Monday, December 29, 2014

Motivating a Lazy Child

lazy teen Q: How does being extremely selfish fit into the trauma issue? Last Sunday evening, it became very obvious that my teenage daughter was not going to lift a finger to help with our Sunday family dinner when our other children and extended family were all helping out. She said she was tired.

A: It fits in perfectly. When children are in survival mode or simply overwhelmed, they feel as if they have to protect themselves and

create safety for themselves. It is all about self-protection. They seek peace and peace comes from shutting down from the world. It is actually a brilliant strategy: shut down the world and you reduce the stress in your life, you deactivate the stimulus of the environment, and your nervous system has a chance to calm down. Unfortunately for those around a child in this type of self-protection mode, this brilliant strategy makes the child look rude, selfish, and lazy.
In order to stay in a place of love, understanding, and tolerance as a parent for this type of behavior in your child (especially around extended family members), you have to ask yourself, "What is driving my child’s behavior?" Too often, we approach our children asking the wrong question of "How do I get my child to change her behavior?". If you ask the wrong question, you'll get the wrong answer. In this specific situation, if you only focus on the behavior alone, it will look as if your daughter is being lazy and selfish.

By pushing her to change her behavior, you will come off to her as nagging and lecturing. This will only serve to increase her stress, thus pushing her further into her shut-down state. Ironically, you will actually create the exact result which you were trying to avoid.

Instead, work on the core issue: OVERWHELM. Moving a child out of a state of overwhelm happens within the context of the relationship. Focus on the relationship.

Also recognize that family get-togethers, while fun, are stressful. Friends, family, and more social interaction can overwhelm a child who struggles with relationships. While I'm an advocate for families, too much family outside of the nucleus family structure can be too much for many children. Their nervous systems are not equipped to handle the increase in noise, interactions, and stress of being expected to "behave."

To solve this issue, do proactive work and develop a plan with your daughter. This is a child who needs you to join her and to assist her in order to keep her from automatically going into overwhelm. Shutting down is an automatic response; she doesn't have control over it. It doesn't happen at a conscious level. Helping her to create an awareness around this reaction, as well as a plan of how to deal with it in the future, is your responsibility as a parent of a child of trauma.

When life gets busy, loud, and unpredictable, tell her you've noticed she doesn't seem to be as happy. Invite her to reflect about how she felt during last Sunday night's dinner and let her express herself honestly and openly. Beware, though, she may blame you for having too many people over (for example, "Why did you invite them, anyway, you know I don’t like them!" or "Sunday night dinner is stupid anyway; I'd rather be in my room or be with my friends."). You don’t have to defend your decisions or try to convince her why Sunday night dinner is important.

Explore the real issue: it's too much for her and it is threatening. Say something like, "Sunday dinner isn't your favorite so maybe we can figure out a plan to help make it better. If it gets to be too much, at any time, how about you go for a walk and if you want me to go with you, I’d love to - just the two of us."

You can also set the expectation that you need her to help out, but offer to help her. "I know it can feel like it's too much energy to help with the dinner or with clean-up, but what if you and I worked together? You don't have to be alone and overwhelmed anymore. I want to be here to support you and help keep your body from shutting down. Can you let me help you?"

"Beyond Consequences" doesn’t mean a child can do anything she wants to. Children need boundaries; boundaries create emotional safety. Children need us to set the bar of what is expected, as well. However, due to the sensitivity of our children, it has to be done with love, kindness, and compassion.

Think about it as merging the strengths of Mr. Rogers (gentleness, compassion, understanding) with those of General Patton (strong, courageous, determined).

Rogers and Patton
Perhaps you're reading these suggestions and thinking, "That would be fine if she were five, but she's fifteen! Mr. Rogers is for little kids; when is it her turn to grow up and take responsibility?"
Your daughter has already proven that she can't get out of overwhelm and she isn't able to take responsibility yet, at least on her own. Expecting her to simply dig deeper internally and uncover a vast source of willpower just isn't realistic. You can continue to battle it out, which is exactly what will happen if you approach it from the perspective of her being lazy and rude.

It is never the facts of the situation that create frustration; it is the interpretation of the facts. For example:

Fact. Your daughter isn't helping out.
Interpretation. Choose one:
(1) She is lazy, rude, and choosing to be disrespectful.
(2) She is overwhelmed; shutting down from an automatic response controlled subconsciously by her nervous system, and needs help finding her way out in order to create a new pattern that will equip her for the future.

The first interpretation perceives only the negative and puts 100% of the responsibility on the child. It is her job to change. You hold your ground as the parent in charge (General Patten without Mr. Rogers) and she is the one required to take action and change. This interpretation will keep your parent/child relationship in a "me against her" power struggle.
The second interpretation sheds light on the truth about what is driving her behavior. The change in behavior shifts to a focus on improving your relationship with her. It focuses on how you can help your child, who is overwhelmed, get out of overwhelm, not go deeper into it.

It takes courage to do something different. Trust that love and relationship, coupled with setting expectations and boundaries, will be the solution to getting the tasks at hand completed.

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love
, and Help for Billy.

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