Saturday, November 8, 2014

Help! My Sister-in-Law is Driving Me Mad!

A reader wrote: My sister-in-law accused me of not caring about my boy’s low weight gain. Sent me into tears. How do you deal with difficult in-laws since you have to deal with them? It makes me so mad I don’t even want to spend the holidays with them.

First, let me say that I’m sorry about your sister-in-law’s hurtful dialogue. Of course you care about your boy’s health. How insensitive of her.

Unfortunately, my recommendation is basically for you to be open and honest with your sister-in-law. I do, however, have some specific advice. From my years in therapy and school, I have learned to use statements like the following for helping me to voice my feelings: When you ________ I feel _________. I would prefer _________. 

The “when you ________” part of the statement is designed to let the person know what specifically it is that is problematic. The “I feel ________” part is designed to make it about you and your feelings rather than blaming the other person. Making “I” statements helps prevent people from getting defensive. The “I would prefer _________” part is meant to give the person a specific idea of how to fix the problem.

Either you or your husband can be the one to speak up to your sister-in-law. I know it can be awkward to talk to family members but if you don’t say anything, she’ll keep thinking her behavior is acceptable and you’ll keep being gnawed up over her dumb comments. It may take a few times of you or your husband having this conversation with your in-laws for the problem to be resolved because people don’t like hearing that they are acting like douchebags and changing behavior isn’t always instantaneous. If they choose to keep mistreating you after you’ve clearly expressed your feelings, then you may want to consider drawing more boundaries between you and your in-laws. If they are given the opportunity to change and choose not to do so, then you may consider limiting your contact with them and visiting with them on your own terms, which leads me to my next point.

You are a grown-up and it’s your holiday. You do not have to spend it with your in-laws. I feel like this point is one that most people forget. You do not owe them your time even if your husband rented out their uterus for 9 months. If they are toxic or abusive and you’ve clearly expressed how their behavior hurts you and how they can act differently, then you are certainly more than justified in not spending the holidays with them. If they ask why, you should be honest with them and tell them that the questions and comments about your boy’s low weight gain hurt your feelings and you’d rather stay home or do whatever it is that you are going to do. You can also limit your time with them and or see them on your own terms. It can feel very empowering to start setting boundaries with them that you are comfortable with.

I’ll end by saying, again, how sorry I am that you are having trouble with your in-laws. I know people can be very judgmental when your baby isn’t fat. You’re a great mom and you take terrific care of your baby. Know that I’m with you and I’m giving your sister-in-law the middle finger right now on your behalf.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Reader Q: What Do You Think About Jimmy Kimmel's Halloween Prank?

A reader wrote, “Dear Professor Parenting: Please tell me what you think about Jimmy Kimmel asking parents to convince their kids that they ate all their Halloween candy.” 

At first, my response was that those kids are likely going to be just fine in the long run because most people end up just fine. The odds are in their favor. Then, I got in the shower and I started thinking. I started thinking that I don’t like the spirit of the trick. I don’t like it because it celebrates being mean to our kids. I especially don’t like it in the context of repeated mean, nasty, taunting parenting that too many kids have to face from their parents—the people around whom children center their entire world in their early prescient years. Then, I had a flashback to my childhood.

The flashback was a memory of my sixth birthday. The only thing I wanted was a desk. I wanted to have a special place all of my own to do the things that brought me the most joy—schoolwork and crafts. The few months leading up to my birthday, I had just started kindergarten which resulted in me being assigned a desk.  I had been given my own first desk and it was my first love. All I wanted was to have a desk at home too. A place to work, put my books, and keep my art supplies. I asked for a desk everyday leading up to my birthday.

The big day came. It was a Saturday. I woke up at 7am and asked my mom if I had gotten a desk for my birthday. I had been promised a desk. My parents sat me down on the couch and handed me a small wrapped present about the size of a ladies’ wallet. I felt my heart sinking through my stomach as I opened it. It was a box made of laminate board. I was unable to hold in my disappointment and shock. My mom told me that it was a pencil box. She explained that they wanted to get me a desk but they didn’t have enough money. All they could afford was the pencil box. That’s all I was getting for my birthday. I bit my lip, ran down the hallway into my room, and let the hot tears run down my cheeks.

Just as I had started to let my tears turn into quiet sobbing, my mom entered and tried to convince me to come back out. She wanted to show me something. I obeyed, walking down the hallway with my head down, vision still blurred from my crying. She opened the door to the guest room, and there was desk. It was the desk I specifically requested. My parents erupted in laughter. I had gotten a desk, but I was confused. Why would my parents have played such a cruel joke? Why did they think that the pain they caused me was funny? 

I settled into my desk, the wound of my parents’ cruelty still raw. My parents left, laughing all the way to the family room about how funny it was to see me so disappointed when I opened the pencil box. My father had managed to snap a photograph of me the instant that I opened the pencil box. For the rest of my life, my family would pull out that photo and laugh about how funny it was. Every time they pull that photo out, they reopen my old wound just so they can have a laugh.

My main issue with parents being encouraged to video record themselves convincing their children that they ate all of their Halloween candy is that it praises parents for being mean and nasty to their children. I’m not against playing tricks or pranks in general. In fact, I don’t think that an isolated event like mine would necessarily scar children for life. My experience could have gone much differently.

What my parents had done, in psychological terms, is called a rupture. They had ruptured or damaged our relationship with their actions. We do it all the time to each other in microscopic ways (not returning texts fast enough, forgetting important dates). Usually, it’s no big deal because we do what’s called a repair. We apologize and make amends. We validate the other person’s pain. We empathize. 

My parents didn’t repair. They didn't recognize that they had hurt me deeply. If this had been an isolated event and/or my parents had repaired the rupture, I wouldn’t be writing a blog post about it as a developmental psychologist concerned with helping parents treat their children more kindly. What happened, instead, was me being left alone to deal with my pain.

I have problems with venerating cruelty for a cheap laugh because I want to prevent children from experiencing the repeated cruelty that I faced. My parents are the meanest, cruelest people I’ve ever known. My parents would say things like children should be seen and not heard, I’ll give you something to cry about, and if I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you. When I was three, I once spent three hours in time-out with my nose pressed against the wall for breaking one of my toys. It's this kind of omnipresent threat of parental cruelty that I admonish. Video recording has the potential to make it worse by facilitating and encouraging parents to make their children relive the trauma. It’s experiences with parental cruelty like mine that I want to prevent if I can. I would never participate in that Halloween candy prank because there’s no need for me to take a chance that I deeply hurt my child. Kids do cute and funny things without people acting like total dicks. Most importantly, however, there is enough cruelty and nastiness in this world. Children don't need their parents to be one of those people too.

I get that the Jimmy Kimmel prank is funny. I’ve laughed at the things those kids in those videos say. I also don’t think that the kids in those videos are going to be messed up as a result of their parents convincing them that they ate all of their Halloween candy. What I’m trying to point out is that this type of deception isn’t something that’s completely innocuous. It has the potential to do real lasting harm to real people, especially if it’s a way of life for the children whose parents do so.