Chapter 1: All Children Need Help
Betsy won’t give up the bottle. Will I have to let her go to kindergarten with it.
Tommy is just impossible! Everything he does is wrong and he does it on purpose! He’s a bad boy!
Pete is always playing with matches. I’m afraid he’s going to burn the house down.
Melinda didn’t seem to care when her grandmother died. She didn’t even cry. Now she hardly misses her. It doesn’t seem right; she loved her grandmother so much.
Anita is so unhappy. She won’t talk to me about it. What have I done wrong?
Alex fights all the time. He can’t seem to get along well with the other boys at all.
Neal still wets the bed. His grandmother says he’ll grow out of it. But it worries me.
Jack took some money out of my purse the other day. At this rate he’ll become a juvenile delinquent!
Carla took too many pills the other night. I can’t understand what she’s got to worry so much about.
These statements of parents who were looking for help or were deciding whether to look for help reflect the bewilderment, hurt, confusion and worry about their success as parents and the happiness of their child. It’s hard to be a parent — maybe the hardest job there is. Most of us received almost no training for it. Nevertheless, we tend to be hard on ourselves. We expect of ourselves infinite wisdom, and understanding, unfailing patience, and above all, no mistakes. The remarkable and reassuring fact is that in spite of the difficult job and our lack of training for it most of us do a reasonably adequate job of parenting most of the time.
When things go wrong — and they do for everyone at times — we usually have one of three reactions: we fall into the guilt trap — blaming ourselves for our child’s unhappiness; or we blame the child — he is bad, lazy or stupid; or we ignore the problem — pretending that it doesn’t exist or hoping it will go away. These reactions are different ways of dealing with our anxieties about our success or failure as parents. None of them is usually helpful, either for ourselves or for our children.
Fourteen-year-old Anita spoke up in a group of young people who were discussing their problems and feelings. “I can’t talk to my parents when I’m unhappy. They think it’s all their fault. They feel so guilty that I feel guilty because I made them feel guilty.” To which Nelia added, “They always want to make it better. They think you have to be happy all the time. They don’t seem to know that you have to be miserable sometimes. I wish my mother would just cry with frustration — instead of trying to make it all go away.”
These girls are expressing what many children of all ages feel — the burden of having to feel happy all the time, so that their parents will not feel guilty. Our responsibility as parents is not to protect our children from all unhappiness but to help them to deal with it when, inevitably, it comes. The most helpful question is not “What did I do wrong?” but “What’s the best way to help?” Sometimes the answer is simply to share our children’s pain with them. Pain is an inevitable part of life. Much of the pain children experience is not the fault of parents. It is the price of being human.
Of course, being human we make mistakes in our relationships. Often it is well to admit our mistakes to our children. This helps them to learn that it is human to be wrong sometimes, and a strength, not a weakness, to be able to admit it.
Sometimes we try to defend ourselves against our guilt and fear of failure by blaming the child.
Seven-year-old Tommy came for play therapy because he was misbehaving at home and at school. He fought with the boys, teased the girls, hurled obscenities at the teachers when they tried to control him. At home he broke his little sister’s toys, hurt the baby, and refused to change no matter how frequently or brutally he was spanked. During his first play session as he moved destructively from the blocks to the dolls to the paint and clay, he turned momentarily to the therapist whom he had noticed was making notes. “What are you writing down? That I’m bad?”
Already at seven, Tommy had an inner picture of himself as a “bad boy.” Parents, teachers, and other adults continually reinforced this image, verbally and physically, so that Tommy had to keep doing worse things to bring on worse punishments for the bad boy he felt himself to be. Of course we’re not ignoring the fact that he had some responsibility for his “bad” behavior. Early in their lives, children must develop increasing and appropriate accountability for their behavior. But blaming the child and expecting him to do all the changing is as futile and destructive as taking all the blame ourselves.
The third way of dealing with our children’s problems which tempts all of us at times is the “Maybe if I ignore it, it’ll go away” method. And in fact, sometimes it does. But carried to the extreme, this way can be dangerous. l.
Carla, fifteen, seemed depressed. Over a short period of time she had changed from a lively teen-ager to a withdrawn young person who began to avoid her friends, to drop out of activities, stay at home, shut herself in her room. At times she remarked that nothing seemed worthwhile any more. Once her father asked her what the matter was. She replied, “Oh, life just doesn’t seem worth living.” Her father laughed reassuringly. “Oh, Carla, at your age you don’t have that many problems.” Some time later she asked her mother how she would feel if she, Carla, committed suicide. Carla’s mother laughed reassuringly. “Oh, Carla! You’ll get over it.” A few days later, Carla took an overdose of tranquilizers. Carla’s cry for help was finally heard. Suddenly the doctor, the hospital, the police, her family all were hovering over her. Fortunately the pill bottle had been half empty. And her little brother had been there when it happened. Later, in family therapy, Carla’s mother said, “I knew she was unhappy but I thought it was just a stage.” Carla’s father said, “I thought she just wanted us to feel sorry for her.” Carla said, “I’ve been so miserable for so long, and nobody even cared.”
Carla’s parents didn’t recognize her desperate distress signals. How do you know when your child’s problems are serious and he needs more help than you can give? How do you avoid the guilt, blame, and head-in-sand traps? Is there any way of relating to children that will help them to be more secure and help parents not to feel like failures?
Whether your goal in reading this book is to increase your understanding of your children, to develop mutually satisfying parent-child intimacy, to gain insight or guidance in deciding whether your child needs professional help, the model we are suggesting can be summed up in these words, “Don’t be afraid of feelings.”
How to Make the Most of the Feeling Level
“When I talk about my feelings, I want my parents to be a long ways away.”
Jason’s family had come for help because of his severe learning problems at school. In the playroom the children were discovering a new level of relationship. Jason’s statement followed the therapist’s question, “How would it be to invite your mother and father to join us next week ?” Through their work in the playroom Jason and his brother had learned that people love and hate each other at the same time. Jason had discovered and admitted to himself that he was jealous of his older brother’s outstanding school record because he felt he could never measure up. The children had learned to play out their feelings with the puppets and to talk about them freely. But so far the children did not feel that their newfound freedom with feelings could be used with their parents too. So the consensus was expressed by Jason, “No, I don’t think they’re ready for this sort of thing yet.” (Actually they were. They too had been learning new ways of handling feelings in their own sessions. It took time for the children to believe their parents had changed too.)
It is not surprising that the feeling climate in many families is based on the rule, “feelings, especially negative feelings, are to be hidden.” We were raised that way; so were our parents. We tend to pass on to our children the same limited range of permitted feeling. But there is a way of relating within families that can enhance the good times, make the bad times more bearable, and provide a way of anticipating and dealing with problems.
Psychiatrist Norman Paul 2. suggests that this way of relating begins with the development of “parental empathy” — the bond between a husband and wife which enables them to share with each other their fears, anxieties, despairs, joys and triumphs. Parental empathy is the ability of each parent to experience what the other feels — not should feel, but does feel! A husband and wife who struggle for a deeper level in their relationship can relate to their children at a deeper level.
When Betsy’s mother expressed her anxiety about weaning, her husband’s reply was, “But she’s only a year old! She’s not ready to give it up yet !” This interchange began a discussion about what was the appropriate age for a baby to give up the bottle. It lasted for several days, becoming increasingly heated. What began as a simple discussion over an apparently objective issue had mushroomed into a battle. He exclaimed angrily, “You’re just like your mother, a hostile old witch, trying to take bottles away from babies!” She retorted, “Your mother is worse. She spoiled you rotten !”
Fortunately, Betsy’s parents sought professional help, not so much to decide about weaning as to interrupt their own painful battles. How could a simple remark about a baby and her bottle trigger a marital war? (Similar “objective” issues had triggered major fiascoes before.) They discovered in the course of counseling that the question of Betsy’s bottle stirred up many feelings from the past still active in the present, as well as unfaced feelings in their current relationship. Betsy’s mother discovered such feelings as, “Will I be a good mother if I let Betsy have the bottle any longer? What would my mother say if she heard Betsy still had the bottle after a year? Will Betsy stop loving me if I make her give up the bottle before she’s ready ?” Similarly her husband had mixed and unrecognized feelings in response to his wife’s anxieties — his feelings of what a father and husband should be like, and his uncertainty about success in these roles, and the feelings toward his little daughter which stirred up his forgotten childhood feelings. As mother and father developed some awareness of their own and the other’s deeper feelings and became more able to communicate about these feelings, mutual empathy began to develop. As parental empathy develops, external issues become easier to discuss rationally — is there a right age for weaning, what are the pros and cons, how important is it? When the feelings, positive and negative, which both partners bring to a problem are experienced openly and dealt with directly, they do not cloud and complicate the issue. Furthermore, “the issue” may seem much less important than before.
The rewarding by-product of this way of dealing with problems is increased husband-wife intimacy, which makes the marriage more satisfying and therefore makes them better parents.
Betsy’s parents had no difficulty in acknowledging and expressing their anger toward each other. This ability to bring negative feeling out into the open can be an asset in a relationship. Facing and working through anger and conflict is the path to deeper intimacy. Healthy conflict clears the air, clarifies feelings, lets each person know where the other stands, and may lay the foundation for resolution of the problem. But when an argument continues for many days, increasing in heat or widening the gulf of cold resentment, it cannot lead to empathy, intimacy or the negotiation and resolution of differences.
Some couples take a different tack. Instead of a verbal confrontation when a misunderstanding appears likely, they withdraw, keeping all feelings to themselves in order to avoid conflict or pain. Melinda’s parents (also quoted earlier) had perfected the “Don’t let anybody, even yourself, know how you feel,” method. For instance, early in their marriage Melinda’s mother felt hurt and disappointment because sexual intercourse was often not satisfying. Because she felt she “shouldn’t” feel that way, that it must be her fault, that her husband would be angry if he knew, she kept her feelings to herself. Her husband knew that things were not going as they should. But he felt that it was his fault, that he wasn’t the man he thought he was, that his wife must think less of him, that he must try harder the next time. He, too, kept his feelings hidden. Neither dared share painful feelings with the other. Thus, each assumed feelings in the other that were not there. They also lost the opportunity to discover that the sexual relationship is a growing one, usually not fully satisfying at first. Because they could not share their own and experience each other’s feelings, they withdrew little by little from each other. Each time one or the other was hurt in any area of their relationship, he stored up more anger which eventually became hidden not only from the other, but from himself. Their hidden, frozen feelings gradually blocked feelings of warmth, love, esteem and even sexual attraction.
Of course, Melinda quickly learned this way of handling her feelings. When she fell down and hurt herself someone always said, “Oh, it doesn’t hurt. Don’t cry !” When she felt angry at her new baby brother for getting so much attention, someone said, “Of course you love your little brother.” When she started to school everyone said, “Don’t be afraid. You’ll like school.” By adolescence Melinda was “programmed” to hide her feelings, even from herself. When grandmother died, she appeared not to care. For some reason, Melinda’s mother was upset by her daughter’s lack of feeling and sought help. Perhaps she sensed Melinda’s loneliness and isolation. Perhaps she was simply tired of her own. The family was soon involved in family therapy, where gradually they learned toshare the gift of their feelings, to tell each other when they were angry or disappointed or hurt. They also began to be able to tell each other when they were glad, or felt good about each other. As Melinda said after many weeks of family therapy, “You know it isn’t just that I was never sad. I was never glad either. I just put all my feelings away in a box. But now, when I cry because grandmother died and I miss her, I also remember how she used to sing to me. And that feels good. Isn’t it strange that you can be glad and sad at the same time and you can’t have either one without the other?”
This bit of wisdom from a fourteen-year-old girl who was discovering her feelings describes the reality of being human. We live fully only if we allow ourselves to experience the full range of feeling. We are free to feel deeply joyful and loving only if we are also free to feel pain and anger and despair.
Betsy’s and Melinda’s families utilized professional help to discover feelings and unravel problems. They moved on to fuller marital and parent-child intimacy following help. Professional help is by no means always so successful; nor is it always necessary. Parents are often able to develop empathy between themselves and with their children on their own. (The books listed at the end of this chapter provide guidelines for people who want to make the most of the feeling level in their marriage or family.)
Max comes home from the fourth grade class one day feeling angry and discouraged. “Oh, I have so much homework! That teacher makes us work too hard.” Max’s father says, “Oh now, Max, you can’t learn anything if you don’t do your homework. The teacher is showing you that you have to work hard in this world.” Well, all that may be true, and no doubt Max knows it already. Probably he hadn’t really questioned the fact that the homework had to be done. But Max feels, “My father doesn’t understand. It’s no use telling him how I feel.” A consistent diet of non-understanding forces feelings underground. Sooner or later, Max lashes out with some form of misbehavior at school, or he does a poor job with his school work, or he becomes compulsive about his work to try to meet his parents’ expectations; he may grow up driving himself to the sort of “success” which will keep him from discovering the deep satisfactions of human relationships or make him more vulnerable to ulcers and heart attacks.
But suppose Max’s father had said,
F: ”Feeling pretty discouraged about having to work some more when the school day is over, eh Max?”
M: ”Boy, and how! I really don’t want to do my homework at all !”
F : “You feel like just forgetting it all ?”
M: ”Yeah! But I guess I’ll get it over with so I can watch TV tonight
What Max feels is, “Boy, my dad really knows what it’s like to feel this way.” That’s empathy! No parent can be empathetic all the time. But a family which communicates empathetically much of the time prevents many problems from arising or from becoming unmanageable. (Of course, unless this way of accepting negative feelings has become a pattern, the story won’t end so happily. And even if it is a pattern there are times when parents simply have to insist on the behavior they expect from a child whether he likes it or not.
A pattern of family empathy helps prevent problems from getting out of hand by cultivating a climate in which family members feel free to share their inner fears and disappointments. Recall Carla’s story. When Carla said, “Life doesn’t seem worth living any more,” her father and mother responded with, “Oh, Carla, you don’t have that many problems” and “You’ll get over it.” But what Carla heard inside herself was, “They don’t understand. They don’t think it’s important. They don’t know how I feel.” She withdrew into her own world of misery. If either parent had been able to say something like, “You’re feeling pretty low about things these days,” the door might have been opened for Carla to talk about her troubles; the withdrawal, the loneliness, the suicide attempt might have been prevented. Sharing, recognizing, and experiencing feelings in the here and now often keeps them from causing trouble in the future.
Parental Anger and the Setting of Limits
You may have the impression that we’ve been saying that parents must always be calm, understanding, patient, and wise. This is definitely not what we believe. Even if it were possible (which it isn’t) it wouldn’t be desirable. Children need to learn from parental example how to handle negative feelings. Parents are people, too! We also feel confusion, anger, pain, frustration, hurt, disappointment and resentment as well as joy, passion and love. And we have the same need to own and express these feelings. Parents who can argue vehemently, resolve the differences in some way, and become friends again, are showing their children that anger is an acceptable, often useful emotion. They are teaching their children how to use it constructively. Parents who can grieve deeply when there is a sadness of some kind are teaching their children that pain is an important part of being human and needs to be recognized and felt.
How we express anger towards our children is vitally important. Haim Ginott 3. suggests a direct statement of the parent’s feeling rather than an attack on the child’s character. Instead of “Oh, you bad boy. How could you be so stupid ?” a mother could say, “It makes me furious when you track mud onto my clean rug!” In the first instance, the child feels inside, “I’m bad. I’m stupid.” In the second he thinks, “Wow, it sure makes mother mad when I get mud on her carpet!” Ordinarily children don’t want to incur their parent’s wrath — at least not consistently (unless that is their only way of getting noticed).
This leads to setting limits. A family cannot be a full democracy. Children should participate in family decisions when it is appropriate but parents must retain the veto power in important matters. Children need to know where the limits are. Matthew, two, runs into the street. His mother brings him back instantly and makes it clear he must not do this again. Here is a firm limit he must accept whether he understands or not. Of course his mother also can expect his fury at being thus controlled. For a two-year-old, a brief explosion of temper would be a normal response.
By the time Matthew is ten, things are different. The rules (limits) are different. He has more freedom according to his growing ability to be responsible for his own safety. Parental discipline is different. It’s important that he understand and accept the limits, even if he doesn’t like them. But feelings are as important as ever. Matthew now understands and respects the street. He knows how far and under what circumstances he can go on his bike. But one day he goes too far and comes home late. Matt’s father is worried and angry and he shows it! He says Matt may not ride his bike at all tomorrow. Matt is furious. He had planned to ride to the park with his friend tomorrow. Instead of a two-year-old temper tantrum he says angrily to his father, “I hate you!” Matt’s father recalls his own childhood and how mad he used to get at his father. He knows how it feels from both the child’s and the parent’s side. He replies, ‘I know you’re angry. I was mad too when you broke the rule. I was worried about you. I know you wanted to go to the park tomorrow. But you will have to manage without your bike.” Matt turns angrily away. On his way through the garage to the house he pounds furiously at the punching bag for several minutes. (Matt’s father, on his way in, hits the punching bag hard a few times himself!)
This family has rules. Matt is expected to adhere to them even though they don’t always seem reasonable to him. This family experiences conflict. Close relationships and conflict always go together. This family respects feelings. Matt was angry because of the punishment. His father recognized and accepted Matt’s anger without allowing it to control his handling of the situation. Matt’s father was also free to express his own anger. Matt knows by now there is no use arguing with his father; he’ll just have to get to the park some other way, or else stay home. But he can accept the punishment more easily because he knows his feelings are also accepted, even though he doesn’t get over his anger right away
As it becomes a family pattern, this way of setting limits and handling anger pays off in less frequent conflict, more constructive handling of it when it does arise, and in increasing respect for necessary authority. In contrast recall Tommy’s family. At seven Tommy already saw himself as bad and behaved accordingly. Tommy’s parents could not tolerate anger directly expressed by their son. When he misbehaved, they called him a bad boy but they neither listened to his feelings nor let him know ahead of time what the limits were and what consequences would follow.
Sometimes parents succeed in coercing their children into obedience through too rigid limits and punishment without dealing with the inevitable feelings involved. Sooner or later, these feelings make themselves known — in destructive ways; sometimes not until those children become parents themselves.
Freedom of feeling does not mean freedom of destructive action. It is appropriate for Matt to express his anger verbally to his father and to pound the punching bag. It would not be appropriate for him to strike his father. Children should never be allowed to hit parents since this makes them feel very guilty and teaches them a destructive pattern for expressing anger. Children want and need to learn, through the firm setting of limits, that their angry, destructive impulses can be controlled. A child who learns from the beginning that his strong feelings are healthy and legitimate and that there are appropriate ways of expressing them gradually develops inner controls. He grows up with an inner respect for authority — his own as well as others. He develops self-control because he has experienced discipline as an expression of caring in a relationship of love.
Some parents are too permissive. They do not provide their children with the security of knowing how far they can go. Destructive acting out behavior by these children is usually a cry for help:
“Please, somebody, stop me. Help me learn how to stop myself.” Other parents are too authoritarian. They set too many unreasonable rules, punish too severely, and refuse to allow questioning of limits or expression of anger. Their children become compliant, frightened and submissive or burst out violently with destructive actions.
But between these two extremes is rational authority. Parents who use this means set limits where they are necessary and make them appropriate to the child’s age, and encourage and accept the expression of the child’s feeling. As they grow older these children gradually take more and more responsibility for setting their own limits until they, like their parents, become responsible adults.
Although this is the ideal, we are all human, and we often fall short of our own goals. Even when we understand the importance of feelings, and make the effort to deal with them honestly, we often fail. There are outside forces — influences of school, community, the wide, wide world. Since most of us were not raised to deal with feelings openly, we miss many opportunities to meet each other empathetically. Also, most of us adults experienced at least one painful stage in our early lives from which we still carry unhealed wounds or sensitive scars; when our children hit that stage, we feel anxious and inadequate. Some of us are great with babies and inept with teen-agers or vice versa.
It is comforting to realize that if the overall feeling tone and emotional climate of the family is positive we can make many mistakes without permanent damage to our children.
Still, there are times when things go wrong and we need outside help. Chapter Two will discuss how we can recognize those times.
Axline, Virginia M., Dibs: In Search of Self (Boston: Houghton Muffin Co., 1965). How play therapy helped a little boy and his family.
Baruch, Dorothy W., New Ways in Discipline, You and Your Child Today (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1949). Dealing with children’s feelings.
Ginott, Haim G., Between Parent and Child (New York: Avon Books, 1965) and Between Parent and Teenager (New York: Macmillan Co., 1969). Practical suggestions about parent-child and parent-teen communication.
Harris, Thomas, I’m OK, You’re OK (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).
1. Some parents actually carry this method to the point of irresponsibility, not recognizing or admitting problems until someone outside the family — the school or the law — insists on it.
2. Norman Paul in Parenthood: Its Psychology & Psychopathology, ed. E. J. Anthony and T. Benedek (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1970), p. 16.
3. Haim Ginott, Between Parent and Child (New York: Avon Books, 1965).