A family of four, mother, 11 year-old daughter, 9 year-old son and step-father, consulted a therapist about their troubles; the behaviour of the boy, disputation in the household, non-compliance to reasonable requests, tantrums, marital conflict and so on. Nothing out of the ordinary, except the situation was driving the mother ‘crazy’, especially as she attempted to (unsuccessfully) mediate the conflict between her new husband and her children.
The therapist spoke to the whole family together, then in turn with the couple and each child separately, and explored the issues carefully and thoroughly. It was clear that, for this family to get to some kind of acceptable level of functioning something had to give, something had to change. What to do? It was clear where they wanted to end up, but where on earth to start? That is the perennial therapeutic problem. Where, how and with whom, to commence the therapeutic process of change!
As this was his first ‘up close and personal’ experience of children, the step-father was finding the going tough. The harder he found having children around him, the more intolerable they became, the more ‘controlling’ he became, the more the mother worked overtime to calm the waters, the more day-to-day matters erupted into escalating shouting matches, and so it went on in a kind of intimate, turbulent mayhem.
The therapist again met with the mother and the step-father together. He told them that the issues of concern to each person in the family required careful consideration and he may take some time to address these. The therapist proposed a deal. He said he would give each of the issues his full consideration between today and the next consultation and, in the interim, as something of stop gap measure, he wanted them, as parents to agree to something, to a very small, almost insignificant, change in their family life.
The mother and step-father were curious but slightly disappointed that they were not going to get immediate movement. However, they did appear to understand and wanted to know more about this ’small change’ and what it was that the therapist wanted them to do. The therapist said that, whilst he didn’t know what the ‘small change’ should be, it should be a ‘small change’ they could all agree to, and a ‘small change’ that they could more or less guarantee that they are going to be successful at doing. The therapist said to the couple that the ’small change’ could be something new that they do or something they cease that they are already doing.
The couple thought long and hard about the ’small change’ and came up with several good ideas. Unfortunately these ideas, once they were considered carefully by the couple, were thought to be too big and difficult for them all to succeed with. It is fair to say that the therapist did have half an idea forming in his head about a suitable ’small change’ but he also figured that it was more important for the couple and the family to own an idea of their own rather than have his idea imposed upon them.
After some time tossing different ideas around, the step-father asked the therapist if he had any idea what they could do. The therapist said he did have an idea but he was not sure that it was at all workable. The couple wanted to know what the therapist’s idea was, so he, very tentatively and emphasising the fact that he was not telling them what to do, told them.
“I think that it might be an idea for this family to cease yelling at each other for a couple of weeks, just to see how you go. What do you think?”
The mother turned this over and over and agreed that, whilst it was a really great idea, it might also be too difficult for them to all successfully do this, especially for her husband and her 9 year-old son. The step-father stepped in to the debate and said that he had absolutely no doubt that he could do it, that he could stop yelling, that he only yelled when provoked anyway, and that his only doubt was the setting the boy up to fail. He said he was deeply concerned about his step-son and just couldn’t see how the boy could do this, unless it was for a very short period of time.
The therapist then said that maybe this ’small change’ was something to discuss with the children. The mother agreed and the whole family met together with the therapist to discuss the ‘no yelling’ proposal. After some time they all agreed that this was worth a 100% limited trial for the next two weeks only. In fact, the whole family finally agreed to stop all forms of yelling, angry and otherwise, entirely for the next two-weeks. They came to the conclusion that they often didn’t know when they were yelling and when they weren’t and that they couldn’t really tell the difference between angry yelling and other types of yelling.
They agreed on a system of consequences for anyone who yelled at anyone else in the family. The person yelled at was to be rewarded by the person who did the yelling and the reward was to be set by agreement with the whole family at a ‘family yelling meeting’ to be held at the conclusion of each day. The rewards could be monetary, labour or anything else they could invent. The 9 year-old boy, being very bright, immediately saw that he could make money out of this by provoking other’s in the family to yell at him.
Two weeks later the family returned. They said that there had been very little yelling. It had been quite difficult to start with and the 9-year old had made a small profit out of it in the first couple of days but the money supply soon dried up as each person got into the routine of not yelling. As they ceased yelling surprising things began to happen between them. It felt empty and quiet with no yelling. It was so silent that the mother said she could almost hear herself think. The 11 year-old girl said it was wonderful living without yelling and her mother noted that she didn’t retreat into her bedroom as much as she had been doing and was interacting with the rest of the family more. Whilst the 9-year old hadn’t been all that compliant, surprisingly, there hadn’t been any tantrums for two weeks. The mother and step-father said that they both noticed that different conversations had begun to take place in the family, with the children and between them. The step-father said that he had been thinking a lot about his situation and had come to the realisation that perhaps he had been a little too controlling. The mother said that she was pleased about this as she had also come to the same conclusion about her husband and had been considering addressing this with him. There had not been one single escalating conflict in the two week trial period. The family all agreed that this was a good start.
The therapist then went back to the raft of issues raised in the first consultation. The family told him that many of these issues were no longer as important as they were when they first spoke and that perhaps some of these matters could be put to one side whilst they got on with the main game. They all agreed that they had made a start, that they wanted to find a way to permanently stop ‘yelling in anger’ at each other and that they wanted the therapist to find a way to help them with this. This the therapist did and he agreed to come back to the issues when the family was no longer yelling.