When “Nothing” Isn’t Enough

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Dr. Yossi Shafer 

As we’ve discussed, the “do nothing” approach can be freeing for your relationships – especially in the parent-child relationship – and, with consistency, can be highly effective.  

But what about the times when “nothing” seems detrimental? 

When someone you love is headed down a path of destruction. 

When the school threatens expulsion. 

When the rest of the family is suffering. 

These extreme situations – a child at risk, a loved one battling addiction, self-destructive behaviors, interpersonal abuse – call for a modified approach. 

Even when the situation doesn’t threaten life or limb, there are behaviors that our human nature will protest that we cannot or should not tolerate. When your teen is constantly locked in his room and refusing to talk to anyone except when she comes out to demand something (a ride, money, the car keys…), we often resort to bemoaning the attitude of “kids these days.” Is it a generational thing? Am I being too lax? Too demanding? I would never have gotten away with this kind of behavior. 

This is when a mindset shift can work wonders. You’ve probably gotten stuck in a pattern of responses – yelling, pleading, ignoring, punishing – and it’s not working. As Albert Einstein professed, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” When you’ve exhausted all “parenting tactics” and haven’t gotten anywhere, it’s time to reevaluate your approach and take a step back. 

Stepping back takes the pressure off the child and out of the equation, breaking those cycles and habits you’ve formed. It allows everyone to simply live for a while, free of constant thoughts of “how should I deal with this?” and “what do I do next?”  

Stepping back means treating this child – no matter what kind of heartbreak she’s putting you through at the moment – just like every other child in the family. Put your own strong feelings on the back burner to interact with her calmly, without letting your emotions control your actions and without taking her behavior personally (easier said than done, but well worth it!). Call him for dinner with the rest of your children, and if he doesn’t show up, drop it. Ask her about her day neutrally, like you would your spouse or acquaintance, and don’t push further. 

In the vast majority of cases, taking that step back allows the child the space and ability to come to you. This is why many teenagers have plenty to say while in therapy sessions or while speaking to a rabbi, yet will say almost nothing at home. In these other safe spaces, they don’t feel the need to protect themselves from criticism or judgment. 

At the same time, you need to be clear and firm about what behaviors will not be tolerated in your home or relationship. This is where consequences come in, in black-and-white terminology, to speak your child’s language and leave no room for negotiation or misunderstanding. Pick your battles carefully and be sure to phrase your limits in ways that do not place blame on your child. 

For example: your son wants to stay out at all hours of the night with his friends. When you state the rules, don’t imply that you don’t trust him (or his friends) or believe that he’s irresponsible. Turn the focus onto yourself: Jack, as your parents, we are worried that this is dangerous. Be home by 11pm or you will lose car privileges for the week. This can translate to virtually any situation: We don’t tolerate profanity in this house. Abba expects everyone to be respectful at the Shabbat table. We are the ones concerned about your health and safety. 

When you have a struggling teen, you may feel like seizing every opportunity to discuss your concerns with him or her. Do not! Your child will thrive most when he feels safe and accepted.  

Invite her out for ice cream or along on your errands (but don’t be offended if she declines). Never go with an agenda, and never expect her to talk. Simply spend time with her, without any pressure, and without any remarks about what she should or shouldn’t be doing. Even when zero words are exchanged, if you are able to tolerate your natural emotions and not force any conversation, it will be more beneficial in the long run. At some point she will likely initiate conversation on her own.  

The golden rule of parenting (and many relationships) – staying silent and doing nothing – will typically be more effective than attempting to intervene or trying to stop behaviors. 

Next month, we’ll discuss strategies for encouraging a loved one to get professional help when necessary. 

Disclaimer: the content of this article offers general suggestions for dealing with at-risk individuals. Consult with a professional for personal guidance as needed in specific cases. 

Dr. Yossi Shafer, PhD is the clinical director and a clinical psychologist at Empower Health Center, a private practice of multispecialty psychotherapists. They have offices in Deal/Long Branch and Lakewood and can be reached at (732) 666-9898 or office@empowerhealthcenter.net.