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Adult problems affect discipline

Michael, 2{, rocks the coffee table until books and a glass vase fall to the floor. Heidi, his single mom, continues to talk with her mother. Without any trace of disapproval, she picks up the vase.

As she tries to engage Michael in coloring, he again kicks the table. This time the vase falls over and breaks.

"Oh Michael," she says, "let's color these pictures together."

Later, Michael finds a broom and hits his grandparents' new, big-screen television set. As his grandfather says, "Michael, be careful, you could break it, it's new," this toddler continues to bang.

Eventually his grandmother takes the stick, puts it within Michael's grasp in the hall, and gives her grandson a cookie.

Heidi and her parents (Michael's grandparents) are being "pushed around" by difficult feelings that they are not aware of.

Heidi is aware of some guilt about getting pregnant and the related feelings she has when she is with her parents. Mother and grandparents try to avoid these feelings by focusing attentions and efforts on caring for their 2-year-old.

Beyond Heidi's awareness is a feeling that complicates her judgment. She consciously feels angry with Monty, Michael's father. She also blames herself for their tensions and their break-up. In some ways she stays mad so that she can avoid feeling sad and helpless.

The sad and helpless feelings _ the ones that are not in her awareness _ cause the disciplining difficulties.

Heidi privately thinks of herself as injurious and bad. This blocks her from disciplining Michael. She believes that she could drive her son away by setting limits, just as she privately believes that she is to blame for being a single parent.

She is unaware of how her mind works in this way.

Heidi blocks out her helpless feelings by being angry at Monty and always upbeat with Michael. Her mind plays a trick on her and Michael _ not her _ becomes the helpless one.

It is also because Heidi sees her son as secretly sad and vulnerable (her feelings), that she is unable to set limits for him. It is as though she believes he will be hurt by normal limit-setting.

Again, the enormous power of her feelings comes from not being aware of them.

Similarly, Michael's grandparents' discipline efforts are being contaminated by their feelings.

Heidi's parents are openly welcoming of Monty _ trying to encourage his interest in his daughter and grandson. Yet her father secretly hates Monty and that handcuffs his discipline efforts with Michael. He fears that setting limits will expose his hate _ and hurt his beloved grandson.

Confusion about discipline caused by the absence of a second parent is powerful because it lives beyond awareness in the parent's mind. If single parents were aware of the hidden pressures on their judgment, discipline could be effectively adjusted.

Single parents are often aware of faults and inadequacies in the separated or departed partner and parent. Less conscious, however, may be the urge to "correct" the ex-spouse and failed marriage by correcting the youngster.

A single parent may be overly directing and correcting.

A father of two youngsters continually talked _ preached _ to his 9-year-old son. Not a know-it-all with adults or other children, he was a master of the obvious with his children.

In the middle of a meal he provided a step by step description of how the children should bring their plates to the kitchen, bathe and put on their pajamas. When his happy and energetic 9-year-old forgot to flush the toilet, his father lectured for four minutes about reasons why toilets should be flushed.

While this father professed that "I've gotten over the divorce, and I'm very much in love with my fiance," he was unaware that he still resented his former wife's irresponsibility and disorganization. He had unsuccessfully tried to correct her by being increasingly organized and verbal himself. After she left him and the children, he focused his correcting efforts on his older child.

Like everything with teenagers, discipline takes on gender-specific qualities when children approach the early teen years. This often happens excessively with children of single parents.

For example, a single mother became almost accepting of her 14-year-old son's disrespectful and rude remarks. This was in contrast with having required respectful behavior throughout his previous dozen years. She continued to require polite and respectful communications from her 16-year-old daughter.

In contrast with her passive acceptance of his rude and provocative remarks was her excessive strictness about his low-key relationships with girls. She didn't tell him when girls telephoned. She took her children on trips when his high school had dances.

This mother felt aware of her feelings of sympathy for her ex, whom she had given up on six years ago because he was a dysfunctional alcoholic.

Yet she was unaware of her still-alive feelings of shock and helplessness that sprung from her discovery of her husband's drinking. When her children were in elementary school, she discovered that her optometrist husband had been getting drunk each day with his receptionist.

No romantic affair took place. Even so, she unconsciously blamed the woman rather than focus her anger on her hospitalized husband.

When her son reached puberty and his teen years, the mother's hidden feelings took over and confused the parenting. In this mother's eyes, she had to give her son too much power to prevent him from becoming a passive alcoholic. At the same time, she had to block his becoming involved with girls (even though he was more interested in sports than in romance), as though she were protecting him from being influenced into a substance-abusing victim.

She was not aware of these left over resentments and fears that she put onto her son.

Counseling or psychotherapy can usually expose hidden feelings that complicate child rearing. Single parents are not emotionally unbalanced nor are they guilty of bad parenting.

Clinical help is instead used to help the single parent see the child as only a child, to uncomplicate discipline and to help the parent get on with life.

Dr. Schwarzbeck is a member of the clinical teaching faculty at the University of Washington's School of Medicine in Seattle.