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The Informed Parent

The Art Of Reframing

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Dec. 06, 2010

Wise parents learn the skill of reframing. To reframe a situation or problem means to re-label or reinterpret it so that more solutions become available. Opening options or new ways of thinking to our children put them at choice; choice for better ways of behaving or more comfortable ways of thinking.

Recently I was in a department store and heard a parent do excellent reframing. Her daughter, who appeared to be about eight years old, was complaining about something two of her friends had done. Their behaviors were inappropriate, and the little girl was upset.

The mother listened carefully to the complaints and then said, “What they did is between them and their mommies. It is something you do not need to worry about. There is only one person you need to take care of, and that is you. Isn’t it wonderful to know that you only have to take care of one person?”

The daughter smiled and asked, “Only one person?” Her mother replied affirmatively. The little girl sighed. She looked as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

Reframing does that. It takes a problem or situation and sheds new light on it. It provides a new perspective. All of a sudden this child became aware that she did not have to take care of others’ problems.

Let’s take another example. I know a family that has a very difficult young teen. He has multiple disabilities and can cause havoc in the family. One day we were talking. The parents were upset about his inability to complete homework without help. In addition he didn’t relate appropriately to family members, and he didn’t follow through on requests for assistance with family chores. “We just want him to act his age,” they said.

As we talked I suggested that instead of looking at him as a 13-year-old boy who was refusing to live up to their expectations and standards, they might think of him as a 13-year-old boy who functions at a six-to-eight-year-old level. And perhaps he was doing the best that he could.

“That’s hard,” they said. We agreed that it is. We also agreed that having expectations of him acting like a young man six or seven years older than his functioning ability would continue to cause both them and him frustration.

In this situation, when the parents began keeping more realistic expectations while still respecting him as a 13-year-old, everyone got along better. The boy was more at ease, and the parents found ways to acknowledge some of what he did.

Reframing does not make a problem go away. It provides a different way of looking at it. It does not make frustration magically disappear. It does relieve it. When frustration reappears, and it will, it gives a stronger foundation to return to.

Now, let’s take a situation with toddlers. When two and three year olds don’t get what they want, they assert themselves by tantruming, demanding and challenging. They don’t have the words to express their needs. Often parents throw up their arms in despair. Power struggles may ensue.

While it won’t always make these behaviors easier to tolerate in the moment, reframe them in a positive light. Recognize that your toddler wants independence. She wants control over her own environment. Recognizing her challenging behavior in this way gives you the opportunity of seeing where you can offer her choices. The more choice she has, the less she needs to assert her will inappropriately.

The catch with offering choices is twofold: first, the choices must be age appropriate; second, the choices must be such that whichever one she makes is satisfactory to you. If you offer a choice but then say ”no”, you have defeated your purpose.

When we reframe, we change our perceptions about whatever may be happening. With that change, we can alter our emotional states and our behavior. It may not be the easiest thing we’ve ever done, but when we practice the skill, reframing can enhance our life and the lives of those around us.

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