Proactive Parenting: Who’s Side Are You On?

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Whose Side Are You On?

Dear Dr T.,

My eight-year-old daughter is a star in school both socially and academically. At home, I really work hard to do right by her: take her shopping, help with school projects, enjoy special outings. We generally do well together and enjoy each other’s company. It is very disappointing to me, however, that whenever she gets upset about anything (about twice a week), she lashes out at me and says, “You don’t care about me!” or “I know you hate me.”

I understand that children get upset, but I have a really hard time understanding why she would say these things to me.

Susan

Dear Susan,

Without meeting your daughter, it’s hard to talk about anything other than possibilities and hunches. So, let me throw out a few ideas, and you can decide if any fit.

The possibilities here range from the innocuous to the serious, from the obvious to the obscure. It may simply be that your daughter is very intense and overreacts. Or, perhaps like all of us, she directs her negativity to a safe zone – her mom. This is a typical pattern for us all; we don’t yell at the rude, inept employee at Kmart, but we may come home and let someone – a spouse, a child – have it. Or, perhaps, she is following the model of someone else in the family who has poor communication skills and resorts to vicious verbal attacks.

However, there is a totally different possibility here. Though I have no way of knowing whether my thoughts are appropriate to your situation, I hope that you and some of my readers will find them eye opening, nevertheless.

Relationships are tricky; problems are not based on what actually happened but rather on the perceptions and feelings of each person in the relationship. For example, in the common scenario where one spouse is “just a bit late” and feels it’s “no big deal,” the other partner may feel trampled on and disrespected because his/her spouse minimizes the importance of his/her value:  being on time.

So, though from your perspective you do well by your daughter, it’s possible that your good will gets lost in translation, and she perceives you as being against her. Remember, this does not mean that you are working against her, only that she feels this way. However, in order to improve this relationship, you want to try to understand her and see things from her perspective. You want to develop the ability to see your relationship as she does, not as you do. Once you “get it,” you can work on slowly changing your behavior so that her perceptions become in line with your own. In short, though you cannot force your daughter to see that you’re on her side, if you understand why she feels you are against her, you can work on changing those barriers and thus improve your relationship.

Since you don’t provide me with any clue as to what your daughter is thinking, there is no definitive way for me to know why she feels – despite your best efforts – that you are against her. However, let me suggest a possibility that may prove helpful.

Many parents “do” for their children, but fail to understand them. This creates frustration in the child because the person who “does” for him and loves him is the same person who does not understand him. Though the child (and even many an adult) cannot articulate these thoughts, he feels confused about loving the parent who cannot give him what he (we) so desperately needs – understanding.

Allow me to illustrate my point by relating a true-life anecdote.

Shani comes to her mom in hysterics; she lost the back to her earring. This is Shani’s only pair, and she must have earrings for school.

Now, Mom is really irritated because this is the third (!) earring back that Shani has lost in a month! Mom treated her to the first pair and donated one of her own sets for a second pair. But a third pair? In a month?

Mom lays it on the table for Shani. “This is the third time! If you want another pair, you have to pay for them yourself.”

Now Shani is beside herself. She is seven years old and has no way to pay for something that she just HAS to have. She told her mom, “You don’t even care about me!”

Though we can all identify with Mom’s frustration and her honest desire that Shani learn responsibility, what Shani needs is for her mother to commiserate with her over her loss. This does not mean “fixing” the problem by buying new earrings, but it does mean conveying in word and deed that she understands how upsetting this loss is to Shani. It also means that though from an adult perspective Shani needs to learn consequences and responsibility, from a child’s point of view, this is a tragedy that has befallen her.

There are many ways that Mom can demonstrate her understanding of her daughter, and none of them involve straight-out replacing the earrings. She can begin with simply empathizing and saying things like, “That must be so upsetting to you,” or, “How disappointing to lose three pairs in a month.” Instead of criticizing and threatening, Mom could choose to help Shani deal with the problem. She might offer to help look for them, or even offer the younger kids a dollar if they find it. She can let Shani know that when the weekly cleaning help comes, she will ask the cleaner to be on the lookout for it as well. She might even go so far as to help Shani figure out how to pay for a new pair. Is there birthday or Chanukah money available? Could Shani earn some money for chores or good behavior that would help defray the cost? The point here is that by understanding what this loss to Shani, Mom has an opportunity to show that she is on Shani’s side and wants to help her.

Seeing things through the eyes of our children and being on their side is one of the many gifts a parent can bestow on his children. For those of us that got it, the giving comes naturally. For the rest of us, the effort and work involved is worth the result.

The Book Nook: How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is the number one book on communicating with children (and spouses!). Based on the work of Dr. Chaim Ginott, this classic work teaches us how to convey our understanding of our children to them.

Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com