Not everything children do is caused by something you did. That seems obvious doesn’t it? Yet what seems sensible often has nothing to do with the way mothers feel. The idea that there is a right and a wrong way to do everything is so much part of parents’ thinking, that when a child’s behavior is worrisome mothers often come to the conclusion that they must have done something wrong.
Working mothers are quick to attribute behavior they are concerned about to the fact that they are working. One mother talked to me about her daughter who had suddenly started stuttering. Mom was sure it was due to a business trip that had taken her away from home for several days. She seemed to feel that she had to defend herself for continuing to work outside the home.
Stuttering can come and go in young children, so Mom and I talked about what else was going on in her daughter’s life. It became clear that the little girl was feeling a lot of pressure about toilet training, which was also going on. The follow-up was that they relaxed about the toilet training and the stuttering disappeared. Maybe it would have stopped anyway, who knows? But the point is that Mom was so quick to blame herself for working that she wasn’t thinking about anything else.
Another mother, who had stopped working to stay home with her child, told me that the transition from work to child-rearing was very challenging. She said the most difficult thing was the feeling of ultimate responsibility – that no matter what else she was doing, she always was responsible for her child.
Another difficult thing was never knowing if she was doing a good job – always worrying after she had done something if she had done it the “right” way. It was not like work where people told you whether you had done it right, and you could feel confident.
This Mom expressed very well the feelings I have heard from many mothers, both those at-home and those working outside the home. Young children are dependent on us for their care, and that feeling of ultimate responsibility can lead mothers to feel that everything is due to them – both bad and good. (Unfortunately, they get blamed for the bad, and get little credit for the good.)
And it certainly is true that as mothers we don’t get any positive feedback in the form of a promotion, or a raise. You don’t know how your children are going to turn out, and you’re in trouble if you look to their behavior to tell you how you are doing. Children are not going to like some of the things we do as parents because we are responsible for them, and they often show it in behavior that is difficult, or that we don’t like.
In the same way, thinking in terms of whether children are happy or unhappy can lead you down the garden path. Is anyone happy all the time? Yet mothers often think that when children seem unhappy it means they (the mothers) did something wrong to cause it. The fact is that parents and children live in two different realities: what parents require is often not at all what children want, and what children want is often not possible or realistic. So children express their unhappiness at this state of affairs, which is what we all do at times. But this should not be translated as meaning we did something wrong.
The point is that blaming yourself for everything a child does is not helpful for several reasons. For one thing, it makes mothers feel unnecessarily guilty and worried, which makes life more difficult. But perhaps more importantly, it interferes with the ability to do something constructive about the situation at hand. If you start out with the idea that you have done something wrong, you get focused on yourself rather than on your child. You get so involved in thinking about what you did to cause something, that you forget to think about what else might be going on for your child.
We forget that growing up is just not that easy for anyone, and often think that if only our own parents had done this or that differently, our own growing up would have been easier. So we sometimes get caught up in the goal of doing it the “right way” for our own children. But the fact is that our children’s behavior is often a reflection of their own struggle to deal with the changes taking place within themselves as they grow, as well as meeting the changing expectations of those around them.
As with the mother of the stuttering little girl, if you stop trying to figure out what you did to cause something, and think instead about what else might be going on for your child, you will be taking a step toward helping the situation. Not every problem has a solution, and there is no “right” answer or thing to do. We can only do our best to try to understand what is going on, and in that way let our children know that whatever they are going through, we are there to help them.