Don’t let your child be master of the universe
Published at 12:01AM, June 21 2014
At a children’s birthday party, seven-year-old Suzie was upset because she had been promised chocolate chip ice cream but got cookie dough ice cream instead. She threw a tantrum that made Violet-Elizabeth Bott, the lisping character in the Just William books who “thscreamed” until she was “thick”, seem positively reasonable. Dr Robin Berman, a psychiatrist and a mother of three, was among the parents at the party rooting for Suzie’s mother to calmly intervene. Instead, the agitated mother tried to placate her child, negotiate with her and finally started picking out the bits of cookie dough and putting them in her own mouth. “She totally capitulated, rushing in to fix her daughter’s unhappiness,” Berman says. “We were all blown away by it and then I realised that this stuff was going on everywhere I looked.”
We are a well-intentioned generation that has gone awry, asserts the American therapist in her book Hate Me Now, Thank Me Later, How to Raise Your Child with Love and Limits. “We are pleaser parents who are being pushed around by our own children and too many little inmates are running the show. Over the past few decades, the parental power structure central to the family unit has gone off-kilter. Parents who vowed never to hit their kids as they had been hit and not to rule the household with an iron fist have gone too far the other way.
“Children used to be seen and not heard and now they are the centre of the universe,” Berman says. Instead of becoming happier, however, children are growing angrier and more fragile. Psychiatrists are seeing an increase in anxiety disorders, drug dependence and
depression in children, adolescents and young adults. “Overparenting and overprotection have truly backfired,” she says. “Kids today are not better off, they’re more dependent, more risk averse, more entitled and less resilient. This wasn’t what we were aiming for.”
According to Berman, we need to steady the parenting pendulum in a new middle, keeping some of our parents’ methods, learning from recent parenting trends and reflecting on what no longer serves us. In the book she lists some of the ways that parents have got it wrong. We indulge our children’s demands and tantrums. We enter into endless negotiations about everything from bedtime to leaving the park. We allow our kids to hit us. We “good-job” them to death. We don’t let them fail in case it hurts their self esteem. In short, we have handed children too much power.
“Children with too much power often become anxious because they feel like they have to control their environment and they really don’t know how,” Berman says. “When we rush to fix our children’s disappointments and negative feelings, we unintentionally cripple them. Our task as parents is to help our children self-soothe, to build up their emotional immune systems so that they can fight the big battles when they come along.”
Berman has extensive experience in helping both parents and children navigate complicated family dynamics. An associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, she also runs her own private practice and teaches Reflective Parenting, developed from the work of the psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy at the Tavistock Clinic in London. “Reflective parenting is really a psychological space where parents can come in and talk about issues and reflect on them so they can do it differently next time,” Berman says.
Even though some of this well-meaning but misguided parental behaviour is entrenched, it is never too late to turns things around, Berman says. Even stroppy teenagers will respect a parent who calls the shots consistently and calmly. ”You’ll be amazed how quickly children flourish when they are helped to manage their emotions and allowed to master some things by themselves,” she says.
With a reputation as a parenting guru, she thinks the reason why her wise and instructive book is rushing up the bestseller lists in the United States is because parents recognise that things are out of balance. “Being our kids’ friends and raising our kids around 20,000 activities is not right, and we know that intuitively, and we’re being given permission to slow down. I’ve had parents coming up to me in tears and thanking me,” she says.
The actress Reese Witherspoon, who has three children, has endorsed Berman’s book, calling it a “must-read guide” that should be given to every new parent. “Our children went to pre-school together and she’s a very sensible mother who does a great job of holding the line when it comes to discipline,” says the therapist.
Berman wrote the book from her own experience as a mother, a psychiatrist and a parenting group leader — and from speaking to teachers, coaches, paediatricians, therapists, parents and children to gather their collective insights. The essential message of Hate Me Now, Thank Me Later is that children need limits more than they need indulgences and parents need to be more comfortable setting boundaries.
One of the most important things that parents can do is to stop over-protecting their children. Berman points out in the book that if a mother hen tried to crack the eggshell to help her baby out, the chick would die. “Our hovering and over-involvement are preventing our kids from fully hatching,” she says. “Parents are trying to take the sharp edges out of their kids’ lives but part of life is negotiating the edge. When we remove it, we deprive children of the opportunity to practice managing and assessing risk. If you treat children as fragile, they will stay fragile for life.”
She says parents used to sit on the park bench and watch their children play. Now they are at the bottom of the climbing frame, instructing their children how to climb, or hanging on to the end of their children’s bikes so they don’t fall and scrape their knees. We are teaching children that they need us in order to succeed. When parents over-function, children under-function, she says.
Dependency also breeds resentment among parents and children. Children act out because lack of empowerment frustrates them, while parents become exhausted and resentful when they do everything 24/7 for their children. A good parent works himself or herself out of a job, Berman points out. The goal should be to let our children become frustrated and work some things out for themselves because this increases their “psychological padding”.
We should also back away from thinking that we can control our children’s future by obsessing over their sporting achievements and academic accomplishments.
Berman compares this to being the white-knuckled passenger on an aircraft. In the same way that gripping our seats and pushing imaginary brakes will not make an aircraft land safely, many children with good marks will not get into the university of their choice or yours or become professional sports people.
Too much pressure and stress is not good for growing children. “A little stress can boost performance but chronic, daily stress can actually shrink the hippocampus, where memory resides. It can increase headaches, cause ulcers, decrease immune function and trigger autoimmune disease. Stress also worsens all psychiatric illnesses,” she explains.
Setting high standards for a child is great but obsessing over performance increases anxiety. “You see these dads screaming from the sidelines and the kid doesn’t even know which direction to face, and if that father just took the kid into the garden and dug in the mud or climbed a tree or threw a ball, that would give them a bond they’re not going to get in soccer when a kid is four years old and his dad’s screaming ‘The other way! Go! Win! Shoot!’ ” she says.
Parents should let go of fear and anxiety. “It’s like a race and we’re trying to get ahead and give our children a leg-up. I think many parents are deluded because in their hearts they think they are doing the best thing for their children and it’s just a misunderstanding. Doing the best for your children is, a lot of times, allowing them to do for themselves.”
Good parenting will make you periodically unpopular, Berman warns, but your children will appreciate you in the future when they become psychologically stable and resilient adults.
Take your lead from great world leaders, she advises. “Look how kind history is to world leaders who take a firm stand on doing what is right, even though it might mean being unpopular at the time,” she adds. “Free yourself from fears of being the bad guy.”
How to take back control, by Dr Robin Berman
Set clear limits
Using angry words or punishment may control behaviour in the short term but intimidation chips away at the foundation of a child’s self-esteem and paves the way for defences to be built. The child’s real self goes underground. Discipline done right fosters self-esteem, whereas harsh or shaming discipline erodes self-esteem. In fact, discipline means “to teach”. Set clear limits and enforce them with love. Take a parental time-out and put some space between what’s annoying you and your response. Have understanding of your child’s struggle. Let him or her know that their feelings are valid, even empathised with, but that the limit remains. Having a boundary, and a firm consequence when the child crosses the line, creates accountability. It empowers children to police their own sense of right and wrong.
Enforce limits consistently
Following through some times and not others spells disaster. In psychiatry this is called variable reinforcement, which means that a response is reinforced in an unpredictable manner. If your child feels that your threats are empty and that every once in a while you might follow through, it will be hard to discipline effectively. Kids learn best with consistent follow-through. They learn to trust that you do what you say and say what you mean. If you don’t follow through, you can seem unreliable in your child’s eyes. A mother I admire has no tolerance for whining and uses phrases with her children such as: “I can’t hear you when you speak that way.” Consistent reinforcement has extinguished whining in her home.
The more children argue, the less they get. It works like a charm. For example: Parent: Bedtime is at eight. Child: I want to stay up till eight-thirty. Parent: No, it’s eight. Child: I want to stay up later. Parent: Now bedtime is seven-forty-five. Child: Fine, I’ll take eight. Parent: Now bedtime is at seven-thirty. You must stick to this revised bedtime.
Too much information
Another pendulum swing in today’s parenting culture is excessive talk and excessive explanations. We’ve gone from: “No, because I said so” to reasoning through every issue till we’re blue in the face. Make it short and sweet. Give them bite-size pieces that are easily digestible. A parent’s excessive verbiage can get tuned out – or worse, become baggage. Children’s brains are developing daily. Don’t fill them with unnecessary information, white noise or, worse, our own anxieties.
Too many choices
It is burdensome and stressful for a child to have to make too many daily choices. I watched in shock as a mum asked her five-year-old daughter: “Do you think Mummy should take the new job at the bank or keep her old one?” Kids don’t have the brain capacity for those big decisions. Empowering kids to make choices has to be age appropriate. “Do you want chicken or pasta?” is fine for a five-year-old but asking her to weigh in on a job is absurd. Don’t invert the roles. Your child is not your friend, your masseuse or your confidant.
The -est words can be harmful on many levels. The “you are the fastest/smartest” type of feedback leaves kids no incentive for growth and undermines development. Constant praise fosters a neediness for more praise and creates a self-conscious child. The excessively praised child may be more prone to exaggerate accomplishments or, on the flip side, be overly self-critical. Praise works best when it is specific and when you praise the effort rather than the outcome. Teach kids that trying hard matters.
Loosen the reins
Overprotection blocks children’s emerging independence. If you hold on to the back of their bike too long or coach them with flash cards you are sending the message that they’re not good enough do these things by themselves. That is the opposite of self-esteem. Every child need to learn how to lose and to be a good sport, and most of all to tolerate frustration. It seems counterintuitive but your goal should be to let your child get frustrated. It literally makes them more resilient.
Go easy on yourself
Parenting is a dynamic under stressful, always-juggling, short-on-time, short-on-sleep conditions. There is a high degree of human error. Luckily for us, kids are very forgiving. And human error creates a wonderful opportunity for real closeness. Where there is rupture, follow it with repair. Own your mistake. Apology will not undermine your authority. It actually strengthens your credibility as a trustworthy leader.
It’s never too late
Out of the best intentions we have made children vulnerable to stress but it is amazing how quickly you can turn things around by being a benevolent leader.
Adapted from Hate Me Now, Thank Me Later: How to Raise Your Child With Love and Limits by Dr Robin Berman. HarperCollins, £12.99