Dr. Yossi Shafer
As a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a friend, there are few situations more heartbreaking and difficult than watching your loved one ruin their life, fall victim to addiction, or succumb to depression. All you want to do – understandably – is to force him or her into therapy, make them see reason, and to fix the problems.
However, as counterintuitive as it may seem, your solutions are most likely to push them further into the abyss.
This is where the “do nothing” concept takes on new meaning – and new urgency. When someone we love is in crisis, it’s only natural to focus on finding solutions, leaving no stone unturned until things change. But when you’ve already exhausted the possible solutions and all you have to show for it is further deterioration, it’s time to try (what may seem to be) a radically different approach.
One of the core concepts of dialectical behavior therapy is the balance of acceptance and change: practicing full and unconditional acceptance while simultaneously aiming for change. When it comes to changing others, though, the old adage rings true: change comes from within. Therefore, it is crucial for us on the “outside” to provide the acceptance and support that will give our loved ones the strength and wherewithal to change.
Think about it this way: whatever you’ve tried hasn’t made a (positive) difference. You’ve told him over and over to get a job, and he’s still wasting his time and talents. You prod her out of bed every morning (and afternoon) but then she stays there all day. You’ve made it clear that you disapprove of his friends and he still hangs out with them. You’ve advised, begged, threatened, grounded, revoked privileges… and all that’s changed is that she won’t talk to you now.
But here’s the thing: he knows what he should be doing. She knows what you want. What they are definitely craving is your love and acceptance, and it’s crucial that you give it to them, even when it takes extreme self-restraint. Every person has a drive for life, a drive to fulfill their purpose. In a low-pressure, accepting environment, they’ll recognize and pursue that drive for life and the drive to fulfill their purpose.
Provide a Safe Haven
When a person, especially a child, is dealing with complex issues, they have very little meaningful presence in their lives. They don’t have school, friends, stability – all that they have is you and your love. Without that, their lives automatically take a severe turn for the worse. Your love and a safe, secure home can literally spell the difference between life – as tumultuous as it may be – and death.
In this situation, doing nothing means simply being there. It means not telling them how they can improve their life, urging them to see a therapist, or encouraging them to “just try to get out a bit, you’ll feel better.” It means quashing your instincts to point out how everything could be remedied by following your advice. It means not allowing every interaction to cycle back to the source of the problem (“You sleep because you’re depressed! You’re depressed because you don’t have a job! If you’d just get help, your life would turn around!”).
This isn’t what your child wants – or needs – to hear. They don’t want solutions or advice. When you offer advice, they hear “you’re not good enough.” The problem-solving pushes them away, suffocates them, alienates them. All they want is to be heard, loved, and supported, even when it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do. So many children hope to reconcile and rekindle a relationship, but are hesitant to reach out due to the fear of being pushed away or smothered with well-intentioned pressure.
While you practice acceptance, never give up hope for change someday – but don’t press for change. Don’t sneak in little helpful tips. Don’t drop hints. Don’t offer the advice that you know will make a huge difference. Never say “I told you so” when things go south. Spend unpressured time with him or her, be a listening ear and a solid presence, and when you create that supportive, loving environment, they will turn to you instead of a therapist or friend.
No parent is perfect, and you’ll never get it right 100% of the time. But when you tune in to your child’s emotional state – rather than the obnoxious, ungrateful, or disrespectful behavior that masks it – you’ll recognize his pain and approach the relationship with care and love rather than frustration and anger.
Next month, we’ll address the characteristics of anger, how to manage it, and its underlying causes.
Disclaimer: if your loved one is in immediate physical danger, address it without any concern of collateral damage.
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 email@example.com.