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Stop Taking Your Child’s Behavior Personally (It’s Not About You)

I was driving 70 mph down Florida’s Turnpike and belting out songs from “Barney's Greatest Hits: The Early Years,” when my then 20-month old Marissa shouted something that stopped me dead in my tracks:


“Mommy! Stop singing!”


Self-disclosure time: I love to sing. I studied musical theatre, had the lead in a high school musical, and sang in a college band. But while I enjoy singing and several loved ones (and even some complete strangers) say they like my voice, I’m still pretty self-conscious about it.


The first time Marissa asked me to – no, demanded that — I stop singing, I felt criticized and insulted. I was too hurt to even say anything at the time. I just sulked to myself in the front seat.


Days later when it happened again, I attacked back with shame as my weapon: “Don’t talk to me that way! That’s not a nice thing to say. Mommy enjoys singing. How would you like it if I told you to stop doing something that makes you happy?”


When that didn’t work, I taught her to ask in a more polite way. “Mommy, could you please stop singing?” That seemed like a decent compromise that felt more considerate and sensitive to me, and she caught on pretty quickly.


There were other instances when I took her behavior personally, too. Like the times I prepared meals for her that she refused to eat. I thought, “Why doesn’t she appreciate the time, effort, and money that went into this meal?” Or when she said she wanted to spend time with Gavin instead of with me. Ouch.


On each of these occasions, it only took a split second for my mind to make outrageous assumptions and project into the future. I thought, “She hates my singing.” “I don't know how to cook for my own child.” “She loves Gavin more.” “If I don’t nip this behavior in the bud, she’ll grow up to be defiant and rebellious. Selfish and rude. What kind of relationship will we have?” And the worst: “I'm a horrible mom.”


Yes, all of those thoughts, though unconscious at the time, were running through my head.


Obviously, I was too caught up in my own feelings to realize the absurdity of expecting a one year old to ask politely, appreciate my cooking, or consider my feelings. I didn’t realize at the time that each one of those experiences triggered issues from my past, such as my need for approval, feeling rejected, or believing that I wasn't good enough. I also reacted out of anger because as a child, I was taught that “disrespectful” behavior was unacceptable.


I assumed that Marissa’s behavior was all about me and how it made me feel. But you know what they say about the word “assume” – and it definitely made an ass out of me!


Fast forward a couple of years. I began to notice how Marissa took Dalia's innocent behavior personally and I watched her react defensively, just as I had done with her.  I immediately recognized myself in her and realized the lesson I needed to learn.


When I stop and take Marissa’s feelings into account and try to see things from her perspective, I can look at each situation more objectively. Perhaps she wanted me to stop singing so she could hear Barney’s voice better. Maybe she just wasn’t hungry for dinner. And who could blame her for wanting to spend time with Gavin? It wasn’t about me. It was never about me.


We’re all so used to seeing things from our own perspective that we come to believe our vantage point is the only valid one. I’ve been told by many of the parents in my classes that one of the most powerful and helpful sessions is the one in which they’re asked to imagine a day in the life of their child from their child’s point of view.


When my child doesn’t do something I’ve asked her to do, it isn’t that she’s defying me or trying to make me crazy.  She isn’t doing anything TO ME. She’s got her own agenda, needs, interests, and priorities. When she behaves “inappropriately,” she’s not trying to embarrass or anger me. Even if she were to try, I'm the one who chooses how I feel. She can't make me feel or do anything.


Now, when one of my daughters throws a tantrum, says something disrespectful, or cries, “I want Daddy!” it doesn't ruffle my feathers like it used to. I try to see the situation from her perspective and understand that she's entitled to her own feelings and thoughts about a situation. She's responsible for her behavior and I'm responsible for mine – staying calm, setting firm limits, letting her know the consequences of her behavior, and following through. I'm a much more effective mama with a lot less drama.


If you ever find yourself thinking or saying to your child, “How could you do this TO ME?” or “Don’t ever do that TO ME again!” it's a clue that you’re taking your child’s behavior personally.


Ask yourself: Why am I taking this personally? What feelings or memories are being triggered? How can I look at the situation from a different point of view?


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Until next Tuesday…

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Hi, I’m Pam

As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Master Parenting Coach, and former K-8 School Counselor, I’m on a mission to empower moms to feel calmer and more connected to their kids.

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