When You’re the Meanest Parent Known to Man
by Susan Stiffelman, MFT
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm, and Connected, the weekly advice columnist for Huffington Post Parents, and a family therapist and parent educator based out of Malibu, California. You may check out her website and her Facebook page.
When it comes to contests, there’s one that nearly every responsible parent wins now and then, and that is”Meanest Mom (or Dad) in the World!” If you take your role as a parent seriously, your instincts will inevitably collide with something your youngster desperately wants to have or do.
Human nature being what it is, we all like being liked; we love sharing laughs, hugs, and fun with our kids. But looking to our children to fulfill our friendship needs is a recipe for disaster. To parent effectively, we have to establish clear boundaries, even if it means upsetting our kids.
In my work, I explain that parents need to be the Captain of the Ship in their child’s life. In the same way that as a ship passenger, we might enjoy having a stimulating conversation with the captain, what we most want is to know that he or she can handle rough waters or stormy seas. Similarly, when our daughter has a meltdown because we won’t let her go to a sleepover because parents won’t be home, our job isn’t to try to explain why our decision is for her own good so that she’ll stop being mad at us. It’s to maintain the role as ship Captain, helping her navigate the big feelings fueling her upset.
A youngster who doesn’t get to go to a sleepover may feel enormosly anxious or sad about what will happen because of our “no.” She may worry that she’ll be excluded from future get-togethers with friends, losing status in her social group because she’s “a baby.” Or she might be afraid that the other girls will talk badly about her behind her back (a realistic fear for a 12-year old).
When these concerns get triggered by our “no,” our daughter will lash out at the safest outlet, which is usually the parent. In the midst of her fury, she doesn’t have the wherewithal to process whatever rational explanations we might have to offer. If we come at her with logic about why she can’t go, we’ll simply awaken her “inner lawyer” and end up in a loud and ultimately unsatisfying debate. It is usually better to simply state, “Unfortunately I’m not comfortable letting you sleep at Caitlyn’s when her parents are away.” If she flings horrible accusations, I counsel parents to stay as steady as possible, at least on the outside. (On the inside, we may be crumbling, but it’s best to try to appear strong.)
If she demands a reason, the best line is this: “I know you desperately want to go, and, whatever reason I give you right now isn’t going to make any sense.” This doesn’t mean that when she’s calmed down we shouldn’t explain our thinking; I think it’s important for children to understand what informs our decisions – when they’re calm enough and capable of doing so.
But in the midst of a hurricane, we don’t hang pictures on the wall. When a child is in the thick of an emotional storm, it may be tempting to justify our decision, (especially if she accuses us of being “totally lame”), but it’s useless to try to convince her that our restrictions are in her best interest until she’s settled down.
Effective parenting requires us to make choices that often cause us to temporarily lose the popularity contest with our kids. That’s OK. In the long run, it’s our job to parent, not make sure our kids like us. Sad, but true.
Ultimately, what will help our kids most is our calm, soothing presence, helping her offload her fears about what our “no” might mean to her social status. It’s likely she’ll need to have a good cry. Who better to do that with than her loving parent?