When Trying to Make Your Child Happy Makes You Miserable
Dear well-meaning parent whose best intentions are backfiring,
It's natural: no matter what your child's age, you want him to be happy.
And you'll do just about anything to make sure he is.
The problem is that you'll do just about anything to make sure he isn't unhappy, either.
And that's making you miserable.
Trying to protect your child from so-called negative feelings of disappointment, anger, sadness, and frustration can be exhausting.
You avoid his anger or meltdowns at all costs, so you give in easily and often. You say “yes” when you want to say “no.”
You don't want your child to be upset, but more than that, you don't want to be seen as the bad guy.
Then one day you realize it's your child, not you, calling all the shots. He just expects to get whatever he wants whenever he wants it. He takes advantage of you. He holds you hostage with threats of misbehavior. You find yourself walking on eggshells, parenting from a place of fear, and resenting him for being ungrateful and taking you for granted.
There is a way out of this destructive pattern. But it doesn't happen overnight. It's a process that requires you to be consistent, face your fears, and get over your guilt.
Even though it doesn't seem like it — and your child would certainly never admit it — he actually wants you to have firmer limits. Limits help him feel safe. They help him know what's acceptable and what isn't. And they help him learn self-control, patience, and gratitude. He needs you to step up and be his parent, not his friend. His behavior is testing your ability to meet that demand.
No parent likes to see her child upset, but the sooner he develops skills to manage feelings like frustration and disappointment, the better off he'll be.
Your anxiety about your child feeling distress can be worse than his own suffering! So, you need to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable, too. When your child gets upset, view it as an opportunity, rather than a problem. An opportunity to feel disappointment, to learn patience, and to see that the main adult in his life won't be manipulated, controlled, or mistreated.
Feelings of anger and sadness are natural and normal. It can be healing to hit a pillow or have a good cry. Validate your child's emotions rather than rushing to make him feel better.
Every stage has its age-appropriate opportunities for growth:
- When he's a baby, don't rush to his side the moment you hear him whimper at night. Babies make all kinds of noises in their sleep. When you go to him and pick him up, you actually wake him and rob him of the opportunity to learn how to fall back asleep on his own. (Click here for more about bedtime routines)
- When he's a toddler, allow him to struggle with things like getting the cap back on the toothpaste or pouring his own water. When you step in and do things for him, he misses the chance to figure them out for himself and feel pride in his accomplishments. (Click here for more about fostering independence)
- When it's time to leave the park and he throws himself on the ground kicking and screaming that he doesn't want to go, offer empathy. Acknowledge how hard it is to leave when he's having a good time and let him know that you'll be back another day, while holding firm that it's time to go. You can even hug him while he cries to demonstrate that you accept his sad feelings. (Click here for more about empathy)
- When he's a teenager and comes to you the night before a project is due saying he “forgot all about it,” let him experience the consequences that come with disorganization and procrastination. (Click here for more about consequences)
Celebrate life's highs, and learn to embrace the lows. Your child is more resilient than you think.
P.S. I'm always happy to hear from you. Let me know your thoughts about this in the comments section below.
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