Tweens are not always the instigators. Sometimes they can be the victims of indulgence. Imagine an over-tired 5-year-old who is mad at her mother for brushing her hair before school. Who is she going to lash out at? Most likely she is going to target her older sister who is sitting across from her eating her breakfast and who is in-advertently looking at her. (It’s hard not to stare at a crazed 5-year-old.) So when the 5-year-old angrily whips a phone at her innocent sister, what’s a mother to do?
How a parent handles a situation like this, whether with a 5-year-old or with a 10-year-old, has a lot to do with the strength of the parent’s emotional boundaries. “Emotional parents can rev up quickly, spin like a top, and then give in because they want it to be over.” (Kastner 84)
Boundaries that are too open are like a sieve, letting someone else’s thoughts, accusations, or assessments all flow in. When this kind of absorption occurs, emotions are amplified, and the inundated person isn’t able to use her thinking brain or choose what to say. By contrast, people with rigid boundaries may “shut down” in emotional situations…But on occasions when they do absorb emotions, they may feel like they’re going to explode. (84)
Parents who lack firm interpersonal boundaries with their children leak too many of their own feelings and absorb too many of their child’s emotions and attitudes. This type of relationship is often called “enmeshed” or “symbiotic.” If the child is riled up and anxious, so, too, is the parent. As the duo becomes increasingly upset, a circular reaction is triggered, which can easily get out of control, destroying warmth, communication, and any chance of judicious decision-making or discipline.” (85)
Parents who have weak emotional boundaries most likely grew up in difficult circumstances, such as “poverty, trauma, alcoholic parents, domestic violence, family mental illness, [or] neglect,” and want to make up for those difficulties in their children (86). They want to be sure that their children do not “suffer” the same way they did.
Parents with troubled family-of-origin histories often have unrealistic notions, clinging to romantic ideas of being the perfect parent. Without an internal road map for what’s normal, they don’t realize how much adversity naturally exists, even in the happiest families. They panic when their teens mouth off, pitch fits, and hate them when they don’t get their way. Haunted by their past and too focused on being loved and cherished, such parents fear a bad relationship with their child and buckle…parents commonly talk too much, engage too much, and defend too much, trying too hard to fix it when their kids are unhappy with them. (86)
So under these circumstances, a mother might join in with the screaming of her 5-year-old (and now older sister who is injured by the phone). “How could you do that to your sister!” But wanting the ordeal to be over and recognizing the need to get to school, the mother might cave and allow the 5-year-old to remove the bow from her hair, drink her chocolate milk, and not apologize. When what really should be done is to first make sure the older sister is not seriously hurt, remove the chocolate milk from the five-year-old’s hands, and send her to the stairs to calm down (which will also allow the mother to calm down).
This is where consequences are essential. This behavior can neither be glossed over nor rewarded. Illustrating to both the 5-year-old and older sister that there are consequences when poor choices are made, sets a precedent for the future. Holding strong, a mother may need to cancel a playdate and then proceed to get her “little darling” to school.
Kastner, Laura S., and Wyatt, Jennifer. 2009. Getting to CALM: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens. Seattle, WA: ParentMap.