Family Therapy: Don't Let Kids Run the Show

Carl Grody
Carl Grody

“Come on, Dad, you know it's true. Just say you agree with me.”

Kids say surprising things while telling you what to do. They can be cute and flabbergasting at the same time, and you don't know whether to put your foot down or snicker behind your hand. (Pro tip: Don't let them see you smile or laugh. It gives positive attention to the behavior you don't want.)

Often, kids are trying to see what they can get away with. Some examples I've seen in therapy sessions:

  • Tattling on their parents. “I warned them that I was going to tell you what they did, Carl. They took away my game privileges for an entire night!” Kids say this with the satisfaction that my therapist wrath will rain down on their parents. (They're shocked when I remind them that Mom and Dad are always in charge, even in my office.)
  • Treating family therapy like a courtroom, with me as the judge. “It's not fair that they won't let me have a phone; all of my friends already have them! Right, Carl?” (They're stunned to hear that my oldest daughter didn't have a phone until she was 17.)
  • Negotiating with their parents as “equals.” “I'll clean my room if you agree to let me have sleepovers every Saturday and every third Tuesday with my friends.” (These kids often overplay their hands. Discussing rewards for positive behaviors is certainly possible if parents are open to it, but not if they feel pressured to give in.)

But sometimes kids run the show because that's how their family functions. This happens a lot with single-parent families, where the oldest child wants to help by parenting the other children (and sometimes their mom or dad, too). As the adult, it's tempting to take that break from setting and enforcing rules, but the relief is short-lived; it takes more effort to referee the resulting arguments.

Kids need to be kids. Sure, they're smart, funny and often see things in a simple, logical way that we may have forgotten, but they lack life experience. Children also need parents in charge because it helps them feel safe, confident and protected. (Yes, this is true with teenagers, too.) When kids are in charge, they feel more anxious and stressed, which causes more negative behaviors as they try to figure out which lines they can't cross.

It gets even trickier when a parent has a problem with addiction. In those situations, the oldest child often runs things because it's the only way to keep the household functioning. In these cases, kids aren't trying to get more stuff or privileges; they're trying to survive.

Sometimes, simply setting consistent boundaries and expectations resets the family structure (emphasis on “consistent”). The “First-Then” rule—first you do the chore/behavior, then you get the reward—helps stop the endless negotiating. But if the situation is more complicated, family therapy may be necessary. (And if you choose that, I'll try not to let them see me smile, either.)

Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.