Whose problem is it?

“It’s important to identify who owns the problem within the communications,” said Thomas Gordon. It is a tool to know which skills you can use to understand each other better.

The behavioral framework

When Thomas Gordon, the American developmental psychologist, started to look into what he called the disturbed parent-child relationship, he looked for a peg on which to hang his view. One day he looked through the door at the square where basketball was being played. The door had two windows with a crossbeam between them. When he looked through the top part, he saw how beautifully the goals were scored, how they played together and what techniques were used. He enjoyed it. A moment later the ball rolled onto his newly sown bed. He saw this because it became visible through the bottom window. He was disappointed and felt his anger rising. Hey, he thought, ‘when I look through the top window I accept the behavior and when I look through the bottom window I disapprove of the behavior’. That crossbar is the dividing line. He called that line the acceptance line. The behavioral framework was born!

Two fields become three

He called the top part not a problem area in the relationship. All parties are doing well. A child can develop optimally in that area. It is an important piece for a child. The bottom part he called the area where I have a problem. After all, I don’t want something, my needs are not being met, it bothers me. “That is,” he said, “ownership; I own the problem!’ At the top of the green piece he wrote the words Child’s Problem. He very consciously taught parents and professionals that you should take children’s problems seriously, without making it a problem for yourself. It’s theirs! Then leave it there!

Do children have problems?

Of course! Children struggle with growing up and encounter things in their lives that confuse and offend them, in short: they experience problems in their emotions. Those feelings are theirs, so the ownership is theirs too!

How do children show that they experience problems?

Children communicate by giving signals. Crying, being angry, attacking with anger, crawling into a corner, hitting, kicking, becoming quiet or very busy, stuttering and so on, are behaviors that often fall below our acceptance line. Gordon initially places them at the top of the behavior window! Behavior = communication! But rarely can young children indicate what is bothering them. And if they already know it, they often cannot find the right words to express it. Sometimes yes, but then children say things like: I don’t want to go to that party. I’m not going to play with Lotte anymore, I don’t like teacher. There is often a world beneath that. It’s just a way to address an underlying problem.

If you know where you are you can use the right skills

We can actually ask ourselves four questions:

  • What is happening?
  • What do I think about that? (is it below or above my acceptance line)
  • Who owns the problem?
  • Which skill am I going to use?

An example

Martin comes home from school, throws his bag in the corner, stomps his foot up the stairs and a moment later his bedroom door closes loudly. Where are we in the behavioral framework? Martin shows through behavior that he is angry and there will be a range of emotions underneath. We are at the top of the behavioral window. What are we deploying? Listen. It’s his emotion, his possible frustration. We just have to be there, hear him and encourage him to tell his story.

Another example

Sanne insisted on taking her doll’s pram with her when she suggested going to the playground. After playing, when you want to walk back, she refuses to take her doll’s pram. You should do it, she says. Where are we in the behavioral framework? We are in the area where I have a problem with Sanne’s behavior. Her behavior is below my acceptance line! What I am going to use as a skill is confrontation.

Leave problems to whom they belong!

In the 1960s, Thomas Gordon saw that parents and professionals were confusing the areas. They made what belonged to the child their own problem: stop whining, and why are you doing that again? When he was able to teach them who the owner was, the communication and therefore the relationship changed.