Today’s story is an edited excerpt from Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters.
Kelly is on my A-list of incredibly cute patients. She is ten. Freckles plaster her face. And she has bright, fuzzy red hair. But Kelly’s cutest quality is that she bounces. Everything above her bounces: her inflections, her demeanor, her movements. Her father and mother, Mike and Leslie, are excellent parents: calm, engaging, enthusiastic and good disciplinarians. When their (now college-age) son was little, they decided the wanted to add a daughter to the family by adopting a girl. They chose Kelly.
However, Kelly is often a tough kid to parent. She is strong-willed and challenges everything Mike and Leslie say. When they correct her, she insists that they don’t understand–and sometimes they think she’s right.
Kelly is one of those kids who began showing signs of hyperactivity while still in diapers. She wasn’t as much defiant and energetic and testy. At school, her energy was channeled into her tongue and her heart. She talked to friends constantly, often disrupted class and was a problem for her teachers. On car rides she talked nonstop. When she was happy, her parents were happy. But as Kelly grew older, she grew testier–so much so that Mike often didn’t want to be around his own daughter.
One afternoon Mike and Leslie came to my office to talk about Kelly. When I asked “How are things at home?” Leslie erupted in tears. Mike sat quietly. “Out of control,” said Leslie through her tears. “Something’s wrong with Kelly. We can’t get through to her; she argues with us all the time. Just about every interaction Mike or I have with her is negative.”
“What have I done wrong?” Leslie cried. “We’ve tried everything we can. Is she acting this way because she resents us, because I work, because she is adopted? I don’t get it. We never had this problem with her brother. I know we parent differently because they are different kids, but should we see a psychiatrist, a counselor? Do you think she has learning problems? Could she have bipolar disorder? Why is our home so tense? Please–tell me where we went wrong.”
Mike and I listened while Leslie cried and told her story. Finally, he said something that irritated Leslie: “So, Dr. Meeker what can we do?”
“You don’t understand do you?” blurted Leslie. “We need to understand what’s wrong. Where have we let her down? Why doesn’t she love us?” Leslie took Kelly’s behavior extremely personally. She wanted to know why Kelly felt the way she did, to empathize and understand. This is how women women engage problems.
Mike, it was clear, approached the issue differently. I watched him as he calculated, reasoned and figured his way through the problem. He was looking for a solution. While Leslie assumed personal responsibility for Kelly’s problems, Mike didn’t. The problem was just there and had to be solved. Leslie approached the problem with intense feelings and Mike was pragmatic.
At that moment, the three of us fell silent. I must admit, as a woman, I felt for Kelly and empathized with Leslie’s emotional response. But as we sat quietly, I realized that Mike had the wiser approach. I made a list. I drew clear lines and separated Kelly’s behavior (she had been diagnosed with ADHD) from her person.
“Leslie,” I said, “because of her ADHD, Kelly is wired differently; her motor is running furiously and she can’t control it. You and Mike have been great parents, but you can’t change her wiring.” She seemed relieved for a moment. I continued, “Kelly is someone who could benefit from a small dose of medication. I think you’d see an enormous result.”
Mike reasoned that Kelly needed structure and routine peppered with fun–and that she needed the medication I recommended. While Leslie continued to worry, Mike opted for action and we put Kelly on medication.
A month later, Leslie called and said Kelly was doing great–even felt better about herself. She laughed, she felt in control and she wasn’t getting in trouble at school. Leslie and Mike enjoyed being with her again.
My point is that fathers are often the ones who bring pragmatism and solutions to family discussions. Men see problems differently than women do. Women analyze and want to understand; men want to solve–they want to do something. This often annoys wives and daughters, who can get swept up in thoughts and emotions and conclude that “you just don’t get it, do you?” or even that men are uncaring or heartless. But that’s only because men are less interested in talking about a problem than in doing something about it.
It is certainly true in general that mothers and fathers have complementary approaches to problems: fathers reach immediately for solutions and mothers yearn to understand and empathize.