Vertically Challenged

Treating the Nonhierarchical Family

Magazine Issue
September/October 2009
Vertically Challenged

When I was growing up, dinner was at 6:30 p.m. sharp every night, timed to my father’s arrival home from work. The menu was entirely predictable according to the day of the week. There were no substitutions, just one meal for the whole family. And, of course, it wouldn’t be considered a real meal without some sort of artery-clogging meat as its centerpiece.

As we sat around the table, I don’t remember that a single phone call ever interrupted the stories my mother plied us with about this and that person she’d met at the local butcher’s, or at Tasty Pastry, the neighborhood bakery. This wasn’t because no one was around to call, but because everyone else was similarly engaged—eating dinner at about the same time, and eating pretty much the same thing.

Afterward, on summer nights, parents would gather in front of their homes to sit on plastic beach chairs and talk with neighbors. Meanwhile, we kids were off in the park playing games on our own, but in clear sight of at least a hundred adults in the neighborhood, no matter how hard we tried to pretend otherwise. There were no curfews, except that every child arrived back home at the same time—just when the circle of adults adjourned.

Compared to that sepia image from a half-century ago, dinnertime these days is a different event altogether. In fact, with so many contending schedules and dietary demands, is there such a thing as a family mealtime anymore? Even when family members are seated at the same table, everyone may be consuming something different—take-out Chinese, microwaved frozen pizza, salad with low-cal dressing—often in separate worlds. Fourteen-year-old Jenny is texting under the table while apparently answering Mom’s question about a homework assignment. Ten-year-old Bart casually asks for someone to “pass him the fucking salt.” Sixteen-year-old Adelaide warns her siblings and her mom to “stay out of my way, because I’m PMS-ing real bad.” Someone is doing a dead-on impression of a TV sitcom episode describing the pros and cons of having sex through the eye-socket of a corpse. Jenny and Mom begin a heated exchange about a midweek concert, with Jenny promising to be back “no later” than 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.

Soon, the conversation segues into an argument over climate change. As dinner peters out and each family member drifts off to independent pursuits, Mom wonders if that article she saw on bipolar disorder may be telling her something about the kids—or herself.

What’s happening here? Compared to the still-life portrait of family dinners of decades ago, this is everyday life as abstract expressionism—a free-form swirl of crisscrossing currents and tangents. Are families like this one chaotic and out of control, or is this a picture of liberating spontaneity and refreshing openness? Whatever judgment you may make, the question remains: what’s happened over the past 20 years that seems to have changed things so completely?

Old-Style Family Disintegration or New Family Togetherness?

Today’s kids and their families are light-years removed from the neighborhoods and towns of the “greatest generation” parents and their kids of yore, who butted heads over formalistic ritual and order and struggled intensely over hierarchical control. Like countless therapists, I’ve seen plenty of kids over the last couple of decades who appear to have been thoroughly hijacked by pop culture. They’re disconnected from their parents and lack all bounds or rules—even to rebel against. At increasingly younger ages, they’re casually coarse, crude, and, at times, absolutely wild. They show a jaded sophistication about sex that would’ve left me dumbfounded at their age (it still sometimes does). They spend hours online—
facebooking, texting, twittering—submerged in a vast, constantly morphing, cybernetic network that Mom and Dad can’t quite penetrate. It almost goes without saying that they often treat their parents like dimwitted servants, whose only useful function is to provide food, clothing, housing, and money.

But delve beneath the surface and you soon encounter surprising paradoxes. It’s true that lots of behavior in kids once considered outrageous by most adults and pathological by therapists has become the norm: it isn’t just some kids from some poorly structured families who are like that, but most kids, to one degree or another. Yet these “impossible” kids are often remarkably smart, confident, knowledgeable, competent, more involved with ethical and social issues than my generation ever was, and almost always capable of stunning kindness and generosity.

Adding to the puzzle is the attitude of parents themselves. As much as parents rue their kids’ disregard for courtesy, decency, and common sense, they semisecretly like, even celebrate, their offsprings’ freewheeling ways. The contradictory nature of kids today makes parenting itself more complex than it used to be. It’s more confusing for therapists, too, who are supposed to help parents take the correct tack with their kids. Old ideas about what constitutes “healthy” family dynamics, “appropriate” parental roles, and “reasonable” rules and regulations for kids just seem at odds with reality.

For example, 16-year-old Matt describes the way his buddies advise each other about romantic and ethical dilemmas. His mother is amazed that teen boys can be each other’s emotional caretakers and show such a keen sense of relational ethics. Then, a minute later, she’s shocked by her son’s rampant, obscenity-laced homophobia; he sure didn’t learn that from his liberal parents! The next moment, she reminds herself that some of Matt’s closest buddies are openly gay.

Fourteen-year-old Mary’s mother is awed by her daughter’s ability to discuss just about everything with anybody; she herself was often shy and tongue-tied at that age. But Mom is confused about how to respond when her sweet-faced young daughter casually describes a friend’s “going down” on a boy, and then segues into an offhanded discussion of what body part she’s thinking about having pierced: navel? nose? lip?

Parents love their kids’ expressiveness and the way they stand up for themselves, but cringe at their self-centeredness and sense of entitlement. Yet the same parents brag about how wholeheartedly kids take up worthy social and environmental causes. In home after home, we see children “greening” the family, or getting parents and siblings involved in neighborhood-service agencies and faith-centered charitable programs.

Even parents depleted by relentless negotiations—bargaining that begins as early as the nursery-school years—twinkle with pride when describing what a little “litigator” their elementary-school child has become. And kids continue to hone their skills. I recently sat with a mother and son during a session in which the mother tried to negotiate limits around her son’s out-of-control screen time, while the 11-year-old nearly succeeded in convincing us that “research has shown” that video games increase brain development, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. I caught myself wondering whether I should increase the videogame time allotted for my kids, just to get a leg up in the college footrace!

More paradox: today’s adults allow for backtalk that would have brought down the house in my generation’s families. Only once did I say “shut up” to my parents at the kitchen table. A deafening silence followed, until my horror-stricken mother asked me, “What did you say?” “Nothing,” I mumbled as my parents loomed above me and I imagined myself scurrying away under the floor. Yet most parents today, committed to keeping open the lines of communication with their children at all costs, display a tolerance of backtalk and attitude that previous generations would have marveled at. As one mother indignantly said, “Don’t pass judgment on me, Ron. I’d rather put up with some cursing than have my kid stop telling me anything about what’s going on in his life.”

To be a parent today is to be regularly confused, dismayed, anxious, shocked, and furious, but also astonished, fascinated, entertained, impressed, and proud—sometimes in rapid succession. Trying to get it right while adrift in a sea of conflicting child-rearing fads, parents often hear that they’re doing everything wrong, but even the criticisms are contradictory. They’re faulted for being pressuring, wimpy, managerial, undercontrolling, and overcontrolling. They’re accused of being helicopter parents, yet uninvolved—both pathology hunters and self-centered narcissists.

In spite of all this, most parents I meet, though buffeted by waves of severe self-doubt, more or less accept their kids as they are, and are committed to a roughly egalitarian relationship with them. They don’t yearn for the old days of predictable order and top-down family authority. In fact, they seem guided by an entirely different, though imperfectly articulated, idea of good parent–child relationships, one that reconciles what most of us consider impossible contradictions: individual freedom with close family ties, a reliable sense of connection despite total anarchy, rules and accountability without family hierarchy, and quality time that doesn’t take much time.

Enter the Post-Boomer Era

I had my first real insight about what might be going on in today’s families a few years ago, as I returned home from a series of presentations to parents and therapists across the country. Sitting on the plane, I found myself struck by one characteristic of the audiences I’d been addressing, recognizing something I hadn’t consciously grasped until then: My God, I suddenly thought, how young are these parents anyway?! The answer—20- to 40-something—had the effect of parting a curtain in my mind. I suddenly understood that our society had crossed a major generational divide and embarked upon the first “post-boomer” era of parenting.

While the usual definition of a “boomer” is a person born between 1946 and 1964, even those born after 1956 weren’t true members of the boomer counterculture: they were too young to have experienced firsthand the defining events of the ’60s: civil-rights marches, the riots, Vietnam, the pill, Woodstock Nation, the assassinations. Many boomers had broken profoundly with their parents, the generation that came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. These pre-boomer mothers and fathers, like my own, were quintessentially “old-style” parents, who believed in hierarchy, privacy, conformity, and sacrifice, while many of their children were caught up in the ’60s social revolution. Boomers and their parents knew intimately what generational conflict was all about.

Most of the parents coming to our offices today are too young to have identified with the boomer rebellion. They’re really post-boomers. Consider the generation of parents born, on average, in the mid-1950s, who had their first child at 25. Their children would have been born in 1980 or 1981. These were the kids who began showing up in our offices, agencies, and hospitals in the early ’90s, some who are now having kids of their own.

Chances are that the families you’re sitting with in your practice are post-boomer families—parents and children who’ve experienced variations of key social changes: the growth of suburbia and exurbia, widespread divorce and blended families, the ubiquity of mothers in the workforce, continual geographic relocation, overscheduled lives, technology, globalization. Shaped by this shared experience, parents and children in the post-boomer era are more alike than different. Despite the hair-raising chaos that we see in our offices, these generations have life narratives closer than any other generational dyad we’ve treated since World War II. Post-boomers and their kids are, to a remarkable degree, kindred spirits, mostly unaffected by the “generation gap” that was the buzzword of the ’60s and ’70s.

What characterizes the post-boomer family, then, is the gradual replacement of a vertical, intergenerational struggle over hierarchy, boundaries, and individuation (the starting point of most therapy approaches from the ’60s through the ’90s) by a horizontal, multidirectional tension between a culture that breeds fragmentation and an increasing desire for family engagement. This is a revolutionary way for parents and children to feel and interact, suggesting that it may well be time to radically reimagine our clinical work with families.

Post-Boomer Psychotherapy

You’re sitting in a consulting room trying to make something stick to what feels like slippery walls: the collective mind of kids and families in our slick, attention-deprived, post-boomer world. Although there’s never much overt rejection of what you say, few interventions “take” for long. So you throw a whole lot more against the wall—a new therapeutic module, the latest evidence-based protocol, a few compelling facts from some promising psychoeducational approach—and, frustratingly, much of it disappears from everyone’s awareness by the time they come in the next week.

But one day, something you try makes an impression, and a little change occurs: a child or teen thinks before lashing out, a parent effectively soothes an unhappy girl. Then nothing you do works for a while, until all of a sudden something else adheres to the one change that had stuck before. Then, another and another, until that once empty wall holds a hodgepodge of moments that may make a difference.

Like the swirling tangents of 21st-century dinnertime conversation, therapy with today’s kids and families often borders on the chaotic. So how can we move beyond random success to identify some well-anchored and dependable clinical principles of working when old styles don’t cut it with 21st-century families? Thanks to a powerful convergence of post-boomer findings on temperament, child development, and learning processes, along with a growing literature on successful parenting practices, we know far more than we used to about what kids and parents need so they can change in ways that dovetail with the realities of contemporary family life. To illustrate, let’s focus on how two traditional bulwarks of family functioning—hierarchy and communication—can be redefined for 21st-century families.

Attuned Hierarchy

A reality of family life today is that effective hierarchy isn’t primarily about the rules: it’s primarily about having a parent accurately understand his or her child, and the child’s feeling understood. Most older therapists and parents were taught that limits are basically about tough love, boundaries, and enforcing rules. Not so for this generational dyad! Twenty-first century hierarchy is about understanding how to get through in ways contemporary kids can absorb when there’s too little time and less parental conviction.

Since therapy is really about learning to change, the first tool I now use in helping create a workable, 21st-century kind of hierarchy is figuring out what I call a child’s “learning-temperament.” This is an amalgam of the widely known work on learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, tactile, active, concrete, and inferential learners, etc.), with an emphasis on the more recent interest in constitutional temperament (e.g., sensory integration, tenacity, activity level, first-time reactions, basic mood, adaptability, separation sensitivity, etc.). Learning-temperament is a formidable force. As most veteran parents and researchers report, it’s apparent from the first years of life and doesn’t change much with age.

Understanding how a child constitutionally metabolizes information creates in parents (and therapists) a respect and patience for how deeply ingrained a child’s responses to adult teaching are. The effective use of this understanding increases parental authority and the chance that parents and therapists will get through—that a message will stick to those walls.

Let’s say you’re working with a temperamentally “tenacious” learner, rather than a child who’s easily distracted by the next event. Once such a child makes up her mind about something—whether it’s a toy or tomorrow night’s concert—she can’t easily let it go. So, for “the rules” to get through, one must offer a couple of options (both of which are acceptable), rather than go head to head, as Stanley Greenspan of Zero to Three Foundation fame reports. For example: “You can share that toy with your younger brother and I’ll have more time to read to you before bed, or you can play with the toy by yourself; either is okay with me.”

By contrast, a child may be a temperamentally “active” learner. Rules, if they’re to stick, will need to be offered in the midst of another activity, like dancing, doing the laundry, or driving to school, as many parents find out serendipitously. We discovered that we got through to our own highly active daughter, Leah, while she was practicing her gymnastic moves on top of our coffee table. Kids like Leah are much more open to parental authority when they aren’t made to stop moving.

When I began to pay more attention to this aspect of adult–child interaction, I was astonished to see how a grasp of learning-temperament immediately increased parental authority. Twelve-year-old Ryan had been asking mindless questions of his classmate Jeremy, who hated being pursued. Jeremy would ignore or dis Ryan until Ryan lashed out in front of everyone, making himself look like the “bad guy” and getting him into trouble. Though smart as a whip, Ryan couldn’t understand how his inability to hang back set him up for abuse. Instead of thinking in standard terms—a nonverbal learning disorder or ADD diagnosis—I understood that Ryan not only had trouble picking up visual cues, but, under his loud obtuseness, had a sensitive learning-temperament, which made him hear firm advice as sharp criticism, which he needed to rebuke.

Ryan’s parents admitted they’d been stymied by his inability to grasp their guidance and by the ferociousness of his responses, which nearly led to physical confrontations. Since I now do “tempograms” (genograms tracing temperament across three generations), I wasn’t surprised to learn that several family members, including Dad, had exploded defensively against any attempts at authoritative guidance; smart, but interpersonally dumb, was their theme song. Recognizing this characteristic across generations was a turning point. Slowly, mom and dad’s edginess about Ryan’s loud obtuseness around the house—his whiny demands for juice while watching TV, his explosions when he lost at games—was replaced by the slightly gentler tone that Ryan needed so he could listen.

As fights with his parents morphed into greater mutual comfort, Ryan opened up to guidance about schoolyard politics and the impact of his impulsiveness, and positive experiences began sticking to those walls. Gradually, he stopped chasing Jeremy and found his own group to hang out with. Months later, he and Jeremy found themselves doing what was once unimaginable: laughing together as friends in the lunch room.

Marlena, by contrast, was anything but obtuse. An attractive young adolescent, she was ruminative, depressed, and increasingly isolated because of her hesitation about joining in on weekend partying. For various reasons, the most important being her learning-temperament, she craved crystal-clear adult authority. For her, the worst kind of opinion was her parents’ balanced, approach when she asked for advice on socializing: “Well, it could make you feel better about yourself on one level, or maybe worse, if you hooked up with that boy you just met.” This would make her feel they were M.I.A.—like their adult presence was missing—and drive her into a deeper malaise.

Marlena’s learning-temperament meant that she had to be approached without any hints of ambiguity. With coaching, her parents learned to be less wishy-washy and say, “Think about this fact: everyone in school is going to know exactly what you did with that boy, every single detail. No question about it, you’re going to feel bad afterward because of what you’ll hear about yourself!”

Now, instead of retreating for days on end, she became more open, supplying just enough details—who she thought was hot, which romantic triangle or new alliance currently needed attention—for them to guide weekend decisions about drinking and hooking up. Gradually sensitive topics were no longer off-limits to her mother, including the high-risk world of adolescent fun.

How “Disrespect” Strengthens Hierarchy

I’ve learned, and research shows, that it’s often essential in building adult authority that kids have the freedom to disagree disrespectfully—or the rules won’t stick. This isn’t your mother or father’s house. Today’s kids feel entitled to air their views, in real-time, no matter what.

Even younger children expect a turn to speak their minds. Take the case of 7-year-old, Emmy, whose mother, Nicole, had tried to tell her the rules of fair play with friends. Emmy wouldn’t listen. As she put it to Nicole, “Mom, you need to take me seriously. I have my reasons, too!” Emmy expected her moment on center stage to share her own point of view. And, to her credit, she’d already formulated complex dos and don’ts of second-grade friendship.

If 7-year-olds demand time to disagree, what about teens? Middle-schooler Eric was explosive in school with his English teacher, who, he believed, had graded his last presentation “unfairly” and often ignored him in class. His animosity toward the teacher continued to mount, despite his parents’ best efforts—a serious situation, since Eric was nearly flunking several classes.

I worked with Eric’s mother, Lindsey, on how to offer realistic guidelines that would leave room for sharp back and forth—even Eric’s maddening view that teacher–student relationships should be entirely determined by kids’ needs. In their next talk, Mom patiently listened to her son, and, as I suggested, then went back to stating her core belief that growing up meant finding ways to deal with responsible adults: Eric could figure out how to cooperate, or he’d end up in a class next year with kids he didn’t like. At first, he left this and similar discussions furious, saying he didn’t think any of her approaches would work, and the teacher and his mother were “hopeless.” Lindsey wasn’t happy with me for outlining a tack that allowed such disrespect.

Several weeks later, however, Eric unexpectedly went ahead with one of Mom’s suggestions. He approached his teacher privately to say how unhappy he’d been about not being called on more often. Much to his surprise, the teacher said Eric was right—he’d been upset that Eric openly criticized classmates, and this was why he wasn’t calling on him as much.

This change in direction, stemming from Lindsey’s ability to restate her beliefs while allowing room for Eric’s retorts, transformed the course of the school year. Eric independently approached several other teachers and got a positive response. By the end of the term, he’d moved from a place on the guidance counselors’ “watch-list” to being a contender for advanced classes in the next grade. Unexpectedly for Lindsey, Eric began asking her for advice about the difficult territory of girls, and then, of course, arguing with her about her views—a new, if fitful, kind of closeness that Lindsey hadn’t imagined possible.

Phony Praise Undermines Adult Authority

Sometime back when we used to have real winters, our neighborhood experienced a “weather event” that turned into every kid’s dream: a snow day. I went over to the local sleighing-spot with our son, Sam. While we were standing in a crowd of parents and kids, I noticed something curious about the Currier & Ives scene all around us: as the kids of all ages came whizzing down to their parents, I kept hearing enthusiastic shouts of “Great job!” and “That was the best sleigh riding I’ve ever seen!” I was struck by the befuddled looks on kids’ faces and their eye-rolling, as if they were thinking: “What are you talking about—”The greatest sleigh ride ever!’ Get real! I’m just obeying the laws of gravity!”

When it isn’t overused, praise can have a powerful, even life-changing, impact. But child-rearing, therapeutic, and educational practices designed to “enhance self-esteem” have so cheapened praise that we’ve destroyed its real value and undermined adult authority in the process. Degraded praise permeates the culture. Today, too often, kids don’t just move on from one grade to another, they celebrate their yearly accomplishment through commencement exercises, once reserved for true graduation. They no longer write a report or a paper and move on: at the end of the project, they have a book-publishing party for the class. And let’s not forget those certificates of participation, handed out each week just for showing up, like so many first-place blue ribbons at a county fair.

The inflation of false praise has inspired a hunger for realistic feedback. Think about the proliferation of sharp-edged, reality TV. In a world of cheapened praise, in which kids can’t count on genuine appraisal from parents or the educational system, they hunger for brutally honest feedback. In programs from American Idol to The Apprentice, The Real World, What Not To Wear, America’s Next Top Model, and Extreme Makeover, we see the incredible mass appeal of bluntly delivered honest criticism—from adults. The same can be said for the increasingly sophisticated nastiness of peer-group life. It isn’t just “mean girls” and “bad boys” ragging on others’ appearance, as in earlier decades: now, most kids engage in a stream of highly charged, unsparingly honest feedback about everything. Nothing escapes the eye of the second family, which makes adult overpraise seem surreal, and certainly not authoritative.

The issue of praise, then, isn’t just whether it creates greater self-esteem or motivation, but whether it leads adults to be perceived as honest and trustworthy enough to be listened to. With this in mind, parents need to realize that the way in which they can get the most limit-setting leverage is to reserve praise for what a child finds most difficult: trying to curb negative behavior that flows naturally from hardwired basic sensibilities. I’ve found that praise acknowledging a child’s genuine effort to go against constitutional tendencies is more powerful than most limit-setting scenarios.

Jared, an early adolescent slacker-in-the-making with AD/HD activity levels, had no patience for doing anything that wasn’t immediately rewarding. He was about to quit an after-school club because it was “too boring” and the teacher didn’t give him “enough attention.” This was his last stab at out-of-class school involvement, because he’d dropped out of everything else. Instead of hectoring him about his inability to stick with anything, his parents began briefly acknowledging those days he didn’t quit, when—against all his personal inclinations—he managed to hang in for one more club meeting, and then another, and then another. They acknowledged him without hyperbole and only for the real struggle he was making.

In the end, Jared stayed with it until the last meeting, and even made friends with the teacher. He experienced the unexpected rewards—such as incrementally fewer battles at home—that came from controlling his temperamental impatience. He began doing a bit more homework, keeping his room just slightly above toxic-waste-dump levels, and sitting still long enough for a 5- or 10-minute appearance at dinner. After several months of this, Jake told his mother that sticking with the club was the biggest accomplishment of his life—ever!

Ten-year-old Allison was a not-very-athletic, highly sensitive girl, unsuited to competitive situations. She’d talked her parents into allowing her to join a girl’s basketball league because they thought this might help her become more assertive and less vulnerable to the social cruelty and jokes from classmates. Allison was, in fact, a crybaby who broke into tears the moment things didn’t go her way. I encouraged Mom to make a casual acknowledgement when Allison managed to keep from bursting into tears.

Then an astonishing thing happened. In the third game, Allison shot the ball—the first time she’d actually touched it all season—and scored, except her shot went into the wrong basket. You can imagine her teammates’ reactions and her uncontrollable sobbing.

Her mom, remembering our sessions, went over to Allison on the sidelines, patiently waited until she began to cry a little bit less, and then briefly acknowledged her daughter’s toughness in trying to harness her tears. Within a few minutes, Allison stopped sobbing, and a couple of moments later, she asked the coach whether she could be put back in the game. On the way home, she shocked her mother by snuggling against her saying, “That was the greatest game I ever played. I almost kept crying like I always do, but I didn’t.”

Communication and Conversational Style

A father tells me, “With one of my children, driving home from school is where talking happens. Another one loves to joke around, and in the middle of his lunacy, he’ll get serious and tell me about a worry. Our third child is completely different: he hates all questions. With him, I’m required to listen and let him get the story completely out. Why does it have to be so different with each of them?”

While most post-boomer parents have heard about attention and learning style, few are familiar with what I call “conversational style,” a notion I picked up while listening to speech pathologists and veteran parents describe communication patterns. Some kids open up in the morning, some right after school, and others at bedtime. Conversational style means that each child responds to a different tone and pacing from a parent; each has a different level of comfort with back-and-forth dialogue, questions, and phrasing. These differences are apparent from the first years of life and remain relatively constant through adolescence and well beyond. Through thousands of family sessions and “stories from home” (brief “I said—they said” notes that parents read to me about dialogues around the house), I’ve realized that therapists and parents need to take these characteristics into account and respond in a fashion that complements a child’s conversational style. Given the peer group, the pop culture, and self-regulating videogames, kids are used to nothing less.

Fifteen-year-old Collette’s conversational style was to argue—stubbornly, aggressively, immovably. Take a position and Collette immediately took the opposite one—a pattern that had alienated her parents and teachers and led to a welter of diagnoses: oppositional and conduct disorders, along with attentional, affective, and bipolar disorders. Our sessions took the form of constant debates:

Collette: Every adult I know is unhappy, my parents, all their friends. Probably even you.

Ron: Why are we—they—unhappy?

Collette: They hate their work. They hate the institution of marriage. They hate everything.

Ron: How can you be so sure of what they feel? You’re saying you don’t know one adult who’s anything but unhappy?

Collette: No, don’t be so dense! I don’t think everyone is so unhappy every moment of every day.

Ron: But you just said that. You said that everyone is unhappy all the time.

Collette: Well, my parents are mostly unhappy.

Ron: Well, let’s say mostly everyone is unhappy most of the time; it’s all futile—then it’s no wonder you just lose yourself in reading fantasy fiction and don’t get involved in school.

Collette: How do you define reading?

Then we were off to the races again, lost in an endless chain of arguments. One day, Collette dropped by the debating club at school. The head of the team told her, “Look, you can’t really try out for this unless you get better grades.” She came away grumbling, and, of course, she and I argued about this “senseless” requirement. But Collette started to go to a few more classes, and got enough decent grades to join the team.

Needless to say, she was a terrific debater; debating was her natural conversational style. The debate club introduced her to a new world of like-minded, iconoclastic, argumentative kids, and she eventually made the school’s travel team. Her ability at debating and sardonic humor were so appreciated by her peers that she was elected team president. Two years later, a boyfriend followed, someone she really loved. Gradually, unexpected change stuck to those walls.

Communication During Transitions: The New Real

Post-boomer parents are so used to thinking of drop-offs, the ferrying of children to extracurricular activities, and the intense hour before dinnertime as logistical challenges and the necessary means to an end that they often don’t make use of these “in-between” times to engage kids. They don’t realize how open kids are during transitions, those “Hello-I-must-be-going” moments. In fact, such transitions are a most promising real estate for building communication. Far from incidental time, they’re often the only time in which real, nonformulaic conversations take place.

Thad was an early adolescent, obsessed with snowboarding and countercultural music. He was involved with weekend drinking and marijuana and on the verge of expulsion from school because of near-failing grades—which led Melanie, his highly organized mom, to monitor his every move. To break this destructive dance, I encouraged her to continue some monitoring, but to use the few quiet, transitional times around the house differently. One such moment occurred in the evening, when she liked to read, just before going to bed. Thad had taken up knitting (snowboarders love colorful, knitted caps). Because Melanie had learned to make use of this transition and keep it off-limits for pointed reminders, Thad spontaneously began knitting next to her while she read. Not much was said, but this taken-for-granted “in-between” gradually became a soothing part of their daily routine. One evening, Thad unexpectedly opened up about how much he hated his prep school.

Following my coaching, Melanie didn’t pounce on the information Thad was sharing. He went on to reveal the secret rules of snowboarding’s anarchistic world, and almost casually initiated discussions about a girlfriend, sex, and weekend drinking—all of which frightened Melanie, but made her feel relieved that he was actually telling her what was going on. Melanie took Thad’s complaints seriously and started exploring different schools. Ultimately, this in-between conversational time resulted in a new school setting, better suited for Thad—a match for this boy’s working-class identity—where he made friends and began to come into his own.

Frank, a single dad, couldn’t establish any meaningful connection with his withdrawn daughter, fourth-grader Gwen, and the greater the distance between them became, the more she held back from revealing hurtful experiences in her preteen, girl-world. So I asked him to think about the endless transitions of an evening or weekend and consider one in-between as a possible place for talking. After going back and forth for a while, he chose to walk his daughter to school. At first, she resisted this involvement, feeling awkward with her dad, but I encouraged him to stand firm.

It took several months for anything to change. Then one day, out of the blue, Gwen asked Dad for a hug before parting. The next week, she invited him into the school to meet the staff in the downstairs office. (Post-boomer preteens aren’t always as ashamed of their parents as kids once were.) Frank, by this time a different sort of listener, offered Gwen advice about feeling excluded by her classmates and the growing online popularity wars—issues that he’d personally experienced as a post-boomer. He was touched, when he had to go on a business trip, to see how much his absence affected this once-dismissive daughter. Moments of communication had stuck and moved them in unexpected directions.

Communication and Progressive Faith

Johnny has just returned with his posse to a friend’s house from a wild, mosh-pit rock concert, reeking from the concert-hall’s hallucinogenic haze. The boys are in for an all-nighter of munchies and videogames when one of the boys’ moms texts him to get back home. In front of his supercool buddies, he says, with no trace of self-consciousness, “Gotta go; church tomorrow.”

Mindful of the politicization of faith, therapists often dismiss the importance of spirituality in our work, especially its potential for increasing communication in families. God-talk is often seen as irreconcilable with therapy-talk. But again and again, I’ve seen how the rituals of worship can reconnect fragmented families. The idea of God, howsoever one relates to it (or not), represents to many contemporary families an opening of the heart and mind to an inner state that resembles philosopher Martin Buber’s relational concept of “I-Thou” more than James Dobson’s dictum “Thou shalt not.” Two ancient tenets of faith—”to act with intention” and to create “sacred spaces in time”—can encourage communication and are readily incorporated in our therapeutic work.

If families bring it up these days, I don’t flinch from seizing on the opportunity to discuss the role of the sacred in sessions. As I helped a client stave off depression after the sudden loss of her husband, I was relieved to hear that families around her were rotating Sabbath meals, providing a place for her and her three adolescent boys every Friday night. You might think that an ancient practice couldn’t possibly thwart the weekend escapades of 21st-century teens, but its sacred, “I-mean-it” intentionality anchored the boys and keyed Irene into their moods through their casual conversation about adolescent goings-on.

When families in treatment attend services, I encourage them to experience these events not only as ritual, but as a shared space in time—an opportunity to hear melodies that touch the soul and an enlightened message that opens the heart. Sometimes this can soften the hard edges of dysfunction.

Ten years ago, Billy’s mom insisted he go to Sunday service with her despite an almost physical battle over curfew. True to adolescent form, he agreed, but then sat alone in the last row of the balcony, practically out on the roof. Nonetheless, at the end of the service, mother and son went to the local diner to eat together, albeit silently. This experience led to a slightly less strident discussion that evening, which allowed for real negotiations about curfews during our next session.

In church, Susan, a late elementary schoolgirl with an eating disorder, leaned over to her mother and whispered, “Every second I worry about the way I look. It makes a difference to not be thinking about it for a while.” This is a child responding to the open heart of faith that relieves for moments the viselike grip of our appearance-obsessed culture. I encouraged Mom to place her hand over her daughter’s during hymns they both loved. Susan later reported, “Mom’s doing that reminded me I’m more than an eating disorder. I’m still a human being.” This was far deeper communication than I could possibly have provided in the consulting room.


Not all treatments go so well. As I finish this long, hopeful piece, I feel sadness for the cases in which I couldn’t budge families from their pain. Looking back, most of those instances contained a common thread: I couldn’t get mothers and fathers, usually older in years or mindset, to understand that we’ve entered a new era. They were stuck in beliefs about how a family ought to be, the way communication should happen; they were committed to outdated formalities between parent and child. So was I! After all, I revered “the village” of my childhood, but there was a price for that order: many of us now grasp how little our parents knew of us, and we understand how much of ourselves we were unable or unwilling to reveal across the generational divide.

Childhood and family life became chaotically unbound in the late 20th and early 21st century, and therapists feel the repercussions of that every day in the consulting room, often uncomfortably. But we must try not to be afraid of kids who know no bounds and are often contemptuous of their uncertain mothers and fathers. We must let post-boomer parents and their children, fellow-travelers that they are, teach us where we need to go.

Today’s family members want to be known to each other, even teens and their parents! They’re asking us to help them move toward their shared humanity—together. It’s an intensely challenging mission, especially for therapists raised on ideas conceived in boomer times, and it’s ultimately hopeful.

Things have changed. This is the post-boomer era. And these are not your parents’ children.

Ron Taffel

Ron Taffel, PhD, is Chair, Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in NYC, the author of eight books and over 100 articles on therapy and family life.