Most of us who have raised children any time over the last 20 years have conscientiously sought out the best advice to raise confident, happy children. Our beloved babies have grown up in the center of not only our universe, but the universe created by marketers who have appealed to the baby boomers’ uber-drive to have the best, be the best, and by corollary, to have the best children. And for many, the disciplinary method of choice has been the “time out.” However, the best of our intentions have somehow backfired on us, creating families where children regularly engage their parents in a battle of wills, a power struggle that they are winning, according to Beth A. Grosshans, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist in Princeton with over 16 years in private practice and the author of “Beyond Time Out: From Chaos to Calm.”
“Time out doesn’t work for our empowered children of today,” says Grosshans. “At no time in history have parents been so careful about being good parents and working so hard at it. The tragic irony is that all of this effort is actually taking them away from their goal. It is exactly the parents who have tilted the balance of power in their families by giving up too much of it to their kids. When kids have too much power and parents not enough, the result can be unhappy, stressed out children and teens who cause behavioral problems.”
Grosshans will speak on Thursday, April 8, at Princeton Day School as the third and final speaker in this year’s lecture series offered by CommonGround, a consortium of the parent associations of 13 Princeton area independent schools. The lecture is free and open to the public.
Grosshans offers an alternative to the “time-out” method of disciplining children in order to instill self-control and cooperation. “There is this concept of self-esteem that has been sold to parents — they worry they are not doing enough to make their children feel good about themselves. But the truth is that there is only one path to self-esteem. It has to be earned. It cannot be instilled from one person to another.”
The chief culprit that is contributing to the undermining of healthy self-esteem in children and a peaceful family life, according to Grosshans, is something she calls IFP — imbalance of family power. “Too much power, inappropriately given, can be a burden for a child. Lifting that burden can result in a happier child with fewer behavioral problems.”
She is actively challenging the current parenting culture where parents cede too much power and overemphasize feelings, choices, and negotiation. “Too much negotiation can lead to defiance and unhappiness,” says Grosshans. “You need to achieve the right balance.” So how do you know how much is right? “If you are struggling with your children more than 30 percent of the time, you have IFP issues. Family life should be peaceful 70 percent of time.”
Grosshans claims that IFP is at an epidemic level in this country, and one of the biggest battles is played out nightly at bedtime. “I see parents of three- and four-year-olds who are already over the barrel. Independent sleeping is a huge problem in many families. It ends up being musical beds at night, where kids get up and down at all hours. There are screaming matches to get them into bed in the first place. When kids run a family, they ruin a family and themselves along with it.”
This power imbalance creates headaches on a day-to-day level, says Grosshans. “When their kids are careening out of control, the parents don’t recognize the problem as IFP. Nobody ever calls me and says, ‘we have an imbalance of power.’ They say, ‘we have a kid who is out of control, and we’ve been sleep- deprived for four years now.’ When I correct the power imbalance in families, the children don’t have psychiatric problems. These kids often don’t need medication or therapy. What they need is their parents to be in the lead, and when they get that, they get better in a hurry.”
Grosshans says that kids who have too much power are also prone to high levels of anxiety. “They learn what it is that gives them power in their relationship with their parents and they use that. When we call people powerful or cede them power they should not have they have the ability to influence. It’s not manipulation. It’s an innate power drive. It’s something all kids have, in various degrees. All of them are born with a power drive, and it is activated nowhere more potently than in the parent-child relationship.”
This idea of the democratic family and parents being their kids’ friends started in the 1960s, says Grosshans. She pinpoints three variables that have influenced the explosion of IFP in the last 40 years. First, there are the unrealistic ideals about the parent-child relationship promoted by many psychologists. Next, once women entered the workforce, social critics scared them to death. “They were told that being away from parents would damage their kids, so even as they enjoyed the challenge of their job and the income it brought in, they felt guilty about leaving their kids with childcare providers. So they looked to parenting experts for guidance and received one major piece of advice and that was called quality time. This focus on the feelings and that overall idea did not take into consideration the power drive of kids, nor did it arm parents with an understanding of this.” Parents, she says, would then avoid having arguments and having conflict because they didn’t want to jeopardize quality time, so they got on a slippery slope of accommodation.
The third variable that has contributed to the explosion of IFP is the over-reliance on one parenting strategy — time out, even as the vast majority of professionals in the field say time out doesn’t go far enough; it doesn’t work because the technique doesn’t tell you what to do next. “It absolutely does not include corporal punishment. This is not about parents being oppressive or heavy-handed. It is about being nurturing and securing the attachment. The confident parent knows how to lead lovingly and effectively, and there is no better thing to raise a child who is happy and secure.”
Grosshans has identified four parenting styles that most often result in IFP. Her first objective with parents is to open their eyes. “They have to understand what they’ve been doing unintentionally has transferred power to their kids. I start by teaching them the four parenting styles so they can understand better who they are as parents. Then I delve into the top 10 parenting missteps that fuel opposition and protest in kids. I teach parents a discipline strategy and give them practice to prevent an imbalance of family power from starting — and if it already exists, ways they can correct it. They will come away with core truths in a parent-child relationship that are extremely timely but also timeless.”
She says she seems to have hit a nerve not only with parents but grandparents as well. “They’ve watched their own children parenting and they are horrified, not able to put their finger on what’s wrong. They tell me their grandchildren are unruly, demanding, have no manners, no capacity for self-control, and are entitled. Grandparents will call me up after hearing me speak or reading my book and say, ‘oh my gosh, I’m so glad you’re talking about this, thank you so much.’”
Grosshans grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is the middle child, with brothers on either side. Her father was a professor of sociology and human ecology at the University of Cincinnati, and her mother was a homemaker. Grosshans received her masters and doctorate degrees from Ohio State University, followed by internships at Children’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard University Medical School. A frequent speaker in the national network of Montessori she has also taught child development courses at Princeton Center for Montessori Teacher Education for more than eight years.
She and her husband, an attorney, have two children, a son, 20, who is a junior in college, and a daughter, 15, who is a junior in high school. “When it came to raising my own children, I had great training but no answers of my own. However, I was instinctive about not giving my kids more power than they should have and so there are a lot of difficulties I haven’t had to deal with. My kids are responsible and successful, and everybody comments on how mature they are,” she says.
Grosshans says parents talk to their kids today in a manner that is trying to get them to be cooperative. But, she states, it is the parents’ agenda that needs to prevail 90 percent of the time. “We know better. We are wiser, more experienced, and understand the truth of what is happening. However, in the face of their children’s protests and resistances, parents end up accommodating them so it is the child who is leading the way and that is not the way it should be.” Taking back the power that is rightfully theirs, giving their children just enough, and balancing the tilt, is a huge step on the path toward family happiness.
Lecture Series for Parents, Common Ground, Princeton Day School. Thursday, April 8, 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. “Beyond Time-Out: From Chaos to Calm” presented by Beth A. Grosshans, a clinical child psychologist in Princeton, and author of a book by the same name. Register. Free. 609-924-6700 or www.princetoncommonground.org.