The Way the Process Works
Whenever a child is in control of important adults (or perceives it to be that way, which amounts to the same thing), the child experiences a sequence of reactions:
1. First, the child experiences a brief but intense sense of satisfaction, powerful reinforcement for whatever behavior is occurring at the time, however inappropriate it might be. Sometimes children smirk in response, infuriating their parents who reason that if the child wins, then they have to lose.
2. Almost immediately after that first surge of satisfaction, the child recognizes a continuing dilemma, raising an unexpressed but troubling question:
Gosh, if I am in control of Mom and Dad, who the heck is taking care of all the scary stuff out there?
Imagine being a child facing such a frightening dilemma. If you sense your parents are not capable of protecting you, you are left to protect yourself. How will you react? You will try to convince yourself that you are able to handle whatever scary things come along on your own. You are most likely to rely on what you know best how to do: whine more, fuss more, poke at your parents’ soft spots more, and keep up this pattern until they give in one more time. Success in that effort will demonstrate anew how strong you are and maybe that will allow you to feel safe.
Unfortunately, this attempt is doomed to fail. No matter how often you manage to control your parents, it remains clear you are still incapable of handling all the threats in the world. In our world no one is able to deal with all of the potential dangers and we must depend upon others. One of the cardinal features of maturity is the capacity to accept that none of us is strong enough to handle everything and that we must and do depend upon others to survive. In our world we cannot have milk without depending upon – and trusting – perhaps a dozen people between the cow and us, all of whom have to do the right thing for the milk to be safe. Yet, because generally we are able to trust others, we drink milk and rarely think about the many points at which it could be contaminated.
But a child who feels in control of adults does not dare to feel trust for anyone or anything, a burden of almost unimaginable magnitude. Given the extent of children’s dependence on adults for protection, the intensity of this quandary can hardly be overstated. Such a pattern may provide the basis for much bullying behavior, seen in children working to convince themselves they are not as vulnerable as they feel inside.
In sum, in response to this dilemma, the child struggles to feel strong enough by testing the adults’ and the child’s own resources, that is, by pushing the limits of inappropriate behavior. Of course no child will consciously think this all through; it remains outside conscious awareness, rather than a conscious decision of how to react.
3. The most common response from parents, when their children test the limits, is increased frustration followed, as for the children, by doing more of whatever they did earlier (e.g., giving in, wearing down, or striking out). Because of the intense feelings involved, any such responses are not well thought out and are expressed harshly enough to provide still more evidence that the child is stuck in control. That realization, in turn leads the child to renewed worries and fears about being in control, continuing the entire process.
4. All of this results in a vicious cycle that reflects the common experience of families caught in such patterns:
- The more the child feels in control . . .
- The more apprehensive and fearful the child is . . .
- The more the child challenges the limits with unacceptable behavior…
- The more the parents react angrily and ineffectively . . .
- The more the child’s sense of being in control is confirmed . . .
- The more likely the entire process will continue to repeat itself.
On the one hand, then, we have a child who tries the parent’s patience, who brazenly challenges every rule, and who tempts the parent to react harshly, thereby leaving the child in control. On the other hand, that tiresome, challenging, frustrating child is, in fact, frightened, apprehensive, and struggling to allay fears by acting as if able to control whatever scary things come along.