Children Opposing Parents: Talking Back or Positive Assertion of Self?

At every stage of development, children thrive when their parents listen to their ideas about what they want even if those ideas are very different from parents' wishes for their children. When you consider and take your child's perspective seriously, you are giving your child a gift of respecting their growing unique individual selves. This doesn't mean you have to agree or say yes, but you do need to express your understanding of what your child wishes. When you are able to consider that your child is not talking back, but may be asserting his developing self, you will be providing your child with the foundation for developing self confidence and self esteem. Differences create much less distance between parent and child when they are acknowledged and respected.

As I was thinking about a number of patients I see in psychotherapy whose parents had trouble distinguishing between talking back and self assertion, I recalled a television show I saw recently. In that show, a six year old sitting at the dinner table with her parents suddenly announced she was a vegetarian. At first, the parents dismissed her claims and tried to insist she eat the meat in front of her. She stubbornly refused. They argued with her a little and then they ultimately respected her wishes. In the next scene the grandparents came to babysit while the parents went out. Grandma brought her granddaughter's favorite meal which contained meat. The child stubbornly refused. Grandpa insisted. The child refused. Grandma insisted, more refusal. Grandpa said "You will sit at this table until you eat your dinner." Was the six year old talking back or asserting herself? The parents' eventual response to their daughter's announcement suggests they might answer that she was asserting herself. The grandparents, who ended up in a power struggle with their grandchild, would probably say she was talking back.

When our children say "no" to us, or when they ask us for things that we are inclined to say "no" to, we respond not only based on what our heads tell us. We have feelings about their differing wishes and perspectives. When our children assert themselves or oppose us in this way, it is useful to ask ourselves "what am I feeling and why am I feeling it?" We can then look at our feeling responses as information that can help guide our behavior. For example, the grandparents in the television show might have been feeling "how hurtful this child is, rejecting this meal that grandma made especially for her." They may have felt disrespected. It isn't unusual for adults to feel that they should be completely in charge of their children. When a parent feels disrespected, he is likely to feel hurt and angry. In such a feeling state, it would seem to make sense to immediately say "NO" to the child's wishes. But if we stop and look at our feelings, we could notice that we are hurt and angry and that we are expressing our feelings in the "NO". If we pay attention to our feelings before we go into action, we could be in a better position to think about what we want to do.

If grandpa could think about his granddaughter's wishes, he might be able to consider that she is trying on her own new way of being in the world. She is communicating "I am an individual who is different from my family." She is testing, "will I be allowed to be separate?" This perspective on the child's behavior is very different than viewing her as simply a talking back, ungrateful, stubborn child. The parents of this child also had negative feelings about the child's desire to be a vegetarian. They said "No" but they reconsidered. If we imagine what they might have been feeling, we could consider that they might have felt opposed and threatened. They are the parents and parents are in charge, aren't they? They might have felt confused by their child taking on such an assertive role and asking for something different from the family's usual behaviors. They may have felt burdened by the idea they would now have to cook a separate meal. Whatever they felt, they obviously thought about their response. Perhaps they recognized their daughter's attempt to become a more separate individuated self.

If we ask the question "what am I feeling when my child asserts herself against my parental opinions and authority?" we can often avoid power struggles and tensions with our children. We can ask ourselves questions like: "What makes what our child wants wrong or disrespectful?" "Are children always supposed to go along with what parents want?" "What is going on with my child that she is responding this way?" "Why is it better for my child to wear my choice of clothes?" "Am I trying to avoid feeling embarrassed by my child?" "Why should I force my child to go to the park, or on a play date or to a party when he doesn't want to go?" "Why should I insist my child go to sleep-away camp even if he says he is scared?"

There are no right and wrong answers to these questions. These questions help us to not simply react. It is the parent's job to determine which of his child's demands the parent should be in charge of. For example, if the child refuses to go to the park and the parent thinks it is best the child be active or have fresh air, the parent may decide this is not a decision that is up to the child. But it is always important when the child says "no" that you get more information. Suppose it turns out that the child who refuses to go to the playground is being bullied by the older kids. If the parent can get the child to tell them this information, it changes the situation. The parent can then find a different playground, or help the child with the bullying or find some other way to address the problem. If the parent talks with the child or tries to discover what the problem is for the child and finds no good reason for the child to stay at home, then the parent says "no". It is most important that the parent, when dealing with their child who is trying to separate and individuate, talk with their child, listen and consider what the child has to say.

As part of every child's normal development, after the infant emerges from the very special

closeness (symbiosis) with mother, the processes of separation and individuation begin. The process of individuation includes the child's exploration and experimentation with who he is and who he is becoming. As early as two or three, children begin to express their "no" emphatically and loudly. This is important in the development of self. For the young child, saying "no" is one of the earliest signs of individuation. It is a statement that I am separate from you and want something different. When the child can say "no" she is preparing her self to say "yes". Saying "yes" is an assertion of the developing self. "Yes" is an announcement of who I am (or who I am becoming) and what I want.

While the Individuation process is typically described as belonging to the early years of development, the process continues well into adulthood. It is often a surprise for the parents of adolescents to find they are dealing with the same issues with their 13 or 16 year old that they faced when their child was two or three. The opposition, the tantrums, the stubbornness of the three year old, frequently returns during the teen years. The fights, the silent anger, the "you just don't get it" feelings that adolescents express, are the continuation of the process of Individuation: the creation of the unique individual self.

Adolescents present parents with the same problems that younger children do as they continue discovering who they are and what they want. But because teenagers need to be given more room to experiment with their selves, parents have a more difficult job of determining where and when to set limits. With adolescents the issue is more complicated. The dilemma is that adolescents need to develop more control over their lives, but they are more at risk with the wide range of possibilities available to them. It is difficult for parents to figure out in what areas teenagers can be given more autonomy over their lives. No one would suggest parents give up limits around things like alcohol and drugs. But what do you do when you don't like your child's friend? How do you respond to curfews, borrowing the car, requests for birth control? If you want to avoid power struggles, you do the best you can to TALK and LISTEN to your adolescent. You also continue the process of examining what you are feeling about your child's demands and requests. For example, is your adolescent's friend making you uncomfortable because he is different from you and your family, or is this friend someone who you know is getting into trouble, sexually promiscuous, or getting into fights? It is always important to know what your feelings are before you figure out how you want to respond to your child. The important thing is to talk with your child and respond with more than a "NO" or "because I said so."

Helping our children to become self confident individuals requires that we talk with our children. We try to listen, hear and consider what our children are saying. This means that parents need to explore what children's "no's" are about. Why is the child saying no? What would the problem be for the child if she said yes? What would the problem be for the parent if he said yes to the child? When you work with your children to try and understand their point of view, they are more likely to be interested in hearing and considering your opinion. This talking will help your children to experience you as interested in them as individuals and they will be less likely to experience your ideas and decisions as arbitrary. This doesn't mean there will always be agreement between parent and child. The same way that couples ideally try and understand each other's points of view and put themselves in the other persons shoes, parents and children, and especially adolescents, have closer and more loving relationships when they develop the capacity to be curious about the other person's experience.

©Copyright 2011 by Beverly Amsel, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

I have been a psychotherapist in private practice on the upper west side of Manhattan for over 25 years. I work with older adolescents and with adults individually and in couples therapy and marriage counseling. I work with a wide range of issues including, but not limited to, anxiety, depression, problems about intimacy and developing long-term relationships, separation anxiety, parenting, creative blocks, and family and work conflicts. I specialize in working with young adults who have difficulties transitioning into adulthood and with parents who struggle with the separation and individuation of their children

Although the idea of starting therapy can be scary, it can also be exciting. Therapy is a process of self discovery which can help you create the life and relationships that really work. It is a process where I help you to talk and learn about your thoughts and feelings. As we focus on the issues you bring to therapy, our talks will affect the ways in which you relate to the world and the impact the world has on you.

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