Your Children Will Give You What You Seem to Expect

Micromanaging children has unintended consequences.

Posted Feb 27, 2017

 Flicker, Kids Giving You a Problem? Hire an Elephant, by peasap CC by 2.0
Source: Source: Flicker, Kids Giving You a Problem? Hire an Elephant, by peasap CC by 2.0

In my post of January 13, 2013 about how children react to double messages from parents, I expressed the opinion that when someone in a family compulsively engages in repetitive behavior, family members will invariably conclude that this behavior is quite important to the perpetrator.

Keeping this idea in mind, in this post I am going to list several examples of frequently-seen problematic parenting practices, as well as the consequences to which such practices frequently lead. These practices may cause relatively mild problems, but often they cause major issues. Adult patients in psychotherapy have described the patterns to me over and over again as they discuss their parents' behavior over time. 

These parental behaviors may seem to the children to indicate that the parents have certain expectations about how the children are supposed to turn out, and children will not want to disappoint the parents by defying these apparent expectations. This will happen in spite of the fact that the parents may verbally instruct the children not to act in the way the parents seem to need, or even criticize and/or severely punish them when they do.

The problems I list all have a common theme: parents trying to micromanage their children's behavior in one way or another. Parents may protest: "I have to focus on my child's troublesome behavior because otherwise they won't stop it." They don't realize that they have this exactly backwards: the child won't stop the behavior because the parent keeps focusing on it!

However, it is important to keep in mind that when the parents do stop micromanaging initially, other difficult but solvable problems predictably ensue. These are discussed in the last paragraph of this post.

In discussing any problematic parenting issues, there is always a rather devilish and perplexing conundrum that makes any such conversation fraught with peril. Many troublesome parenting behaviors are often driven by a parent's covert sense of guilt - primarily concerning how much time they spend with their children - and if one discusses what they may be doing wrong, this adds to that sense of guilt. They therefore often become very defensive and, if anything, dig in their heels. Their problematic practices then get even worse than before!

On the other hand, if they do not really understand what they are doing wrong, they also continue doing it. A real lose-lose proposition this.

The way out of this bind is to quit looking for someone to blame. Which would you rather do: find fault with people, or actually solve problems? It is near impossible to do both. To naysayers I say, "Grow up!" 

Critics of course will also point to examples in which the types of parental behavior described in the post do not or did not seem to be followed by the predicted negative consequences. As usual, I need to put in a disclaimer: The consequences of the parental behavior I mention do not always result from every situation in which the parenting problem is seen. We’re just talking increased probabilities here!

So, without further ado, here’s a list of the common parenting errors created by this scenario. By no means is it a complete one:

If you constantly try to fix a child, the child will find different ways to keep being broken so you can continue in your efforts.

If you continually bail children out of their own messes, they will continue to make messes for you to bail them out of.

If you give your kids money whenever they ask and almost never say no, they will continue to ask you for money, and may seem to develop problems supporting themselves when they grow up.

If you constantly try to mediate disputes between your children, they will continue to fight one another so you can continue to mediate.

If you blame yourself for your children’s failings, your children will blame you for their own woes. (In a perverse and ironic way, their problems are partly your doing. But it’s your guilt about your own behavior that creates the problem, not your basic character or intrinsic worth).

If you repeatedly tear apart your child’s room looking for drugs when there is no evidence that he or she is using, just to make sure he or she is not using, the child is more likely to use drugs so you can find what you are looking for.

If you continuously help children with their homework instead of telling then to figure it out for themselves, they will continuously need your help.

If you keep making a huge deal about something your children do or say, they will keep repeating whatever it was so you can continue to obsess about it.

If you instantly replace any items lost by your child, your child will continue to lose things.

If you do nothing when your children disrespect you, or if you just whine and scream at them about it, they think you need them to be disrespectful, so they will continue to be.

If you look uncomfortable getting presents on holidays and birthdays, your children won’t give you any, or will give you thoughtless gifts. (If you then question them about it, they will get angry or passive aggressive, and may start giving you things, but looking as if they are only doing so because you asked, not because they care about you).

If you seem to get a kick out of a child’s misbehavior, they will continue to misbehave, no matter what else you say about it.

If you set a low bar in your expectations for your child (academically, for example), they may meet the bar, but they will not exceed it.

If you compulsively pay more attention to your children's needs than you do to those of your spouse, they will make gallant efforts to regulate the amount of intimacy you have in your marriage by inserting themselves between the two of you.

Last - and this is perhaps the most pernicious of all - if you constantly give in to your children's demands out of guilt, but then get angry at them because they are too demanding, then they will fear for your mental stability. In response, they will try to regulate your emotions like a thermostat: If you start to get too angry they will try to make you feel guilty, but if you start to feel too guilty, they will try to make you feel royally angry.

Key point: Whenever you try to stop doing any of these things after having done them for a long time, expect a negative reaction. Things will get worse before they get better. This is because you will be confusing your children. They thought they had you all figured out, and suddenly you are not performing to their expectations. Therefore, their behavior will get even worse in order to see if you really mean what you say and will continue to act in the new way. Their behavior will, however, almost always eventually get better if you stay the course.