I recently gave our readers a chance to weigh in about things that kids sometimes say that might throw them for a loop, push their buttons or induce high blood pressure in a single sentence. I got several responses, many of them a spin on a few themes, which I have condensed into:
"You are NOT the boss of me!"
"I don't have to listen to you!"
"I HATE you!
There you have it! Just words. Yes, words that create wars in some homes, but words, nevertheless. They only have as much power as you give them.
The Child is Counting on YOU
Notice how the sentences all end with an exclamation point? That's because these words are usually very emotionally charged and said at a time when the child has reached the outer limits of her ability to deal rationally with a situation. While we are on the subject of being rational, let's stop to consider that toddlers and preschoolers have a brain that is nowhere near developed. Their neocortex (highest thinking part of the brain) will take at least two more decades to mature. In the interim, the child is counting on you to show him a better way to manage intense feelings. When you think about it, there are still adults who have trouble with managing BIG emotions.
When you can recognize that the words are a last ditch effort for the child to gain some control (over a situation, demands, themselves, etc.), you are much less likely to take the words as a personal affront. Your child is not out to get you, your child is out to get your help in learning a better way.
Say It with Compassion
So, how will you respond when a child throws out one of the aforementioned statements? It will vary, of course, based upon your own personal preferences, but the response must always come from a place of compassion.
It's Not Easy
It's not easy to maintain your composure when it feels as if this wee person is out to get you. Once you recognize these words as a ploy for help rather than a ploy to "get you", it becomes much more possible for you to respond from a place of love.
"You're Not the Boss of Me" or
"I Don't Have to Listen to You"
These statements both come from the same place. A child saying this is looking for personal power and wants to assert her independence. Think about it, a child is given commands all day long. Get your coat, put on your shoes, pick up your toys, eat your food, take turns, share the truck, pet the dog gently, etc.
When a child makes a comment like this, you can calmly reply, "You're right, I'm not. You are the boss of you because you have a brain in your head that controls your mouth, your hands and your feet. You are large and in charge of yourself. Your brain helps you to make good decisions and to do the right thing." Who can argue with that? I said those very words to my youngest son on one occasion when he was about three and a half, and he never once again said, "You are not the boss of me!" Interestingly enough, he did on a few occasions say, "Mom, I am the boss of me, right?" I'd respond with a smile, "Yes, you are, so make good choices!" He grinned from ear to ear as he nodded his head. How empowering is that?
"I Hate You" or
These are words that come from a child who has had it. His feelings are bigger than he is and he is using fighting words. Don't take the bait. Imagine, instead, that your child is handing over his big mess of emotions because he just doesn't know what to do with them. Don't personalize. Instead, try to validate his feelings by saying something like, "This is hard for you right now." "It's hard for you to do what is asked right now." "You're using BIG, ANGRY words. Is your mad feeling small, medium, large or supersized?" "How can I help you?" "Do you want to run in place until all of your anger is gone?" "Do you want to splash some cool water on your face and let your anger go down the drain?"
How Will She Ever Learn?
Parents who haven't yet discovered the magic in responding to underlying emotions, and who are focused more on controlling their child with consequences, might be concerned about how their child will ever develop a conscience or do the right thing without them doling out some sort of a punishment when their child uses these emotionally charged words.
The secret lies in the relationship. When a child knows she is safe with you and that you will help her solve the puzzle of emotions, as well as provide her with solid ways to manage those emotions, you will see behavior changes that are lasting and significant.
As always, we wish you happy parenting!