.
The outcome of this family drama was mom and dad ended up fighting over parenting instead of looking at their own reactionary deficiencies, and the kids subsequently played them like their favorite video games.
At the same time, I was talking to the father of a teenaged daughter. He had been raised in a large family in an “eat or be eaten” environment. He had a tough exterior and gruff manner. He had little patience for disobedience and took resistance as a sign of disrespect. He had softened considerably since starting his recovery four years earlier, but old wounds die hard and his daughter had a personality distressingly similar to his own.
The presenting problem in both cases was numerous rule infractions including curfew violations, late night, unauthorized computer use and sneaking out of the house.
For couple No. 1, the answer lay in the ability of both parents to put aside their own needs to address the needs of the kids. In particular, Mom needed to start giving and sticking to consequences for behavior, and Dad needed to let her. She needed to “get over herself,” let go of guilt and be a parent instead of a needy child.
For dad No. 2, he needed to let go of the “master of the castle” syndrome. He didn’t have problems enforcing rules; he had problems understanding why his child broke them. He needed to learn how to give his kid a break and treat her like a person rather than a prisoner.
The presenting problems were the same, but the solutions were almost exactly opposite.
Careful consideration of each individual situation, growth and learning from these painful family events and slow steady progress toward recovery are the necessities. Quick fixes, glib answers and pop-psychology don’t do the job. One size doesn’t fit all.
• Richard Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He can reached by email by visiting northwestcommunitycounseling.com.