Response Flexibility

When my son started high school, he struggled with meeting rigorous academic expectations.  What I’m trying to say is, he had a hard time getting all his assignments turned in and every other six weeks he’d fail a class or two.  This isn’t uncommon.  I hear from my adolescent clients that many of them have trouble staying organized.

Each of the many classes has daily assignments and deadlines.  Keeping up with all that isn’t an excuse for failure, though.  As a matter of fact, I was upset with my son when I first noticed he was failing his classes.  To put it bluntly, I was angry and wanted to shake him upside down. 

However, my children taught me better than that.  In my 20’s, I’d raise my voice and discipline them harshly.  Looking back at those incidents, it was purely instinctual on my part.  They misbehaved or disappointed me, I got angry and attempted to correct their behavior.  I responded in anger because that’s all I knew.

They would get their feelings hurt and fear me.  My love for them would kick in, though.  I’d feel guilty for having overreacted and commit to doing it differently next time.  I’m eternally grateful for my children.  Each of the mistakes I made as a father taught me to do better.  The first thing I had to do on my path toward redemption as a parent was to receive forgiveness.

I accepted my limitations without judgment.  Although the memories of my parenting mistakes are still with me, the condemnation and self-criticism have been removed.  Yes, I’ve made major mistakes as a dad.  Why would I deny it?  In sharing the truth with you, I risk judgment and condemnation from my fellow human beings, but God has forgiven me.  I’ve accepted His grace and become a better parent as a result. Now, I’m thriving as a dad.

I share this with you because it’s the truth.  As a matter of fact, it’s the truth for most parents out there and one of the reasons I became a family therapist. 

I teach my clients about response flexibility.  That is the ability to stop and become aware of what I’m thinking, feeling, and wanting to do in response to my son failing his classes.  I recognized that my gut reaction was anger and I wanted to discipline him.  Most often, we simply go with our gut reaction.  Response flexibility is our ability to consider one or two other options before responding to our child’s negative behavior. 

It takes a lot to regulate intense negative emotions, like anger, long enough to consider alternative responses.  Luckily for my son, I developed response flexibility many years ago, thanks to my children showing me that my gut reactions don’t usually work. 

I didn’t say anything to my son the night I discovered he was failing his classes.  I restrained myself.  I spent the night brainstorming alternative responses.  The next morning, as I was taking him to school, I looked him in the eye and said, “I worry about you when I see you failing your classes.”  Period. 

There was really nothing else to say.  I wasn’t angry with him, after all.  Anger is a secondary emotion and underneath there’s always something else brewing, usually fear or pain.  In this case, I determined it was fear, so that’s what I communicated to him. 

If this resonates with you and you’d like to stretch your capacity as a parent, then reach out to me.  We can all learn to respond to our children’s misbehavior in more effective ways. I’m going to continue stretching my ability and growing my response repertoire.  By no means am I a perfect dad. I’ll continue to make mistakes in life and learn from them. 

Note: Any reference to truths gleaned or stories about experiences in clinical practice are never in reference to a particular individual but are amalgamations of many stories and experiences to illustrate something common about the human experience. 

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