Please Note: Only COVID-19 vaccinated adults and children over 5 can attend the Clinic.

You’re Too Soft and You’re Too Hard

Parenting is not for the faint hearted and can be additionally challenging when a child is perceived to have a special need; physically, psychologically, or emotionally. How tempting to try and ease their passage with a little too much care and attention or overdo the robust approach intended to highlight their capacity. When parents disagree, a pattern develops with one taking the ‘hard’ role and the other the ‘soft’ and both experiences themselves driven by their partner’s approach as the child’s symptoms escalate.

This dynamic, termed the soft/hard split has been identified and addressed by key figures in the field including Minuchin, and Haley who addressed the issue through the lens of structure and hierarchies and the Milan systemic team who positively connoted pattern to disrupt the cycle. The Palo Alto MRI group’s approach was informed by ideas of symmetry and complementarity and strategies were recommended to interrupt the endless and escalating pattern.

A paper by Australian family therapist Jenny Brown, explores this dynamic through the lens of Bowen Theory and outlines aspects of her qualitative research which identified this repeated theme. She describes the Parent Hope Project, a clinical intervention informed by this theory to address this dynamic. Bowen viewed the key element as each parent’s emotional uncertainty or immaturity which created an overfocus on the symptomatic child. Rather than address difficulties in the couple relationship tensions were detoured through the child and the other parent’s unsuccessful parenting strategies with the child becoming increasingly sensitised to their parents.

In her research, which interviewed 14 parents about their experiences in the treatment of their symptomatic adolescent, an incidental finding was that the soft/hard split was significant for all participants. Parents expressed confusion and distress around the question of whether their child was ‘sick’ or ‘oppositional’. She notes the risk for therapists who may align with a parent and entrench the pattern further in supporting a stance that precludes consideration of their role in its perpetuation.

Exploration and disruption of the pattern is key to the approach taken by the author which aims to reduce reactivity, explore emotional and behavioural interactions, and focus on matters parents can control rather than their partner and symptomatic child. Her research findings supported this approach with parents who maintained a passive stance and the expectation that the therapist would fix their child being more hopeless than those who engaged in addressing their involvement. Those who became more hopeful spoke to the value of exploring family dynamics, and the benefits that accrued from reduction in family tensions and increased empathy for the young person by the more disengaged parent.

This is an apparently simple and self-evident approach which is underpinned by key theoretical constructs from systems theory. However, it requires a skilled and confident practitioner who is clear and unequivocal about the direction they are taking who can resist the ‘pull’ of the system to join for or against a child and compassion in relation to each person’s desperate conviction of their rightness. This is challenging and rewarding work best undertaken with the support of like-minded colleagues and a systemic supervisor.

Brown, J. (2023) Making sense of the parenting ‘soft/hard split’. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 00, 1–12. Available from: https://doi. org/10.1002/anzf.153

Free weekly
director’s notes
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

By subscribing you agree to receive marketing communications from Bower Place. You can unsubscribe at any time or contact us to have your details deleted from our database.