When Mary walked into my office for her therapy appointment, she wasn't a happy camper. She said she was furious at her daughter, Alice, who's seven. In Mary's evaluation, her daughter is extremely rebellious.
"How so?" I asked.
"If I try to hurry her up, she slows down."
"If we tell her she can't go outside to play, she runs out the door anyway. Or she's supposed to stay in the backyard, but I find her at the neighbor's down the street."
"This morning I had a baby sitter lined up. But Alice didn't want to stay with the sitter. So I decided to let her come along to this appointment, with the stipulation that she would have to sit quietly in the waiting room.
"We were pulling out of the driveway when Alice realized she'd forgotten her book. I let her go back in the house but told her to hurry. Five minutes later I had to get out of the car and go get her. There she was in the kitchen fixing herself a glass of juice. I should have left her at home with the sitter, but I didn't."
As Mary and I continued talking, we heard a little knock on my door and then it opened. There stood Alice. Mary looked at her daughter and said firmly, "You can't come in here." The daughter stepped back and it looked as though she was going to leave and close the door.
The mother then added, "I told you before we left the house that you'd have to wait for me in the waiting room." With this comment, the little girl grinned ever so slightly and stepped into the room. It was evident to me that the power struggle was on.
As an observer, I suspect that if Mary hadn't said anything more to her daughter after her first comment, but had immediately turned her attention back on the two of us talking, Alice would have closed the door and gone back into the waiting room.
But when her mother gave her an additional warning, the little girl must have felt challenged and she reacted.
I saw a similar dynamic take place several days later when I was working with a mother and her adolescent daughter. They were seeing me because the mother was feeling more than annoyed at her daughter's rebelliousness. The girl talks back, doesn't come home on time, refuses to do her chores, and helps herself to her mother's clothes whenever she wants.
During the session the daughter started twirling, lasso-style, a long chain she was wearing with a large polished stone attached to the end of it.
The mother looked at her daughter and said, "Please stop that." The daughter looked at her mother and continued to twirl the chain.
Again the mother said, "Stop," but this time she said it with a little playful laugh.
At this point a noticeable grin came over the daughter's face, she started swinging the necklace more vigorously, and the power struggle was on.
Children need to flex their rebellious muscle once in a while as a way to reach independence, and parents need to take on their children to teach them how to behave. Sometimes, however, we parents inadvertently encourage our children to get into bigger power struggles than need be.
For example, it's understandable why Mary told her daughter a second time not to come into my office. She already had to deal with several other issues that morning. Too, she was probably feeling anxious about how I perceived her as a parent, and she didn't want her therapy time wasted.
But sometimes one firm no works better than two. If a parent says no and immediately turns her attention elsewhere, she closes off a power struggle by refusing to participate. One no doesn't always work - rebellious children are tenacious - but sometimes it does.
In the second situation, the mother might have outsmarted her daughter and said nothing. I'm sure her daughter would have gotten tired of twirling. When children do something that is obviously designed to get them negative attention, sometimes it's better not to give it to them.
Once the mother decided to confront her daughter, however, she needed to hang tough and stick with the confrontation.
The mother's little laugh could certainly be interpreted as encouraging her daughter to be rebellious. Or it could signal her daughter that she wanted to stay friends with her. When you decide to take on a child's rebelliousness, you must be willing to take the risk that a child is not going to like you at that moment.
At the same time, her negativism toward you won't last forever. And confronting bad behavior is a necessary part of child rearing.
Check out Doris’ latest books, “The Boy Whose Idea Could Feed the World,” “The Parent Teacher Discussion Guide,” and “Thin Becomes You” at Doris’ web page: www.doriswildhelmering.com.
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