When parents are having problems relating to their kids, they usually look at the kid’s behavior – is he grumpy, rude, defiant, withdrawn, uncooperative, demanding, hard to handle? In this article, I want you to forget about the kid – let’s turn the spotlight on you and your position vis-à-vis your child. Are you ready to be “parental”? Do your own issues get in the way? Are you up for a challenge?
The connection between you and your child is defined by three dimensions that originate in your parenting style. If you can crack the code on how to calibrate your position in these three dimensions, then you’ve got a good handle on influencing your child’s behavior in a good way. The three dimensions are:
1) Closeness and Distance
2) Guilty or not guilty
3) Communication style
Closeness and Distance
When I was a school-aged kid, I’d walk to school in the morning and forgot about my parents till I saw my mom after I’d walked home with my friends in the afternoon. Then I would go play or do my homework till she called me for dinner. I might wander into the kitchen while she was cooking to chat, but more likely or not, I’d be busy doing things. After dinner, we might watch T.V. together or play a game and on weekends, I’d be with my friends or accompanying my parents on their errands. They weren’t overly involved with my activities and I had many ways to amuse myself, either alone, with friends or with my family. I didn’t believe it was their job to come up with things. I didn’t really think about that.
I have a friend who has a teenaged son who calls her from his high school while he’s walking in the hall between classes to tell her how bummed he is that he raised his hand in class and the teacher didn’t pick him to answer the question. Then my friend has to comfort and encourage him till he calls a bit later with the next grievance.
How close and involved should a parent be? What’s the optimum psychic distance you need to have to stimulate independence and growth in your child? What message are you giving him?
Many mothers pride themselves that they are available 24/7 to meet all of their child’s needs but what does that do for the child? In my therapy practice, women come in for a session, sit down and conspiratorily inform me that they need to leave their phone on in case their child or the school calls. They assume I’ll understand and agree. Can they unhook from that role for an hour with enough confidence that the child will handle his own needs?
Being too psychically close to a child fosters the kind of dependency that will cause problems later on. Fathers often want their wives to back off and that typically causes problems in the couple, but women often believe that it is their job to meet their child’s every need. The child then never gets to opportunity to experience the pride of facing a problem and solving it on his own, which we all know is the biggest self-esteem builder.
If you want to contribute to your child’s self-esteem and sense of independence, as soon as he is capable of doing something, don’t do it for him. When he can tie his own shoes, let him, even if the laces come loose in ten minutes. When he can wake himself up for school, get him an alarm clock and cut out the middle man (you) so you are no longer yelling from the bottom of the stairs, “I told you three times, get up!” When he can make his own lunch, let him do that too. You might be putting yourself out of a job, but get busy with important things that you can accomplish in your own life and stop co-living his.
Guilty or not guilty
This one is a killer. Parents so often tend to feel guilty and as a result, they overcompensate. It makes it very hard for them to say “No” or deprive their children of something that the child needs to be deprived of, so the parent gives in. A very unhealthy cycle gets established of kids nagging, parents saying no, kids guilting the parent and the parent capitulating and then saying yes, which contributes to more nagging in the future.
Parents feel guilty for many reasons. Many have a fantasy of the perfect life that they are not able to provide for their children, either due to financial or time constraints. They have to work long hours and the child is in day care or the after-school program. The parents are divorced and they feel so badly about having to have put their kids through that. The child is not the most popular or struggles academically and the parent can’t make that go away. Parents feel badly that they can’t offer the luxury clothes, electronics and life-style that they see other affluent kids may have.
If you feel bad and guilty, your child senses it and will manipulate you to get what he wants. That’s normal kid behavior (not all kids but a lot). But they need you to recognize that, most likely, your child has more than 99.99999% of the kids in the world and that that extra expensive item is not only not a necessity, but is really a detriment to his happiness.
Here’s the lesson in all of this – giving a child everything he wants does not make him happy. Having self-respect and pride in what he’s struggled to accomplish makes him happy. If you can unhook yourself from feeling sorry for your child and become more matter-of-fact about what you can give him, then the child will eventually stop feeling sorry for himself. The best gift you can give to your child is spending some fun relaxed time together. Try to squeeze in a bit of time every day when you can give your child your full attention, but it doesn’t have to be hours and hours. If you feel guilty, stop it, unless you are purposefully not heeding your child’s needs.
Parents tend to talk too much and kids tune them out. If you want to alienate your child and make sure he will not pay any attention to what you have to say, give him a lecture. Kids hate lectures and their brains shut down as soon as they smell one coming their way. You understand that – you hate lectures too. How can you say what you want your child to hear? Say less but say it more judiciously. Think through other ways to connect. Put a white board in the kitchen and leave a note. Use whatever method your child will attend to (many parents text – but make it short). Sometimes kids hear you even if they don’t make a big deal about it.
But here is the other side of talking – how good are you as a listener? Does everything your child says make you so anxious that you have to jump in immediately and correct him? When he says he hates school, do you have to try to stamp out that attitude? Kids need space to say what they need to say and if you’re always trying to correct it, you need to learn to stop that and to just listen so they can open up and get it off their chests.
On the other hand, however, I often see parents making too much space for their children’s gripes. The child becomes trained to complain about every little thing that isn’t perfect in their lives and the parent takes it so seriously that the child believes his feeling is valid and never learns to cope.
You can shape your child’s view of his world by carefully choosing which complaints to honor. So when he calls you as he’s walking in the hall to tell you that he’s upset that the teacher didn’t call on him, you might want to say just, “Oh, okay, see you later” and not give him too much sympathy. If his complaint is not being reinforced by your sympathy, eventually it no longer become worthwhile for him to turn to you to buoy him up and micro-manage his emotions.
Summing it all up, can you assume a parental role, which means get comfortable with the fact that you cannot and should not make a perfect life your child, that you can expect more from him and give him more responsibility for solving his own problems, with you as a sounding board, not as the solver? Can you square your shoulders and pour some steel in your spine so you don’t feel so sorry for your child and can model for him how to face tough things in life? Are you up for the challenge?
I’m a family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life.