Properly brainwash your spouse and kids. (Tricks of the therapy trade.)


By Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

As parents, we are certainly tasked with teaching our kids many things.  When they are young, we want them to be compliant, and when they are older, we want them to be able to make good choices for themselves.  And the whole time, we want to instill a sense of emotional well-being.

And even though we are not our spouse’s caretaker, master, and disciplinarian (or we SHOULDN’T BE— I hope the guy from Dr. Phil’s episode, “I spank my wife with a wooden spoon” is reading this.), we still want to behave in a way that encourages our spouse’s well-being and consideration for our needs and wants.

But how do we accomplish this with actual family members who have actual minds of their own?  You know, other than lecturing, screaming our heads off, running over the video game controllers with the lawn-mower, and melting into a pile of desperate tears at the end of the night?  Errr… moving along.

Well, I’m no wizard, and alas, your spouse and your kids will always possess unique personalities and free-will (dammit.), but I can suggest some tricks from the therapist’s toolbox:

1) Validate them.  Whatever you say to your family members will one day become their self-talk (that voice in the back of their head, telling them about their worthiness, sense of safety, and their control in their life). Program your kids and spouse to have a balance of compassion and accountability for themselves by giving them such a balance.

How is that accomplished? Well, always let them know that their thoughts, feelings and behaviors are understandable considering their experiences and personalities and perspectives. Even if you want to provide your child with accountability by letting him know that forgetting his homework is unacceptable, you can still see how it would be easy to forget to pack up his algebra book once in a while. Even if you don’t think you nag your husband, dig deep to relate to him when he says he feels over-criticized by you.. Even if you think your wife is being way too nitpicky about where you put your shoes in the house, remind yourself that to someone who thrives in organization, such a request makes perfect sense.

Yes, validating your spouse and kids is very good for their emotional well-being and for the well-being of your relationships.  But did you know validation also increases behavioral compliance?  Score one for getting husband to finish his honey-do list and getting son to start keeping his hands to himself.  Having compassion and understanding for one’s self is the first step in being able to chose better behavior.  People who get bogged down in defensiveness and shame are often unwilling and unable to make necessary changes.

2)  Shove the identity you want them to have down their throat.  Yah, you read that right. Tell them they already do what you want them to do, and do it convincingly. Let your husband know ahead of time, before he gets home from work that you appreciate how he goes above and beyond for his family, and how you love that he somehow manages to still be in a cheerful mood after a stressful day.  Guess who is going to walk through the door with a smile on his face? Tell you child that you are so proud that she tries her best to be a good listener, and then a couple minutes later watch as she washes her hands after you only have to ask her once (or six times, but it used to take twelve reminders, so you know…).  Tell your son that he is so good at sharing, and you know that he will give his brother a turn with the toy when he is done, and watch as he hands over the toy within a few minutes. If your wife is angry at you for forgetting to take out the trash, let her know how much you appreciate her patience before she even has a chance to say a word.

3)  Brainwash them to consider the facts. In any relationship, just like in therapy, never ever ever ever use the words “you should” or “you shouldn’t.” As in, never tell someone they “should/shouldn’t feel that way,” and never tell someone they “should/shouldn’t do that.” Instead, use phrases like, “Hmmm… I wonder if there is a different way to look at it…” “I wonder what would happen if…”, or “I’d like to hear more about that.”

Asking for specific details about someone’s thought process draws out faulty conclusions without invalidating the other person. Like if your kid is convinced that his life is over because he doesn’t have a date to the prom, and you want to brainwash him to think his way out of his stupor: “Awe, that’s too bad. So what exactly happens if you don’t have a date?”  Or if your husband grumbles about visiting your family for Thanksgiving, ask him, “What do you think is going to happen?” instead of straight-up telling him to suck it up and deal with Uncle Marty’s random Karaoke proclivities.

4). Paint verbal pictures of the realistic worst case scenario. Creating a verbal picture of the reality of someone’s catastrophic or irrational thought is something that I often do in therapy.  It is a gentler, more validating way to say, “holy shit, you don’t have to be that upset about something so inconsequential.”  Cognitive Behavioral Therapists encourage patients to think about scenarios realistically as opposed to sugar-coating reality. As opposed to simply using affirmations, a therapist might encourage a patient to conclude, “I might stumble on my words when I give the speech, but that’s okay,” “Not everyone likes me and that’s okay,” or “I don’t always have control, and that’s okay.”

Thinking about tough stuff is really beneficial, in part because the thought moves from the realm of “unknown stressor” to tangible, temporary problem. And tangible, temporary problems feel uncomfortable but not insurmountable.

Casually saying to your teenage son, “Yah, she might say no, but there’s no harm in asking her out,” paints a visual picture of him being shot-down, but does-so in a way that removes the overwhelming power of “oh my god-what if she says no!” Telling your husband, “Yah, you’ll probably be out there mowing for about 30 minutes in the gross heat before you get to hose yourself off,” will ironically consolidate his inflated disdain for mowing the lawn to an extent that is proportional to the task.



5)  Empower them to view set-backs as opportunities to solve their own problems. There’s an old therapist’s proverb:  If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you only suggest the general vicinity where there might be fish, he gets momentarily annoyed but ultimately basks in the pride of some well-earned fish. Ok, so that’s less of a proverb than something I just made up.  Anyway.  The difference between empowering someone to solve their own problems and being straight-up dismissive is that empowerment is delivered with empathy. Say, “Awe, that really sucks that you left your baseball mitt at the field. [pause] I wonder how you could get it back.”  Or say, “Awe, that must be so upsetting that you don’t get to go on the field trip because of all your missing assignments.  Have you thought of anything you might be able to do about that?”

6)  Become an automatic spin doctor.  As previously mentioned, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a method of replacing faulty thoughts with more realistic and beneficial ways of thinking.  Provide your husband and kids with more beneficial replacements for their perceptions of desirable activities whenever possible.  For your husband, doing the dishes can be reframed as, “I love being able to spend this time together with the TV off after the kids go to bed.” Visiting your parents can be framed as “a great opportunity to do that road trip you’re always talking about.” For older kids, doing homework becomes, “earning video game time” and being denied cash for the movies becomes, “You get allowance every week for doing your chores.”

For preschoolers, emptying the dishwasher becomes, “Isn’t it great that you are big enough to do a special grown-up job?” and holding onto the cart in the parking lot for safety appeals to their desire to be a big- girl: “Helping mommy push this very heavy cart.” 

If you want you kids to WANT to do these things, then playing outside, looking at books, and eating bowls of fruit can all be framed enthusiastically as special activities for as long as possible (probably until they are introduced to mine-craft or ice cream.) Young kids are super suggestible, and have no clue that certain things are supposed to be boring.


7) Be an example. The best way to get someone to integrate healthy thinking and behaving is to be an example yourself. Take opportunities to show others that you sometimes have to delay gratification and do boring things because they’re the right things to do, that you are sometimes disappointed but you move on, that you make mistakes but learn from them, that you don’t make assumptions, that you are not always liked by everyone but respect is not optional, that you don’t always have control over what happens and that’s okay, etc. etc. Intentionally manifesting whatever lessons you want your loved ones to integrate is the best brainwash tactic of all.

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2 thoughts on “Properly brainwash your spouse and kids. (Tricks of the therapy trade.)

  1. Pingback: DBT and “Mindfulness” (so you don’t chuck any remotes into any TV screens.) | ON THE YELLOW COUCH

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