As 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.
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.
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.