By: Haim Amit
Educational Psychologist, Certified Family therapist, Organizational Consultant
Author of the books: Confident Parenting, Modan, 2012.
Parents as Leaders, Modan, 2006. & Parents as Humans, Sifriat Poalim, 1997
“A Jew runs away from the place where trouble is found; the troubles chase him everywhere he goes .”
— S.J. Agnon, Shira
Between Doormat and Tyrant
At the end of the day, Carol, an exhausted mother, tries to cope with Paul, who stubbornly refuses to do his homework. Finally Carol tells Paul, “Fine. Do what you want. I can’t take it anymore. Wait till your father comes home. He’ll take care of this.”
Jake, the father, arrives home from work frustrated and angry after hearing about his son’s behavior on the phone. He raises his voice to Paul, ordering him to do his homework immediately. When Paul refuses, Jake threatens him, grabbing him, and dragging him to the table. Paul cries, shouting out for help.
As we concluded in the previous chapter, now more than ever before, parents feel threatened and incompetent in their parenting. In situations like the one described, they adopt one or both of two extreme and destructive coping patterns that I call doormat and tyrant. Being a doormat means withdrawing, throwing up your hands in despair, making inordinate concessions, and indulging the child’s demands. Being a tyrant means coming out fighting and impulsive, employing heavy-handed and arbitrary authority.
Many parents swing between these two “strategies”, which are both behavioral extremes, making neither beneficial to either the child or the parent. The source of these two syndromes lies in how we deal with threatening situations. When we feel threatened, we react with the extreme responses of fight – attacking the source of danger; or flight – escaping the source of danger. In nature, these were our automatic responses to actual danger, i.e., encountering a wild animal, or a volcanic eruption. Today, we react in a similar automatic way to dangers in relationships such as fear of rejection, fear of losing control, or damaged esteem or status. In the same way that our ancestors fought or took flight from physical dangers, we fight for or take flight from emotional dangers.
However, although fight-or-flight behavior is appropriate to facing physical dangers, it causes severe complications in relationships, taking the form of emotional fear. There follows ineffective parental coping patterns such as doormat and tyrant — and their ill consequences for the family.
A mother is trying to talk to her friend on the phone. Her son wants her to play with him, now, in this very moment, even though she played with him only a short while ago. The mother says “hold on”, and he pulls at her sleeve. She shakes him off and he becomes angry. She asks him to wait for just one more second – he starts having a tantrum. The mother apologizes to her friend on the phone, finishes the call and sits down to play with her son, furious with anger
In yielding authority – being a doormat – the parent relinquishes reasonable demands on their child without justification. The parent carries out tasks that the child was supposed to do on their own. He wearily agrees to the child’s aggression towards him and others, and so forth. For example, a parent who concedes to their child about going to bed at a reasonable hour; or a parent who puts the child’s dishes in the dishwasher, despite the fact that the child can do it by himself; or a parent who ignores the fact that their child curses them and so on. In concessions made by parents out of surrender, the child senses the parental ineptitude, even if he is seemingly getting his way with them. In power struggles between parents and children, the child senses her parents’ weaknesses, even when the child “wins”. Waiving parental authority creates a sense on the parent’s part of blackmail, bitterness, and frustration.
Research shows that submissive and / or incompetent parents are more inclined to sudden and far harsher responses to conflicts with their children than are parents who are assertive and competent. Developmental researcher Diana Baumrind describes the process of parental outbursts toward children by actually using yielding parents as examples, i.e., those who refrain from punishing their children. Such parents accumulate feelings of anger and ineptitude, and sooner or later, have severe and frightening fits of rage. The child is alarmed, confused, unable to understand the boundaries, and feels insecure about the future. The parent, also alarmed by the intensity of her outburst, tries to compensate, causing the child even more confusion. The cycle continues as the parent continues to avoid setting boundaries and internalizing her anger, leading to the next outburst. Thus, a pattern is created wherein unclear and confusing “boundaries” are set that are likely to cause internal confusion for the child and the seeds of behavioral problems.
The parental doormat with older children is easily spotted. This is the parent who gives in to her four-year-old about bedtime; loads his eight-year-old’s dishes into the dishwasher; and ignores her preteen cursing her. In concessions made by parents out of despair, the child senses the parent’s ineptitude, even as s/he is seemingly getting her way. By this time, the gap between the child’s expectations and the parents’ concessions is wide.
The doormat process begins with children at very young ages, as parents concede to the child’s wishes even when inappropriate; ask their child’s permission to do something (“It’s time for bed now. OK?”); leap to “fix” a child’s dissatisfaction (fishing a favorite shirt out of the dirty laundry), or wait for the child’s consent before separating for the day.
“We’re parents of older children, and we do everything for them. Almost nothing is demanded of them: We tidy up what they strew around the living room, we clear away their dishes in the kitchen, clean up after them in the bathroom, and other ‘services’. They almost never hear the word ‘no’ from us, and we concede to them quickly during disputes.
We’re aware that our surrender as parents began when they were very young indeed. The only question is who surrendered first: We argue between us whether it began when Carl couldn’t stand Stephen’s wails of protest when I took away his nappy with the intention of weaning him off, and so put another nappy on him; or could it be when I would allow Stephen to be attached to me constantly, even in the bathroom, and bring him into our bed in the middle of the night when he screamed bitterly?”
No parent wants to be a doormat. So how does a parent become one? Even parents who believe in an equal and democratic atmosphere in the family, who strive for close and respectful relations with their children, do not aspire to reaching the point of helplessness, endless concessions, and surrender. Parents become doormats when they feel threatened and helpless due to a number of reasons: the errant notion that a gratified child is a happy child; fear of damaging the child; fear of losing the child’s love; guilt at not spending enough time with the child; fatigue and exhaustion; or the ramifications of the parents’ own upbringing.
While parents who are aware of such feelings find it easier to cope with them, other issues are harder for parents to cope with, since they may not be aware of their existence. Let’s take the examples above one by one.
A gratified child is a happy child
Case study: A mother who is prepared to humiliate herself in order that her daughter be gratified.
In this family in my care, the parents are dealing with their daughter, a fourth grader. While Sherri is intelligent and well-behaved outside the house, she is violent at home. Her mother tells me with some pain:
“Yesterday afternoon she came home from a friend’s house. As soon as she walked in, she announced, ‘I’m bored’. I knew that at that moment, if I didn’t manage to find something to occupy her, it would be the end of the world. I did my best, but I didn’t succeed, and she began to act out in the living room. I went upstairs, because I didn’t want to argue with her. She came after me. I went into my bedroom and locked the door. She began to knock on the door. I said to her, without anger, ‘What have I done to you? Why can’t you leave me alone?’ She shouted, ‘You started it!’ I said, ‘OK. Fine. I apologize,’ even though I had nothing to apologize for. I just wanted to end it. I wanted her to stop.”
In many instances, parental surrender of authority stems from the notion that by avoiding conflict with the child, and by seeing to it that she is always gratified, the child will respond by cooperating. Parents who surrender their authority are trying to avoid confrontation, opting to buy “industrial peace” in the short term, yet at the expense of the child’s sense of security in the long term. Examples are a parent who tries to placate her child by buying an unnecessary toy; or a parent who serves the child food in her room, despite it being against house rules, in order to bribe her into doing homework. Experience teaches that the break we get in surrendering is short-lived, as it leads to increased demands on the part of the child, as well as increased complaining and whining.
Furthermore, parental over-indulgence damages parents themselves, since it leaves the child with a sense of total power, yet does not allow her to process this power. Worse still, such a child will not feel any need to consider her parents’ wishes, and as such, will not experience her parents as people, separate from him. This generalizes to the child being unable to feel that someone else, separate from her, loves her; despite all the tenderness and “acceptance” that her parents bestow upon her, s/he will feel alone and hungry for love.
Today we know that parental surrender can actually induce violence on the part of children. This is because when parents concede to their child, often as a response to the child’s temperamental reactions to boundaries, the child discovers that this is the way to get what s/he wants. Research shows that parental surrender strengthens the child’s confidence in her ability to get what s/he wants through belligerent means, deepening the parents’ helplessness and pessimism regarding their ability to halt the downward spiral.
Fear of harming the child
Parents may feel that a tough attitude toward their child will harm her, due to the misperceptions that parents adopt (described in the previous chapter) and / or owing to over-identifying with their children: They fear that setting boundaries will stunt the child’s self-expression, or that s/he will feel rejected, or perhaps her spontaneity will be repressed. A mother and senior educator says:
“I’m aware of the need to set boundaries for my baby on the matter of sleep. I know that if I don’t take care of this now, it will turn into a nightmare. But when he starts crying and wants us to take him to our bed with us, I find it hard to do. I sense that he’s suffering, and fear that this will cause him damage in the future. My anxiety is stronger than me.”
The fear of damaging the child can lead to a chain of errant responses on the parents’ part.
Case study: Parents’ fear the reactions of their four-year-old
In this family in my care, the parents often concede to their eldest daughter, aged four, whose younger brother has just been born. They are afraid to approach the baby in her presence so as not to arouse her jealousy. They intentionally lose to her at games in order to “raise her spirits”. They never go anywhere without her, because she wants to be with them constantly. Despite sensing that their concessions to her are out of control, they don’t know how to stop the negative cycle they find themselves in.
With older children, there are even more reasons for parents to fear damaging them, and they may respond to this fear by adopting a surrendering approach toward them:
“Jon is starting 10th grade with many learning difficulties. He was born premature and he developed slowly. In elementary school, he was diagnosed as suffering from ADD. Until this day, my wife treats him like a preemie! She claims we need to be patient with him, that his development is slower, he has learning disabilities so we’re not allowed to be strict with him, since it could damage him. I’m not allowed to get angry at him for fear of harming him. She’s reached the point where she concedes to him constantly, yet he doesn’t appreciate it; in fact, the opposite is true. He belittles and degrades her”.
Fear of losing the child’s love
Parents refrain from exercising their authority over their child for fear the child will stop loving them. This fear already exists at the toddler stage. For example, various situations wherein a toddler is angry at her parents, requiring even tougher action on their part: Anne is trying to feed two-year-old Jill, who is throwing cutlery around the table and saying, “Mummy is bad!” The embarrassed mother is paralyzed. When the child is older and knows how to express herself and has even more power to realize her desires, the parental fear of losing her love increases:
“I’m afraid that if I stretch the cord, if I push him too much, he’ll close up, stop relating to me, and the good relations between us will cease to be. Truth is, discipline’s not worth it. His love is the most important thing to me.”
While fear of losing the child’s love exists in every family, it is especially prominent in the case of divorced parents, many of whom fear that the child will favor the other parent and will leave them to move in with him or her.
“It drives me crazy how every time I get angry at my kid, he tells me that at his dad’s place, it never happens. It’s no wonder! He’s only at his father’s place twice a week, and mainly just for fun, whereas all the chores and duties fall on me! I’ve reached a point where I’m afraid that if I continue to be the ‘baddy’, he’ll stop loving me and say he wants to live with his father.”
Divorced parents indeed suffer guilt, not least because of the psychological assumption that parents are totally responsible for shaping the child’s personality. As a result, they are inclined to concede to their children, surrender to their wants, and feel they must compensate for the apparent injustices they have caused:
“I have a lot of guilt about all the mistakes we made with the kids during the early years. When I read all the books that talk about the importance of the first year to the child’s development and establishment of trusting relations, and I recall how awful I felt and how I wasn’t able to lovingly care for her, I cry. And when I hear the psychologist at my daughter’s kindergarten emphasizing the importance of coping with crises in order to develop effective coping patterns for the future, I get angry at myself. I recall how I didn’t cope with my crises, and I wonder what bad effects it had on my daughter.”
Single parents may experience particularly strong guilt.
Case study: A youngster snubs his single-parent family
In a single-parent family in my care post-divorce, the sixteen-year-old often accused his mother of discrimination between him and his sisters, his “abandonment” during the divorce proceedings, and so on. He expressed his accusations in an verbally aggressive manner, and his mother felt helpless to oppose him. She was incapable of coping with his accusations in a direct way, and reacted with fixed, ineffective statements that aimed to be authoritative, such as: “I am not willing to accept behavior like this in my house. Go to your room.” The son would remain lying on the couch in the living room, with total disregard for his mother. The mother would leave the living room, hurt and defeated. It turns out that the mother felt guilt toward her son, as she noticed that he was most strongly affected by the painful divorce.
Feelings of despair
Parents throw up their hands in despair because previous experience has shown them that they fail in confrontational situations with their children:
“I refused to buy my son the shoes he wanted, as they cost 700 shekels [USD 180.00 / £125. / €150] When he informed me that he wouldn’t go to school if I didn’t buy him the shoes, I cracked. I knew he was capable of doing something like that, and that I had absolutely no power to stop him. Past experience proved that he always won these fights. So I gave in.”
Parents can also experience despair after they’ve tried several approaches, and nothing seems to work. An father who came to therapy because of his teenage son, says:
“We don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve tried everything, from good to bad, from talking to rage. Nothing at all has helped. I initiated coming to you because my wife is in despair. And if she’s in despair — she, who has so much patience — it’s a sign that the situation is really bad.”
Children learn that their parents concede quickly when they “attack” in public places. This is because parents are afraid of reactions from their surroundings, and are quite naturally embarrassed at the child’s behavior. In these situations, parents tend to surrender quickly. For example, a father and his daughter go shopping. The girl asks for candy. The father accedes. She requests more candy. The father says no. She throws a tantrum. The father surrenders, because he’s concerned about the other shoppers. He buys his daughter more candy, then pleads with her, “But that’s it. OK?”
Fatigue and exhaustion
Parents are weary of the grinding daily routine, both within the family and outside it. They tell themselves that in the short space of time they have to enjoy their children, they don’t want to quarrel with them; instead they “buy silence” through surrender:
“When I finally get home, the last thing I want to do is to argue with the kids. I don’t have the energy for it after constant stress at work. So I surrender, consciously. He doesn’t want to eat? So he won’t eat. He doesn’t feel like doing his homework? So he won’t do it. He wants to watch more TV? So he’ll watch; it’s not the end of the world. The main thing is that he stops whining and crying, and that he gives us some peace and quiet.”
The parent’s past
Our children’s behavior can often be traced to unresolved matters from our own childhoods. Parents who “carry” unresolved problems from their pasts around with them are likely to find themselves in patterns of surrender with their children, out of the fear of reenacting their own painful histories. They may attempt to “correct for” the strict parenting they experienced in their childhoods by giving far more license to their own children, which in actual fact damages them.
Case study: A mother tries to compensate for emotional deficiencies she experienced in her childhood
Gail, 34, came for family therapy because of thirteen-year-old Andrew’s behavioral problems. Despite their difficult economic situation, Gail and her husband make a huge and inexhaustible effort to provide their children with everything they need and much more. Gail feels especially guilty when she’s unable to meet Andrew’s demands—and he demands more and more: The computer’s broken, but he wouldn’t dream of fixing it; they need a new one. His friends from elementary school are not in his middle school class; he needs to change schools or at the very least, classes. The father refuses Andrew’s demands to increase his allowance; he’s in the wrong and Gail needs to solve the problem. Andrew has learned to focus the responsibility for finding solutions to his problems on others, i.e., he’s OK, others are not. Gail panders to him without even realizing it. Why? During therapy, it surfaced that Gail had grown up in a large family. She’d lacked affection and attention from her parents, who both labored from morning till night, and could not free themselves in order to raise their children. As a result, Gail grew up with an emotional deficiency, especially regarding her mother. Throughout the years, she was became weighed down by anger toward her mother. She promised herself, on an unconscious level, that her children would never suffer the same feelings of lack that she had. And so now, she jumps through hoops in order to satisfy all of her son’s whims. In turn, her son has learned to exploit her emotional weak spot. Whenever he makes a sad face, Gail becomes his marionette. She perceives him as experiencing feelings of deprivation and deficiency, and hurries to fill his needs because she can’t stand to relive her difficult emotions. Result: Andrew grew up spoiled, behaving as if the world owed him. Absurdly and tragically, like his mother in her childhood, he feels deprived! Gail’s unconscious efforts to provide her son with the attention that she lacked in her own childhood not only failed, they were not even beneficial.
Case study: Tyranny over a 12th grader.
A 12th grader from a family in my care refused to tidy his room, even after incessant pleading. The mother was fed up and shouted, “If you don’t tidy your room, you can’t take driving lessons!” The boy protested: “What’s that got to do with it? You’re abusing your power.” The mother told her friend, “What can you do? Without being a tyrant, nothing helps.”
The use of domineering authority — tyranny — is not about setting rational boundaries in a sympathetic atmosphere, but rather is about forcing instructions and demands onto the child, by means of aggressive and arbitrary behavior on the parents’ part. In most cases, parental tyranny is expressed verbally, i.e., raised voices, a cynical and accusing tone, threats of extreme punishment, and so forth. Tyranny can also manifest as an aggressive physical action toward a child, such as yanking a toddler’s hand as an expression of anger at an unfulfilled instruction, an unnecessary shove out of frustration, or an overly firm grip on the child’s wrist.
The father of a young girl loses his patience because of his daughter’s continuous efforts to take a plate and throw it on the floor. He screams at her: “I fed up with you! What do I need you for? The only thing you bring me is grief, dam it!”
A tyrannical approach can also appear as an aggressive physical behavior by a parent towards an infant child, such as an exaggerated pulling of the infant’s hand as an expression of anger because of an unfulfilled instruction, an unnecessary push out of frustration, or a firm grip despite the child’s objection, and so on.
“Even today I recall with aversion and shame how I used to act violently toward my eldest daughter when, as a baby, she found it difficult to fall asleep. Out of pure frustration and helplessness, I would push her up against the wall and hold her there, my hands on her back.”
Parental physical aggression in threatening situations can also occur with older children.
A parent asks the child to turn off the TV and go to bed. The child refuses, buying time. The parent gets angry and raises the tone of his voice. The child continues to watch TV, totally and utterly undermining the parent. The parent gets worked up, shouts at the child, furiously turns off the TV, grabs the child by their clothing and drags them off to bed. The child cries bitterly.
The domineering solution of tyranny, which possibly suited parenting in an earlier era — more supervision, tougher boundaries, more threats, more fear — does not suit our era: When our children are old enough, they throw it back at us
Case study: An adolescent girl “sacks” her father.
“I sacked my father four years ago,” admitted a 17-year-old in my care. “He doesn’t know how to be a good dad, doesn’t know how to give me support, and he doesn’t know what’s going on with me. He tries to teach me by force, but he won’t succeed. He thinks that if he doesn’t give me money, he’ll break me. But I can get by without his money, and of course I have no problem getting by without him!”
Why do parents become tyrants?
Like doormats, tyrannical parents become such due to emotional distress and a sense of feeling threatened. Even parents who support a strict, hierarchical approach to raising their children would rather act with sound judgment and without losing control. Yet some of the reasons parents end up tyrants are the same ones causing others to end up doormats: guilt, exhaustion and fatigue, despair, and their own pasts. When a parent is in despair, s/he may go on the offense; when s/he is tired and exhausted, s/he may insult and hurt; when s/he feels guilty, s/he may blame the child in order to defend herself; and when past history creates a need to be strong and supreme, a parent might humiliate her child.
There are a number of circumstances that may push parents into the “tyranny zone” precisely when they are feeling helpless: the misguided belief that exerting force will teach the child to behave properly; a damaged ego; difficulty in managing anger; over-restraint; a need to be in control. Let’s take each of these in turn.
The belief that exerting force will produce a well-behaved child
Often the use of authoritative force stems from the parents’ errant belief that if they exert force and authority, their children will behave in a desirable manner, or will refrain from behaving in an undesirable manner, in the sense of “what doesn’t work with force will work with more force”. Parents may be tempted into believing that where punishment has failed, a heavier punishment will succeed. In their distress, they retreat to a “known” and easy solution, even if it is not an effective one, i.e., increasing control, forcing, using superior strength, implementing order and discipline, and punishment. Haim Omer claims that forceful, strict authority actually causes children to radicalize their behavior. The parents, on their part, exacerbate matters, and such parents and children enter into a demonic dance of mutual damage.
Even when parents do succeed by using force, their victory is short-lived and usually ineffective in the long term: It produces children who are emotionally damaged and who learn to repress their emotions and express their frustrations in an indirect, aggressive manner; or they directly imitate their parents’ domineering behavior. A violent parent provides her child with a violent model, and her behavior provides legitimacy for the child’s violence. Indeed, research shows that raising children in an environment of force is likely to unleash violent behavior in the children.
A damaged ego
Parents who are unsure of their status and are quick to take offense are likely to find themselves entwined in power struggles with their children, wherein they insist on gaining “victories” over them. Expressions such as “I’ll show you who’s the boss around here!”, “You will do as I say!”, “Who do you think you are?!”, and “Because I say so!” characterize damaged egos. Studies show that the more preoccupied the parents are with their status in the family, the greater the risk of violent outbursts.
“Sometimes I look at the arguments between my husband and the children and I wonder, who here is the child? He gets offended and insulted by them over nothing. Silly things. For example, it’s enough that our daughter ignores his goodbye, and he responds with an attack of rage. If our son dares to raise his voice, he’ll give him hell.”
A parent who has been hurt by the child and reacts with hostile silence or a prolonged state of anger is behaving as a tyrant.
“When our son acts aggressively toward his mother — curses her, even physically attacks her — she gets hurt and angry at him and responds with fury. I look on from the side and observe that it’s the pot calling the kettle black, like two little children. She gets hurt by him.”
Difficulties managing anger
Raising a child involves many difficulties and frustrations, especially during infancy. Occasionally the frustration and the anger become so overwhelming that they take over, causing parents to behave violently with the child, despite their love for it.
“When my baby cries and doesn’t fall asleep, I feel like I hate him. Really. As much as I try to persuade myself that it isn’t his fault, that he’s just a baby, it doesn’t help. There have been incidents when I was really violent toward him, attempting to force him to fall asleep.”
Some parents are inclined to react impulsively in stressful situations. They quickly lose their patience with their child’s annoying behavior and respond with aggression.
Case study: An angry mother who fails to contain her anger.
There are two girls in this family in my care: a fourth grader and a first grader. The mother testifies that she loses patience quickly and gets irritated easily. She begins her day with anger when the girls fail to wake up on time; continues to get annoyed in the afternoon when they don’t come home in time for lunch; and so on all day. She admits, “What can you do? That’s me: angry and irritated.”
In many instances, parents reach a stage of severe anger attacks precisely when they are trying to restrain their children from improper behavior. They are inclined to accumulate frustration, and when the situation worsens to the point of the child having gone too far over the line, the parents lash out impulsively, hot-headedly setting boundaries. In other words, the restraint is not taken advantage of in order to process, alleviate, or channel in positive directions. Instead, the anger is allowed to boil over into a full-blown attack.
“I try to restrain myself as much as possible. Every morning I resolve to ‘take it easy today’, flow with the children, not get wound up, to see things in a positive light. I ignore their not tidying their toys, not doing their homework, quarrelling over the TV remote, and more. But as always, every day, I reach the point where I just can’t restrain myself anymore and then I explode and get angry at them for all the things I held back on throughout the day.”
A strong need for control
When a parent has a powerful, inordinate need for control, s/he may respond aggressively and drastically whenever s/he senses that her child’s independent behavior is threatening her authority.
Case study: Parents struggling with a stubborn five-year-old
The parents of a five-year-old came to therapy because they felt they were loosing control of her. It turned out that they had a punishing, angry relationship with her, which was becoming impossible for all. They reacted with anger to their daughter’s every infraction: If she snuck candy in the morning, they punished her by withholding her bedtime story that night; if she was insolent, she had privileges removed, such as pushing the buttons in the elevator. Despite the fact that they loved their daughter, they found themselves constantly responding to her angrily.
Parents with a powerful need for control must have things done exactly as they want; no other way is acceptable. The need for control might manifest in the child’s room having to be tidy, who their child’s friends will be, what classes the child takes. What could be a positive force for creating and advancing objectives becomes feeding a compulsive and destructive need.
Case study: A mother tries to control her son’s social life
A mother who came to therapy regarding her son, a fourth grader, says with intensity:
“He already had developmental problems from an early age. I discovered it and we immediately began treating them. I did exercises with him twice a week for years, and he improved greatly. Today, as a fourth grader, he still has difficulties writing, but it’s nothing compared to how he used to be. I sit with him every day and help him with his homework. Of course it’s no fun for him — I’m sure he’d rather watch TV — but he doesn’t have a choice.
My problem with him now is his social life: For some reason he has no friends. What’s worse, he gets bullied and picked on. I don’t understand why. I explain to him exactly what to do, who to get in with and who not to, but he doesn’t do it. I’m prepared to do everything it takes, including inviting kids over, giving him rides, and so on. I want him to be a success as a pupil, as I think he should be, and also accepted by his peers, as I think he deserves be!”
Both doormats and tyrants
Case study: Parents of a ninth grader who are both doormats and tyrants
In this family in my care, the ninth grader was described by his parents as the one who controls the household. For example[ת3] , he insisted on showering in his parents’ bathroom because the shower in his bathroom “wasn’t good enough”. The mother was in a pattern of confronting her son, which never proved successful, while the father was in a pattern of conceding to his son. He believed that if they “behaved well” toward the boy and took his needs into consideration, they would succeed in getting through the tough period of adolescence. In the end, the father got fed up and threatened the son that if his behavior did not improve, he would take away his computer and disconnect the Internet. The son got very angry, insulted his father, and threatened to leave home. The shocked father went back to yielding and surrendering, bitterer and more frustrated than ever.
In most cases of doormat / tyrant parenting, there is a back-and-forth between forceful-authoritative reactions and surrendering responses. This back-and-forth occurs when parents feel guilty and/or anxious after shouting at their children out of anger and loss of control; they then withdraw and concede. The opposite can also occur, i.e., going from defeatist to forceful: Parents can begin in a position of surrender and concession, turning a blind eye. When they see that the problem has not resolved, their frustrations take over: They sense that they are acting incorrectly, lacking control and direction, then ultimately lash out at them in anger, perhaps causing them emotional harm. Afterwards, they feel terrible and ask the child for forgiveness. The child is totally confused in such a situation, loses his confidence in his parents, and may even develop fearful and/or controlling behaviors of his own.
“My wife says I need to understand Marcy, that she’s going through a difficult period and all her friends behave as she does. I try to control myself, to repress my anger, turn a blind eye. I somehow manage to keep it together until she does something way out of line, some infantile and idiotic thing, and then I lay into her. And that’s even worse, because what comes out of my mouth in those situations is just terrible. I know that I’m hurting her a lot; I just don’t have any control over it. I feel guilty and try to make it up to her, to reconcile.”
One of the saddest outcomes of such ineffective coping patterns is that parents not only find it hard to say “no” to their children, but they also have difficulty in answering them positively, in saying “yes”, and in giving with love. For frustrated, bitter, and angry parents, giving — whether as a result of forceful authority or total surrender of authority — cannot contain in value sufficient emotional calories.
“It’s sad for me to admit it and obviously to say it, but a lot of the time I just want them — the kids — to disappear. I don’t feel like playing with them, reading to them, talking to them. Even preparing meals for them is hard for me sometimes. I feel so used by them. I give to them, but I don’t feel good about it. It feels awful. This isn’t the parenthood I wanted.”
Whether appearing together, separately, or sequentially, there’s no doubt that these two ineffective coping patterns — doormat and tyrant — aggravate relations between parents and their children,. Parents who try to force demands on their children together with harsh punishments for the demands going unfulfilled risk aggravation when the children react accordingly. Even the approaches supporting unconditional acceptance, tolerance, and rational persuasion can cause aggravation, the reason for which is that these two stances are likely to be perceived by children as a sign of surrender on the adults’ part. In these cases, the aggravation is manifested in increasing complaints and demands from the child, strengthened by her experience that anything can be gained by radicalization and violence.
Neither a doormat nor a tyrant
Case study: A mother who succeeds in being neither a doormat nor a tyrant
A mother of two girls aged six and three and a half, asks hesitatingly:
“In the last few days, I’ve been at continual battle about nearly everything with my little girl. She doesn’t speak to me in a nice way, she uses words like ‘disgusting’ and ‘stupid’. After she plays with all her toys, I ask her to tidy them up, and she runs away. I go after her and bring her back and insist that she tidies up. I tell her that if she wants help I’m willing to help her. If she speaks unpleasantly or does something stupid like throwing things around or sassing her grandparents, I take her by the hand and put her in her room and tell her not to leave her room until she has thought long and hard about what she has done. She usually screams that she wants to come out, and I quietly explain to her that we don’t behave like that and that if she wants to come out, she needs to behave nicely and speak nicely. She says ‘sorry’ and I allow her to come out. Am I taking the right action?”
The fantasy that children can grow up properly with minimal parental intervention — i.e., that the parent’s job is not to interfere with the child’s development (being a doormat) — has proved itself to be ineffective, even damaging and destructive. And yet the contemporary direction of parents, teachers, and various experts, in the vein of the “new authority” in child rearing, is tempting yet illusory.
Tyranny blinds parents from seeking out more complex yet effective solutions to the child-rearing troubles of our times. On the other hand, children are not in need of parent-friends that give them only love and affection; nor are they in need of parent-leaders acting only with authoritative power, as we would sometimes like to. Even if they wanted to, parents cannot go back in time and become omnipotent in their families. In contrast to the past when it was acceptable to manage a family via command — since the entire society was hierarchical and parental authority was never disputed — today it is not only impossible, neither is it desirable, because alongside its seeming advantages is fallout.
Nonetheless it is obviously undesirable to allow children to conduct themselves with no direction, boundaries, or supervision. Dangerous situations are likely to occur when parents’ democratic approach becomes family anarchy. Parents are warned not to make the mistake of translating ideas of equality into weak and careless parenting. Many such parents fail to understand that democracy means setting boundaries, wherein it is possible to choose in their favor and so achieve cooperation.
Such a family may operate democratically in the sense that each member has the right to express her opinion and take part in family decisions. However, the family is not a democracy in the sense that each vote has equal value. Thus, the family is actually a hierarchy: The parents decide the process of matters, including determining the areas and the pace of requiring responsibility and awarding freedom or privileges to the children.
How can a soft touch and a firm hand be combined in parenting?
Case Study: Combining a soft touch and a firm hand in coping with the fears of a three-and-a-half-year-old.
The father writes:
“ Three months ago, Zach began to fear places with crowds, or parties when the clown arrives, or when we go to a wedding and there’s music and lots of people. Usually it begins with severe tantrums, then he begs us to leave. When we try to talk to him, his crying gets worse until he starts shaking, begging us to get him out of there. Day to day he constantly asks and checks that we are not taking him to a show, to see a clown, or any of the other things that scare him. I know that this is a natural occurrence at his age, but at the same time, I want to find out if his reaction is unusual. Also, I’d like to know how to respond when it happens. Up until now we’ve held him, took him aside, and tried to talk to him. Our approach was not to give in to his paralyzing fear and not to leave despite his pleas, but instead to try to deal with the fear. To a certain extent it has worked. For example, when we touched the clown or the show’s performers, he relaxed a bit and was curious. Yet in every incident, he never stopped being scared. What’s your opinion?”
“Indeed a well-known phenomenon, and I don’t think your son is especially unusual. Sensitive children are likely to develop fears of noises, crowds, and sudden occurrences. Sometimes it happens because of a bad previous experience, and sometimes it has nothing to do with a specific event. With regards to your response, I see that you’ve tried to combine a soft approach —hugging, explaining, taking him aside — together with a firmer approach: not giving into his demands to leave, observing from afar, and so on. Your strategy has achieved plenty: Your son is still afraid, yet coping.”
Today’s parents want to go back to being significant in the family — to directing, influencing, navigating, and deciding — without reaching the extreme of over-authoritativeness. While they need encouragement from professionals in the combined approach exemplified by Zach’s father, they don’t always receive it. More and more experts are advocating extreme parenting behavior, whether in the direction of the soft touch or the firm hand. For example, on the hot topic of boundaries, while parents need support when they are trying to set their children boundaries, they are often accused of being weak, either because they are trying to talk calmly to the child, or because they’re not just letting him be. Parents should be supported in being decisive and consistent when applying boundaries, and also when they display patience and allow the child learning opportunities. However, too often they hear that they’re making the child miserable because they’re too harsh, or they are committing the parenting sin of being “too weak with him”.
In parenting, the ability to balance the firm, directional approach with the thoughtful, understanding approach is a necessity now more than ever. Children of all ages need parents who know how to combine the soft touch and the firm hand in their relations. Children need parents who know how to say “no” and “that’s enough”, yet also know how to communicate with their children as individuals, showing understanding and sensitivity toward them.
Children, for their part, deserve parents who respect their rights as human beings, yet who do not pander to their every whim. They are looking for parents who love them, yet who can disagree with them and be prepared to risk temporarily losing their favor. They are asking for parents who set rules and boundaries, yet who also are willing to reconsider rules, admit mistakes, and even ask forgiveness. Children need parents who will lead the family, yet not in a forceful way. They need parents who maintain a pleasant, upbeat family atmosphere without waiving their authority.
Combining a soft touch and a firm hand: the studies
The important components for raising children — the correct dose of authority and firmness together with love and affection — have been known to child development researchers for years. Yet the professionals tend to ignore this evidence or recommend applying it to extremes to suit a trend. Research carried out by Baumrind in the 1960s, then reaffirmed by her and others in the 1990s, explains that neither of the two extreme approaches — the tough approach or the soft approach — are effective by themselves; parents must find the middle ground.
Baumrind’s studies on preschoolers found that children of both “hard” and “soft” parents lacked maturity, independence and self-confidence. She called the “hard” parents authoritarians: They imposed full control over their children, used unlimited force, and sadly did not achieve the level of responsibility they advocated to their children. Their central concerns were their ideas and standards, and they basically “forgot” to include their child’s feelings in their considerations.
In contrast, the “soft” parents, who were called permissive in the study, failed to impose discipline, placed relatively few demands on the child’s behavior, paid little attention to nurturing independence and increasing self-confidence, and failed to reward responsible behavior and/or expressions of self-confidence. Additional studies by Baumrind found that the permissive ideology, with its child-reading principles of freedom, acceptance, and the absence of demands on the child, increases behavioral problems like dropping out of school, violence, substance abuse, and delinquency.
Baumrind’s findings have been reinforced by dozens of studies. Eleanor Maccoby, another developmental researcher, characterized two parental dimensions that appear under different names in an array of literature — Response or support, in contrast to rejection or distance; demandingness or control as opposed to permissiveness or lenience — the combining of which create four parenting styles (see Table 1): Authoritarian parents, who are “above” the child’s demands and “below” responding to them, forcing standards on them without any possibility of negotiation; authoritative parents, who are “above” their child’s demands and also “above” responding to them, yet explaining them, being willing to negotiate, and taking into account the child’s view when deciding their standards; indulgent parents, who are “above” responding to their children yet “below” their demands; indifferent parents, who are “below” their children both in demands and responses, and go as far as neglecting the child.
Table 1: Parenting styles according to Maccoby
Response to child
In the summaries of the studies that tested the effect of the four above-described models of parental authority, Mason et al. stated that neither tyranny nor laxness provide children with the knowledge and experience required in order to learn to manage their affairs confidently and independently.
According to researchers, who are the parents that use balanced behavioral models for their children? They are the ones known in the studies as “authoritative”, who succeed in combining a high response to their children together with high demands of them; they are firm on matters of discipline and demand mature behavior from their children, and at the same time, are affectionate and supportive; they are accepting, yet set boundaries and maintain them. While it isn’t easy to achieve this balance in parenting, it is possible.
Personal case: Coping with my son’s desire to return home from a school trip
My son set out on a three-day trip to northern Israel with his eighth-grade class. He went willingly, without any hint of the problems to come. The first night he called me, complaining that he wasn’t feeling well and pleading for me to take him home. I was surprised, but recalled that he had had problems sleeping away from home in the past, yet never at this intensity. I felt sorry for him. I wanted to get in the car immediately and go fetch him. On second thought, I refused to do so. Instead of complying with his request, I told him to try to cope, and not to give up so fast. I promised him that if he still felt the same way the following night, I would consider coming to get him. I encouraged him to call me for support as much as he liked. Indeed, we had several long calls that same night, wherein I made it clear to him with gentle yet firm words that I would not be coming to pick him up. He expressed an amplified sense of helplessness (“I can’t stay here! I want to come home!”), of desperation (“Don’t make me do things I’ll regret!”), and of intense anger toward me (“You’re a bad father! If my son asked me to come get him, I’d come immediately, even if I had to drive for five hours!”). It was tough, no doubt about it. I moved between feelings of fear (“What is he likely to do to himself if I don’t come get him?”), anger (“That spoiled brat! He should pick himself up and get over it!”), and pity (“Poor thing! It’s really hard for him there. He really needs me ”). I tried to be firm in my decision not to bring him home, yet tender in my willingness to talk with him as much as he wanted and support him however I could from afar. From phone call to phone call, he recovered and gathered strength. In our last call on that same night, he asked, “So tell me up front: There’s no chance you’ll come get me tonight?” I bit my lip. I knew I had to tell him honestly and unambiguously, but I feared that what I had to say would cause another emotional outburst. I gathered my strength and replied, “No. There’s no chance of my coming to get you tonight.” My son didn’t call again that night. When I called him the following day, on my own initiative, he told me he didn’t have time to talk because he was busy with friends. I was put at ease. I was pleased that I had insisted that he stay and told him to deal with his difficulties without relinquishing my support for him.
Identifying the tyrant, the doormat, or the combination of soft touch and firm hand
Ten common family situations follow wherein the parent is called upon to respond to the child’s lack of cooperation. For every situation, there are three parental responses: two ineffective parental coping patterns — doormat and tyrant — and a third, combined response. Try to decide which responses characterize you in these situations, i.e., how would you be inclined to act in situations similar to those described? Obviously the parents’ responses are simplified; in real life, the issues are far more complex and complicated.
|An eight-month-old, used to being with her parents constantly, refuses to stay alone in her room.||“Nothing we can do about. That’s what we got her used to; we can’t change it now.”||“That’s life. Sometimes we need to learn things the hard way. It is absolutely forbidden to go to her when she’s alone in her room.”||“Something can be done. There’s another way. While it’s important that she learn to be alone, we’ll do it gradually. From time to time we’ll pop in, calm her, and then leave.”|
|A one-and-a-half-year-old vehemently objects to Dad showering her, and demands Mum only.||“It’s not the end of the world. I’ll soldier on doing everything alone. Maybe it’ll get easier.”||“No way. We decide our roles, not her. She’ll scream and cry, but in the end she won’t have a choice; she’ll get used to it.”||“It seems our routine division of roles gives her confidence. I’ll try to get her used to other ways. I’ll start it as a word game: ‘One time Mummy showers, the next time Daddy showers’, and afterwards I’ll carry it on to a practical game.”|
|A three-year-old objects to going without a nappy (taken off at his request), and demands that it be put back on.||“I really don’t know Are you sure you don’t want to try a little bit longer? Alright, not the end of the world. I don’t want to quarrel with you about it.”||“Absolutely not! If you decided to take it off, you can’t have it back. And you’re in trouble if you wet yourself!”||“I know it’s a little scary for you without your nappy, but if you took it off, it’s a shame to give up so quickly. It’s no big deal if you wet yourself. I won’t be angry at you.”|
|A three-year-old refuses to get up in the morning for preschool.||“Why pressure her? Let her sleep a little longer. Preschool isn’t university.”||“We wake her up forcibly and take her to preschool, expressing our dissatisfaction with her unwillingness to cooperate.”||“We wake her up resolutely but without anger, we dress her lovingly despite her objections, and go to preschool.”|
|A four-year-old refuses to bathe.||“This is the fifth time I’m asking you nicely to get in the bathtub. Why don’t you get in? Why do we need to quarrel about it everyday?”||“I’m not interested, you hear? You’re going in now [placing child in tub forcibly], so you’ll understand next time not to make a fuss!”||“I understand that you don’t really like the idea, but you have to do it, even if you don’t want to. I’ll hold your hand, and I’ll try not hurt you, and we’ll put you in the tub.”|
|A six-year-old disrupts a family game.||“OK, we’ll always let you start first. Do you promise to behave nicely now?”||“We know what you’re doing. Not only are you not playing, there’s no TV today!”||“I understand that it’s difficult for you to play with us, because you want to be first every turn. You won’t be playing the next game; you’ll watch and learn how we cooperate. You can try again in the game after that.”|
|A seven-year-old refuses to go to sleep.||“Fine. Go to bed whenever. I haven’t got the strength to argue with you anymore.”||“Go to bed this minute, or you’re asking for it!”||“I love you, but now I need some time to myself. So you need to go to bed.”|
|A nine-year-old is refusing to go to an afterschool activity that she asked to sign up for, after having gone twice.||“Activities aren’t school. If she doesn’t feel like going every now and then, she doesn’t have to.”||We have to force her because she said she wanted to go. It cost us money. No playing around here.”||We explain why she has to go, and we check to find out why the activity has fallen out of favor. Then We decide together whether or not to drop it.”|
|An eleven-year-old refuses to do her homework.||“I’ll sit here with you while you do it, and if you finish, I’ll take you out for ice cream.”||“I’m fed up with you! You’re not getting up from that desk until you finish your homework!”||“Homework is not a negotiable. Since I see that the Internet is interfering, we’ll disconnect it for a week. If you manage to start concentrating on your homework, we’ll reconnect it. In any event, I’m here to help you if you have difficulties.”|
|A ten-year-old refuses to tidy his room, despite having agreed to.||“How many times do I have to ask you to tidy? Obviously, I’m the one who’ll end up doing it, as usual.”||“I’m fed up with your lack of consideration and your disregard for us. You’re a parasite in this household. You’re not leaving your room until it’s tidy.”||“You have to tidy your room today. That’s what we agreed. Decide by tonight when you’ll do it.”|
“The way up and the way down are one and the same”
How do parents choose their response when they’re feeling inept? When feeling helpless, parents tend to react using one or both of the ineffective coping patterns: doormat, and / or tyrant. Being a doormat means making inordinate concessions to children’s expectations, surrendering to intolerable demands, and so forth. Parents’ reasons for adopting this yielding approach are many: feelings of shame, fear of harming the child, feelings of despair, exhaustion and fatigue, fear of losing the child’s love, feelings of guilt, and the ramifications of the parents’ past.
Being a tyrant refers to parents who force their demands onto their children in a strict, aggressive manner. Some of the reasons parents adopt this rigid approach are similar to those that lead to parents’ being doormats: Feelings of guilt, fatigue and exhaustion, despair. Some causes are more specific to the tyrannical approach, such as damaged ego, difficulty managing anger, over-restraint, and a strong need for control.
The approach combining a tough and demanding parental attitude toward children — the firm hand — together with affection and support — the soft touch — is advocated as providing children with the most important components for their upbringing.
Chapter Two Sources
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 Eisenberg, N. & Murphy, B. (1995). Parenting and children’s moral development in M.H. Bornstein (ed.) Handbook of Parenting, vol. 1, pp. 227-256.
 Maccoby, E.E. (1999). The uniqueness of the parent-child relationship in W.A. Collins and B. Laursen (eds.), Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology, Vol. 29, Relationships as Developmental Contexts, pp. 157 – 176. London, United Kingdom: Lawrence Erlbaum.
 Maccoby, E.E. & Martin, J.A. (1983). Socialization in the cortex of the family: Parent-child interaction in P.H. Mussen (Series Ed.) & E. M. Hetherington (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol. 4. Socialization, Personality, and Social Development (4th ed., pp. 1-101), New York: Wiley.
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