by Laura Kastner, Ph.D.
Few things are brought to a successful issue by impetuous desire, but most by calm and prudent forethought. ---Thucydides
Don’t you love the way the old philosophers defined big truths way back in the old days? First, a word of endorsement for desire—desire for food, sex and challenging goals make life possible, after all. But self discipline and dogged effort allow us to organize a civil society and meet those big goals. If you prefer to step outside the philosopher’s corner, we could also discuss how cultural, secular and religious groups address moral questions to help children learn right conduct, the difference between right and wrong, and control over desires. However, I’m going for some practical parenting advice here.
Parents help their children manage their myriad yearnings most effectively with positive encouragement, external rules and boundaries and strategic coaching about emotions and decision-making. How to bundle these up in wise parenting is the focus of this article.
Healthful life habits are groomed by “prudence and forethought”, even though we will fall off-track daily due to the intense power of our emotions. Our book, Getting to Calm, was so named to emphasize the important role of a calm emotional state in optimizing parental wisdom and conduct. I don’t want to downplay the importance of zeal and vitality in human endeavor, but that will be the subject of my “Z is for Zeal” article.
Everyone struggles with desire and temptation. Children and teens struggle even more than adults because their impulse control circuits are immature. Even though they know that certain things are wrong—like hitting a younger sibling, telling a lie, and stealing from your coin dish—temptations abound. Emotionally-driven impulses often trump sound judgment. Johnny hits his sister because she is getting your attention, lies about where he went after school to avoid getting into trouble, and steals the money to buy candy.
What parent doesn’t want his or her child to learn delayed gratification, self discipline and management of impulses? Who among us in the parent sector doesn’t contend with misplaced desire, whether it be reaching for the ice cream instead of exercising, going online instead of engaging with our loved ones, or pulling out the credit card rather than sticking to the budget? If adults would fully acknowledge how much they wrestle with own impulses and desires, perhaps they’d be better equipped to appreciate how hard it is for their kids “to do the right thing”. Teaching children moral reasoning is one thing, moral conduct is another.
The limbic brain wants what it wants when it wants it. Giving into those base urges is only tempered by slowing down, thinking through costs, benefits and consequences, summoning sound judgment and overcoming impulsivity. These abilities are made possible by the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which is not fully mature until the early twenties. No wonder there is so much risk-taking, impetuous behavior and out-of-control yearning among tweens and teens, even in the best of families. They need parents to help them manage their yearnings, be patient with their short-comings and role-model the skills of competent self-government. They also need respectful and meaningful conversations with their parents which help them learn from their mistakes and establish neural connections that contribute to conscious decision-making.
An understanding of brain science and child development helps parents think more objectively about the kids’ yearnings and desires and how tough it is for them to “do the right thing” and “make good choices.” As a psychologist, it is clear to me that the parents who appreciate the complexity of desire are more effective in helping their children become conscious decision-makers about their choices than those who use the “shame”, “blame” and “moralize” approach to influence their children.
Research has shown that shame is associated with depression as early as preschool. By adolescence, teens with immense shame develop metaphoric scar tissue (e.g. defense mechanisms of denial and “I don’t care” facades) to insulate themselves from the pain of messages that they are bad people, huge disappointments, and hopeless failures.
In contrast, when parents understand that “yearning management” and self discipline are long term projects, they can more easily take on the roles of cheerleader, freedom- gatekeeper and coach. When their children come up short in their efforts to overcome temptations, they encourage them with an empathic but prodding nudge toward good behavior.
My (paraphrased) favorite line from Marsha Linehan’s world-famous dialectical behavior therapy is, “I understand that you did the best you could, given your emotional state, but you can do better.” It acknowledges the human dilemma that our emotional states lead to unfortunate outcomes, but it exhorts us to keep trying to improve. Wise parents understand human frailty and offer empathy, validation and positive encouragement. They avoid shaming, blaming and moralizing lectures. Wise parents also understand the importance of authoritative parenting, so they establish the structure and discipline that children need while they get their “yearning management” system up and running.
Now let’s tackle the gate keeper and coach part. Wise parenting involves knowing the limits of young teens’ ability to self-manage and instituting smart rules and limits about desirable goodies, like access to technology, free range socializing and risk-taking. “Just trust me!” beg the kids. You can avoid big dramatic fights about “trust” that go no where by understanding that their zest for rewards and privileges is consistent with their egocentric perspective and age stage. If you fall for your child’s emotional plea for blanket trust, you’re naïve. We should trust their biologically-based and innocent passion for goodies, not their ability to control it…yet.
Most middle school kids won’t be able to overcome their desire for certain forbidden goodies, especially if they are easily accessible. Let’s take the example of media. The average tween and young teen will try to access forbidden media at some point. Therefore, wise parents use filters, get passwords, do occasional “check up’s” on rule compliance and sometimes even take cells and laptops to their own bedrooms at night. They relinquish control as they see that their maturing teens can (mostly) handle self-management.
Wise parents know that even competent high school kids will be tempted to deceive their parents to pursue big ticket yearnings, like a party or exciting adventure, so they don’t leave their homes unsupervised on a weekend away and they do spot checks on social plans. When teens do not manage their desires in the realms of sex and substances, the parents pull in the fence posts limiting social freedom and engage in deep conversations about values, safety and informed decision making.
Because of the nature of my clinical practice, most of the kids I treat struggle with “yearning management” in one form or another. Depressed and anxious teens yearn to tune out, hide and avoid perceived adversities which permeate just about every aspect of their life. Kids with attention deficit disorder, spirited temperaments and thrill seeking tendencies yearn to pursue all manner of fun and excitment. Yearning is not their middle name—it’s their first. Wise parents accommodate their management roles to support these vulnerable children; they find ways to nudge the shy kids out into the world and grant safe adventures to those that crave excitement.
One of a parent’s biggest jobs is to provide external controls and gradually ease the boundaries as a child becomes competent to exercise internal control on their desires and impulses. Whether we call this “socialization”, “moral development” or “character education”, it comes down to supporting children in their process of developing self control skills.
I wish more parents would talk about their own struggles with yearnings and desires in their daily lives. Of course, appropriate boundaries dictate discernment on which ones to share, but it beats just “interviewing” the kids at the dinner table. I think that the universal human struggle to integrate emotions and cognitions and come up with wise actions is one of those “elephants in the living room”. Sure—kids know adults have yearning management problems from the news and gossip columns—but the fact that their parents experience daily dilemmas with yearnings is often not acknowledged to children. In therapy sessions, I observe children gain respect—not lose it—when parents admit to their own internal conflicts about watching too much TV, eating too much and buying a car that was too expensive. Temperance is a virtue, but so are honesty and authenticity.
By acknowledging the universality of the struggle over misguided yearnings, we could dismantle some of the shame that interferes with children learning from mistakes. Antidotes to the toxic emotion of shame include open conversation, acceptance of the “mixed bag” nature of humans, and inspiring stories of triumph over excesses of craving. Parents seem to focus on their children’s moral behavior without inviting their children more directly into the club of all humans wrestling with their emotional drives. It seems only moral to do so, and maybe parents could use some de-shaming too.