When Mum is the word

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This is an article from Family Lab ANZ

“Frank, you have to take over and send Judy out for a walk!” says family therapist, Jesper Juul.
Dear FamilyLab, During the past couple of months we have been very busy. My husband, Frank has been working hard while I have looked after the girls. I feel run-down and it is taking its tool. The problem is that the girls only want to be with me. When Frank tries to get involved the girls give him the cold shoulder. It always ends in tears. The conflicts are endless and neither of us know what to do. It is very frustrating and we need help.
Judy and Frank
Judy and Frank have two girls. Jessica aged five and Isabella aged two. They have recently moved to the country where Frank has been renovating their house. Meanwhile Judy has spent most of her time looking after their two girls. Judy is desperate for some time out while Frank desperately wants to be accepted by the girls. It has been like this for a long time but it has been particularly highlighted since they moved.

They saw their family deteriorating and called FamilyLab for an appointment. Jesper Juul looks at it from a different point of view. Frank shouldn’t wait for the girls to accept him. He needs to tell Judy to leave the room and tell the girls that he has arrived.
How is Frank going to do that?

Jesper: Welcome! What is on your mind?
Judy: We would like to talk about what has happened since we moved to the country. Frank has been renovating the house while I’ve been looking after the girls. The idea was that anytime I needed some space he would take over. It hasn’t worked. When Frank is meant to take over they don’t want him so they scream and yell. It is chaos and I never get any time out. I feel used because I am in charge of the girls 24/7.
Jesper: Is this different compared to before you moved?
Judy: It has been like that before… but…
Frank: It is more in our face now. I might be working on the house all Saturday but when I try to help out in the evening things go wrong. I simply don’t know how to take over and Judy doesn’t have the energy to let me know what has been happening. I am not able to say: “Here I am! Would you like to spend some time with me?” The girls are drawn to Judy who is not able to take a step back before it is too late.
Jesper: Judy, tell me what Frank means when he says: “she is not able to take a step back.”
Judy: At that stage I have had enough. There is nothing left in me. So before I snap at the girls I yell at him: “You have to take over!” And I am out of there. I would like to be better at handing over in a more positive way.
Jesper: You are telling me that you need help. You need Frank’s help. I would like you to describe to me how he can help you. You are the way you are and you have some limitation because you are not able to hand over properly – or hand
over before it is too late. Let’s try to put this in perspective. How is your husband going to be able to help you take care of yourself?
Judy: My first thought is that he could hug me before things go wrong. I can’t always see it coming so perhaps Frank could help me just before it is too late.
Jesper: Frank, let’s say you have been home for a while. Are you at that stage able to see that things are going to go wrong?
Frank: Yes, I can see that. I notices that the energy is very hectic.
Judy: It is a difficult area. It is a bit of a dilemma. I have actually been frustrated if Frank has tried to help. I have snapped at him: “I can do this on my own!”
Jesper: I sense that once you have got the engine running it is not easy for you to stop. You are not used to working with your own limitations or look after your own well-being. A lot of people struggle with exactly that. In these situations it is important that the partner is able to sense what is happening and is brave enough to interfere. You two need to strike a deal and agree that it will be all right for Frank to interfere. Otherwise, Frank will bang his head against the wall. It might be nice if you could offer Judy a hug but I suggest you don’t face her front on. There must be no option for discussion.

Frank, you have to be pro-active and say to her: “It is all right that you are tired. Go for a walk, lie down or go and do something you like.” Not like a commando but something that removes Judy from the stage. At the moment, the girls feel like hot potatoes that are being passed around. It’s not that they don’t like you Frank, it is just that they don’t like the roles they are given.
The real reason why they hold on to you, Judy, is because they are trying to say to you: “Please mum, try not to be so stressed!”
Frank: I notice Judy’s stress even before she does. When she is in the middle of something she will stop at nothing. It is obviously difficult for her to be told to go for a walk. Especially, if she hasn’t noticed the stress.
Jesper: Sure, but if Judy is to become less active it requires that you become proactive.Stop asking questions. Be pro-active and say: “Judy, you are exhausted. Stop!” Then Judy and you will have to work out if a deep breath is sufficient or if she needs
to go for a walk or lie down. Frank, you have to accept that Judy might bite when you say it. Try to be loving and give her time to acknowledge that you are right… because you are right! If you were to say: “Ahhhmm… Judy, don’t you think…?” then you will be a disruption to her and you will get your head chopped off. This is about caring for Judy, because she is not able to care for herself. It is hard for you to see this, as she comes across as highly competent. I actually think Judy really needs care more than she needs relief.
Frank: This will also mean a better transition for the children.
Jesper: They will no longer feel like hot potatoes being thrown from one to the other. You will instead put up a sign that says: “Under new management” and then take over the reins. They will probably say: “I want mum!” Then you say: “That might be so, but it is not possible.”

Children demand their parents’ presence all the time and they can become rather cruel if they see you as a substitute or relief. That is not good enough for you as their father – it is not good enough for anyone. I am not trying to turn you, Frank into the one who has the main responsibility for all of this but the situation needs someone who actively steps in and says two things. One thing to Judy: “Take a break and relax!” and another thing to the children: “Right, your dad is here!” You need to get Judy’s bad vibrations out of the room so you can take some leadership.
Frank: I have previously asked Judy if she felt like going for a run. I won’t say that again, instead I’m going to say: “Darling, go for a run!”
Judy: We have agreed on a couple of unwritten family rules. When he comes to hug me it is time for me to leave. We would previously have had marathon discussions, now we both agree that one of us will go for a walk if we get stuck. That way we simply save a lot of time and energy, and both of us keep our dignities intact. The girls took part in making the contract. They requested a “family hug” once a day – at least. Now we laugh, tickle each other, muck around and simply have a bit of fun
every day. We have also agreed with the girls that they are entitled to let us know if they feel the atmosphere is uncomfortable. A couple of times Jessica has noticed this and asked us if we are about to divorce. We have listened to her and told her that it is not like that. We spend a lot of time together as a family and inevitably we run into problems. It is part of being a family and we deal with those issues when they arise. We have, though, decided to seek marriage counselling. Hopefully, we will be able to
sort out some of the fundamental issues and work out what both of us want from our relationship. We have a number of things to work with and that is very constructive for our family.

“How is your husband going to be able to help you take care of yourself?” Jesper Juul
“The girls feel like hot potatoes that are being passed around.” Jesper Juul
“Frank, try to be loving and give Judy time to acknowledge that you are right… because you are right!” Jesper Juul
“I actually think she really needs care more than she needs relief.” Jesper Juul
“The girls are trying to say: “Please mum, try not to be so stressed!” Jesper Juul

1: The one who feels rejected might need to take a look at how attentive they have been lately. Children will co-operate with parents who are physically or mentally absent simply by turning their attention to the other parent.
2: Parenting works best when there is some kind of teamwork.
3: If you have a tendency to feel responsible for just about everything or feel you are pushed beyond what you think is reasonable it might be time for you to work on your personal boundaries: define your limits, values and needs. Take responsibility for
these. By doing that, you will teach your children to do the same.
4: It is best to deal with these conflicts “while the iron is cold” – talk about new strategies when there is peace and calm, and when there is a positive connection between you and your partner.
5: You might be able to draw up a family contract where you agree on how to solve the challenges you are facing.

FamilyLab ANZ

Hayes van der Meer



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