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”You’re making me crazy!” When You’re at the End of Your Parenting Rope

by James Lehman, MSW
”You’re making me crazy!”  When You’re at the End of Your Parenting Rope

Parent: “OK, time to turn off the video games and go clean your room.”
Child: “That’s not fair! I don’t want to clean my room! That’s boring and stupid!”
Parent: “Why do you always do this to me? You’re making me crazy!!!”

When parents say things like, “Why are you doing this to me? You’re making me crazy,” to their children, it’s a signal to me that they’re personalizing their kids’ behavior. In other words, what you’re really doing is taking your child’s behavior and viewing it as a personal attack upon you. In my experience, parents often say things like this when they're at the end of their ropes, emotionally.

But I think parents make a major mistake when they personalize their children’s behavior. Remember that misbehavior and inappropriate language often come from a child’s low tolerance for frustration, fear and anger, and then is combined with their poor problem-solving skills in emotional situations. When parents personalize the inappropriate behavior directed at them, this often leads to fighting with their children, with really nothing to be gained. Remember, we want to avoid power struggles and fights whenever we can.

From a parent’s perspective, when you finally yell in exasperation, “Why are you doing this to me,” what you’re saying is, “Can’t you see you’re hurting me? Can’t you see you’re making me angry?” Of course, the truth is that your child can’t see that they’re hurting you, because children and adolescents generally have very poorly developed empathy skills. So even if your child feels empathy toward a person or an animal, they haven’t always developed the skills necessary to show their empathy by changing their behavior. And empathy itself doesn’t seem to develop at the same pace in everyone. This means that often, when you put your child or adolescent in a position where you’re trying to engage their empathy by saying, “You’re hurting me,” it doesn’t go in their ears the same way it comes out of your mouth. Also you have to consider the fact that empathy is very often not the issue. The issue is that they  want to get back at you for telling them to do something they don’t want to do. And if they know what buttons to push to make you frustrated or angry, they’re going to push them because it gives them a sense of power or control over the situation.

It’s also important to realize that when you ask, “Why do you want to hurt me,” you’re giving your child or adolescent information about how to hurt you later. So the next time there’s a disagreement or you’re locked in a power struggle, your child will use that knowledge to hurt you in order to get you to back off. So when you use a phrase like, “You’re making me crazy,” what your child hears you saying is, “You have tremendous power over me. Oh, your muscles are so big and strong, please don’t hurt me.” By saying this, you’re not engaging your child’s empathy; you’re engaging your kid’s urge to use domination and control as a problem-solving tool. And those tools aren’t effective. They may solve your child’s problems with frustration or anger in the short term, but in the long run, as everyone knows, they don’t work.

So instead of personalizing your child’s behavior by thinking, “Why is he doing this to me,” try to think, “What does he need from me right now?” In some cases, your child may need you to listen to him or her and process whatever they’re going through. In my experience, very often what your child really needs is for you to give clear instruction and set firmer limits: They need you to follow through and be consistent. Don’t show them that you’ve taken what they’ve said personally—keep your comments about feeling attacked to yourself, your partner or a supportive group of friends.

Personalizing kids’ behavior is just not helpful. It won’t lead to solving the real problem for you or your child. And remember, teaching your child problem-solving skills is one of the most important goals you can achieve as a parent.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

READER'S COMMENTS

We are continuing to have curfew issues with our almost 18 year old who is entering her senior year in high school. The rules are; We would like to know where she is and with whom, and don't break curfew (midnight). This summer she leaves at noon for work and we don't see her until curfew. She usually doesn't check in so we call a few times a day. For a while we've been using the "if your late for curfew, you will come in one hour early for three nights to assure us you can do it". Now she's been coming home up to 2 hours late and taking the consequence. I suppose we'll have to lay some time frames into the curfew as well. Your article“You’re making me crazy!” When You're at the End of Your Parenting Rope, rang true for me. I have insomnia issues and so once I'm engaged in feeling angry, worried, upset, these emotions don't allow me drift off into a peaceful sleep even after my teendoes finally roll in. I usually end up yelling at her for being inconsiderate given my sleep issues. Not having "empathy" leaves me feeling even more hurt. Thanks for pointing this out and I will do my best to separate my emotions when talking with her. It will be difficult feeling so tired.

Comment By : at the end of my rope

I really needed this today. After an eventful day and night yesterday and last night, when my 17 year old son left for school this morning he took personal items and said he wasn't coming back. Although we have always tried not to let him know he hurts us and tried to be there for him and listen to him, nothing seems to work. We just get cursed out all the time and blamed for eveything. Even though our children have always been our main priority. We are just lost.

Comment By : nonameplease

this article is right on, this incident happen to me last evening, I basicly was so tired of his ODD that I was just like this. Is there an article about problem solving skills. Is it to late to teach him now, apparently I have not done a good job of it so far.

Comment By : Dee Anne

Not only did I ask, "Why are you hurting me and why are you making me angry?" but I had to go and compound the error by also adding, "When you are 54 years old and a 7 year old kid does this to you, I want you to think back to this moment and remember how you treated me!" I mean, as I was saying this, I was also telling myself to shut up but I was wonkey! Now I am laughing at myself and feeling powerful again to go back into the ring and try again, this time to be more successful. Keep 'em coming James! We need you out here in the trenches.

Comment By : dentlaws

This article rings so true to my life right now... maybe i am just feeling the end of summer blues... ready for the kids to be gone, but also anxious about the new schedules and time constraints we will have to follow again... my biggest error is saying to my 9 year old son "are you acting this way because you want to drive me crazy?" I can honestly say i have said this one too many times the past few weeks. My 9 year old finally said to me, "Momma why do you say such hurtful things to me?"... what a eye opener... and NOW to know that I have given him more power makes me feel even more frustrated as a mom because I am making mistakes OVER and OVER and OVER in the parenting book. Thanks for the articles James... keep 'em coming... God knows I need all the advice I can get these days.

Comment By : messedupinoregon

Thank you so much for this article. My 7-year-old has ADHD (mostly ADD), and I was actually in tears last night because I couldn't get him to finish his homework. I know better, but I just couldn't stop. Then, after allowing him to go to bed at 8:00 instead of 9:00, he wanted to get back up at 8:15 and try to finish. He made a little bit of progress, and the "down time" gave both of us a break. I need to keep remembering that he's not doing it "to" me and that's he's just as frustrated as I am. Thanks for the articles. They have been EXTREMELY helpful and are always right on target at just the right time!!!

Comment By : sams_mom

Sorry. My child is 9, not 7. He was not allowed to stay up until 9:00 when he was 7 years old!!

Comment By : sams_mom

wow this counld not have came at a better time. my son is 10 years old and I struggle with getting him to do what I say. he tells me that im the meanest mom ever or he does not like me. and I in return say why are you doing this to me. I go thru this everyday. and Im at the end of my rope. reading this article gives me hope thank you so much for sharin this information with us.

Comment By : AK_MAMA

My wife and I have been struggling with our 17 year old son for the past two years. We have found a really good counselor who mirrors what your articles are saying. As far as curfew issues, he helped us tremendously during the summer. Our son refused to be home at the set curfew so we began locking the doors at the set curfew time and told him that when he decides to disobey the curfew rule that he can find a cot and sleeping bag out on the back patio. The first time he decided to test our consequence was a particularly nasty weather night and he did not enjoy not being able to sleep in his own bed. He tested the consequence about 2 or 3 more times by either crashing at his friends house (which he was only allowed by the friend's parents one time) or by having to sleep outside under the patio. By mid-July he was never late again and has not argued the consequence since we stood our ground (which was difficult). One other thing we have learned reflects this article, we don't try to personalize his meaness and disrespect, we simply remind him that our morals and upbringing do not appreciate his attitude towards us and others and that we will not tolerate it. We remind him that if he chooses to continue to disregard our attempts to teach him the difference between right and wrong behavoir and wants to treat us as he does that we can have him leave the house when we are not home (by locking him out) and that he is welcome back in at night (but not after curfew, of course). Our defense has had to go to these extremes at times, but we find that he really has to think about how HE is leaving us with little or no choice. We always remind him that we LOVE HIM but not his unacceptable behavior.

Comment By : Tough Love

My 20 y/o son is now out of the house which is good since he quit his job one month ago & his dad still doesn't know. However, he still has magical thinking about getting a high paying job without a college education. Your article points out correctly that have given him way too much power over me. I have allowed him to put me in the middle of his dad & i. Now, how do I get out of this?

Comment By : holly

With three teens at home (girls 13 and 15) and a son just turned 18, I can totally relate to this feeling. I've had issues mostly with my son, (hopefully the girls have learned how NOT to behave from watching their brother and seeing the effects it's had on me and the rest of the family.) The hardest thing for me now is that my boyfriend recently moved (we've been together three years) and though my son is polite to him, he's still very rude and angry towards me. So I get it from the son and he leaves; then I get a lecture on how I need to "control" my son from my boyfriend (who, at 50, never had any children of his own.) At a time when I really need my boyfriend's support and understanding of how hurt I feel when my son is mean to me...instead I am told how it is "all my fault." My son is very strong-willed and I've had difficulty reigning him in since he was a very young boy. I feel guilty and heartbroken enough having to tell my son to go live with his father if he can't abide by the rules in my home; the LAST thing I need is my boyfriend blaming me for my son's bad behavior. It's like he's talking out of both sides of his mouth--If my son is truly an adult and "responsible for his own behavior" then HOW the hell is this MY fault? I feel angry and hurt and resentful toward the two "men" in my life that I love the most!

Comment By : FedUpWithThemBoth

I have a 7 year old son and e was recently diagnosed with adhd. He was on ritulin and now he is on concerta. H has a very bad temper.Constantly getting into trouble in school by suspension and he has trouble keeping his hands to himself.Alot of his teachers do not understand him and treats him so mean.He said that he has been to P E once since school started. His gym teacher is so hard on him and I feel that he needs gym to vent his frustrations and burn his energy out .He also urinate on himself when he is upset and gets in trouble.He has been wrote up on the school bus and it hurts me to see that I am trying so hard for him and the professionals [educators] are not caring no matter how many meetings I go to. He is very smart an A student but the only problem is his behaviour and it makes me feel so frustrated and I sometimes feel like I am losing my mind.Sometimes after talking to him I have to go take aspirin because I feel like I am having a heart attack.I look forward to a bad report everyday and I also reward for every time he is deserving of it but it does not help for long.

Comment By : jackie

I guess it is just a power struggle, bur I am afraid sometimes that I am too controlling for a 17 year old, that they may need to feel independent and may resent me forever if I push too much

Comment By : kelbul

I too have a child who tests my limits ...daily!!!! He is 9 years old and I also home school him. As a single mom I feel like running away some times. I suspect he is ODD.He hits me, punches me, and bites me when he gets upset. He respects no rules I set in the house. He will not play with the other children in the neighborhood. I feel like i live with my abusive ex husband all over again!He has no respect for any adults...period. I laid in bed one day a couple of weeksago and told him he had to be sent way somewhere because I give up! I told him that there were no longer any rules to follow and he could do what he wanted to. He freaked out and began to beg to have the rules back. So I know he wants guidance and direction. I asked him why he does what he does and he just started crying and answered, "I don't know." I feel so sad about all this. I love him so much this is tearing me up inside. He can be so kind and loving, where is that baby I knew not so long ago? What is happening to our children> Why are they acting like monsters? If I can't find something that works< I will have to send him to Military school or something to save my sanity!!!!

Comment By : Mountain Mom

I too have a child who tests my limits ...daily!!!! He is 9 years old and I also home school him. As a single mom I feel like running away some times. I suspect he is ODD.He hits me, punches me, and bites me when he gets upset. He respects no rules I set in the house. He will not play with the other children in the neighborhood. I feel like i live with my abusive ex husband all over again!He has no respect for any adults...period. I laid in bed one day a couple of weeksago and told him he had to be sent way somewhere because I give up! I told him that there were no longer any rules to follow and he could do what he wanted to. He freaked out and began to beg to have the rules back. So I know he wants guidance and direction. I asked him why he does what he does and he just started crying and answered,"I don't know." I feel so sad about all this. I love him so much this is tearing me up inside. He can be so kind and loving, where is that baby I knew not so long ago? What is happening to our children> Why are they acting like monsters? If I can't find something that works, I will have to send him to Military school or something to save my sanity!!!!

Comment By : Mountain Mom

I have a daughter who is 16 (barely) who controls me more than I would care to admit. We moved here a few years ago and she had to leave some dear lifelong friends behind. She has finally made new friends here but I feel like moving here was a mistake for our family. The schools, the area, the house we live in... I have an opportunity to move into a bigger house, less money, nicer area, and much better schools. It's very close to the area we used to live in but my daughter will not stand for it. She says she doesnt want to leave her friends behind yet again. I know how she feels and I'm torn. What should I put first. I know that is a big thing for teenagers. I am really at a loss. I'm leaning toward moving again but is that selfish?

Comment By : split in two

To split in two: I'd just like to tell you briefly my own experience, as the 16 year old in this situation. I am an adult now, but my parents moved us across the country right before I started high school and it was very difficult for me. I too had some really good friends that I left behind and I was resentful, primarily to my mother, for a long time. The move actually helped me to develop a closer relationship with my mother in the end though, and looking back on the situation from where I stand today as an adult, I see that it was the best move for my family at the time, even though it may not have been the best thing for me, individually. I do believe that you need to consider your daughter's feelings, but I do not think it is selfish of you to make a decision that she might not like if it is for the better of your family as a whole. Keep in mind that while she may be angry with you now, she will adjust and make new friends. While friends are important, I remember in my situation, discovering that my mother is the best friend I will ever have. I hope this helps.

Comment By : Ridgback522

Hello mountain mom we are going through the same thing please email us back so we know how you handled this we are going crazy and reall do not know what to do.........We have three daughters and a son but the ten year old daughter is giving us the problem she is doing the same exact problem as your son please help us remain sane!?!?!? thanks please help us!!!!!

Comment By : keiserto

I need help so badly. I divorced one year ago this month and my kids have been the most horrible, disrespectful, mean, decietful children you have ever known toward me and anyone else that gets in their way. I have twin boy/girl 6yr. olds and a 5yr. old girl. With my 6yr. old girl it's the screaming and backtalking. With my 5yr. old girl it's the not listening and constant backtalking w/o any regard whatsoever for punishment (including the belt). She would have to be whipped to the point of blood before she would even acknowlege it, I swear. My 6yr. old son is the worst. He spends at least 3 days a week in the principals office, will NOT behave on the bus (which they threatened to kick him off of) or the daycare and backtalks to the point that you just give up. Time outs are useless along with taking away toys and whippins are such a daily event that they are immune to it. I don't know what to do. I love my kids but at this rate, I am ready to give up custody if it don't change. I cannot hear for another day how they hate me and wish I was dead. At this point, I feel like I'd be better off. Anyone else have kids like these????

Comment By : mommyof3

Mountain Mom I've been in the same place as you, telling my son he would have to go away somewhere, and it leaves you feeling useless, guilty and a bad parent doesn't it! I think it's when we have reached a stage where we need a time out and a break, we are not perfect and cannot be expected to cope with continual difficult behaviour without getting worn out. My son is nearly 9 and has always been difficult a lot of the time and it is coming out in different ways as he gets older, some of it is definitely influenced by school (which he says he hates as well). It is so very tiring sometimes to deal with a child who will not listen, co-operate, says 'no' most of the time to every request and talks back saying nasty and completely disrespectful things, has tantrums etc. He is also nothing like I was as a child and I often feel I don't understand him at all and we are on different wavelengths altogether. Mommyof3 I can only say you are in such a difficult situation right now, I think your children are probably punishing you for the divorce and you are there as a handy punchbag for all their feelings of anger and frustration and there's 3 of them and 1 of you, that's an awful lot of anger and upset to absorb and my heart goes out to you. Try your hardest not to punish with violence as I don't think that is going to improve their behaviour at all, have you tried any kind of family therapy or talked to a doctor who might be able to refer you to someone - you might end up with ill health if you try and carry on as you are, I wish you and your children well and hope for your future happiness.

Comment By : Vegpot

Reading all of these and having to deal with my 13 yr old right now, I have to pose the question "why do we choose to have kids?" We know it won't be easy, we know it's not really fun, and we know that it will take lots of work, responsibility, time, commitment and I'm not sure if I even have it in me, but, love... My child is going through a transformation of his own into someone that I don't know and I don't like at all. He is lazy, goal-less, backtalks, won't do his school work, insists on making our home the messiest possible place, a real jerk to the dogs, and has me crying at this point. I've looked into military school but, can't afford them as I am a single mother w/ a very low income. I feel like I am personalizing his behavior as the article suggests. I seem to have this problem a lot, I believe that everything bad that is going on in the world is a direct reflection on me and my worth. I have resorted to taking everything away from him, from toys to radios, access to internet is limited and no video games. No tv or movies either. But, still it doesn't matter to him, he still will not behave in a positive way that will make him a better person. I don't know how many times I've said "it's not about me! It's about you! It's your life, once you leave here, where will you be? How will you live? Are you going to just be on the streets?" NO effect... just blank... Again, I ask "why do we have kids?"

Comment By : frustrated in the rain

* Dear frustrated in the rain: There are days when a feeling of discouragement sets in and it seems it will never leave. Parenting is hard work, isn’t it? If you have no energy left, and your mood is not changing, don’t hesitate to seek out help. Talk to your physician. Instead of trying to reason with your son that his current behavior will affect his future, talk to him about what he’s doing day in and day out. Kids are not motivated by thoughts about the future but are interested in the here and now. What James Lehman, author of the Total Transformation, suggests is to set up a daily structure for homework time. Pick a time of day early enough so that if your son spends time doing homework, he earns privileges that night. If not, he loses privileges for that one night only but has the chance to get it right the next day. Using really short term consequences like this gives kids incentive to cooperate. For more ideas on setting up a homework structure, review this article by James Lehman: Homework Survival for Parents by James Lehman, MSW http://www.empoweringparents.com/homework-survival.php?&key=School-And-Homework Call us here on the Support Line for encouragement and suggestions on what techniques to use from the Total Transformation Program. We look forward to hearing from you.

Comment By : Carole Banks, MSW, Parental Support Line Advisor

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Responses to questions posted on EmpoweringParents.com are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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