The Last Word

These days of enforced home confinement has put new pressure on family relationships as parents and children spend more time with each other than ever before. New kinds of interactions are created as children are home from school requiring parental involvement in school work and parents are home from work interacting more with their children and with each other.

At times the unremitting nature of these interactions make typical patterns of behavior more apparent. Numerous articles have already appeared on the effect this may be having on couples. In relationships between parents and children typical kinds of interactions can become intensified and more apparent.

A familiar interaction between a mother and her son was described to me by a frustrated father. What starts out as a simple disagreement in which the son protests something said by the mother, escalates into a major confrontation as each contradicts the previous statement made by the other. The father’s characterization of the dispute is that each of them needs to have the “last word”, so there is no way to end it.

This is a description of an almost classic kind of exchange that often occurs as children get older and have an increasing need to assert themselves. The seeming contest to have the last word is actually a struggle about authority. The parent is asserting his or her authority and the young person is engaged in a battle to establish his own.

If one is an observer or bystander to these exchanges, what becomes apparent is that the supposed issue involved is not the point at all and is actually irrelevant. For the young person, each success in provoking a response from the parent is a source of satisfaction and so there is pleasure in keeping the whole exchange going. For the parent such provocations become a challenge to be put down.

In many ways these kinds of exchanges are a later version using words of interactions with preschool age children acted out in behavior. A typical example may be that of a two or three-year-old asking for a cookie. Mom answers that it is too close to lunch time. The child persists in the request and upon receiving the same answer goes to the cupboard, takes a cookie himself and provocatively bites into it.

Mom now feels stuck in thinking about how to respond. Should she try to take the cookie away? Is a punishment in order? If she does nothing in response what message is she giving the child? How is he to learn to respect the wishes of his parents?

These kinds of interactions with young children are familiar. Children who are experiencing the early feelings of emerging autonomy, a beginning sense of being an entity separate from mother with a capacity for independent functioning. Similar behavior can be seen when a two-year-old runs ahead of mom or dad to the end of the block with a parent frantically running to stop him before he runs across the street into onrushing traffic.

These days with no running about outside, the first example is the more likely one, especially now with everyone stressed by indoor captivity and forced togetherness. However, it may also afford an opportunity to become aware of some of these patterns of behavior rendering them less provocative. A recognition of what children are about can lessen a parental need to dramatically demonstrate authority and to sympathize with the status of childhood.

A parent saying, “I am happy to give you the last word,” can accomplish both, (although the cookies may have to be kept on a higher shelf.)