Do Something Different
In June of 2014, I attended a three-day seminar in beautiful Boulder, CO with Michele Weiner-Davis, a fellow social worker and internationally renowned relationship expert, author, and marriage therapist. Some of her articles were required reading in my graduate school courses on couples counseling. I’ve read several of her books and recently watched her Ted Talk on “the sex-starved marriage.”
Michele has spent over 30 years specializing in helping couples restore the most challenging relationships, many of which are on the brink of divorce. During the workshop, she trained us to use the model she developed for working with these couples.
Many of the principles and techniques she shared can be applied to any relationship, not just marriage.
One of them is called “Do something different.”
You’re probably familiar with the famous Albert Einstein quote that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
You can also probably think of an argument or a problem that occurs in your relationship with your child again and again, in exactly the same way, with a predictable outcome.
Here’s an example: Every day after school, Tommy complains about doing his homework. His mother nags, makes threats, and lectures him on the importance of doing well in school. In response, Tommy digs his heels in even further and refuses to do his work, which upsets his mother even more, so she lashes out at him by yelling. Feeling defeated, he goes to his room and slams the door. It happens the same way every. single. day.
Tommy’s mother wonders why he doesn’t change, and reasons that she just needs to nag, threaten, lecture, and yell MORE to get him to do what she wants.
But more of the same clearly isn’t working. In fact, it’s making things worse.
Here’s a situation from my own experience: Marissa can get clingy after we’ve been apart. She sometimes hangs on me, follows me around, or talks incessantly in an effort to connect.
Often, I need some time to shift back into Mommy mode after being apart from her, and her clinginess tends to push me farther away.
In the past, whenever I became irritated by this or tried to create some space between us, she experienced even greater disconnection and became more clingy and upset…and then I got more irritated. See the pattern?
I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t stop when I had made it perfectly clear that I wanted space.
Then I tried something different.
I remember it vividly. Marissa was three, and I had left her with a babysitter to run some errands. When I returned home, she greeted me enthusiastically. I needed to use the bathroom, so I said a quick hello and started up the stairs. Marissa followed me and clung to my leg as I tried to walk. I felt that sense of annoyance rise up in me as I asked her to let go of my leg.
When she didn’t, I sat down on the step and looked into her eyes. “You really missed Mommy, didn’t you?” I asked. She nodded and immediately quieted down. “I missed you, too,” I said, and gave her a big hug. Then I told her, “Mommy has to go to the bathroom and then I’ll be right back downstairs to play with you.” I was amazed when she happily went back to the babysitter until I returned. All she needed was that feeling of connection and for me to change our pattern of interacting.
It sounds so simple, but often we aren’t able to see how we’re contributing to the problem. We think that if we just keep doing more of the same, eventually they’ll see the light and change their behavior. Not so.
Here are Michele’s questions to get you thinking about your more of the same behavior and how to change it.
1) What problem situation keeps coming up over and over again in your relationship?
2) What is your usual way of handling the situation? Be specific in describing your behavior.
3) How would the people around you say you deal with the situation? Your child reacts to you based on his interpretation of your behavior, which can be (and often is) different than your intention. In other words, try to see the situation from your child’s point of view. The fact that you may disagree with his perspective is irrelevant. You just need to know what it is.
Now you’ve identified your more of the same behavior. The next time you find yourself in the “dance” with your child, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. It can be anything — as long as it’s different from what you’ve been doing.
Brainstorm ideas and don’t filter anything out. Sometimes zany ideas work best.
So, what could Tommy’s mother do differently? Rather than continue to nag, she could:
- Back off and let him experience the natural consequences of his behavior
- Calmly ask him about his resistance to doing homework
- Ask him to come up with a solution
- Enroll him in the homework club at school or hire a tutor
- Firmly set a limit (e.g. “when you finish your homework, then you can play video games) and then matter-of-factly follow through
In the comments below, tell us what your more of the same behavior is and what you’ll try that is different. If you need some help brainstorming, let us know!
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