Taking Things Personally

A three year old says, "I hate you" to his mother whenever he is angry or frustrated.
A four year old refuses to take her father's hand as they walk down the street, preferring her mother.
A six year old gets wild and unruly when his mother repeatedly asks him to stop playing and clean up.
An eight year old is sent home from school with a note from the teacher saying she hits other children.

These are situations where there is the possibility that the parents involved will take their child's behavior personally. How do you know when you are at risk to do this? The answer is neither easy or obvious. When parents feel that a child's behavior is a reflection of them or a statement about them, the parents have too great a stake, you might say too personal a stake, in what their child does. In the examples above, this means the parent might feel hurt or angry and these feelings could be expressed in their reaction to their child's behavior. The child may then be confused or frightened and unable to understand his/her role in stimulating such responses.

In the examples above, it is most likely that the child needs to learn what is acceptable behavior and what is not. "Taking it personally" will prevent a parent from communicating the necessary lesson. There is no correcting, no changing, no modifying a child's behavior when mother or father and child are so merged in the parental eyes that much of what the child does, whether good or bad, is interpreted in a personal way by the parent.

For example, recently a patient at Park East came in very upset. She had sent her mother a Mother's Day card. Her mother called after receiving it and said in heartfelt tones many times over, "You made my day. You don't know how much your card meant to me." "Made her day?" said the patient. "Why would a little card make her day? I feel smothered by that. It makes me feel too responsible for my mother's happiness." In this example, though the feeling conveyed by the mother is one of love, the depth of the feeling is inappropriate to the context in which it was experienced, making the daughter feel trapped by what seems to be the mother's overwhelming need.

Suppose your teen-age son tells you to go to hell in a moment of anger. The issue is not whether you should feel angry or hurt. Have you been dealt a final death blow by your son or is this angry, rebellious youngster just too free to express his negative feelings, too unaware of his impact on others?

Parents or other significant adults can help each other when their emotional reactions seem inappropriate or overly strong. Very often, only another adult will notice an emotional tone coloring a response to a child's behavior. Ideally the adults can discuss such a situation and defuse the personal stake that is fueling the emotional reaction. With children, the best advice is "not to take it personally!"

Empty Threats

A father says, "I've told you a million times to clean up your room. If it isn't cleaned up, it's no TV for a week!"
"If you don't behave, I'll take away your allowance!"
"Next time I get a note like this from school, it's no play dates for a month!"

Statements such as these are usually ineffective since it is a rare parent who actually carries through with them. Out of anger and frustration, many parents will at some time threaten their child. However, threats are never an answer to behavior the parent wants the child to change. By their nature, they cannot lead children toward more effective behavior since children catch on quickly to the fact that threats are usually empty - a way for mom or dad to let off steam.

Punishments, a negative concept in the minds of many parents, are often closely linked to threats. However, used wisely, punishment is simply the enforcement of logical consequences. There needs to be a logical tie, one the child can grasp, between a particular behavior and the consequence. Here are several examples:

Telling a child that he can watch TV after homework is done is far different from taking TV away because of nonperformance. Watching TV is then conditional upon the completion of homework. To put it another way, and as a parent might to his child, "You cannot watch TV until your homework is done." Even better would be "You can watch TV just as soon as you've finished your homework."

If she is old enough, parents can leave a child home if she is dawdling and complaining and therefore not ready to leave in a timely fashion. Leaving her at home once or twice may well ensure that in the future, the child will be ready and waiting for you! Here, as in the example above, the child's coming with you is conditional on her being ready when you are. "If you are not ready, you cannot come," are words the parent might use.

When a child is aggressive toward a sibling or a friend, removing him from the presence of that person is a solution to the problem. This may involve sending the child into another room or sending a friend home and ending the play date. In this example, having fun and playing is conditional upon the child's good behavior. The parent might say, "Unless you behave, your friend will have to go home immediately."

Punishment may have gotten its bad name from being administered by angry parents who were too personally involved in what their child had done. When punishment is a logical consequence, as in the examples above, it teaches the child that there is a connection between behavior and its consequences.