BY PETER A. SCHESSLER
Michael was making life miserable for his parents, Paul and Maria.
Although he could be cute and endearing at times, three year old Michael was otherwise a terror. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it and there was little either parent could do to stop Michael’s controlling and demanding behavior. At home and in public he refused his parents directions. When told to turn off the television he would yell “No!”. Bed time was a nightly battle . Michael refused to put on his pajamas, brush his teeth or get into bed. Paul and Maria were so worn out by the battle that they let Michael fall asleep on the living room sofa at night. The couple tried everything they could think of to get Michael to conform. They tried punishment by taking away favorite toys, attempted to give time outs, used the refrigerator good sticker technique, and promised special treats if Michael would just behave. Nothing worked.
Paul and Maria began to experience disturbing feelings about Michael and about themselves. Often they could not like Michael, felt angry toward him and even wondered if they loved him. Experiencing these feelings toward their son brought great guilt and sadness for the couple. They began questioning their ability to raise a child. Maybe they just weren’t good parents, they thought. In their desperation, they consulted with Michael’s pediatrician. They wondered if there might be a physical explanation for their son’s behavior. Maybe some organic or chemical problem, they thought. The pediatrician found no abnormalities in any area. She did suggest that Paul and Maria consult with an experienced psychotherapist trained in the understanding of child development.
The Research and Findings
Margaret S. Mahler MD and her collaborators were the first in the field of developmental psychology to offer an explanation of why children, in Michael’s age range, exhibit demanding, controlling and oppositional behavior. Mahler’s research provides a clear understanding of the developmental phases which all children proceed through on the way toward full and balanced personality development. Mahler’s research, confirmed and studied by many experts in the field, took place over many years at a day care setting where toddlers and their mothers were intensively observed in their daily interaction. Repetitive and scientifically predictable behaviors on the part of the child and parent were identified and formulated into normal developmental phases.
Paul and Maria’s struggles with Michael fall into what Mahler calls the rapproachment phase of the child’s psychological development. Michael was failing to negotiate this phase. In order to understand how Michael was failing we need to take a small step back and look at what normally goes on in the unformed mind of the child who is around the age of two years. Rapproachment, in it’s beginning stages, is characterized by the child identifying with the mother or care giver ( mother figure ). The mother figure is seen by the child as omnipotent ; all knowing. The king of the universe. In the process of this identification the child develops a sense that he or she shares in the omnipotence with which the mother figure is imbued.
“We are the same”, senses the child. In this normal course of development, the child begins to display the idea of being all powerful like the mother figure through exhibitionistic behavior. All eyes are expected to be on the child and stay fixed as long as he or she wants them to be. The child plays out a whole variety of grandiose and controlling behaviors during this period. Although normal and expected, these behaviors can’t be allowed to continue if the child is to develop as a mature, social being. Michael was stuck in this grandiose, omnipotent period. His parents did not know how to help him transcend this stage in order to reach a higher level of emotional development.
Insights gained from Mahler’s work demonstrate that children emerge from the period of demanding that the world conform to their wishes when specific parental responses to the child’s grandiosity are employed. On the one hand the mother figure needs to value the child’s exhibitionistic displays when they are relatively brief and reasonable , while on the other hand, benignly but firmly and consistently structuring these same displays when they become fixed, prolonged and unreasonable. The parent says in effect “ I value your behavior if it becomes less grandiose so that if you want to please me and therefore have my approval you must conform more to what I want you to be. “ In practical terms this means that the mother figure verbalize her disapproval of the child’s behavior and , sometimes, needs to ignore the child when he or she is in the midst of oppositional and defiant behavior. The mother figure can say to the child, “ I love you but I don’t like your behavior right now. You’re not listening to me and I don’t want to have much to do with you right now.” In other words the parent figure is emotionally cool to the child in response to serious or persistent misbehavior. The child is told , in effect, “if you want me to feel good about you again you will need to do as I say.” If this kind of message is sent to the child with enough firmness and consistency the child will respond by feeling a healthy degree of anxiety and be driven to regain the parents approval through conforming to the parents expectations. Parents sometimes are confused about the idea of creating anxiety in their children and can think of anxiety as a negative or damaging emotion. Parents can be helped to overcome these misconceptions by looking at what often happens in adult life. For example, in a work situation when an employee is evaluated poorly by a superior the employee responds with anxiety if the job and the income is valued. In this case the anxiety felt in the work place can be converted into better job performance and greater levels of approval. Anxiety is a normal human emotion which can power better functioning , resolve difficulties and lead to a greater sense of well being. Children within the age group two to four years and, sometimes beyond, cannot maintain an internal sense of well being without parental approval. Well timed , consistent and non punitive withdrawal of parental approval will result in the child experiencing healthy anxiety and will lead to conformity within a relatively short period of time. During the rapproachment phase the parent is signaling to the child, “ yes I know that you want to be king of the universe. I understand and you can be really cute when you are displaying yourself. I know that you want to be strong and in control like you think Mommy and Daddy are and that’s OK but there are limits. I’m going to help you give up some of the extreme behavior so that you can become a mature social being and be successful in the world.”
As a result of employing the parental response being discussed life became much better for Paul and Maria and for Michael. Michael become a more mature social being . He gradually gave up his controlling and oppositional behavior and learned that consistent approval from his parents felt good and was better than the increasing powerfulness of their disapproval. Paul and Maria became more confident in their parenting abilities. Their anger, guilt and self doubt were resolved and, as parents, they looked toward the future of their family with a sense of optimism and a feeling that Michael is now prepared to advance along the healthy path of childhood experience.
About Peter A. Schessler:
Licensed Cilincal Social Worker (NJ). Board Certified Clinical Social Worker. Over forty years of clinical, supervisory and teaching experience. Clinical seminar leader. Clinical Adjunct Professor NYU. Lives in Clifton, N.J.