How do you respond to a six-year-old who has developed the “You don’t love me, nobody likes me” response to consequences?
This question raises the delicate issue of the balance between paying attention to your child’s emotional needs and dealing with his inappropriate behavior. These are two of the most important parenting skills, and parents always agonize over finding the balance. There are no easy answers here. You will make some mistakes, sometimes disciplining your child when he needs emotional support, sometimes giving support when he is just trying to manipulate his way out of consequences. It’s how you parent over the long haul that matters, not whether you make a mistake or two. To determine whether your child’s response to your consequences is appropriate, go through the following checklists regarding your own behavior.
Sensitivity to Your Child’s Emotions
* Some negative behaviors arise out of a child’s emotions, which are not wrong; they are signs that something is making the child unhappy.
* When a child is having bad feelings, he needs above all to be listened to; he can’t listen to advice about his behavior until his feelings are dealt with. Be sensitive to emotion-driven behaviors, and listen to the child’s feelings at early stages so behavior doesn’t escalate.
* Remove any triggers of his negative behavior. For example, a child can’t be expected not to react if an adult is consistently rude to him, or to sit quietly if he is consistently ignored.
* Your child may be genuinely angry or hurt because your discipline has been inappropriate.
* Your child may be upset about something else, and consequently is having difficulty controlling his behavior.
* If you child says things like “Nobody likes me,” check out why he feels this at another time, not when you are imposing consequences.
* Make sure your child knows you love him for who he is, regardless of his behavior.
Making Sure Expectations Are Fair
* Your child must know what you expect, before you discipline him for not doing what you think he should do.
* Behavior expectations must be appropriate to the child’s age, e.g. a two-year-old can’t clean up his room properly.
* Behavior expectations must be explained in terms the child can understand.
* The child must be taught to do something right before he’s disciplined for doing it wrong.
* Don’t have too many expectations. You should not constantly control your child and expect him to do everything your way. If you do this, he will rightfully rebel.
* Teach empathy rather than obedience, so child learns why certain behaviors are wrong.
Making Sure Discipline is Fair
* Allow the child to experience the natural consequences of his decisions (e.g. forgetting to do homework, forgetting to take lunch to school, getting up late); they are usually more effective than parent-applied consequences.
* If you have to use consequences, make sure they are not too harsh. A child should never be deprived of basic needs like food, sleep, physical safety, love, and esteem, no matter what he has done. He should always know you love him and want to meet his needs.
* Make sure you don’t discipline your child when he is genuinely upset for a good reason.
* Make sure you’re not always disciplining. Your child should feel that most of the time you are happy with him, so he develops self-esteem.
* Watch for verbal abuse; don’t put your child down when you’re disciplining.
* Don’t evaluate your child as “good” or “bad” according to his behavior.
* When you discipline, make sure you distinguish between the child and his behavior : He needs to know you think he is a valuable person and has the ability to change his behavior.
So, back to the child who says “You don’t love me” when consequences are imposed. Check yourself with all the parenting principles listed above. Maybe your discipline is unfair in some way. If you know your discipline passes all the tests above, you can assume that your child is saying this for some other reason. Maybe he’s saying it to hear you tell him you love him. Tell him it’s okay to ask for love, but not when he’s being disciplined. Or he may be saying it to delay or avoid consequences, to push your “guilt button.” In this case, the way to deal with what he says is to simply ignore it. Tell him you are willing to discuss whether your consequences are fair at another time, but not right now. Tell him you love him enough to set limits on his behavior. Then follow through with your consequences.