Tuesday, December 6, 2011

No means No: Children’s voices/Adult Boundaries

Have you ever tickled a child and they laughed but said stop?  Did you stop?
I have been aware for some time, as a child abuse treatment therapist, that children’s declarations of self hood are often ignored by adults. We tell kids for instance, “Give Aunt Mary a kiss” even as the child may be pulling away; or “That’s not nice to say no to a hug, you’ll hurt (so and so’s) feelings”. 

We scoop them up from behind without notice, in the name of play, and we routinely cross boundaries with children we would likely not do with an adult.  Today I discovered my babysitter tickling my son. He was laughing yet saying, “Stop.”   I have intervened in this before so today I took a moment and stood just outside the door and listened. She continued to tickle. He continued to giggle but say “stop” and his “stops” were getting more adamant and I could hear the mounting frustration build up. And since I know my son, I could also tell he was trying hard to denounce his feelings and to accept this situation.  Anyway, she did not stop; in fact she began a debate by asking him “why are you laughing if you don’t like it?”  He didn’t know how to answer. He is four.

My son tried to reason with her. He asked if she liked to be tickled. She admitted she did not.  So my son asked wisely, “Then why are you tickling me when I say no?” Again, not acknowledging his quite mature reasoning she said, “Because you were laughing, so I know you liked it”.  Now I could hear the tears in his voice. He was trying to reason with an adult about something that was hard to explain and his feelings and boundaries were not being given any worth. (By this time of course I was at the door to the room, hoping my presence would offer him courage and communicate my concern to the sitter.) Next, my child said,” If you don’t like it and I say stop then you shouldn’t do it!” Then with tears in his eyes, he hit her. 
So guess what?  She began to admonish him for hitting saying hitting isn’t nice and he should apologize. The hypocrisy jumped at me hard and I struggled to remain calm.  Now, I do not teach my child to hit. I teach the use of words. He had done that. It hadn’t worked. So at this point I stepped in and told her that I teach my child that his body is his own and that if he says no to a touch or tickle, that is his right and his words should be accepted. 

So the rest of the day my child was out of sorts and was displaying some aggression that he usually doesn’t. I realized that he had several experiences with adults in his life this week where his body integrity had not been respected. Again, the forced hugs and such by well meaning but clearly unaware adults.
Why do we think that children should be forced to allow things we ourselves do not like, such as unwanted hugs, kisses or tickles? This is very reminiscent of “she didn’t fight so I thought she liked it”, even though the victim in this description may have been grimacing or crying, she didn’t fight so it was OK?

It’s not OK.

Again, I come from a child sexual abuse prevention background and I have been well educated in how to teach children and families ways to increase child safety and have children grow up to be assertive, not aggressive and respect boundaries within themselves and others. The reason children do not know how to say no to child abusers, or grow up to be people without  clear and self defined assertiveness skills is largely because we parents, caregivers and the greater culture often send messages to children every day that slowly melt away their assertive and dignified voice in many areas.
My child has clear boundaries in our home. Rules are clear and there are consequences when not followed. He is not allowed to disrespect others. He is not allowed to grab another kid by the arm and pull him along, or to try to force anyone to do something that is uncomfortable for them. I expect that those around him allow the same respect. But sadly, this is often not the case. 

So often kids learn that they are not allowed to say no, they are not allowed to own their own body. When we are tickled, we laugh. It is an automatic bodily response. It does not signify we like it. If we say no while laughing we still mean no. A child comes into fierce awareness of their relative vulnerability at the hands of an adult through tickling. They cannot break free and saying stop often doesn’t work. Their body betrays them by laughing. Their words seem to mean nothing to the all powerful adult. Often the same adult who instructed, “use your words”.
And when they finally get so frustrated by this vulnerability, they hit or bite, or whatever. Then, they get in trouble. Can you imagine how frustrating and demoralizing this is? Not every child has the same areas where he or she is sensitive or experiences powerlessness. But as caregivers, teachers, and parents we should be attentive to signs of distress, and by all means model that No means No and Stop should be respected.

And by the way, if disrespecting a child’s body boundaries through corporal punishment at one end of the spectrum, or even frequent less overt occurrences of disrespect become customary for a child, they will over time, learn to ignore their own instincts and relinquish their own power and control. Or they will likely become bullies.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tired Mama

I am a Mom. I am the Mom of a very energetic little boy. My co parent travels 85% of the year. I am tired. I am very tired.

I know full well the perils of stay at home mom hood. The exhaustion and isolation that sometimes accompany this life choice. And for many of course, staying at home is a luxury not available. So I know how lucky I am. I do. So I do hesitate to voice the not so happy feelings that lurk within me. The thing is, I have discovered that many other Mom’s (for it is still vastly women who stay at home with the children-and more on that in later blogs) feel similar dark feelings that are rarely spoken and often not easily admitted within oneself.
So I will rock this boat, because I know for sure being silent about stuff that feels bad inside will fester.
I will be writing about this issue on this blog in upcoming installments. I will be venting a bit, offering some advice from both a Mom perspective and a therapist perspective (I have been a clinical social worker active on and off for 15 years, and many of those years were spent helping children and teens, as well as families caught in a hard place.)
To start, I will say that being the primary person for all of your child’s (or children’s) needs is not easy especially if you are either single, or functionally single. Because that is what I have witnessed playing out for years and it’s what I find happening across households that I come in contact with either professionally or personally. Moms are carrying a HUGE deal of the energy burden for their children’s lives. From the meals and cleaning to managing time and appointments, to handling nighttime terrors or a myriad of emotional needs. It falls often to one parent and that is often the Mom. When I speak with stay at home Dads I hear similar feelings but honestly they often get a lot of help from their wife/coparent even if she is the one working. Moms often do not.

I know that many readers will think I am bashing here or being unfair. I am just saying what I see. And the statistics from researchers back it up. Depending on the source of data, anywhere from 25% to 49% of all US household are led by a single Mom. Especially within the lower income areas, the number is very high. If you add to this the families where a partner travels a lot, or as with military families where the coparent (usually the Dad) is gone a year at a time – we are looking at adding another large percentage to the previous number. So this is an important phenomenon to explore. The societal norms that are assumed both in the media and in policy do not suit a large percentage of American homes.
For me, I adore my child fiercely and am hugely grateful for my time with him. But even now as I sit trying to take just 10minutes to write this, he is tugging at my leg and whining for my time. When I tried to take a shower he was outside the shower door talking and asking when I would be out. Often, I just smile and think how cute he is. But often, especially if I am was up in the night, or have an article to write or just am feeling worn down at the end of a 7 days stint of his Dad being on the road, I can feel overwhelming frustration. And I get bitter, I admit it. Because, I am not getting much domestic support. This means precious little time just to be me.  I cannot afford a sitter from evenings out for instance, and since my partner travels I just almost never get one. My son’s father gets most evenings out and has dinner with adult conversation and time to himself. I know he works hard, but he gets to play too. I don’t. I had hoped parenthood would be more shared and I would have more fun with it as a result. It’s not just me, but relationships that are unbalanced are a recipe for failure. I know a lot of families for whom this is exactly what occurred. Mom was feeling alone and unsupported. Dad took nights out with the guys, tailgate parties, golfing – you name it. Mom had to be the one for the kids, almost entirely with no time for her. She festered. She smiled and pretended it was ok. She tried to talk about it and it ended in an argument so it went by the wayside. Now they are dividing up the week with the kids because they are divorced. This is not uncommon.

So I’m saying we all need to talk about it more. Because I just know we as a culture can make change. I also think Dad’s need to share their burdens as providers (for those for whom this is their primary role) because kids who have rested and involved Dad’s gain a lot from this relationship. With awareness and not shame about what we are feeling, maybe new laws can be passed for businesses to better support families. Maybe people can come together to sort out these feelings and reduce the isolation. There is a lot we can do to change our society if we just acknowledge the need. Our country isn’t where it was even 15 years ago. Many kids are living without one of their parents and many families are divided.
Working parents are often exhausted, single parents are sometimes isolated, stay at home parents are too often exhausted and isolated.

If we can talk to each other, we can improve conditions for families, for women, for children. We can provide more space for fathers to enjoy time with their kids.  There is room for it all when we can open the dialogue with compassion.   

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Scary Santa?

So I recently heard a fellow Mom at the park talking about Santa with her friend. She said she wants to make sure she keeps the “Christmas spirit” alive by working hard to keep her kids believing is Santa for as long as possible. The other Mom qualified this adding, and get this – that she tells her kids that when they stop believing, Santa will stop coming. Ok, this is mean. As a therapist my ears perked up when I heard this because to me I’m just imagining this child pretending not to question things, or worse, learning not to trust his instincts and not to be a critical thinker. I know many of you are thinking that I extrapolate too far. Could be, but it did get me thinking about the way we model truth and respect and critical thinking to our children though many mundane aspects of life including family rituals. In fact family holidays are laden with memory making opportunities. So I think how we conduct these ritualized times is worth a little consideration.

As a parent and a therapist, I think we should nurture our children’s natural curiosity for the truth. As for Santa -my son got frightened when he was 2 1/2 about the idea of a stranger coming into his home while he was asleep. That’s my son. But it totally makes sense. I had always told him that our home was locked up at night and to keep the door locked during the day, etc. So to think it odd and scary that some man comes into your home at night while your parents slept through this intrusion, seems the logical conclusion.Anyway, he really pushed to know how the gifts arrived. His previous Christmas was ushered in with what must have seemed like the mother load of toys under the tree. So of course, I told him the truth. Mommy and Daddy placed the gifts there at night to make Christmas morning a great big fun event for him.  He was fine, and relieved.  What is more, I just like the truth in general.  

I do not like to lie to my child. I do soften the truth to make the world seem more safe than it actually is. For little ones, it is only kind and appropriate to their developmental needs that we be cautious about what material infiltrates their consciousness. We can do this while still maintaining a truthful environment.  Through age 5 at least, a child needs to feel safe and secure in the world and she cannot easily sort out fact from fiction. Small children can live in mortal dread of such events as earthquakes or sea monsters. They do not need to hear the dangers of hurricanes for instance as it becomes just negative fodder for creative and fragile psyches. As an example, he needs to know to look both ways before crossing the street. When he asked why, I was honest: cars are on the road and getting hit my one would hurt badly. He needed to know this and it is useful because he can act on the information. He cannot stop a hurricane, so he does not need to hear about all the implications of it.

I know it’s hard to determine when to be honest and to what extent with any child especially small ones. As a therapist I have worked with a lot of children and have had the honor of being invited into their inner worlds. I will tell you that they get frightened by more than we parents often know that they do. For instance, many kids told me they were angry that their parents lied about Santa. I know this seems unbelievable, but I kid you not. I’m not saying that such fantasy encouraged by parents is going to ruin a kid or cause permanent emotional damage. I am saying, think about your child. Every child is different and what might scare one will excite another. If you pay attention, you will have a sense of what cautions you can take to create a feeling of security as much as is possible for your growing little emotional being.
I grew up where “common knowledge” was that kids need to be toughened up. I often heard say that the earlier they learn to handle fear and face reality the better. As a clinical social worker I know better. The research shows, and I see it all the time, that when children are little, they need a level of protection from the harsh realities of the world. They need the foundation of an internal sense of safety that they will carry within them all their lives. This internal peacefulness, which is developed in the first days to first years, is actually the armor they need to navigate a harsh world as they become teens and adults. So not “toughening up” by having them face things they cannot understand or act upon, but give them coping skills. They need to be taught and have modeled by their caregivers, how to manage anxiety and fear in a creative and positive way. Strategies toward this end help them all their lives, and positively alter the way they react to danger or perceived threats their whole lives.

I am not suggesting that children can or should be put in some sort of bubble or kept isolated. Not at all. But we as parents can make many choices that slow our child’s world down, soften it, and make it feel more safe without resorting to isolation or anxiety driven protective efforts. With a calm peaceful awareness of our child, and mindfulness about the choices of inputs we can control like television, books, social scenarios, etc., we can greatly increase our child’s adaptability.

Back to Santa, I obviously do not use fear tactics of any sort to motivate my son, but he does know that Mom and Dad work hard so he can have wants as well as needs. So he knows that being well behaved means more privileges of all sorts including an extra gift or two under the tree Christmas morning. I did offer that we could fantasize about Santa because it’s fun, like watching a pleasant TV show can be, or how we love to imagine we are part of the story in our books.  We read Santa stories and joke about Santa coming to visit with gifts, but he says Mommy and Daddy are Santa and is just as enchanted at holiday time as any other kid.