Some of you are reading the title of this post and remembering a suspenseful thriller that came out about a decade ago starring Harrison Ford. The movie title, of course, took on double meaning in that there was literally something lying beneath the surface of the lake adjacent to his home and the main character had his hidden double life exposed.
CALO families must also remember to examine what lies beneath student emotions. One of the most prevailing themes of individuals who have experienced trauma and/or disrupted attachment is the apparent craving of power and control. When one takes a step back and truly examines “what lies beneath” these individuals, it is not surprising to discover that a young person who had innocence stripped often lacks the ability to trust and form meaningful attachment to caregivers. When a child believes they can no longer trust others s/he has a choice: wither away and die or find a way to survive. Our students are survivors. That is the good news. It is also the bad news. Survivors often are left to develop core beliefs about themselves, others, and the world—“I don’t trust others,” “adults are not dependable,” “I must take care of myself,” “the world is unsafe.” As a result, survivors subsequently practice and develop talents of manipulating boundaries, relationships, and programs in order to continue to survive and hold on to their core beliefs.
With this quick attachment and trauma 101 lesson in mind, parents are urged to continually answer the question, “what lies beneath?” When your son is sabotaging his relationship with you, what lies beneath? When your daughter defies every boundary you give her, what lies beneath? When you try to lead your family in positive ways and your adolescent is determined to be the one in charge, what lies beneath? I propose what lies beneath power and control is usually fear and anxiety. “Huh?” you may be thinking. “My child is incredibly powerful and domineering in those moments and not fearful and anxious” you might also add. If so, I will point you back to the reality that your child is actually a survivor and is trying to maintain control so their life is not headed for more heartache (loss, abandonment, rejection, depression, etc.)
“Okay, so what do I do?”
Recognize – Parents learning to recognize the power and control they see in their child is actually driven by underlying fear, and anxiety is the most important and yet difficult first step. It may sound easy on paper but it is incredibly difficult. The tendency for many parents, in the moment of conflict, is to also be intense and get into power struggles. This only makes matters worse. What does recognizing look-like? Recognizing often requires parents to take a step-back or even a time-out from conflict and climb “out of the box” to filter through what is going on underneath the surface of their teen. It requires a mental recognition that the surface conflict is NOT the real issue.
Accept – One of the most important hidden needs of a traumatized, insecure person is to feel acceptance. The great paradox in intense moments of conflict is that while the child appears to be wanting nothing but control and power, they really want safety and acceptance (because of their fear and anxiety). Parents who focus on accepting their child (not accepting the behavior but accepting the person), even when their child is incredibly disrespectful and controlling, will notice gradual improvements. What does accepting look like? Parents who use safe touch while using the words, “Sally, I can tell this is very difficult for you. I want you to know that I accept every bit of you. I am not enjoying our relationship conflicts but I accept all of the experiences,, feelings and needs that you have. I will be here for you the best I know how.”
Validate – If you are a parent in conflict, every bone in your body will likely be telling you that validating your child’s emotions in conflict is counterintuitive. However, doing the opposite of some behavioral interventions may be exactly what your child needs. What does validating look like? “Tommy, I know this must be so painful for you. Your feelings are real and powerful. Your feelings are understandable based on all you have gone through. I will be here for you the best I know how.”
Safety – The only lasting way your child will know that you are different than those who have previously abandoned (literally or perceptually), abused, rejected, or quit on him/her is to provide a safe, consistent atmosphere for growth and love. It sounds too simple but we all know it is not. Often times lasting change seems to take forever but “going the distance” with your child in order to keep him/her safe provides the needed contradictory evidence to your child’s negative core beliefs. Your child believes you will be unsafe and reject her. Over time you prove that belief to be false. What does being safe look like? Never telling or giving your child the impression you will quit on them, give up on them, or hold resentment towards them. Keeping your child safe at all costs—physically admitting them to a hospital or treatment if they are unsafe. Calling the police if you feel unsafe. Being safe is both a physical and emotional journey.