Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a relatively new approach to teaching people how to best regulate their emotions and to reduce conflict in families. Dialectical means that opposites can both be true; that there is more than one way to see a situation or to solve a problem. The opposite of dialectical would be polarized, such as seeing things as all or none, or believing that there is only one right way. When we walk the middle path, we expand our thinking and ways of considering situations we encounter. This approach encourages us to be more flexible and approachable by others, which results in fewer standoffs and conflicts. DBT also helps us to avoid making assumptions and blaming others.
In their book, DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents (2015), Rathus and Miller provide a number of hints for thinking and acting dialectically. One is to use both-and thinking rather than either-or thinking. Avoid using words like always, never, or “you make me...” For example, rather than saying, “You always forget your homework!” you could say, “Sometimes you do your homework and sometimes you forget.” Or, instead of insisting that you are always treated unfairly, you could say, “Sometimes I’m treated fairly and sometimes I’m not.”
No one has the absolute truth. It is important to be open to alternatives. Different opinions can be valid, even if you do not agree with them. Try to consider your child’s perception of a situation and to validate what he thinks, even if you think he is wrong. Validation lets your child know that what he thinks and how he feels matters to you. It lets your child know that you respect and care for him.
Similarly, do not assume that you know what other people are thinking or expect others to know what you are thinking. Check your assumptions by asking, “What did you mean when you said…?” And, you can also be clearer about what you are thinking, such as by using the statement, “What I am trying to say is…”
Walking the middle path as a parent is particularly important as our children grow, and we are faced with some common dialectical dilemmas. Parents, for example, are always on the see-saw of being too strict with their children on the one side and too loose on the other. Going to one side or the other will cause you to be off balance. Instead strive toward being in the middle.
DBT teaches that parents should have clear rules that are enforced consistently, and at the same time, we should be willing to negotiate on some issues and not overuse consequences.
Another place to seek balance is between making light of problem behaviors and making too much of typical childhood behaviors. It is important to recognize when a behavior crosses the line and to get help for the behavior while, at the same time, recognizing which behaviors are typical of childhood development.
Lastly, there is the dialectical dilemma between fostering dependence and fostering independence. On the one hand, we want to give our children guidance, support, and coaching to help figure out how to be responsible, and at the same time, we want to give our children greater amounts of freedom and independence while continuing to encourage an appropriate amount of reliance on others.
As you can see, when you are faced with a dialectical dilemma, such as when your teenager wants to stay out late or your nine-year old wants to stay up late playing on the computer, that there is no one correct answer and that taking an extreme position is not healthy or helpful. It is important to consider where you are on each of the dialectical dilemmas, and then to have a willingness to communicate with your child.
It is okay that your child may see things differently from you. It is okay to consider the way he sees it, and it is even okay for you to move yourself towards a middle path, taking into account your concerns and his. Similarly, if your child feels validated by you, you will find that he won’t take an extreme position either. He will be more willing to see things from your point of view, be more willing to shift his position, and respect you for your decisions.
Dr. Jeffrey Katz is a clinical psychologist in Va. Beach, specializing in helping children and families with the treatment, evaluation, and advocacy for ADHD, LD, and behavior problems. Call 757-463-4232 or visit www.drjeffreykatz.com.