Alice (Mean Mom): I don’t think one day goes by that my daughter doesn’t beg me to have her friends over. And…there is not one day that I want to say “yes”. It drives me nuts when they’re here – I don’t even know why. I feel so horrible wanting to say “no” all the time. And I know it’s great that she’s got friends. And it is my “turn” to host. But it just drives me nuts! Please tell me how I can get over this and be a little nicer of a mom. Of a person. I’m so mean.
Me: Why can’t you be mean and never have the kids over?
Alice: Because there’s something wrong with a mother who doesn’t have her daughter’s friends over. It’s not right. Everything just puts me over the edge. I get so ridiculously overwhelmed – almost scared. Like any minute I’m going to start screaming at them to stop. Which I don’t want to do.
Me: What would happen if you screamed at them?
Alice: I do not want to be that mean mom.
Me: You want to be a nice mom.
Alice: Well, yes. Don’t we all?
Me: Yes, we all want to be nice. But kids are going to think we are mean anyways, you know.
Alice: You don’t think it’s possible to be a nice mom? Or to have a kid who thinks her mom is nice?
Me: Right. I do not think that is possible.
Alice: Why? I had a truly mean mom. Like if I asked her for a drive, or if I needed something, she’d say “nope, no way that’s happening” and then she’d like…scoff. Like I was the stupidest person for even asking. And then when I’d get mad, she’d tell me how lucky I was to have everything I had. She was never wrong.
Me: You were the one who was wrong?
Alice: Oh, yeah. If I complained about something — like that I couldn’t go to a movie because she wouldn’t drive me, or that I couldn’t buy something because she said she didn’t like it — she would say “that is NOT my problem.” She just didn’t care. I don’t want to be that Mom. First of all, I’m glad Katie asks me for things. Second, I like to say “yes.” And third, I care how she feels.
Me: You are psychologically much more attuned than your mother. You are working on having the best, most loving relationship that you can with your daughter.
Alice: That’s right.
Me: That’s wonderful. I get it. There’s only one problem. If a child wants an egg, and you don’t have one, they might want you to run out to the store and buy them an egg right then and there. What if it became your full-time job to be on constant egg runs?
Alice: That’s a very strange example, but I get it. Chocolate eggs, maybe. That’s true. I know. Kaitlin is definitely acting spoiled.
Me: Yes, kids will suck you dry. They want what they want when they want it. At least, if they are healthy they do.
Alice: Well then my kid must be reaaaaaally healthy.
Me: Right. Kids are often very demanding people.
Alice: I know it.
Me: They want you to be nice all the time. And even if you are a really nice mommy, they are still going to be mad at you sometimes.
Alice: I try…I want to be a nice mom. I feel better when Kaitlin is happy. I don’t like it when she’s mad. I don’t want her to be unhappy.
Me: You don’t want her to have bad feelings towards you, the way you had towards your mother. You would like to have a more loving relationship.
Me: You don’t deserve to feel like you are a mean mother. What happens when Kaitlin thinks you’re mean? That must be very difficult for you.
Alice: Well, it happened the other day. It happens a lot actually. Whenever I have to say “no” Kaitlin gets mad. Like yesterday, I told her she couldn’t have candy – I’m a ridiculous health-nut – and she freaked out. Like, totally freaked out. I couldn’t believe it. I have been really worried about her being so spoiled actually.
Me: How do you handle it?
Alice: Well I get mad at that point. I tell her that she shouldn’t get so mad. I mean, I get her EVERYTHING she wants. I do so much for her.
Me: That must make you so mad to see her act so badly when she can’t get what she wants, given all you do for her.
Alice: Yes, it does, it does. It makes me boiling mad. After everything I do for her.
Me: There really is no way to avoid making your children unhappy and mad.
Alice: I keep thinking that I should spoil her less, but I don’t want to turn into my mother. I don’t want to turn away from her – I want us to be connected. I want to be there for her – I want her to be happy.
Me: And you should. And you shouldn’t stop spoiling her and doing as much as you can for her when you have the energy. That is not the problem. That’s love – love is not a problem, and you need it to compensate for how overwhelmed you get, which is hard for her. Here is the real problem: you don’t want her to be mad at you.
Alice: No! I don’t deserve it. I hardly ever say “no”!
Me: I know that. Even so…kids do have to be mad at their mothers sometimes. You cannot avoid being Mean Mom. You just can’t.
Alice: That is why I do not like to say no.
Me: Right. You do not like Kaitlin to have negative feelings towards you.
Alice: Oh my God, am I putting a guilt trip on Kaitlin just like my mother did to me for asking for anything?
Me: Well, I don’t think you’re trying to do that. You’re trying to teach Kaitlin that you’re a nice mother. You’re trying to get her to be more loving and appreciative of you. You’re trying to create a loving, nurturing environment. But nobody taught you that it is OK to have a conflict of interests. So it upsets you.
Alice: Well how can I help Kaitlin be more appreciative of me? Less demanding? And less spoiled? It’s too much!
Me: You have to accept and embrace that she is not always going to be happy. It’s not your fault. It doesn’t mean you are turning into your mother. Or being a bad mother at all.
Alice: I don’t like it when she gets mad. I don’t like having the feeling that she is selfish and mean – spoiled. I don’t want to dislike her. I don’t think that’s healthy.
Me: So not only is she not allowed to be mad at you, but you are not allowed to be mad at her.
Alice: Well, I don’t think those feelings are productive. I’d rather we work to understand each other and try to respect each other and have a positive relationship.
Me: That is a great plan. Here is a positive thing for you to understand about why Kaitlin melts down if you say “no” to her: it is because she doesn’t like herself.
Alice: She doesn’t?
Me: No, she doesn’t. Because she doesn’t like the negative feelings she gets from you any more than you like the ones you get from her. That’s why she falls apart. People think fussy kids are “spoiled” — that they are fussing because they can’t get what they want. That is so wrong. What they are really fussing about is that they don’t like themselves for making their parent feel bad towards them. They are crying because they don’t like themselves for having wanted what they wanted. We teach them to be outspoken, to tell us their thoughts and feelings, but when we get angry with them for making us feel mean, they think we don’t like them. So they fuss and then we think they’re spoiled and it’s a terrible vicious cycle.
Alice: Well why don’t they just act less spoiled?
Me: Because they don’t know when it’s OK to express themselves openly and express their needs, or when doing so will make their parents feel mean if the answer is “no.” They have no way of knowing when it’s going to be OK and when it’s going to be inconvenient or impossible for the parent.
Me: So it’s confusing for everybody when there is a conflict. Everybody feels bad. You feel bad about saying “no” and she feels bad for wanting things.
Alice: Wow. Yeah. How can I help Kaitlin like herself? I mean – this is going to sound weird but should she like herself when she’s pushing me so hard? Maybe she shouldn’t like herself. Maybe she should learn to insist less…
Me: Well some people can change when they don’t like things about themselves, that’s true. But most of us just get fussy and feel bad when we don’t like ourselves. Yes, she should get to know you, and that you can’t always say “yes.” Reality bites sometimes. But no, she shouldn’t have to feel bad about herself because of it.
Alice: Kaitlin probably does feel like she’s a bad person when I have to say “no” because I get so exasperated.
Me: We are so attuned to our children we can’t understand it when they are not attuned to us. It’s painful.
Me: This is the most difficult aspect of parenting today, in this age of atunement to emotion: you don’t want to feel like a mean mom, and kids don’t want to feel like selfish kids.
Alice: How do I stop this?
Me: Well since you can’t avoid conflict in any relationship, or the negative feelings that are generated, you have to get OK with her feeling you are mean sometimes. And you have to be OK with feeling that you are mean and that she is mean sometimes. All your love and attention can’t clear that up. Those feelings are going to be there.
Me: I know.
Alice: Major bummer.
Me: Right. That’s where everybody gets into trouble. Anger is the worst.
Alice: I was hoping for a little better than what I went through with my mother.
Me: We thought we could have more positivity if we did things differently. But it’s all about what to do with the negativity.
Alice: Well what do I do when she pushes me so hard?
Me: I told you, try not to get so frustrated with yourself for having to being mean. And try not to get so frustrated with her for wanting things so much. She’s got a strong will – don’t break it.
Alice: Her insistence really sucks though. I mean, what should I say, exactly when she acts so spoiled? Yesterday I said she couldn’t get these shoes she wanted – they were $120! And she started to beg me and beg me for them. Finally I said to her, ‘you are so spoiled!’ And then she started crying. I mean, come-on!!! She is going to outgrow them in two months! She doesn’t “need” this other pair of shoes! It’s never enough…
Me: She was acting like a child. Because she is a child. It’s not her fault she is not mature – attuned to other people, able to put you first, sensitive, understanding and compassionate, reasonable.
Alice: So what should I have said to her?
Me: Well what would have helped her feel better about herself?
Alice: Buying the shoes for her?
Me: No! There you go trying to generate positivity again. I’m asking how can you help her feel better about wanting the shoes, even though she can’t have them?
Alice: Oh! Isn’t that teaching her that it’s OK to be selfish?
Me: No. Appreciating her feelings will help her keep her sense of dignity and self-worth. When people feel good about themselves, they become compassionate and mature and un-selfish. Don’t say: “I should buy those shoes for you, if I don’t I”m a bad mother.” That would foster selfishness. You want to say to her: “I’m sorry I can’t buy those great shoes for you.”
Alice: What if she has a tantrum?
Me: Tell her she doesn’t have to be upset with herself for wanting the shoes.
Alice: Upset with herself?
Me: Right. Tell her, it’s OK. It’s OK to have wanted them. Tell her they really are great shoes. Tell her you would have wanted those shoes. That’s what your mother couldn’t do. Care about your feelings. You can care about what Kaitlin feels when it’s negative.
Alice: How will that help?
Me: She feels guilty and ashamed of herself for being so spoiled. It makes her fussy and then she loses her dignity just for wanting things…and just for letting you know she wants them. If you help her feel OK about all her wants – even the selfish and unreasonable ones — she won’t fall apart when she can’t have something. You have to find a way to say, “no, you can’t have these shoes, but…I get that you want them.” And, since she’s suffering from not liking herself lately, I would add “sorry I have to be mean.” That protects her self-worth and puts the blame on yourself for the conflict.
Alice: Like “I know you’re mad, it’s ok to be mad sometimes” and that kind of thing?
Me: Sure. And, if she melts down hysterically (since we haven’t helped her yet to feel balanced when she’s upset,) tell her you don’t blame her for fussing, but she shouldn’t feel bad about wanting the shoes. She shouldn’t feel bad about herself. “Spoiled” people are just people who feel bad about themselves.
Alice: OK. So give me some tools.
Me: Here is what you have to remember: She is allowed to think you are mean. Don’t take it away from her. You can’t avoid it. Mothers have to be mean. We can’t please our children all day long. We have to frustrate them. This is the hardest thing for us. It’s so unfair. We need them to love us. The way our parents couldn’t. We believe, if we are nice enough, we will have deeper, better feelings of love. And it just doesn’t work. We have to be mean and allow our children to want too much.
Alice: OK. Let her have her feelings, and let me have mine.
Me: Yes. You have to appreciate all her feelings, and I will appreciate all of yours. Being a parent today, having had parents who weren’t trained to be emotionally attuned, and then trying to be emotionally attuned ourselves is very, very hard.
Alice: I know! We’re doing the best we can!
Me: Yes. So remember: all your feelings are wonderful.
Alice: No they aren’t. Not when I’m thinking my kid is selfish.
Me: Perfect example — whenever you start thinking “she’s so selfish” that’s your cue that it’s time to help her feel less guilty and ashamed about wanting what you can’t give her. You see, you can use all your feelings to move yourself, and her, forward.
Alice: Wow, that’s hard to do.
Me: Pretty soon, if you can appreciate that she will feel frustrated and mad at you sometimes, she’ll stop feeling bad about it, and she will stop thinking of herself as “selfish.” Instead, she’ll keep her dignity when you have to say “no.” She won’t fuss or throw a fit. She’ll just beg a few times, and when you tell her to finally stop, she’ll say “OK, Mom” without falling apart.
Alice: Wow – that would be great.
Me: It’s going to take work. It’s slow. But when you can deal with the negativity you’ll be able to have all her friends over without being afraid of losing it.
Alice: Yeah. Right.
Me: You’re doing a wonderful job. You’re a wonderful mother and you’re doing a great job of trying to break the patterns that you grew up with.
Alice: Thanks. Um…you know that I’m a character that you have made up inside your own head, right?
Me: Listen…you are me, you could be a man, there is a little of you in every parent who is conflicted about saying “no” and who has to explore their relationship to all the negative feelings that always swim around.
Me: Thank you for agreeing with me. I am very fortunate to have all these wonderful characters to talk to inside my own head.