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Parents Who Run Scared

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By Don Clark, Ph.D.

Within the past few months I have noticed many frightened parents, and I wonder if there is, as the pediatricians say, “a lot of that going around now”. A few mental pictures stand out in my mind. One is a toddler in a red and white knit suit, his arm wrapped resolutely around the iron stem of the attractive chewing gum machine in the local supermarket.

“No,” his mother said.

He made a sound of dissatisfaction.

“Come on Tommy,” his mother said.

He escalated his sound of displeasure. “Let’s go see the bow-wow in the car,” his mother said.

Tommy’s grip on the gum machine tightened and his eyes locked grimly on his mother’s face. Her eyes began to shift uneasily in awareness that others might be watching. After five minutes of unbelievably reasonable discussion, during which time his mother had literally gotten on her knees in front of Tommy, she gave up and produced a penny, handed over the gum treasure to Tommy, and they departed for the parking lot.

Then there was my recent visit to a toy store. I almost forgot what I was there for when confronted with the spectacle of a preschooler of advanced verbal ability who was using language that could establish her credentials as a long-shoreman. Her mother looked weary and unhappy, but past the point of shock or embarrassment. The little girl’s verbal abuse was directed squarely at Mother, because she had apparently refused to buy something. Unlike the mother at the gum machine in the supermarket, this one stuck to her guns; so did her offspring. After assaulting her up and down three aisles with creative combinations of abusive words, little Susie seized an opportune moment when Mama stooped to retrieve a dropped purse and, using one foot and one hand, was able to adroitly deliver physical insult to both ends of Mama at once. Susie never did get her desired toy but both Mama and Susie had a dreadful time at the toy store.

Perhaps as a final example I could cite the concerned loving, solicitious father whose wife was lost in an automobile accident. He had managed, with help, to maintain the household very well. But he was afraid that his two-and-a-half-year-old would not be able to “handle” the news of his mother’s death. So , for one full year, Father spun a fictional tale of mother being away on a trip.

Granted there are a lot of interesting psychodynamics going on in all three of these real life examples, but the thing they have in common that distresses me is the parents’ fear of their own children. Perhaps the parent has an unfortunate remembrance of her own parents being mean, withholding, or in some other way being unpleasant. Some of today’s parents then say, “I’m not going to be like that”. There’s a desire to be remembered as a very good, loving parent. This may have been what was going on in the mind of the mother at the gum machine. She may have been afraid that an outright refusal followed by a temper tantrum, followed by mother dragging kicking and screaming child from store, would constitute a memory of a mean parent.

Some parents are afraid of repressing feelings. They are over-exercising a correct idea. It is true that every feeling that every one of us has is legitimate, but the catch is that each of us must learn when he can and cannot translate those feelings into behavior. While it certainly makes mental health sense that the child in the toy store was entitled to be angry or have any other feelings, it does not make sense that she was entitled to be verbally and physically abusive to her mother.

Finally, some parents are just weak-kneed or lazy or afraid of being responsible for their child having some sort of trauma that may land him on a psychoanalyst’s couch in future years. It could be what was gong on in the mind of the mother at the gum machine. This fear of producing trauma could also explain the behavior of the father who wanted to protect his child from the news of mother’s death.

In the rush to be a good parent, avoid repression, and head off trauma, it is all too easy to place a greater burden on your child and, ironically, to make a larger contribution to confusion of emotional development. The child at the gum machine has learned that the best way to get what he wants is to intimidate his mother. The child in the toy store was going to learn eventually that other people react very badly to her behavior, but she has had no experience in the difference between feelings and behavior, since feelings are directly instantly translated into behavior. The child with the loving father and the missing mother is going to have a hard time trusting adults. At very least, he will have the impression that they vanish unpredictably and that they do not tell the truth. Negative emotional consequences in all three examples are too numerous to list here. I’m only selecting the most likely.

The best gift that you can give to your child is yourself, and that means that you have to hold still long enough for the child to see the gift clearly. You must be firm and consistent. The parent who vacillates as to what he believes is right and wrong confuses his child. There is no need to be mean or unpleasant. When the answer is “no” the answer is “no”. There is no reason why that answer cannot be given pleasantly. There is no reason why that answer cannot be given with an explanation. But the answer must be clear.

If the answer is not “no”, if you are going to buy the chewing gum anyway, buy the chewing gum in the beginning. Don’t confuse the child. Small children are like legal researchers. They are tireless in their efforts to establish the exact letter of the law. There seems to be an intricate computer that is filing exact information on the conditions under which it is preliminary decree. They are looking for the logic that underlies the seeming inconsistency, and if there is no logic, they are in for a confusing time.

The unsure parent who throws responsibility back on the child is being unfair. If it is hard for you to handle the responsibility of parental decisions at age 29, imagine how difficult it is for a three-year-old. It is more obvious with the chewing gum example and less obvious with that of the bereaved father. But even in that example the father has not been able to come to terms with his wife’s death, yet he is asking the child to do it without giving all of the information.

Being a firm and consistent parent does not mean that you have to be rigid or totally inflexible. Parents model behavior that is possible for the growing child. You want a child to see that an authority can reconsider and change his or her mind. When your mind is changed or when a decision is reversed there should be clear, easily understandable reasons given to the child. And the reasons should be real, not rationalizations of window dressing for hidden vacillations. The mother at the gum machine might suddenly realize that it is sugarless gum and therefore not on the “no-no” list. In which case, all that is required is to say, “oh, it’s sugarless gum – that’s all right”, and produce the penny. But if the rule in her mind is that chewing gum is bad for children in general, or if she afraid the size and shape of the chewing gum balls would be dangerous for her toddler, and she is giving in because of the coercion of recorded by toddler-computer, and added to the understanding that the child must take responsibility for manipulating mother into answers that are satisfying.

The more able you are to accept your parental responsibility, and present it kindly, but with firmness and consistency, the easier it is for your child to relax and enjoy childhood years – the easier it is for both of you to relax and enjoy one another. Once the chewing gum child has learned that his mother’s “no” always means “no,” he can make his request, hear the answer, have his feeling, toddle off with his mother to play with the bow-wow in the car.

Once the toy store child has learned that her mother appreciates and values her feelings but will not permit behavior that is insulting, Susie can use her verbal facility to say, “I really wanted that toy – and I’m mad ‘cause you didn’t get it for me – and I hate you”. By the time they are through the checkout counter and out on the street in two minutes, something else will have caught Susie’s attention. Mother and Susie are ready for pleasant interaction. They are no longer locked into the malignant chronic circular process of hurt that makes it impossible for them to enjoy one another.

Once the grieving father has confessed his feelings, told the truth, and shared sobs and words that the child may not fully understand, they can see one another through the difficult period and offer a great deal of comfort to one another. Though each will express it in a different way, they share the grief and the loss. Through this sharing, they can become more dear to one another.

By now all of us, as parents, have learned that we make plenty of mistakes. It’s helpful for us and for our children if we can admit mistakes and correct our future behavior. But at this given moment you are the person you are, with the beliefs that you have. You must draw on those resources to set parental guidelines for your child. If you’re doing something wrong, perhaps next year you will discover it, admit, and correct it.

That is a nice thing for children to learn also as they watch their parents while growing up. It is nice to know that people can admit and correct mistakes. But most fall, while you’re little, it’s nice to know that you have a parent you can lean on –  parent who sets guidelines and, right or wrong, takes responsibility. You can get awfully mad at a parent like that sometimes, but it’s much easier to love and respect him.

It’s hard to know what to make of a parent who seems frightened about you. The parent is so much bigger and powerful there must be something terribly frightening about you. That is not a good feeling to have about yourself as you grow up.

Ask Dr. Susan