Hi Dr Justin,
My 4 yo and 2 1/2 yo have recently started telling me “I’m not your friend anymore” or “you’re not my mummy” when I ask them to do something they don’t like or want to do ie putting their plates in the sink.
I really don’t know how to respond to it. So far I have been ignoring the comment itself and saying to them that that is a mean thing to say and it hurts my feelings.
Have you got any pointers? I really do not know how to respond in an effective way.
Kids seem to have a way of finding painful ways of hurting their parents. Common statements include the ones you’ve mentioned, along with “I hate you”, and various other hurtful phrases.
Theory of Mind
There’s a psychological term for what’s happening with your children right now. Their ego-centrism (or self-centredness) is a result of an inability to take another person’s perspective. Psychologists call this ‘theory of mind’, and it refers to a child’s ability to perceive that another person’s mind might be different to their own.
Perspective taking develops between the age of 4 1/2 and 5 1/2. Some kids may ‘get it’ a little earlier, and some may take a little longer.
Challenging behaviour like your child exhibits (as well as not sharing, or being angry when asked to do something not on their agenda, or shouting and hitting) is often a result of children simply not understanding that someone might want something different to what is on their mind!
Of course, as kids get older and develop this theory of mind, they may still say horrible things, refuse to co-operate, and present challenges from time to time. That’s fine. We all have other preferences, and quite often helping with the dishes or tidying our room is low on our priority list. But those issues are related to preferences more than this specific developmental milestone.
So what do I do?
In your email to me you’ve highlighted two things that form your basic responses. The first is that you ignore your kids when they speak like that.
While this can work sometimes, there are a couple of challenges with it. Often ignoring might actually escalate the behaviour. A non-reaction sometimes backfires by creating an even needier child. This creates more trouble for you, and more insecurity for your child.
The second thing you mentioned was that you sometimes respond by attempting to teach that such words hurt you. But in this case, your reaction gives them a verbal reward. They know they got through to you. They’ve had a win.
Instead, give them a response that meets their needs but still requires that they respect your limits and boundaries.
These ideas may help:
1. Show understanding
In his masterful book, Raising an emotionally intelligent child, John Gottman describes an incident where his daughter (aged 2) was on a plane with him. She was tired and wanted her favourite toy – a zebra. Sadly, it was in the luggage hold under the plane. His daughter whined and cried at the news.
He continued to try to explain things to her, describing the impossibility of the situation. Her distress became much greater, to the point where it was affecting other passengers. He offered another toy. No good. He tried to persuade her, distract her, calm her. No luck. His blood pressure was rising.
Gottman then did precisely the opposite of what most parents might do. Rather than being annoyed, telling her to calm down, and pointing out how her behaviour was upsetting people, Gottman showed compassion and understanding. He spoke to her, moving from his defensiveness, to an acknowledgement of her yearning.
“You wish you had Zebra right now”.
“Yeah”, she replied.
“You’re tired and you’d like to snuggle with Zebra and feel him against your face. You’d like to get out of this seat and snuggle into your bed and be with all your special animals.”
“I wish we could too. I would love to snuggle with you and read you a story like we usually do.”
His daughter calmed down. She felt understood. She relaxed into him and went to sleep.
Gottman’s willingness to show he understood helped his daughter calm down. A similar principle can apply when your kids say they’re not your friend, or that they hate you. Showing understanding, and tapping into their emotional world can create calm, and increase cooperation.
2. Discuss perspectives
When kids are calm it can be useful to begin to train them in perspective taking. (But it won’t work when they’re not calm.)
Perspective taking and theory of mind typically don’t develop until age 5 or thereabouts. But some research has highlighted that training kids to be emotionally aware can promote this development a little earlier.
Ask your kids how it feels when tantrums are thrown, or when people say things like “I’m not your friend anymore.” Get them to see it from different perspectives. Have simple conversations like this to increase their emotional intelligence.
3. Reinforce limits, but do it by asking questions
Once kids are feeling understood, it can also be helpful to ask them what the limits are. We might say,
“What are you expected to do in this situation?”
“What is the right way to act?”
“How should we speak to one another in our family?”
Kids will learn better when they are doing the talking. So lecture less and ask questions more. The questions will instil the values much deeper in our children’s psyche than any lecture.
4. Give choices
Perhaps some jobs are simply horrible for kids. Some research indicates that children respond better to being given options. They know work is to be done. But at least with options they get to choose which work they’ll do – and they feel much better about it!
5. Be aware of our children’s agenda
Sometimes our kids are entirely willing to help, but just not right now. We might be asking them when they’re too tired, or when their favourite tv show is on. We should be sensitive to our kids’ agenda as well. (For older kids I’ve found that giving them a deadline for a task is far more effective – eg, please have the kitchen tidy before 8pm.)
There are many more solutions, suggestions, and creative ways to work through these situations. If it were to be summed up in a few words, I’d say that when your kids give you those hurtful phrases, some time, understanding, and perspective are the best remedies for teaching them the right way to act, and for reinforcing the requests and limits you set.
Have your kids told you that you’re not their friend, or that they hate you? What did you do?