by Peter Ernest Haiman, Ph.D.
Every parent wants to know how to raise an emotionally healthy child. When
it comes to giving advice to parents, three areas stand out as important: how
each parent relates to parenting, how children develop psychosocially, and
the process that I call diagnostic child rearing.
First, each of us
as adults must look at ourselves and learn about our relationship to parenting.
By that, I mean we need to look at our own upbringing, at how we were raised
by our parents, and see how this influences our parenting style now. We need
to discover and become aware of the mistakes made by our parents, as well as
the mistakes made by the society that influenced our parents. After all, our
parents didn’t just make up their parenting practices. For the most
part, they followed the social norms of the day. In light of what we now know
about child development and child rearing, we can see that many of today’s
parents encountered some rather big mistakes while growing up.
One of those mistakes
has to do with how a child’s needs are met. In recent
decades, research in child rearing has made it clear that the normal, developmentally
appropriate needs that all young children and adolescents have should be met.
It is the responsibility of parents to make sure a child’s needs are met
appropriately and consistently. Those needs can be volcanic in intensity when
they are felt by a child or adolescent. And when a youth’s needs are repeatedly
frustrated, the results can be explosive.
What kind of needs am I talking about?
One prime example is the need to make our own choices, even at a very young
age. Learning to become more independent is critically important for all young
children. So it is valuable for parents to recall if and how this happened
when they were growing up. When you were between the ages of, say, two and
six (or, for that matter, when you were a teen), did your parents let you make
any choices or did they direct your life and tell you what to do in every situation?
What you experienced at that time can determine how you will react as a parent
when your children seek to become autonomous.
When a child expresses the need to become who he or she is, to start making
choices about what he or she wants, parents can react from a very deep emotional
level. They can feel furious, sometime for no apparent reason. But what is
happening is that they see their young child acting in ways they themselves
were not allowed to act on a regular basis when they were little. Suppose a
four-year-old chooses to wear her sneakers to preschool every day. The mother
knows there is nothing wrong with this, yet it makes her angry. Why? When this
mother was little, she wanted to wear sneakers to school, but her own mother
made her wear a pair of ugly brown leather shoes instead. At that time, her
mother said it was because leather shoes were “better for her feet,” even though all the other
kids wore sneakers to school. Now this mother knows her child’s behavior
is normal, yet she cannot accept it because of mistakes that were made a generation
earlier by her own mother.
This kind of situation can cause a great deal of anger.
To complicate matters, we learn to hide our anger. If it remains hidden for
years, it can fester within us and lead to chronic depression. On the other
hand, anger that has been within us for decades can suddenly rise to the surface
when our child begins to express his or her appropriate, normal developmental
same needs we had to hide so we wouldn’t get punished by our parents. Our
long-hidden anger against our parents finally bursts forth against our child.
In this situation,
the results of our upbringing can do very real damage to a child. Because the
subconscious of the parent is saying something like this to the child: “Listen,
kid, I wasn’t allowed to do anything I wanted
to do, I couldn’t choose the shoes I wanted to wear. I had to do what my
mum and dad said, when and how they said it. And I’m still furious about
it. Now you’re four years old and you think you can become a little bit
autonomous and wear those sneakers because you like them. But I’m going
to punish the hell out of you because that’s not fair!” The parent
may have read a few books or articles and knows what the research says about
letting children make choices. But in that moment, deep emotions win over cognitive
knowledge about child-rearing practices. The anger that has been kept locked
up for two or three decades bursts forth. The most important thing a parent can
learn, therefore, is that good parenting begins with the parent.
The second thing
parents need to do in order to raise an emotionally healthy child is to learn
about the psychosocial development of young children. I recommend studying
the work of Eric Erikson, who was one of the first psychologists to put together
a developmental model that explains how individuals mature emotionally and
socially, from infancy to adulthood. He created what he called stages. There
are eight stages in all; each has a theme and builds on the one before it.
For example, the first stage (up to eighteen months) focuses on the need for
trust building, and the second (from eighteen months to three years) on the
need for autonomy and independence. Although the stages are in an order, if
we do not reach emotional maturity at any given stage, we will continue to
encounter its immature emotional qualities during later stages. This gives
us the opportunity to mature those aspects throughout life, and the opportunity
as parents to help our children develop.
We can’t just say, “My child will grow out
of this. Just wait a few years.” No. If your child’s need for autonomy
or choice making is frustrated at ages two or three or four or five, then those
needs still will be there at age six. And if they aren’t dealt with then,
they will reemerge in adolescence. The only difference is that the anger that
was submerged when the child was young will explode in a much bigger way when
the child is older. That can be the cause of delinquency or drug use; it can
lead to chronic depression or resistance to authority. So you need to be familiar
with the characteristics and needs associated with each of these various stages
and how one affects the other. With this knowledge, you have the ongoing opportunity
to correct some of the child-rearing errors that unwittingly created pain for
third thing parents need to know when rearing children and adolescents is how
to use the basic process I call diagnostic child rearing. Unfortunately, many
parents think they can stop or prevent misbehavior and develop emotionally
healthy children simply by punishing inappropriate behaviors. But the problem
inherent in this approach is that it will backfire. When we punish a child’s
behavior, we also are modeling behavior for that child. What we model is what
the child is going to learn; in other words, to punish.
At the same time, by
punishing children, we create angry children who may behave for a short while,
but who will become increasingly angry over time and begin to act defiantly.
When we punish a child, we fail to solve whatever problem is causing the behavior
in the first place. That is the key word: causing.
As parents, we can’t accomplish anything unless we understand the cause(s)
of our child’s misbehavior. For this reason, I speak about and encourage
a diagnostic approach to child rearing.
This may seem like a radical
approach to many parents. They have to learn to stop when they encounter misbehavior
and realize that punishing it is not the answer. Instead, they have to remind
themselves that their child is misbehaving for a reason, or for reasons. If
they want to be constructive parents, and to raise an emotionally healthy child,
they need to start looking underneath the child’s behavior for the cause or
causes of it. They need to look beneath the behavior for the specific needs that
are normal at that developmental stage and are being frustrated in that particular
instance and causing the child to act out. Then, if the parent is able to meet
the child’s needs in an appropriate
manner, the misbehavior will cease.
This article was adapted from an interview conducted by Ashley Ann Ryan.