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.