Today’s parents – especially those in the educated class who consume parenting information via newspaper columns, books, and seminars – tend toward what I call “psychological thinking.” They assign psychological meaning and significance to any behavior on the part of their children that is the least bit out of kilter.
So, for example, a somewhat clingy preschool child isn’t simply introverted; rather, the child is insecure and needing additional attention because a younger sibling came along before she was able to completely work through toddler dependency issues and blah blah blah. Thus, something that is no big deal becomes a big deal.
The psychological interpretation mystifies the child’s behavior, raises the parent’s anxiety level and generates responses that are not only confusing to the child but also make the problem – if in fact the behavior in question is problematic to begin with – much, much worse.
This came to mind recently when a mother asked me to help her figure out why her 3-year-old is throwing wild tantrums and what to do about them. She said, “You probably need to know that she’s adopted.” I needed to know this because several adoption specialists had informed the mom that adopted children were burdened by unique “bonding issues” that engendered confusion, insecurity, anger, fear of rejection, and other forms of psychological angst. Therefore, adopted children need to be treated with kid gloves, which Mom was dutifully doing.
I stopped her and said, “Your daughter is throwing tantrums for the same reason nonadopted children throw tantrums.”
“Which is?” she asked, somewhat taken aback.
“You are not obeying her properly.”
It doesn’t matter what the child’s history or circumstances; all tantrums are equal. They are expressions of what I call “The Almighty I Am” – the belief, shared by every child, that he/she is the only fish in the pond of any significance and that everyone else – parents especially – exists solely to serve.
When others’ service is not pleasing, when their obedience is not immediate, The Almighty I Am begins to rage. Hell hath no fury, et cetera.
(In the 1960s, those of us who had our heads in various utopian clouds referred to TAIA as the “inner child” and we strove to get back in touch with it. When we became parents, we took special care to not repress our children’s inner beasts, which goes a long way toward explaining why so many boomers are now raising their grandchildren.)
Feeding the beast
Convinced that her daughter’s tantrums were a sign of deep-seated psychological rumblings, Mom catered to them. She figured out what her daughter wanted her to do and she did it. In short, she fed the beast. In turn, the beast grew more beastly. (In some cases, the beast is eventually given a name: childhood bipolar disorder.)
I asked, “Do you think it’s good for your daughter to believe that it’s your duty to obey her?” She answered correctly – her first step toward parental rehabilitation.
As long as her daughter’s high-self-esteem seizures were the expression of psychological commotion, Mom’s ability to deal effectively with them was paralyzed. In fact, the commotion was primarily in Mom’s head, not her daughter’s. Released from the bondage of psychobabble, Mom is now able to give said seizures their due – which is to say, nothing. (This makes it less likely that she will someday be found raising her grandchildren.)