Karin Fodness, LCSW Counseling

Missoula, Montana

Stop Doing That!

Communicating Love to Our Children Even When They Are Driving Us Crazy

When my youngest son was three years old and really upset with me he would sometimes tell me, “I don’t like you anymore!”  He would stand there with his hands on his hips, his brow furrowed, giving me his best impression of the “evil eye.”  He would threaten to stop loving me and wait for my reaction.  It took everything I had to not get the giggles (or strangle him, depending on my mood).  He could be so intense and yet so transparent, it was almost funny.  Unfortunately, my son was already trying to use one of the oldest tricks in the book:  emotional blackmail.

Admit it:  we have all used this handy little technique when we are trying to get out kids to do what we want.  Often it is our first instinct to use a stern look, a loud voice, or maybe we’ll even stomp out of the room or try the silent treatment.  Unfortunately, this technique won’t work on all kids (it only really works on kids that are highly invested in parental approval) and in the long run it will do more harm than good.

OK, don’t get me wrong; it is important to express our dissatisfaction and frustration to our children—to a point.  It helps them learn right from wrong.  However, when we rely too much on our emotional reactions to encourage compliance, we are engaging in a subtle form of emotional blackmail:  unless you do what I want, I won’t love you as much. 

Your kids know you love them—you express it all the time—so they should be able to handle your dissatisfaction and anger, right?  You shower them with gifts of your time and money.  You beam with pleasure when they say something sweet.  You jump up and down with love and pride when they make their first soccer goal.  They must know you love them, right?

But how do express your love for them when they have just crossed every line and pushed every button you didn’t even know you had?  Do you beam with unconditional love then?  It is pretty hard to feel the love during those times, isn’t it?  But it is those moments--when your children have screwed up and they know it--that they need to feel your love the most.

We all like to be told that we are loved.  Even in secure relationships it is nice to be reminded how others feel about us:  it feels good.  But in our worst moments, we don’t just want to feel loved, we NEED to feel loved—particularly children.  When young children have lost control and are in a full-blown tantrum, it can be a really scary place for them.  We are their source of comfort and we need to reassure them that no matter what they do, we will still love them.

So when your kids are driving you crazy and your first instinct is to let off a little steam to get them to step back into line, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Try not to let them know if their actions upset you.  Sometimes families get in negative cycles where the kids gain power because they can get a parent really upset.  Like my three-year-old son who was trying to retaliate by hurting my feelings:  if I responded by getting upset, he would feel powerful and would be more likely to repeat the behavior.  When you give consequences without heavy emotions attached to them, they must deal with the consequence more directly.
  •  When you re-affirm your relationship—even in the midst of conflict—the conflict will strengthen the relationship not weaken it.  When conflict is so emotionally laden, some families develop unhelpful patterns in which family members avoid conflicts at all costs.  Because the stakes are so high, sometimes unavoidable conflicts result in hurt feelings that can last days (or years!). 
  •  Consequences should be action-oriented, not words or emotions.  Talk less, act more.  Don’t let your emotions be the consequence.  A child will learn so much more from losing a privilege like TV time or time with friends than from a lecture or watching you get upset.
  • Whenever possible, express your love even in the midst of setting a limit.  I am not suggesting you let up on the consequences—stay firm and consistent—but think about how you are trying to get your kids to comply with your wishes.  Instead of “Get your pajamas on NOW!” try “Gosh, I just love reading books with you before bed.  If we aren’t ready for bed soon, we won’t have time for books.”  When they object to something you are putting on their plate, try “I know you don’t like broccoli, but I love you so much and it is my job to make sure you get food that is healthy for you.”  And when they can’t seem to let it go, just say, “I love you too much to argue.”
  • Have a forgiveness ritual.  When the big argument inevitably happens, make sure you come back together for forgiveness and affirmation.  Don’t be afraid to admit to your children that you lost your cool—even young children understand we aren’t all perfect.  This is a wonderful opportunity for you to model how to repair a relationship after conflict. 

So when your child screams at you, “I hate you!” no mater what their age, you can respond with, “Oh, that’s too bad sweetie, good thing I love you enough for both of us!”