Monday, February 21, 2011

Thoughts on the Double-Edge

Last Friday I wrote a post about Tara Kelly's debut novel, Harmonic Feedback. I mentioned that one of the things I loved about the main character, Drea, is that many of her "weaknesses" are also her strengths. Over the weekend, I read another book, Cryer's Cross, by Lisa McMann, which had a similar theme. I'll be posting my thoughts on that book on Friday.

This double-edged nature of most human qualities really fascinates me. I talk to my clients about it a lot. Sort of. See, many of my actual clients are children under the age of six. Which means the people I'm actually talking to are their parents. Just a note: I'm going to use masculine pronouns below. Over two-thirds of the kids who get referred to me are male--but the following is certainly just as relevant to my girl-clients. Anyway, here's why I talk about the double-edge in session:

 Most of the kids I work with are intense. Seriously intense. I don't see laid-back kids in my office. The kids who get referred to me are showing behaviors that scare the adults around them. The child is defiant. Stubborn. Willful. Aggressive. Has tantrums. Major ones. Throws things. Slams doors. Hits and kicks. Spits at people. Falls to the floor and flails and screeches when he doesn't get his way.

That's the average referral. Not even an extreme one. And most of the parents who come to me are really discouraged and frustrated. They've tried a lot of stuff and nothing's worked. Once they realize my office is a safe place to be honest, they often admit they love their child, but they fear for him desperately, and they don't like him very much at times. And they just don't know why he's like this.

In the first session, I listen. I get a complete history. I ask a lot of questions. Really detailed ones. And then often, really often, I say something like the following, depending on the child's presenting problem:

"It sounds like your child is strong-willed. It doesn't take much to set him off because he's sensitive, and when he goes, he really goes. It's intense."

The parents nod.

"Guess what? Your child is legitimately harder to parent than other kids. Many, but far from all, parents have an easier job than you do. And strong-willed kids are at higher risk for certain problems than children with milder temperaments."

I can almost hear their hearts sink. But then I say:

"Being strong-willed is NOT a bad way to be. Think of the CEOs of the world. The professional athletes. Or just think of some successful people you know [aside: often, it's the parents themselves]. Are any of them strong-willed? Intense?

They nod again. They are realizing the future isn't so doom-and-gloom after all.

"OK. So. Your child goes for what he wants. He stands up for himself. No one is going to step on him, because he won't let them. He speaks his mind, even when you don't want to hear it. He wants to win. He wants to succeed, and God help anyone who tries to stop him. Does that describe your child?"


"Then what we have to do is help him meet his potential by being who he is, which means helping him use his strengths and manage his emotions. So he can go after the things he wants and get them, because he knows how to handle himself, how to cope, how to problem-solve, and how to get along with other people."

And usually, by then, the parents are ready to get down to the hard work of it because I've just helped them remember everything they already knew but had forgotten in the daily grind and anxiety of having a kid with intense behaviors. They remember that half of strong-willed is strong.

What's your double-edged quality? Is it being strong-willed and intense? Or is it something else? Being "obsessive" and detail-oriented? Being easygoing?

What about your characters? How do you go deep into their temperaments, showing both the advantages and disadvantages of being the way you made them? Can you think of any qualities that don't have a double-edge? That are all good or all bad? Are you sure?

Be sure to check out Lydia's Medical Monday post, and Laura's Mental Health Monday post!


  1. Wait. I need you to go on. As the mother of a strong willed child (who, admittedly, doesn't throw screaming tantrums, but finds it perfectly acceptable to open the deadbolt, turn on the Wii, or tries to start the ignition in the car despite me telling him not to), I would LOVE to know how to deal with all this strong-willed behavior.

    I've long told my husband that Nick's independence will pay off later in life. I can totally see him being class president, high school quarterback, college valedictorian. I can see it. He goes for what he wants, and he's not letting anyone stand in his way. (Especially not mommy.) He's not aggressive about it, he just goes on and does it. (Which can be kinda scary.)

    So what do you tell those parents? Where's part 2? :-P

  2. Wait, how did you read a book and beta my junk? Superwoman never ceases to amaze me.

    As for the rest. Sometimes I wished Em was more strong-willed, like me. I can be VERY intense and overbearing, and I can be VERY laid back. It all depends on my mood.

    I'm really going to look into this double-edge thing more with my new wip. It could come in handy.


  3. Very interesting post. As the mother of a stubborn and willfull child and a former stubborn and willful child myself, I find this really interesting to read.:)

    As for my characters, it's something I've really been trying to think a lot about in planning. Yes, I do try and show it within the work, but I find if I include lots of these personality traits and why, how, etc. in my character notes before starting, it helps to bring them to life a bit. Not sure if that makes sense. I'm only on cup #1 of coffee thus far this morning. LOL

  4. Wow, this was an amazing insight to what you do. And the skill with which you do it. You're amazing!

  5. so true!!!! all personality types have strengths and weaknesses, because personality is a word we use to describe people. no one is all good or all bad, but a combination of traits.

  6. Amazing post, Sarah. Being strong-willed can mean you know what you want and how to get it, although it certainly isn't the only option. The best way to go about someone referred to as that is to listen and believe in them.

    I like to think of myself as strong-willed, but when my baby cousin and/or dog give me those Puss-In-Boots-from-Shrek eyes, I'm done :)

  7. Sarah,

    You were strong-willed, but in a really nice way.


  8. Um, everyone, meet my Dad, Jerry Fine, the most adorable father ever. And he's right about me, though kind in his words, as usual. Thanks, Dad.

    And I see I am not alone in being strong-willed here!

    Brigid--I emailed you, but maybe I will do a series on the basics of therapy (could be helpful to those who have therapists/therapy portrayed in their novels) and include my own techniques as part of that.

    JD--ha. Books are my treat at the end of the day. There's always time for reading!

    Jenn--makes total sense--and I just started reading your wip last night and am really enjoying it!

    Lydia and aspiring_x--thank you!

    Amparo--you make a good point. There are so many dimensions of personality/temperament, and different ones are more active and salient in different situations. So, although you might be strong-willed, you are probably also empathic and sensitive to the emotions of others--hence the soft heart.

  9. I'm stubborn and far sighted. I see things coming a mile away (sometimes two) depending on our decisions and really think about my actions moreso than my friends, family or companions which, quite frankly, makes me into a pain in the ass in most cases. Sometimes I stick to my guns, sometimes I don't. But often times when I do, it keeps us from screwing something up.

  10. My characters are royally screwed in the head.

    Hero- Loyal to a fault, passive, silent about his feelings, there for everyone else. When it reaches a boiling point he gets angry and goes off. He'll lash out verbally at those who don't deserve it, even if they do he gets pretty harsh. Twice he lashes out physically. He trashes his boat and kicks the crap out of a guy for pushing his girl but goes overboard.

    Heroine-keeps all pain to herself, feels she needs no one, she can handle all her problems and grief, runs when things get hard, her independence and need to stand on her own creates a distance between her and those she loves. Secrets hurt people so she never talks about her family's past even though it eats her up. Everyone else's problems are more important than her own.

  11. Great post!

    You know, I could call myself stubborn, but I much prefer determined, LOL! ;)

  12. Lol! Did you read my MS? My character is strong willed and it gets her into a HUGE mess. But it also gets her out of it. (I know...lots of manuscripts play with this character trait.) Now if you can offer me a way to avoid the "mess" with my teenager, please advise. :D

  13. hi miss sarah! in our family we got a big mix. mostly my sisters the strong willed one cause she wants what she wants. my one most older brother thats raising us is lay back but his back gets up with my sister. for me im mostly lay back but get pretty strong willed when i dont wanna do something. i got a character in my wip thats real strong willed and hes a leader and gets listened to and could help solve out stuff. wow! i learn so much from on your posts.

  14. This is really helpful to me as I am working on some revisioning of my ms - and one of the things I want to do is clarify my mc's personality - add strength - but keep her flaws. She seems strong and in control on the outside - to the point of pushing people away or dismissing them - but on the inside she is afraid of losing control - very afraid - and unsure of every action. Is this a double edge or contradictory - I wonder?

  15. Despite being incredibly shy, mine's being able to get along with anyone. On the plus side of that, I can get along with just about anyone, even if I don't like them. On the minus side, I have trouble standing up to people when necessary.