Externalizing Problems: A Powerful Parent Behavior

by Bethany Proffitt

I am working toward a master’s degree in Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy from Oral Roberts University here in Tulsa. Recently, I took an elective course on narrative therapy. I almost didn’t take it, but I’m so glad I did. Twenty minutes into the first lecture, I knew it was something that would change my life.

Narrative therapists use a technique of externalizing problems. Sometimes it’s easier to first explain what something is not before explaining what it is. The technique of externalization is a stark contrast to the AA model in which members are encouraged to say “Hi, my name is (first name) and I’m an alcoholic.” An externalization of the problem of alcoholism would sound like “Hi, I’m (first name) and I have struggled against alcoholism my whole life. Lately, I’ve been beating it.” See the difference? The ongoing relationship with the problem of alcoholism is acknowledged but the individual’s control over the problem is celebrated.

Narrative therapists believe people are not their problems and therefore avoid using labels like alcoholic. One of the foundations of narrative therapy is the firm belief that

people are people and problems are problems

The narrative therapist believes this separation of people from their problems is a much more compassionate way of being with clients.

As I sat in lecture that first day and then devoured my course materials when I arrived home, my mind was racing with multiple applications for the process of externalizing problems, which is the first of four steps in the narrative therapy process.

I realized that externalizing problems can be a powerful parenting practice

especially if parents really believe children are children and problems are problems. This way of thinking about children encourages parents to come alongside their children in learning to take control over problems rather than being upset with the child for struggling with a particular issue.

When I was a little girl, growing up as the oldest of 10 children, I remember my parents constantly lecturing me about being bossy. They were concerned I would not be nice to people because I was so bossy. I remember listening to them and trying to understand. Being bossy was bad, I knew. Being bossy hurt others, I understood. But the problem was I was bossy. I had no idea how to change my behavior because bossy was a part of me. The danger for children is they begin to internalize their problems, which renders them powerless against them. On the other hand,

externalization is empowering

Had I been guided to externalize the problem of bossiness, Bossy would have been placed outside of me and perhaps personified. Bossy had led me to think I had to tell my siblings what to do all of the time. The effects were often that my sisters and brothers had hurt feelings or didn’t want to do what I said. Had Bossy been placed outside of me, I might have begun to see sometimes Bossy was wrong about me needing to tell others what to do. Had I begun to realize Bossy was wrong sometimes, I might have been able to resist Bossy’s urge to tell my siblings what to do all of the time. I might have learned to control Bossy rather than allowing Bossy to control me.

I had an opportunity to practice this with one of my children almost immediately. We were driving and I could tell my son had been thinking so when he started asking me a question I was eager to discover what he had been pondering. “I’m thinking about who I want to be like when I grow up,” he said and named two people that we know. He told me how one person was always angry and had even punched a hole in a wall. The other person he described was more even-tempered. Interestingly, my son also struggles to control his anger and often lashes out at his brother. I was amazed that he seemed to be contemplating the effects of acting in anger. I chose to stay with him in the metaphor of the two people, but I knew he was really talking about himself. Because he is a child, personifying and externalizing anger was a natural conversation.

I wondered aloud to him if the person who had punched the wall knew he had power over anger instead of letting anger have power over him. We wondered about that for a moment. We decided maybe he didn’t know that yet but hoped he would discover it someday. I promised my son I would help him discover the power he had over his own anger, so if he wanted to be more like the calm person he described, he could be.

It was a powerful conversation, which is oversimplified here. We were able to think about the person who struggled with anger more compassionately rather than saying he was bad because he was angry and he punched a wall. By staying in my son’s metaphor about who he wanted to be like when he grew up, I was able to begin the work of externalizing the problem of anger; by placing anger outside of our friend I also demonstrated placing anger outside of my son. Our friend is not angry or bad and my son is not angry or bad. Pointing out the bad in others does no good. Thinking compassionately about others, especially our own children, teaches them to think compassionately both about others and about themselves

Anger can be difficult to control, and the effects can be devastating. It is important to empower children to take control of their problems. Externalizing problems does not remove a person’s responsibility for their behavior. We are not externalizing responsibility along with the problem. We keep responsibility and use it to help us gain control of behavior.

The Bible contains plenty of examples of externalizing sin. In Genesis, Cain and Abel offer sacrifices to the Lord. The Lord is pleased with Abel’s offerings of the firstborn of his flock but is not pleased with Cain’s offering of some of his grain.

“The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well,

sin is crouching at your door. Its desire is to have you, but you must learn to rule over it.

Genesis 4:6-7

Over the next few verses, we see that Cain succumbed to the power of sin and ended up killing his brother. Though God punishes Cain, there is also grace. God curses Cain to be a wanderer and a fugitive but marks Cain so no one will kill him and allows Cain to have a family and eventually build a city.

Everyone struggles with something. The key is to discover we have power over our problems. We are not our problems.

Bethany is married to Keith, mom to  two boys ages 7 and 6 and two girls ages 2 and 1. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Development and Family Science; Early Childhood Education from Oklahoma State University. She has dabbled in teaching preschool, homeschooling, and is now working on a degree from Oral Roberts University’s Graduate School of Theology in Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy. She is learning everyday how to be a better parent and wants to help other parents do the same.

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