Why understanding Dialectics is critical for effective parenting? Part 1

DBT-C, English, Supersensers / By Francheska Perepletchikova

Our world is based on dialectics. Simply put, dialectics is the science of the general laws of motion. It summarizes the main principles by which change occurs. So, if we want to change our lives, we need to learn and practice the principles of dialectics. Dialectics includes three main laws: 1) quantity into quality, 2) everything contains its own opposite, and 3) negation of the negation. This discussion will focus on the 1st Law.

The “Quantity into Quality” Law stipulates that a qualitative change can only occur by the qualitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion. For example, when learning to play a piano, we first look at the keys and monitor closely the positions of our fingers, practicing repeatedly, until one day, we no longer need to look at the keys and can play effortlessly. This means that a qualitative jump has occurred. 

Understanding this law and practicing the underlying principles are very important for effective parenting. Let’s start by recognizing that, unfortunately, most of the time we tell our children what not to do. We pay attention more to their mistakes or misbehavior than to desired responses, followed by communicating disapproval through reprimands, punishment, or criticism. Thus, we tend to punish more frequently than reinforce. This selective attention stems from negativity bias and mood-dependency. Negativity bias means that humans tend to orient automatically to the negative, as it may be unsafe, while noticing positives requires effortful attention, because it is usually safe. Mood dependency refers to allowing our emotions to dictate our actions. Thus, we all share a tendency to automatically notice negatives and want to reprimand and punish because we are angry. 

However, punishment and criticism are examples of forceful means to obtain a child’s compliance. Force is an attempt to exercise control or directly influence another person’s responses. Punishment and criticism have many unwanted side effects, one of which is teaching our children to use force as a solution to problems. What is a temper tantrum but a forceful way to obtain parental compliance? Further, we tend to expect that by hearing what not to do, a child somehow will know what to do instead and will have the capacity to do it. Well, as we all can attest – force does not really work, as we keep criticizing and punishing the same negative behavior over and over again.

To increase the chances that our children will do what we want, we need to instead use manipulation, which is the opposite of force. In manipulation we directly influence our own responses, which indirectly influences our child’s behavior, via 1) teaching the desired response by modeling and instruction and 2) helping our children acquire the capacity to implement it. Simply knowing what to do is necessary but not sufficient. The “quantity into quality” principle specifically refers to gaining the capacity to act on this knowledge consistently. Thus, once parents instruct on an adaptive response, they need to rehearse it with their child multiple times.

For example, how to replace a child’s response of “I am upset, I freak out” with “I am upset, I use a skill”? The “I am upset, I freak out” response has been performed by a child hundreds of thousands of times for many years, sometimes multiple times per day, as temper tantrums, verbal and physical aggression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, substance use, etc. This is a very strong program, written into our biological computer (our brain), as a repeating code. Telling a child “Stop screaming!” does not do much to override a program. A parent will need to: 1) model emotion regulation; 2) instruct a child on specific skills, such as paced breathing, tense and release, ice technique, and so forth; and 3) engage a child in a reinforced practice several times per day to help write a new program of “I am upset, I use a skill.” Otherwise, there is a very low probability that a child will use a skill, especially in the moment of emotional dysregulation. It will happen only when the adaptive response has been overlearned and reinforced multiple times. So, parents need to practice skills with their child in pretend mode in between outbursts, when a child is calm. And they need to do it over and over and over again. 

Very importantly, parents cannot be attached to the outcome of whether a child is indeed using the practiced techniques in real life!

Parents, please remember, your children will not be using these skills consistently any time soon. Your job is to teach and give your children the capacity to use this knowledge. Quantity, quantity, quantity. This is like seeding. For germination to occur, dispersing seeds is not enough, as the soil must also be ripe. When the soil becomes ripe is not in your or a child’s control. Germination is a qualitative jump. We can only be in control of the process, which is the quantity of repetition. Do what you need to do – model, teach, practice, regardless of whether your child is responding in the short–term. We are working for a long-term change. Simply put, if a desired responding is not happening, more quantity of reinforced practice is needed. 

We cannot control our children, just as much as we cannot control other people, life, and circumstances. We can only orient to what we can indeed directly influence – ourselves. When we change what we do, our children will eventually have to adjust their responses to a new type of transaction and the desired change will occur. And this change will occur without force, but through the indirect influence of a child by directly influencing ourselves. 

Now – this is what we call manipulation.


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