Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Your Children Like to Give You What You Seem to Expect From Them

During the times when parents are making major parenting errors, they are often giving their children a double message in one way or another. The parents, usually because of their own ambivalence about rules they themselves learned in their own families of origin as they grew up, say one thing but seem to act in ways that contradict what is being said verbally.

In this situation, children make sense of their parents’ confusing expectations of them by taking into account the entire context of the family’s interactions. They use three rules to sort out and hierarchically rank double messages that are given on a consistent basis. These rules are described in detail in my post of March 8, 2011, How Children Respond to Double Messages From Parents, Part I.

The parents’ behavior may seem to indicate to children that the parents have certain expectations about how the children are supposed to turn out, and children will not want to disappoint the parents by defying their apparent expectations. This will happen in spite of the fact that the parents verbally instruct the children not to act in the way the parents seem to expect, and criticize and/or severely punish them when they do. Admonishments, especially verbal ones, will be disregarded. Actions speak louder than words (Principle #1 from the earlier post).

In this post, I am going to list several examples of frequently-seen problematic parenting practices, as well as the consequences that such practices frequently lead to. They may cause relatively mild problems, but often they cause major issues. These patterns have been described to me over and over again by my adult patients as they discuss their family’s behavior over time.

The problems I list all have a common theme: parents trying to micromanage their children's behavior in one way or another. Parents may protest: "I have to focus on my child's troublesome behavior because they won't stop it." They don't realize that it actually works the other way around: the child won't stop the behavior because the parent keeps focussing on it!

After one of these problems goes on for a while, the situation gets more complicated. The parents and children begin to feed into one another's anxiety and compulsive behavior simultaneously.

In order to solve such a problem, the parents have to be the ones who calm down about the issue first, or the children will be very unlikely to ever calm down and start behaving differently. When the parents do stop micromanaging, other difficult but solvable problems predictably ensue. These are discussed in the last paragraph of this post.

In discussing any problematic parenting issues, there is always a rather devilish and perplexing conundrum that makes any such conversation frought with peril. Many troublesome parenting behaviors are driven by a parent's guilt over their own thoughts and feelings concerning their role as parents, and if one discusses what they may be doing wrong, this adds to their sense of guilt. They therefore often become very defensive and, if anything, dig in their heels. Their problematic practices then get even worse than before!

On the other hand, if they do not really understand what they are doing wrong, they also continue doing it. 

A real lose-lose proposition this.

Parental guilt is often increased by negative comments about their parenting practices that come from their own parents, the children's grandparents. This in turn is caused by certain changes in western culture which have been rapidly evolving over the last few decades. I describe these cultural issues in more detail in my last book, in Chapter Two, Don't Blame Us.

Really, looking for someone to blame for family problems is a complete waste of time. The most important questions is, which would you rather do: find fault with people, or actually solve the problems? It is damn near impossible to do both. To naysayers I say, "Grow up!" 

The problems are created over several generations, so let's all just blame Adam and Eve, and be done with it.

And so I proceed.

Some additional points: Some psychologists and parenting experts intuitively understand the type of consequences that I list below, but IMO they miss the real reason why they occur. Most seem to think that the parents are somehow “gratifying” their children in a counterproductive way. However, in my experience, children who are in many of these situations are anything but gratified. 

They are almost always quite miserable, and behave in self-destructive ways to boot. Feeling good and being self destructive are for the most part mutually exclusive.

Rather than being gratified, I believe - as I have said many times in this blog - that the children are sacrificing themselves to give the parents what the parents seem, in the estimation of the child, to desperately need. 

Another frequent explanation, particularly by cognitive-behavioral therapists, is that the problematic parenting practices prevent children from acquiring certain social skills. While that explanation may at times have some truth, many of the "skills" such children are supposed to lack are not exactly rocket science. And these same children often demonstrate in other interpersonal and environmental contexts the very skills they are not supposed to have ever learned!

Critics of course will also point to examples in which the types of parental behavior described in the post do not or did not seem to be followed by the predicted negative consequences. As usual, I need to put in a disclaimer: The consequences of the parental behavior I mention do not always result in every situation in which the parenting problem is seen. They are not hard and fast. 

Kids have minds of their own. Other adults in the house or even in the community may provide a counterweight. Some parents behave more consistently, others much less so. Some are consistently inconsistent. Parents might get sick and tone down their rhetoric for extended periods. A zillion other things may come into play.

There is a chaos effect: small changes in initial conditions can lead to big changes down the line. However, if parents make the kind of errors I describe, the odds are very high that the predicted consequences will indeed occur. We’re talking probabilities here!

So, without further ado, here’s a list of common parenting errors created by parental ambivalence about their own behavior. By no means is it a complete one:

If you constantly try to fix a child, the child will find different ways to keep being broken so you can continue in your efforts.

If you continually bail children out of their own messes, they will continue to make messes for you to bail them out of.

If you give your kids money whenever they ask and almost never say no, they will continue to ask you for money, and may seem to develop problems supporting themselves when they grow up.

If you constantly try to mediate disputes between your children, they will continue to fight one another so you can continue to mediate.

If you blame yourself for your children’s failings, your children will blame you for their own woes. (In a perverse and ironic way, their problems are partly your doing. But it’s your guilt about your own behavior that creates the problem, not your basic character or intrinsic worth).

If you repeatedly tear apart your child’s room looking for drugs when there is no evidence that he or she is using, just to make sure he or she is not using, the child is more likely to use drugs so you can find what you are looking for.

If you continuously help children with their homework instead of telling then to figure it out for themselves, they will continuously need your help.

If you keep making a huge deal about something your children do or say, they will keep repeating whatever it was so you can continue to obsess about it.

If you instantly replace any items lost by your child, your child will continue to lose things.

If you do nothing when your children disrespect you, or if you just whine and scream at them about it, they won’t ever respect you.

If you look uncomfortable getting presents on holidays and birthdays, your children won’t give you any, or will give you thoughtless gifts. (If you then question them about it, they will get angry or passive aggressive, and may start giving you things, but looking as if they are only doing so because you asked, not because they care about you).

If you seem to get a kick out of a child’s misbehavior, they will continue to misbehave, no matter what else you say about it.

If you set a low bar in your expectations for your child (academically, for example), they may meet the bar, but they will not exceed it.

If you compulsively pay more attention to your children's needs than you do to those of your spouse, they will make gallant efforts to regulate the amount of intimacy you have in your marriage by inserting themselves between the two of you.

Last - and this is perhaps the most pernicious of all - if you constantly give in to your children's demands out of guilt, but then get angry at them because they are too demanding, then they will fear for your mental stability. In response, they will try to regulate your emotions like a thermostat: If you start to get too angry they will try to make you feel guilty, but if you start to feel too guilty, they will try to piss you off royally.

Whenever you try to stop doing any of these things after having done them for a long time, expect a negative reaction, because you will be confusing your children. They thought they had you all figured out, and suddenly you are not performing to their expectations. Therefore, their behavior will get even worse in order to see if you really mean what you say and are going to continue to be different. Their behavior will, however, eventually get better if you stay the course.


  1. A corollary to respect would be if the parent treats the child disrespectfully, i.e., uses belittlement, intimidation, or even physical violence, to control behavior, the child will understand that "respect" is really a euphemism fear-based behavioral control. Again, actions talk louder than words.