“I got a D on my reading test,” one of my twins nearly snarled at me as she got off the bus. I did the typical parent thing, where I express disappointment but, more pointedly, offer reassurance and help for future tests.
Why would a 10-year-old be upset with a parent about a problem they, themselves, caused? Shouldn’t the kid be the one scrambling for explanation and clamoring for forgiveness? This is actually a typical reaction, psychologists say, because feelings of disappointment are hard, and when you’re little, they can be intolerable, especially if a parent has protected you from negative feelings in the past.
“Kids hand over their feelings to an adult,” said Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a psychologist in Princeton, N.J., and the author of “Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience and Develop Real Self-Esteem.” In other words, if they are feeling frustrated, they want you to feel frustrated, too. In doing this, the lack of understanding how to deal with a frustration is transferred to the parent to handle. With the grade situation I found myself in, Kennedy-Moore said, my daughter was feeling ashamed or diminished, so she blamed me. “It’s a defense mechanism against feeling this shame all by themselves,” she explained.
Parents can do some really unhelpful things out of an intense love for their children, said David Palmiter, a psychology professor at Marywood University, who wrote “Working Parents, Thriving Families: 10 Strategies That Make a Difference.” “With that kind of crazy love, if your kid is hurting, the knee-jerk reaction is to stop it all. This promotes self-entitlement.” Palmiter said that self-entitlement is a belief that you should be spared consequences because you are a good person with good intentions. “The fact a child didn’t get a good grade is because the parent let them down, in their eyes,” he said. “This is promoted unintentionally in how we currently parent.”
In my childhood, if I got a bad grade or broke something, I cowered and hid, feeling incredibly bad about it (and myself) for a long time. Even normal mishaps would send me into a spiral of shame and self-disgust. As a parent, I’ve sought to spare my children from shame. But in doing so, I unwittingly encouraged them to blame me.
“Self-entitlement is a very unpleasant thing. It doesn’t feel good,” Palmiter said. “It comes with anger and lack of trust. And when parents jump right to ‘here’s what we do about it,’ we deprive them of empathy.”
So how do we turn ourselves, and our children, around? I asked Palmiter and Kennedy-Moore for their advice.
Cultivate confidence: Palmiter highlights the importance of the parallel feelings of self-worthiness and self-confidence on this journey. Children must feel as though they are worthy of love and acceptance just by existing, but they also must feel competent in areas in which acceptance and approval can be earned. “Worthiness comes from undivided parental attention,” he said. But competence is also important; that’s conditional acceptance. Find things that kids are good at and have them do it regularly in ways that matter to adults, to promote that confidence. The trick is to allow the kids to have this experience of doing poorly."
Allow some suffering: Doing poorly will lead to suffering, but Palmiter said suffering is a really important part of human development. He compared it to seeking treasure behind a dragon. To get the treasure and appreciate those riches, you must get through the fire and fear of the dragon guarding it. “When something happens that’s painful, don’t try to mitigate that,” Palmiter said. “Let them feel it. Don’t make excuses. Acknowledge the hurt. Don’t try to take away legitimate suffering.”
Model empathy: Kennedy-Moore advises parents teach empathy by showing it, in the moment, during bouts of child suffering and projection. Ignore the attacks, she said. Those are just noise distracting from the issue at hand. “Empathize, empathize, empathize. Say, ‘You are feeling blank because of blank.’ And repeat this until you see a softening in their demeanor, in their face. You can’t move on to problem solving until you see the softening. If you try to move on before they are ready, they won’t hear you, they won’t be able to do the work to make it better.”
Kids have to feel mental pain to grow into empathic adults. “There is suffering in life, and we can’t prevent our children from ever feeling anything bad,” Kennedy-Moore said. “They will experience disappointment and pain and loss. We want to help them develop the skills to tolerate those feelings.”
Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned stay-at-home mom to twin girls. Follow her on Twitter @parentwin.