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Can’t Versus Won’t

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Can’t Versus Won’t

Part of my work in doing therapy with youth and families involves helping them change difficult patterns of interaction they are having with each other. Invariably, it is common to see what I call the “blame game”. This is where parents report their child needs to change their behavior---not them. Conversely, the child feels justified in how they are acting and feels it is the parent who needs to change. No big surprise, the result is everyone feeling stuck with little hope for change.

When a person can’t do a behavior, this is usually due to a concrete barrier that prevents this person from engaging in the behavior. This barrier is often out of their control and limits their ability to do the behavior even if they wanted to. For instance, a child who is handicapped and in a wheelchair can’t just walk up a set of stairs. They face physical limitations that prevent them from performing the behavior of walking.

On the other hand, won’t implies a deliberate future choice of not engaging in behavior even though the person has the capability.

This is where families usually get stuck.

They won’t engage in a behavior that may help the situation. It may be because they feel the other person has not put in the effort or is even deserving of a break. This then results in family members digging in their heels. This creates an impasse for change within the family.

If you break this down even further, can not implies the inability to do something while will not implies the use of one’s conscious choice.

Whenever you put the possibility of a solution 100% in someone else’s hands, you run the risk giving up your own power in the situation and becoming helpless. For instance, if you say that you will stop yelling only if your child stops yelling, you put your child in the position of emotionally controlling the outcome. Your behavior, therefore, is dependent on what your child does. The reality is that you have numerous choices as to how you can act and react to your child who is yelling.

By bringing up can’t versus won’t, I have family members look more closely at the decisions they are making and the impact of that on the family. Change almost always involves action. Taking responsibility for that change suddenly becomes a choice rather than they can’t do it. This makes the conversation far different. It also emphasizes that everyone plays a part in change occurring within the family. Because a family consists of interconnected relationships, it only makes sense that the entire family is part of the change process.

So next time you’re facing a challenging situation with your child ask yourself the question, “Are the behaviors I need to change with my child limited because I can’t do them or I won’t do them?”

The answer may challenge you in a new way.

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