There was no question about it: The situation was serious. Greg, a 17-year-old junior in high school was found by his mother passed out on his bed after overdosing on his father’s pain medication. He was rushed to the hospital, stabilized, and then admitted to the psychiatric unit for observation. After two days of psychological assessment and prescribed medications, Greg was released with the recommendation that he receive counseling to help deal with his emotional and relational health.
When I met with Greg, he seemed like a normal, emotionally engaged young man who had simply been going through some academic and relational difficulties. We talked through the struggles he was dealing with at present and came up with a treatment plan that I felt would address these issues and hopefully make him more resilient to deal with any problems that might arise. It was a good first session and my prognosis was that Greg simply needed some space to talk about some of his internal stress and develop some new coping strategies.
Then I met with the parents …
Greg’s mother and father were appropriately concerned following the revelation that Greg had been abusing drugs, particularly after his overdose. The more I talked to them, however, the more I became concerned about them. They weren’t just worried about Greg’s emotional health; they were worried about his GPA, his sports performance, his “questionable” relationships, his Christian testimony, his reputation, and his ability to be accepted to the college of his choice. And secretly worried, I think, about how their reputation as parents would be sullied if word got out that Greg had a “drug problem.” While these concerns were legitimate, they didn’t get to the real heart of the issue.
During the next session, I asked Greg about his parents’ marriage. He described it as “fine,” but when asked to elaborate he revealed some important dynamics.
“Are you closer to your mother or father?” I asked. Without hesitation he answered he was closer to his mother.
“Who aggravates you more?” I followed up.
“Do you feel close to your father?”
“No, not really,” he said.
Greg also talked about his general experience at home. “I feel as if I’m under a microscope and that if I don’t perform up to expectations, the whole family will fall apart.”
“Are they good parents?” I asked.
I’ll never forget his answer: “They’re too good! I feel as if it all hinges on me—how the family is doing, what the mood is at the house, and whether we’re going to have a good time or not.”
In Greg’s family, the husband and wife were too devoted to their parenting and not focused enough on their own relationship. Greg’s parents had every right to be concerned. But the key issue besides stabilizing Greg’s behavior had nothing to do directly with him. It had to do with his parents. Our culture is kid-centric. It is hyper-focused on raising great kids. Not average kids, not “C” students, but above-average, excelling children who will somehow validate the family and make every parental sacrifice worthwhile.
The problem with this focus however, is the fact that many times marriages and the relationships between the parents themselves are put on the back burner in the name of being more effective and loving parents. This is usually not a conscious decision, but one that takes place over years of family growth and child development.
Here are four principles that can help balance working on your marriage while attempting to raise children:
Principle #1: The marriage comes first—spousal love covers a multitude of parental sins. Many of my clients, both adult and children, have experienced tremendous anguish because of marital conflict in their past or present home. One of my most distressing times as a therapist was working with a 9-year-old first-born child, who was experiencing debilitating headaches that consumed his life. In tears he would tell me of the emotional pain that his parents’ fighting would cause him; he couldn’t escape the anguish that the conflict between his parents created in him. When I tried to intervene in this boy’s parents’ marriage, his mother and father told me that the subject was moot because the marriage was ending in divorce. Needless to say the headaches continued.
Principle #2: Parenting is a team effort. Children know instinctively how to divide and conquer. And if there is disagreement as to how a child should be directed or disciplined, the family is set up for potential chaos and the marriage is weakened. Marital discord creates a chaos where children will be in charge. A divided marriage not only brings discord to the house, but many times the husband and wife will seek to curry the favor of their children instead of their spouse, validating their feelings through their children rather than their spouse.
This principle is violated with such frequency that I sometimes shake my head in amazement. A few years ago I counseled a couple that was working through some extremely difficult issues. They had two pre-adolescent children and were at loggerheads over what type of parenting style was appropriate. The wife claimed her husband was a severe and unreasonable disciplinarian; the husband claimed his wife spoiled the children to a “ridiculous degree.” As the marriage disintegrated, the husband shied away from his draconian parenting style and began relating with his boys in a way that he had never done—he spent one-on-one time with them, and began to listen more closely to not just what they were doing but how they were doing. Instead of the wife being pleased, she became more and more agitated, convinced her husband was turning the children against her. The conclusion is obvious: If the marriage is suffering, parenting will also suffer or at best be extremely challenging.
Principle #3: Let your children make mistakes. A couple came to see me to deal with a variety of issues both marital and familial, but their central focus causing the most consternation was their teenage daughter’s interest in a boy who was, in their eyes, less than stellar. They told her she could not date this boy any longer because she was making a “serious mistake.”
Kristi feigned agreement, but secretly kept seeing her boyfriend until her disobedience was discovered. This continued back and forth for another two months and then ensued what I call the “take-away game.” Kristi’s privileges were stripped one by one, until she basically went to school, came home, had dinner, and went to her room. Her computer was gone, her phone was confiscated, and she was isolated from any item that would cause her the smallest bit of pleasure in her home.
“How’s this working out for you?” I asked Kristi’s parents with a smile. The smile was not returned. I tried a different approach, “How is this affecting your marriage?” This question caught them a bit off guard, but they both admitted that their relationship was strained at best. Their daughter was a huge distraction and they had found themselves bickering about what direction to go and what disciplinary steps to take next. The time and energy that they were concentrating on their daughter was seriously interfering with their marriage. They asked me what direction they should take.
“First, give her everything back,” I said.
“Won’t that validate her behavior?” the mother asked.
“No, it will just let her know that you recognize that what you’re doing is not effective and that you are rescinding the punishment. Then,” I said, “sit her down, express your desires, and review the boundaries that you have set for her. After that, pause, look her in the eye, and say, ‘We have taught and hopefully modeled for you what good decision-making looks like. But we cannot control your life and we cannot keep you from making what we think are serious mistakes. So we’ll continue to set family boundaries which we expect you to honor, but we will not micro-manage your life any longer.'”
The mother looked on in horror as I suggested this. “Do you know the bad decisions she could make?”
“I do, and I hope she doesn’t. But the price that you’re paying as a couple and as a family is too great. You cannot let your daughter dictate the environment of your family.”
Kristi didn’t get better right away, and she did make some mistakes, but she no longer controlled the family by her behavior. I am certainly not encouraging negligent parenting and I’m also not saying that parents shouldn’t intervene when their children are making life-threatening decisions, but mistakes are potentially life’s instructors—we all learn the hard way! Kristi’s parents’ marriage was strengthened, and that produced a healing effect not only in their relationship but in their family as well.
Principle #4: Let your children reap their own consequences. One of Jesus’ most fascinating parables is the story of the prodigal son. That one story is so loaded with lessons that you could spend a decade studying it and still not plumb its depths. As we know, the son goes off, squanders his inheritance, and returns home destitute and humbled. One of the great lessons of this story is the fact that the father allowed his son to reap the consequences of his own decisions. He did not intervene or bail his son out of trouble or out of debt. He only prayed, awaiting his son’s return.
Of all the responsibilities that come with parenting, I believe allowing children to reap their own consequences is by far the most difficult. Any loving parent doesn’t want his or her child to suffer the results of poor decision-making.
I am regularly asked to counsel adolescents who are described by the parents as “under-achievers,” which I’ve finally determined is a fancy word for lazy. “John just isn’t getting the grades he’s capable of,” said one mother who recently came into my office.
John was in a prep school and was pulling in B’s and C’s. As I talked with John it was evident that he himself knew he wasn’t performing up to the level to which he was capable.
“What’s the deal with school?” I asked.
“Oh, I just don’t care that much and don’t want to do all the work they want me to do to get A’s. B’s and C’s are okay.”
I talked with the mother at the end of the session and told her that I thought John was a fine young man and that he was doing well.
“But what about his grades?” his mother asked, “He won’t be able to get in to the colleges that he wants to with grades like that.”
“Have you told him this?” I responded, but I confess that I already knew the answer.
“From the time he was in middle school—he knows what he needs to do.”
“Then let him reap what he has sown,” I said.
John knew that his behavior had consequences, but he hadn’t quite reaped them yet. His parents needed to allow that to transpire, even if his path was not totally to their liking. John got into a middle-tier college and went on to do quite well in his early adulthood. I had a conversation with him five years later and he said to me, “You know, I know I could have gone to a better college if I had worked harder in high school. I realize what my parents were trying to get me to understand.”
“Could they have done anything different to change your behavior?” I asked.
“No, I just had to learn for myself,” was his sage reply.
Parenting, the great distracter
Parenting is a great responsibility and a great joy, but it can also be a great distracter. Our lives are so inextricably linked with our children that it sometimes can be overwhelming emotionally. My most emotional moments and the majority of my tears were engendered by my kids. But my children eventually left home—can you imagine?! And my wife and I were the ones that remained. And the really interesting thing to me is that our relationship is still the backbone of our now-extended family. Don’t focus so much on your parenting that you forget that the most important relationship in your family is your marriage to your spouse.
Adapted from The Upside Down Marriage © 2012 by James Mark Keller. Used by permission from the publisher, Russell Media.