By: Joe Newman
In last week’s blog I wrote about the emotional crisis a child goes through during the rapprochement phase. In this week’s blog I will focus on the parent who is also going through a difficult identity shift during this time.
Once a child begins the rapprochement crisis, a parent’s role changes. She must make the transition from being a parent who provides for all her child’s needs to one who coaches her child to handle many frustrations and needs for themselves.
In her book The Bonds of Love, Jessica Benjamin talks about the struggle the mother has while dealing with the constant willfulness, the clinging, or the tyrannical demands typical of the rapprochement: “What the mother feels during rapprochement and how she works this out will be colored by her ability to deal straightforwardly with aggression and dependence, her sense of herself as entitled to a separate existence, and her confidence in her child’s ability to survive conflict, loss, and imperfection.”
The parent who resents and cannot tolerate her child choosing to defy her, expressing his autonomy and doing things independently (the natural behavior of a child in the rapprochement) will make that child feel as though the price of his own freedom is abandonment and loss of love. Consequently, because his autonomy is not being respected, the child’s confidence and sense of his own power will be greatly diminished. His independence undermined, he remains dependent on the approval and praise of the parent who remains all-powerful. This is the authoritarian parenting model that results in the child feeling negated and the parent becoming omnipotent in the eyes of the child. While authoritarian parents may have obedient children who take the parents’ needs seriously, they raise children who will ultimately become adults without a strong sense of their own power and self-worth. Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting is a powerful challenge to this approach.
On the other hand, the parent who, in response to the irrational and willful demands of the child, cannot assert her own needs and set limits and consequences in a straightforward manner, creates a whole other set of problems. This parent effectively negates herself. The “unconditional love” between a parent who allows herself to be negated and a child in omnipotence is, in the mind of the child, love between one who exists (the child) and who does not exist (the parent). The child experiences this as abandonment. This relationship creates anxiety, insecurity, and lack of real intimacy and will result in the child challenging every boundary more vehemently.
The parent who only focuses on the need to recognize his child’s needs becomes a nervous parent, a frustrated parent, one who often feels negated by his own children who don’t take the parent’s needs seriously.
The solution is for the parent to assert his needs while recognizing and respecting the autonomy of his child.
Here’s an example:
Three-year-old Emily throws a toy at another child.
Adult: Emily, throwing toys is not allowed. If you throw toys you will need to leave the toys here and sit quietly for a minute. (Set the boundary)
Emily throws another toy.
Adult: Well, I guess you need to take a time-out. (Enforce the boundary)
As the adult walks Emily to a seat away from the toys, she begins to cry.
Adult: It’s okay, you’re not in trouble. But if you decide to throw toys, that means you will also need to take a time-out. I know you’re upset, time-outs aren’t any fun. (Recognize her power to make her own choices. Empathize with her frustration. Follow through with holding the boundary)
After Emily has sat quietly for a minute…
Adult: Are you ready to go back and play? (Emily says “yes”) Do you understand why you needed a time-out? (Emily nods her head) Okay, go back and play.
If Emily asks to talk about it, this talk can only happen after she has completed the time-out. In this way she learns that conversations about boundaries happen when she has recognized –not while she has negated –the adult.
Most parents I see make exhaustive efforts to understand and accommodate the needs of their children. What these parents have difficulty with is setting boundaries and enforcing consequences without becoming punitive, angry, or judgmental. Consequently, parents are understandably reluctant to set firm boundaries and often try anything that might allow them to avoid the confrontation that comes from having to enforce one. What parents are most in need of are models of interaction that teach them how to assert their needs and deal with conflict in ways that affirm and recognize their children. They don’t need more advice on how to avoid conflict. They need tools to deal with conflict in a straightforward, honest way that affirms the dignity and power of both parent and child. Unconditional love is learning to respect your child’s autonomy, while he is defying you and struggling to control himself because you’ve held a boundary that is frustrating for him. Real respect for our children is seeing those frustrations they encounter when pushing against the boundaries as opportunities for them to exercise the muscles of self control, self-respect, and respect for others. It is faith that, with time, these frustrations will become their ability to have a healthy, loving and valuable relationship with the world around them and the people in it.