Pain, Preference and Protest

A mother reported on the separation difficulties of her three-year-old daughter. The child cries when mother has to leave the house, tries to leave her at school or on a playdate, although not when father or babysitter takes her. The mother herself becomes very upset at the child’s upset.

This mother blames herself for the child’s problem with separation describing how during infancy she carried the baby around much of the time because she cried and seemed so unhappy when put down. Although she makes a connection between her own behavior and the child’s later difficulties, she also attributes to her feeling that the baby was really in pain and suffering the source of her responses.

This child was also described as being “slow to warm up,” a category used among others to define temperament, or personality. Parents recognize differences in children which seem inborn and are often used to explain certain kinds of behavior. On the other hand, these differences sometimes lead to behavior not to parents’ liking, leading to the feeling that it is a problem needing correction.

An example may be children who learn by observing as compared to those who learn by doing. Parents may be concerned about a child who sits back from participating freely in group activities, comparing her unfavorably to the children who seem to be more actively involved.

Children are growing up in an adult world and their own preferences can be expressed in behavior that makes life more difficult for the adults around them. Their protests about adult expectations can take the form of crying, meltdowns, or withdrawal. Grown-ups also have preferences but in the process of growing up we have learned how to modify our own behavior in order to live with other people. As adults we have also developed strategies for dealing with situations that make us uncomfortable.

Watching children holding back from entering a group of playing children one can be reminded of a cocktail party scenario. That is as an adult, finding a way to enter into a cocktail party in full progress, with clusters of small groups in conversation, drinks in hand – the drinks helping to smooth the path.

Because children express their likes and dislikes in unsocialized behavior, we often view this as misbehavior rather than as a strong expression of likes and dislikes. Or as in the example given above, children may react with such unhappiness as to suggest true pain and suffering. The child’s behavior suggested to the mom something beyond protesting what the child didn’t like.

It is this lack of clarity about the meaning of behavior that leads to confusion in adult responses to children. The idea that a child is misbehaving evokes old cultural feelings about adult authority, that children are simply bad and need to be punished in some way for their misbehavior.

Rising against this feeling is the fear that a child is truly suffering and that by not responding to this suffering a parent is inflicting damage that will injure the child in other ways. Such confusion often leads to inconsistency in responding to a child’s behavior, at times punitively, at other times “giving in” to the child’s wishes.

The reality is that a child’s protests say either that something expected is too hard. or is something he doesn’t like. In either case a parent is in a position to help by offering support in taking a developmental step. In one case, acknowledging a child’s feelings without judgment can be the sugar that helps the medicine go down.

When something is too hard, we may have to back up rather than back down. That is, move more slowly through a developmental step without giving up our expectation that a child can learn to do it.