“Do you know what my mom did?” asked my 15-year-old former patient. “I asked her to buy me a pack of cigarettes and she did. Why couldn’t she just be the parent and say No?” I asked this high school sophomore how she would have reacted had her mother said no to her demand. “I would have gotten mad and stomped my feet. But why couldn’t she just be the parent instead of trying to be my friend?” In the next breath she told me that the family had just moved to another town. On her first day in her new high school, she went to the guidance office and told the counselor, “I’m not going to class.” He told her to just sit in the office, where she remained the rest of the day. She asked me, “Why couldn’t someone just tell me to get my ass back to class?”
All this girl wanted was for her parents to act like parents and school personnel to take charge. She tested them and they both failed. When parents and schools set limits, children feel safer and more secure, even though they protest with anger when their desires are denied. This girl was practically pleading for limits because she needed a safety net from her own behavior.
So, why do parents say yes when they ought to say no? Parents want their children to love them. What parent doesn’t? Those who might feel insecure of their children’s love (and what adolescent’s parent doesn’t?) can’t stand it when their children get mad at them. They are afraid that if they frustrate the child and the child gets angry, the child won’t love them anymore. The parent gives in to keep the love, while the child finds she can’t trust the parent to provide the security she needs. Over the course of time, she may lose respect for the parent.
I am not suggesting that parents be unreasonable and say no for the sake of it. Many parents (myself included), at times have a kneejerk reaction of automatically saying no. Then we think about it, realize we were being unreasonable and change our minds. That is okay, but it should be in reaction to our own or the child’s explanation of why her request is reasonable. Changing one’s mind in the presence of a temper tantrum only reinforces the lesson that “if I throw a tantrum, I will get my way.”
Another important lesson that comes from firm and rational limit setting is frustration tolerance, a very important skill for the child to possess as she transitions into adulthood. When people don’t tolerate frustration well, they seek immediate gratification. They learn to get their way through bullying or other aggressive behaviors. Yet, paradoxically, they seem to show greater respect to those who stand up to them.
Several years ago smoking was common in public areas and in psychotherapists’ offices. One year there was a National Smoke-Out Day. I put up a sign in the waiting room that we were participating. No one complained and I just left a no-smoking sign up from that point on. Maybe a year or so later a general manager of a major department store came to my office for an initial appointment. He asked if he could smoke. When I told him the office was non-smoking, he said he could just leave and seek an appointment where smoking was still allowed. I made the unfortunate mistake of giving in and allowing an exception for him. When I asked at the end of the visit if he would like another appointment, he responded, “Not with you. I tested you to see if you would stand up to me and you failed the test.” I learned an important lesson that day. I need to provide the same security that comes with limit-setting for my patients as I would for my own child. We need to remember that mad isn’t always bad.
Paul, Henry A. M.D. When Kids Are Mad, Not Bad. Berkley Trade, 1999.
WHYY Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane: Parenting Teens