Helping people help themselves
dedicated to strengthening the spiritual journey and restoring emotional wellness
New York Christian Counseling Center
The following cases are from written articles by Dr. J. Terry Twerell and Dr. Janetta Twerell for a New York Christian newspaper. Obviously, the cases are not detailed or thorough given the medium of exchange, but they will aid you in your own studies. Read through the case and see if you could determine your own approach to the presenting problem.
Case 1 - Dr. J. Terry Twerell
Q.My best friend caused me a great deal of pain several weeks ago and I find I cannot get rid of the anger. I know that the bible says "let not the sun go down on your anger", but I can't seem to let this go. JK
A. Anger is one of the emotions that has a multiple level of impacts on our lives. Primarily its a reaction we have toward someone or something that violates our space. In therapy, we call that space our "Boundary". Like a cell wall, our boundary is there to keep harmful things from getting to us. When someone or something breaks through our boundary, the alarm signal is "anger.”. What we are saying at this level is "you have trespassed on territory that I have not given you access. Please explain why this is appropriate or don't doit again." The problem increases when we begin to have an alarm that is overly sensitive and goes off all the time. At that point the anger is no longer protective, it is counter productive.
From what you have presented, it seems that your friend violated your boundary and the alarm successfully informed you that this was wrong. However, you have not properly dealt with the boundary violation, and thus the alarm keeps going off even though your friend is no longer actively
violating your boundary. The reason for this is that you have now established a belief about this violation that has a life of its own.
We look at this process as a three-step procedure:
1. The (A) or activating event = My friend caused me pain
2. The (C) is the emotional Consequence of this event which = Anger
3. The (B) is the belief we have about (A) that causes the (C)
Our basic premise in therapy is that this event in (A) is not the cause of the Anger in (C). Rather the cause of the anger is the (B) or belief system that you have about what your friend did.
Our premise in therapy is that events and people in our life do not cause us anxiety, anger and depression - it is what we believe about the events and people in our life.
You may be telling yourself that your friend should not have done this to you. The problem is she did, and demanding that she should not is like trying to change history. Every time you demand she should not have done this, you are confronted with the fact that she did and you have trouble coping with this fact. If however, you would move from a demand to a preference then you may say to yourself " I would prefer that she had not done this, but she did and I can't change what happened." At this point, you can now move forward with the fact that you are disappointed she did this, but it is not the
end of the world. This is coping with the problem and not demanding that the problem never exist.
The second level in this is the confusion of the deed with the person who did the deed. This person who was your "best friend” was known to you as a good person. We seldom make friends with people we know to be bad. However, when she did this "bad thing" she became a "bad person" in your mind. Every time you think of what she did, you become angry with her rather than with what she did. Your belief (B) is she shouldn't have done this and she is a terrible rotten person for doing this to me. This is a non-coping position and will feed your anger. If however we change the belief (B) to, "I would prefer that she had not done this , but she did and I can't change what happened. She is a person who I believe to be good who has done a bad thing. I am sad about this, but it is not terrible and she is not awful."
Remember, the activating event (A) is not the cause of the emotional consequence (C). Rather it is your belief (B) about the activating event (A) that causes the emotional consequence (C). If we change your (B), we will change your (C). The Bible calls this "taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ and tearing down every vain and lofty imagination that comes against the Word of God. (II Corinthians 10:5)
Think about this -
WHEN PEOPLE ACT OBNOXIOUSLY AND UNFAIRLY, YOU SHOULD BLAME THEM, AND SEE THEM AS BAD, WICKED, OR ROTTEN INDIVIDUALS.
A. Blaming people confuses their wrong acts with their sinful essence. However, no matter how many evil acts they perform, they may not remain intrinsically evil because they could, today or tomorrow, change their behavior and commit no additional wrongs. Salvation is a total change in all lives.
B. Blaming others means you get angry or hostile toward them. You act unrealistically and god-like when you believe that your preference regarding their behavior should make them act differently.
C. Blaming yourself or others not only leads to anger, as just noted, but to many unpleasant consequences of hostility. Jesus' final thought on Man's unfair treatment of Him was "Father forgive them, they know not what they do."
D. Lack of forgiveness toward others breeds lack of self-forgiveness
OFFSET TECHNIQUE: Develop a relaxed attitude toward the failings of others. Develop a "so what” attitude toward fault finding rather than a judgmental attitude.
Case #2 - Dr. Janetta Twerell
Dear Dr. Janetta Twerell
My wife and I are dreading next week. We received notice that it is time for midterms. I know this will mean having to do battle to get our son, Steven, to study and pass his exams. We tried many things before the usual punishments of no television, no telephone, no friends to the house, no video games until he studies for his tests. The punishments do not seem to change his grades on the report card. Denise read somewhere that positive reinforcement, rewards, was a better way to get students to study. So, we promised Steven that if he earned passing grades in all of his classes we would give him the sneakers he has been asking for. Initially, this approach seemed to be working like magic. Steven seemed motivated and his next few tests reflected his effort. Unfortunately, the changes did not last long enough for him to achieve passing grades in all of his classes and the sneakers are still on the shelf at the store. We have tried everything and nothing so far is working. The only clear result of all of our combined effort to force Steven to take pride in his work and do well in school are bad feelings and a worse relationship with our son. We are terribly frustrated and angry with Steven. Steven on the other hand is beginning to show signs of depression and never wants to spend time with us. We feel we need to get some help before anything worse happens.
I listen to many devastated and highly frustrated parents seeking my counsel whom paint a picture closely resembling this example. Parents come to my office accompanied by their son or daughter who for the most part resents having to be there at all. After all, it was not their idea to enter therapy and rarely does the child feel like he or she has a problem. As an adolescent therapist, I am concerned with each person in the office, mom, dad and the adolescent. It is clear that each person contributes to the reason that they are sitting in my office however it is usually expected that the resistant teenager is required to do all the changing. Although the ultimate goal is to observe changes in the adolescent, sometimes the most powerful behavior changes are initiated by the parents, which causes a "trickle-down" effect.
So what is going on in this type of situation where an academically capable child does not or will not work to their potential? How is it that such caring
parents can be so paralyzed and unable to get their adolescent to do what she or he is supposed to do?
One of the first steps in helping Steven to do better in school is to rebuild communication and strengthen the relationship between parents and son. It is very important to find out what is making these parents so angry, frustrated or depressed about their adolescent not performing academically. I would ask them to pay attention to what they were thinking when they received the letter informing them of the midterm schedule, or whenever
they were confronted by one of Steven's unacceptable grades.
Why start here? Because what they are thinking has everything to do with how they feel. There is a direct connection to what we think and how we feel. And how we feel has everything to do with how we behave, react and communicate. Therefore if the parent is thinking, "Oh no, this is the worst time of the year, I can’t stand it one more minute, I just can’t tolerate Steven's attitude another day" the connected feelings are most likely going to be severe frustration and anger. Parenting is already challenging yet nearly impossible when we are experiencing heightened emotions, which too often cloud good judgement. Once these emotions are in place it is far more difficult to work collaboratively with your child. It is more likely that there will be a set of unquestioned demands that you create that are to be met by the child… or else.This sets up a situation that encourages defensiveness and defiance by the child. Adolescents definitely continue to require structure, however at this stage in their development it is far more effective to work collaboratively. Collaboration helps take some of the resistance out of an adolescent's possible reaction while allowing the adolescent to feel more included in the process of decision making. This mutual collaboration is a lesson in trust, respect for authority and learning to make decisions.
Another equally disturbing line of thinking the parent may engage in is "no matter what I do, nothing works, I am a total failure". Equating their worth as a parent, as a person, with how well their child does in school is a common scenario that causes pain to both parent and child. Parents need to realize their own worth regardless of their child’s academic performance.
Often there is a underlying irrational belief below each of these thought patterns that says, "My child must do well in school or it means that I am a failure as a parent", or "nothing good will come of a child who does not do well in school therefore he must do well in school." These demands that we put on the child create hostile feelings within the parent and the adolescent. We demand that the child meets the pre-established expectations that we set up for her. This is not to say that establishing goals for our children, expecting that they do well or at least expend the effort to do well is in any way inappropriate. It is the demandingness” that creates a sense of alienation between the parent and child and causes more harm that good.
The first step for parents is to pay attention to their thoughts and replace the negative, self-defeating, emotionally arousing thoughts with more rational thoughts. An example; Instead of "I just can’t stand this midterm time, I'll never get through it," a more rational thought would be "This is a tough time, I'd prefer it didn’t have to come again, but it is here and I will handle it. It is only for a short period". The intensity of the emotions will be decreased thus allowing for better communication with the adolescent in setting up a study schedule. When a parent begins to understand his or her
own emotional reactions of anxiety, anger, or high frustration and is successful at stabilizing their emotions there is a foundation for a workable relationship. The adolescent senses that the parent is more in control of himself as well as the situation and responds differently.
In additional to the thought-feeling connection I would like to provide some additional insight. Remember that the most powerful motivator of all is unconditional love. Unconditional love always accepts and affirms a child for who he is and not for what he does. If your adolescent believes that you love him only when he does well in school he will experience a heightened sense of anxiety, guilt, fear, insecurity and resentment. If your child believes that you only love her when she meets your expectations she can become hopeless that no matter what she does it will never be enough to keep your love. Unconditional love assures the child that regardless of the grades they receive you will love them the same. Clearly you can set up consequences if a low grade is the result of a lack of effort but withholding your love from your child should never happen. Imagine if God disciplined us and taught us by withholding His love from us whenever we missed the mark and fell short of the glory of God. The very way God promises to love us, always, to always be there for us, is the way we must discipline our children. As they feel secure in your love they will be motivated to achieve for their own good and not as a way to win your love. Children raised with conditional love become manipulative and controlling teenagers. They may act in a way that they know is frustrating to their parents as a means of retaliation for feeling unloved. It becomes a vicious cycle. The answer is to restore the love God provides to us back into the relationship with your child. Praise them for who God created them to be, recognize positive traits, celebrate their differences, encourage and resist the temptation to tear down (which is always easier when you are emotionally stable as opposed to being furious, anxious or depressed), listen to their concerns about this exam period, set up in a collaborative manner a study plan, provide incentives for short term goals, and most of all pray. A close relationship during adolescence is protective of both parent and child. The relationship between you and your child is truly the most important determinant to future success.
Dr. Janetta Twerell