Why It’s Not about Making Mom and Dad Happy

child looking downAs an autism professional and parent, I am accustomed to having a difference of opinion when it comes to many of the things I believe and practice about autism. But this week I came across something in a professional social media forum that really “got my goat,” as my grandmother used to say: a social skills video titled How to Make Your Parents Happy in 4 Easy Steps.

The video explained to children that when a parent asks them to do something (i.e., put away toys), they should comply with this request because it makes Mom or Dad happy. When the child doesn’t do what the parent wants, it makes the parent sad or mad. It included cartoon facial expressions and was very well done from a technical perspective. However, the message it sends can be damaging to our kids, on the autism spectrum or otherwise.

Here’s why:

Teaching kids to comply in order to “make others happy” encourages people-pleasing behavior.

When I encourage my child (any child) to do what I want because it will make me happy, the focus is taken off the reason for the request and moved instead onto pleasing others. For example, if I tell my child, “Eat all of your vegetables and Mommy will be so happy,” my child gets the message that my feelings are more important than their nutrition, and that they have control over my feelings by complying with my request.

There are adults on my couch every day who were given that message as children, internalized it, and now cannot get out of an abusive relationship because they can’t set healthy boundaries. Some were inadvertently taught that making others feel good is more important than their own needs. This message often starts in childhood.

A much better option is to ask that a child eat their vegetables or they won’t get dessert. Give them the freedom and control to eat them or not eat them, without emotion attached to the consequences. A child needs to be given the freedom to decide he or she is not eating the broccoli, won’t get the chocolate cake, and Mom will still love him and be happy with him/her.

Using your emotions as a parent to control your child’s behavior can backfire.

Sure, if you tell your child to pick up his or her toys because it will make Mommy smile, the child will pick up the toys. It works. Congratulations—you got your kid to be compliant AND codependent in one fell swoop. Since the definition of codependency is a lack of boundaries, or not understanding where you stop and I begin, the easiest way to encourage that is to teach your kids that everything they do should be done for someone else’s emotional reaction and approval. If a child is consistently taught that another person’s feelings are more important than his or her own, the results can be devastating.

Please, let’s leave our spectrum kids alone about the eye contact already!

Research and simple conversations tell us that people on the autism spectrum have difficulty looking people in the eye and simultaneously attending to what they are saying. When the dreaded video I came across mentioned to its child audience that looking people in the eye makes them happy, I had to turn it off. If my feelings as a parent are more important than my child’s comfort or ability, I need to take a good, hard look at my own needs as a parent. Would we ask a child in a wheelchair to please try to walk because it will make Mommy so happy? Enough said.

Our goal as parents and teachers of spectrum kids needs to be focused on how to help kids learn to self-regulate based on their own signals and feelings.

There is too much emphasis placed on compliance. I’m not saying compliance isn’t important. We need to teach our kids that running into the street or touching a hot stove is dangerous. However, if we aren’t careful, we could end up with a compliant but maladjusted, miserable child who doesn’t trust his or her own feelings.

Spectrum kids certainly need to know how their actions affect others. This is not the same as using emotions to control our kids. In our office, we teach emotional identification to help kids self-regulate and understand the perspectives of others. For example, Jack hits Jill on the playground because he wants the ball she’s playing with. Rather than telling him, “Jack, watching you hit Jill made Mommy very angry,” it would be more effective to say, “Jack, I saw you hit Jill when you wanted the ball. When you hit her, it hurt her, and she is crying.” Better yet, Jill could tell him how she felt. Ideally, Jack learns that his actions affect others and that other people have feelings that are different from his. If we can then get Jack to identify how he feels about the whole incident, we can teach him how to regulate his emotions more effectively by paying attention to these signals we call feelings.

If a child can identify his or her own feelings, he/she is on the first step of the path to being able to regulate them. As a result, no harm is done and everyone is happier, including this therapist.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, Autism Spectrum Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Molly

    September 17th, 2014 at 3:27 PM

    There is so much pressure as a society to conform and to have our kids conform what the norms of the rest of society are that I find that this would be incredibly challenging for the parents who have kids who are autistic or register somewhere on the autism spectrum.
    They have their own ways of dealign with things that the rest of us think should be so easy… why not just leave the parents with the things that they know work for their kids and the rest of us should stop being so darn critical?
    No that may not be waht works best for us but we don’t want anyone breathing down our necks about what we should do so why do we feel that need to do it to others?
    These are families who need all of the support and understanding that they can get, so why not cut them a little slack every now and then?

  • colette

    September 18th, 2014 at 3:51 AM

    I guess that there is a fine line between letting your child feel free to act in the way that is most comforting to him and then again in ways that are appropriate. How do you work with them to differentiate this line and to make sure that they are able to seamlessly integrate into society while still holding onto what feels good to them?

  • Kyra

    September 18th, 2014 at 10:23 AM

    What do you think about special ed programs in schools which only reinforce some of the antiquated beliefs?

  • janeen

    September 18th, 2014 at 12:41 PM

    Colette, that’s an excellent question and one that I get asked often. It’s definitely a fine line, so knowing your child is crucial here. I think sometimes that goal of seamlessly integrating them into society needs to be examined. For some children, (mine is one of them) that isn’t a realistic goal. When we understand their motivation for doing what they do, we can then decide if we need to modify a behavior. For example, if a child likes to chew on things, we might offer them something that’s “ok to chew”; thus allowing the behavior b/c they need it, and still setting a boundary around it in order to make it safe. (i.e.: so they don’t swallow a lego). Does that make sense?

  • janeen

    September 18th, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    Kyra, Great question..and one I could write a whole blog about. Our education system seems to be the last to implement what we know is true from psych research. So many schools are still using shame tactics to get kids to be “obedient”, thus doing a lot of damage. I think the only way it’s going to change is if we, the parents, don’t allow it anymore. Often, the schools are doing the best they can and don’t realize there is another way. Sharing info with them could be a start. Brene’ Brown is one of my favorite researchers/speakers on the subject and I often share her books and TED talks with educators.

  • Kyra

    September 19th, 2014 at 4:28 AM

    Thanks for this. My sister who had Down’s syndrome was a product of a school system that seemed to use more shaming than educating and this is always a very sore spot for me.
    These are the people who are supposed to be etaching when the parents are not there and yet for many of them they act like this is the worst thing in the world that they are doing.
    Then why are they even there doing it if they do not have a real affinity for working with children with special needs?

  • Nellie

    September 19th, 2014 at 10:16 AM

    Can I just say one thing here that will probably not be the most popular view but there are times no matter who you are that you have to learn to be compliant.
    I know that this can be more difficult for those in the population with mental health disabilities but there are some things that you have to learn how to do even when it is hard.
    I in no way advocate to be mean to teach this or to hurt the person and I know that there have bene times when this has bene done to this segment of the population. But at the same time there are little things that can be taught and learned just to somewhat fit in.

  • Janeen

    September 20th, 2014 at 6:36 AM

    Nellie, I would definitely agree. Thank you for sharing that. That’s why it’s even more important for us to know our kids and their motivations and not view this as a black or white issue. We can still teach compliance without shaming.

  • Nellie

    September 20th, 2014 at 12:04 PM

    I agree. I just thought that I would get a whole lot of backlash on here for saying that even though it was not meant as a criticism, just that if this is not something that you think that your child can handle, and I know that there were times when even my own kids couldn’t handle certain things… then that is something that you should probably reconsider until there is a time and a way to make it happen so that everyone can be happy.

  • nala

    September 22nd, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    There seems to be this pattern in so many of us that we become too concerned with what others think about us.

    I am basically tired of worrying what people will think about me or my family. We do the things that we do to get by, to make it and to survive and it really shouldn’t have to have anything to do with the expectations that others may have for us.

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