brown and gray seesaw

Like most of you, I am trying to figure out the juggle in this apparent “new normal” we call Covid, and find a balance that works. One of my challenges is that, right when I think I’ve found a good balance, something happens that knocks me off the beam and leaves me scrambling to adjust once again.

Can you relate??? I know you can…

For us, one benefit of quarantine has been our ability to focus on strengthening relationship and communication skills.

All of this time spent together has certainly shown us where the cracks are!

A relationship dynamic I recently read about, called overfunctioning and underfuctioning, has helped me to see where I have been doing more than my share for my kids, which has led to frustration and resentment on my part.

Just having awareness of it has empowered me to release responsibility for some of the things I had been doing, that were preventing them from learning and practicing the skills they need to be learning.

The result has been less frustration and anger on my part, and more ownership and contribution on the part of my kiddos (they are 9 and 10).

Here is the dynamic in a nutshell (I’ll give specific examples next):

  1. “Person A” in a relationship OVERfunctions (doing more than they want to be doing, usually in an attempt to be helpful or loving).
  2. “Person B” becomes accustomed to Person A doing the work and ends up releasing responsibility for it, which means they now UNDERfunction.
  3. As time passes, Person A sees they are doing more while Person B is doing less, and they become resentful.
  4. Typically, Person A will direct their anger or resentment at Person B through blame and shame, or emotional withdrawal, which doesn’t result in any change.
  5. Change happens if/when:
    • Person A gets clear about what they are and are not willing to do,
    • communicates that information to Person B,
    • pushes through the discomfort of Person B’s resistance
    • follows through with what they said they would do

Here’s how it might look in parenting:

Situation: Child is melting down or getting upset at every little thing (I’ve seen this one play out with every age group from toddlers to teens to young adults).

  1. Mom sees her 6 year old son getting agitated and quickly tries to figure out what he needs so he doesn’t get upset. She offers a snack, suggests he look at a book, and tells him there’s nothing to be upset about – he has everything he needs. When he still doesn’t calm down, she offers him her phone so he can watch a video.
  2. Son is relieved to have the screen as a distraction from all of the uncomfortable emotions swirling around inside him. The screen seems to be the only thing that makes him feel better.
  3. Mom notices that her son won’t do anything to try to calm himself down when he is upset, and that he goes into a complete spiral, even saying things like, “I’m a terrible person!” or “I don’t even want to be alive anymore!” The only thing that calms him down is a screen and she feels angry that he won’t do any of the breathing exercises she showed him, or use the calming corner she set up for him.
  4. Mom explodes at son when he melts down and insists on having her phone.
  5. Change happens if/when:
    • Mom recognizes that she is not willing to give her phone to her son, or allow him to use a screen to calm his big, uncomfortable emotions anymore.
    • Mom lets son know (when he is in a calm state) that he will need to use his deep breathing skills or calming corner to help him work through his uncomfortable emotions from now on. She offers to practice breathing with him while he is calm to help him learn the skill, and asks if he has any other ideas of ways he can help himself get calm when he is upset. He says no to both.
    • When son becomes upset and asks to use a screen to calm down, mom says no and suggests a different strategy. Son becomes even more upset, screaming at mom, throwing things and accusing her of not caring about him. Son melts down even longer than usual, before tiring out and falling asleep.
    • Mom notices her extreme discomfort that is triggered by seeing her son in emotional pain. She reminds herself why she is letting him struggle (he is learning to get through big feelings), and calls a friend to help her stay firm in what she had said. After her son wakes up, she sits and snuggles with him, and validates how difficult it was for him to have those big feelings. She points out that they eventually faded, and he didn’t use a screen. Mom reminds son that she loves him and is there to help him with his big, uncomfortable feelings.
    • RESULT: Son continues to have meltdowns when he doesn’t get the screen, but the meltdowns become less frequent and less intense as mom stands firm in her decision to help him learn healthier ways of coping, rather than jumping in to rescue him from his uncomfortable feelings. He eventually uses his calming corner on his own, and is able to use his feelings chart to name the feelings he experiences. Mom is no longer overfunctioning as the manager of his emotions.

Situation: Child’s things are left all over the house

  1. Mom picks up after her child, telling herself she is helping her child because her child is busy with homework (or overtired, or too slow at picking up, or the mom is just too tired to follow through with the request that has been ignored twice already)
  2. Child sees that mom has picked her things and is grateful or relieved, but doesn’t say anything.
  3. Mom continues picking up on many occasions, which causes child to pay less attention to her things that have been left around the house. Mom begins to feel resentful toward her daughter when she sees her things all over the house, even though she has been asked to clean up after herself.
  4. Mom yells at daughter, blaming her for being inconsiderate and selfish, expecting others to do everything for her.
  5. Change happens if/when:
    • ​​​​​​​Mom notices her resentment toward her daughter and realizes she is not willing to continue picking up after her
    • Mom lets daughter know that she will no longer be picking up her things, and she expects her daughter to be responsible for putting her things away. Mom communicates to daughter that, if she chooses to not put her things away, they will be collected at the end of the day and put in a box, where they will remain for a week.
    • When daughter realizes her computer had been left on the couch and put in the box, she becomes irate and accuses the mother of being unfair and a terrible mother.
    • Mom notices the hurt caused by her daughter’s words, takes a break to let her emotions settle, empathizes with daughter’s feelings, and holds firm by keeping the computer in the box for the week.
    • RESULT: Daughter survives her big, uncomfortable feelings, and realizes mom is serious about what she said. Daughter takes ownership and puts things away right away (most of the time!) so she doesn’t forget. Because mom sees her daughter’s efforts, she gives her daughter grace on the few occasion she forgets to put things away, and offers her a gentle reminder. The overfunction/underfunction pattern has shifted and mother is no longer doing a task that belongs to her daughter.

The biggest challenge of breaking this pattern is learning to handle the discomfort of the pushback you will inevitably receive when you try to alter a long-standing dynamic.

That’s normal! Keep in mind that the pushback is simply an expression of their discomfort with change. Eventually, they will get used to the change and the new way of doing things will feel normal.

In the end, we are aiming to raise competent adults, and adulting is not easy!

By giving them opportunities to practice, and even master, some of those adulting skills while they still have you as a safety net, you are setting them up for a more successful future. That truth is worth the discomfort of their pushback…

Now it is your turn! Respond to this email with the answers to these two questions:

  1. What is one area in which you are overfunctioning and, therefore, feeling some resentment toward your child for not doing their part?
  2. What are you WILLING or NOT WILLING to do in this area? In other words, what would help you feel less resentful?

Simply taking the time to acknowledge the dynamic you want to change will make it more likely that you will work toward changing it. If you’re uncertain about the second question, let me know in your email and I will help you figure it out.