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From lying to fighting or forgetting to clean up, families tackle change

Published: Monday, Nov. 18 2013 4:00 a.m. MST

Truin and Daniel Huntley of Fredericksburg, Va., with their son Jasper, 4. They're diligent about teaching him not to lie and not allowing him to get mouthy two issues families frequently try to change.

Family photo

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Jasper Huntley at age 4 is delightful, full of curiosity and laughter and can-do eagerness. Not long ago, though, Truin and Daniel Huntley had to tackle his burgeoning tendency to talk back. They'd just gotten a handle on that when they realized that he, like all children, was learning to lie. That required correction, too.

Art Markman's recent parenting challenge was his teenager's tendency to take his frustration out on family when his school workload got too big.

From sibling rivalry to doing chores, breaking curfew to parental bickering, family life is complicated. It can include battles of will, too little time and too much stress. Most families have things they'd like to change. Often, it's not a simple process. The habits we've nurtured and grudges we've harbored are among the issues that block effective change.

"It's normal for people to struggle with change, so the idea of change of any kind is hard for a family system to initiate and maintain," said Carl Grody of Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. "However, the hardest change for families to embrace is that they're actually doing a lot of things well. Because of the problem in the family system, they don't notice those things."

Change often involves breaking habits or making new ones, said Markman, a professor at the University of Texas Austin. How parents “parent” is a combination of how their own parents ran things and how they reacted to it, said Markman, a cognitive scientist and author of “Smart Change.”

“A massive number of habits are involved in these kinds of family dynamics,” he said. “The thing about habits is we’re blissfully unaware of where they come from. We associate the environment with the behavior so we can perform it quickly without thinking about it — not why it happens, what triggers it. That is the fundamental problem with changing behavior.”

The principles of changing behavior are basically the same, whether it's not eating that extra ice cream to exercising or getting along better with your little sister, experts said.

Cooling off

Parents bring “anything and everything that brings some level of pain and discord” to love and relationship coach Kailen Rosenberg, author of “Real Love Right Now.” She tackles change by helping individuals see what’s causing problems “not from a place of judgment, but more from curiosity and compassion.” That approach leads to understanding and empathy, the Minneapolis woman said. When a problem is not personalized, it’s easier to see the origin and how to change it.

“It gets people unstuck,” she said, adding people want change within families because they love their son, their spouse, their home and want happiness and prosperity. “That’s a fabulous place to start: non-threatening.”

Family members must buy into change, too, said Markman. The conversations that make it happen occur in calm moments. “Most people want to live a life in which interactions with others are pleasant. … Families are fascinating, the people we would do literally anything for without keeping score. We do amazing things for kids without sending a bill. But we would also say anything to our family because we know it is safe to do that. Kids and parents both say things they would never say to everyone else."

Using cooler moments, you can talk about whether you need outside help or how you can work together to make changes the family desires.

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