We constantly interact with parents who fret about something that’s not going well for their child. The parent wants their kid to take school more seriously, or to make more of an effort to get out and make friends, or to join a club instead of playing videogames all the time. Our message, consistently, is that you can’t make a child want what they don’t want—or not want what they do. And we remind them that while kids might not want to join the glee club or even to get good grades, we should treat them like they have a brain in their heads, and that they want their lives to work out. But sometimes kids seem to act against what they want for themselves, or fail to follow through on something that they’ve said is important to them—why would they do this? And what should their parents do about it?
Take, for instance, Charlie, a shy fourteen-year-old who loved hanging out with close friends, but never initiated social contact herself or took part in any after school activities. As a result, she spent a lot of time by herself. Now, all of this would have been fine—some people are more introverted, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting time alone—but Charlie, by her own admission, wasn’t very happy. She frequently complained to her parents about how bored she was, and they worried that she was becoming depressed. She acknowledged she had some social anxiety, that she frequently feared saying or doing the wrong thing, and that she was afraid of looking stupid. Her parents wanted her to push through it, confident that once she took more control of her social life, each time thereafter would be a bit easier. But the more they encouraged her to break out of her shell, the more she resisted.
While Charlie had a desire to be happy, and a healthy drive for her life to work out, she also had a competing drive: to avoid fear. The more her parents pressured her to take risks in her social life, the more they unwittingly pushed up against that fear, triggering the activation for Charlie’s stress response. Charlie’s natural reaction was much like a cornered animal’s would be: She all but hissed at them. Then she dug her heels in deeper and asserted no way.
Motivational interviewing (MI), a guiding style of conversation used by many therapists and counselors, offers two insights that can be helpful to parents like Charlie’s. The first is that parents have a “righting” reflex, or a desire to fix whatever the child’s problem is. The second insight is that children—and everyone else—are often ambivalent about change. Someone might want to be a better student, for instance, but that has a downside: more hours spent studying—and the prospect that grades might not improve even with increased effort. Someone might want to become physically stronger, but exercise is often uncomfortable. In Charlie’s case, while she would surely like to have a more active social life, she also became highly stressed in social situations. What Charlie needed most was space to work through her ambivalence, and to voice her own reasons for wanting to change—which would be much more powerful than her parents voicing it. In fact, the more they argued one side of the equation, the more Charlie felt compelled to argue the other side and keep things in balance, for the simple reason that change can be scary. In Charlie’s case the change was about confronting social anxiety, but it could be about anything: overeating, school refusal, videogame obsession, smoking pot, or even a relatively small habit change, like biting fingernails.
Charlie’s parents were game to try a different approach. They started by telling Charlie: “We get that you’re an introverted person, and we don’t think it would make sense for you to join every club or be a social butterfly. We’ll stop pushing you so hard to take initiative.” Then they asked questions to help them—and Charlie– understand what she wanted and what she might be afraid of. They assured her they weren’t trying to change her, reinforcing Charlie’s sense of control over her life, and lowering her stress response. Importantly, they weren’t just saying it, they truly believed it. They trusted that Charlie knew herself better than anyone else possibly could, and that she would ultimately do what was best for herself. (If she had been deeply depressed, that would be another matter—but that wasn’t the case.)
Then Charlie’s parents practiced reflective listening, because logic doesn’t calm strong emotions; empathy does. They asked Charlie open-ended questions about the reasons she didn’t want to join any clubs or initiate any social events, and paraphrased and validated those reasons instead of judging them. “It sounds like you’re pretty nervous about inviting someone over. I can see how that could be scary. You don’t know how they’ll respond, and you might feel rejected if they say no.” By repeating and validating Charlie’s reasons not to come out of her shell, Charlie would be freed of the impulse to cling to those reasons.
Next, Charlie’s parents listened for what MI calls “change talk” coming from Charlie herself. Almost inevitably, when people aren’t pushed to change, they will eventually verbalize the reasons they want to. “Sounds like you’re pretty lonely, huh?” Or “Kasey’s in marching band? Oh, that’s cool. I remember that you really like hanging out with her.”
After several conversations in which Charlie opened up more about her worries, her parents asked, “Charlie, would you like to talk to someone about the fear you feel about social stuff?” If she had said no, they would have respected it. The door to change had been opened, but that doesn’t mean Charlie was ready to walk through it. Kids are often afraid of confronting their anxiety because, well, it doesn’t sound very fun, right? In Charlie’s case, it took some time. But as she came to see her parents as advocates, not adversaries who are pressuring her (out of love) to change, she asked them for advice and, eventually, help. Charlie, like all kids, wanted her life to work out. She wanted to change. But she needed to work through the tug of war within her first, and her parents needed to trust that when she had the space to do that, she would make the right call.