By Emily Roberts MA, LPC
I am constantly perplexed when I hear parents making excuses for the physical and mental health needs of their children. “Sam doesn’t like protein so we give him bread and pasta, we don’t want to start a power struggle. “She doesn’t like the taste of x, y, or z, so we don’t want her to be uncomfortable.” Or “I’ll let her spend the night at that house with the parents who are never home; I don’t want her to be an outcast with her friends.” A few weeks, months or years later they come to see me wracking their brains on what “they did wrong” after parenting struggles have become out of hand. “I was only trying to make them feels safe, so I didn’t want to punish them.” “I want to be their friend and their parent.” Well, unfortunately, it is difficult to do both, especially with a child or teenager who is testing your boundaries.
It is the job of a child and adolescent to see how much they can get away with, “If mom gives me one cookie, maybe she’ll give me two…” “My curfew is at 10, I’ll see if I can get away with 10:15…” Pushing the envelope is something that we did growing up, and your child will do as well. However, most of the parenting experts and psychologists I have worked with suggest the same thing, they need you to make these boundaries for them, as their brains are not at a developmental capacity to do so; boundaries make them feel safe and loved.
Sure the tantrum over the cookie or the argument over coming in late is not ideal, and can be stressful for both parent and child, but overtime it says something deeper. “I love you enough to help you make good decisions.” It may not register right away, but isn’t you intention to help your child grow up to be a healthy, fully functioning, adult? Putting rules in place, and sticking to them, with a little input from your child, can make a huge impact on their future functioning. If he/she thinks she can get away with testing the limits at home, they will likely do it at school (if not overtly then within their peer group), with friends, and future relationships. I see this happen all the time, and so do their peers.
A 14 year old said to me “I have stopped hanging out with her because it’s always her way, she never lets me pick what we are going to do and it’s annoying.” Their peers pick up on their attitudes of entitlement and so do their teachers, not to mention their future employers.
Research conducted by Paul Harvey, assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire, shows that members of Generation Y are more entitlement-minded. Many of these college-grads came from families where there were little boundaries put in place. For employers, that means more employees who feel entitled to undeserved preferential treatment, they are more prone to get into workplace conflicts, are less likely to enjoy their jobs, not to mention, keep their jobs. “A great source of frustration for people with a strong sense of entitlement is unmet expectations. They often feel entitled to a level of respect and rewards that aren’t in line with their actual ability and effort levels, and so they might not get the level of respect and rewards they are expecting.” Harvey says.
So what do we do? Set up some boundaries and learn to say “no”.
When you hear “I don’t like it…”
Okay, I certainly understand not preferring particular foods, or even places. Especially if your child is sensitive emotionally or tactically; therefore we wouldn’t want to push them to do something that could really trigger a long term avoidance or trauma. However we do need to give them a little push sometimes. Growing up, when I did not like the taste of the cough medicine I still had to take it. I made a fuss then, plugged my noise, sucked it up, and drank it. And guess what? It actually helped me; my parents helped me feel better. So now as an adult instead of avoiding the “yucky” tasting supplements I need to feel well, I suck it up, 30 seconds of a detesting taste and I’m on my way to feeling better. Not to mention, if it’s as task at work or at home, I don’t feel like doing, I have learned through this cough syrup experience (and probably many others), that it will be over soon enough. A lesson I couldn’t have learned if my mom were to let me get away with things I didn’t prefer doing as a child.
When you hear “That’s not fair!”
Such an overused term by children and teens, but we have to remember, it really may feel unfair. We cannot discount their feelings. It is so important to discuss with them why you are making this decision and get their feedback; let them talk, they feel more invested in the processes and heard. Often times I ask clients, “Okay your parents say you need to be home by …. What’s reasonable for you? What’s a good compromise that your parents and you will be comfortable with? What happens if you don’t arrive on time?” Amazingly, they are likely to follow through with the rules and consequences if they know what to expect.
When you hear “You think you know it all.”
Parents, we do not know it all and neither do our children, however they do know quite a bit these days. It so important to let them know that we make mistakes and that we didn’t always get it right when we were their age. It is also imperative to let them explain to you how they feel about their situation or what they think they know, before rushing to give them advice. From years of sitting across the couch from these kids let me tell you, they perceive things much differently than you may think, validate this. Try “You know what, I am sorry I didn’t let you explain, you may be right.” Or “Can you tell me why you feel that way? What can I do to help you?” or “This is just my experience, I think it could be helpful for your situation.” This way we are not telling them we know it all, we are simply assisting them in listening to us, while modeling healthy communication.
The bottom line is that if we don’t start setting boundaries now, we are enabling this child to become a less successful adult. They are less likely to make emotionally sound and physically healthy decisions when they “don’t have to”. When I speak to adults, those who had parents who were “friends” or let them get away with more than they “should” report wishing they had more structure, and interestingly enough, often times envy a peer who had this structure in their family. The ones who had parents who gave them boundaries report feeling “thankful” as they now are able to set limits with themselves and with others. Be this parent!
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