May 012014


Molly Skyar - Family

What kind of impact are we having on our children? Dr. Susan Rutherford gives her daughter, Molly Skyar, the inside scoop about how our parenting decisions today affect the adults our kids will become tomorrow.

Question: My step-daughter keeps telling her one-year old daughter “that hurts my feelings” whenever the child doesn’t respond in the way she wants.

WVM May 2014 Molly Skyar FAMILY ImageMOLLY: This came from a reader in San Diego, California. She added that the phrase “really rubs me the wrong way,” and she feels it’s inappropriate to lay that kind of manipulative guilt on a one-year old. One of her friends told this grandma she’s “old fashioned and it’s okay,” but she’s wondering what she can do about it.

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD (Molly’s Mom): This could be a difficult area, especially since it’s her step-daughter and we don’t know what kind of relationship she has with her. However, if she feels like the relationship is strong enough, she should start a conversation about it.

She could begin by asking her step-daughter something like, “I’m curious as to why you say this so often to your daughter? Are your feelings really hurt?”

MOLLY: It sounds like this step-daughter is making everything about her, the mom, and not really taking into consideration what her child is feeling.

DR. RUTHERFORD: That’s right, and this child is very young. It will be confusing to the child to have this response all the time. What it may do is shut the child down, so she’ll be afraid to say much of anything to her mom for fear she will “hurt her feelings.”

I doubt very much a one-year old child is focused on intentionally hurting her mother’s feelings; rather she’s just trying to make her way in the world.

MOLLY: What should this mom be saying instead?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Sometimes parents fall into using guilt to shape their children’s behavior. While guilt can be a powerful motivating force in a child’s life, we know now there are more positive ways to influence behavior that don’t leave lingering side effects in the parent-child relationship.

The step-daughter herself may have been parented with a lot of guilt. Unfortunately, it happens in divorce cases sometimes that one parent tries to establish their dominance by using guilt in order to make that parent feel better about themselves. She may have learned to parent with guilt from her own parents.

The step-mother/grandmother needs to tread carefully here. Perhaps she might want to give her step-daughter the gift of a parenting book that shows a different way of approaching toddlers.

I’d suggest The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp.  There is even a DVD she could give the busy mom along with the book.

Of course, the step-daughter could be using this phrase appropriately, such as when the one-year old hits or kicks. The phrase, “You really hurt mommy when…” is appropriate to use when you’re teaching empathy and you want the child to realize it physically hurts when they hit someone.

As the child gets older, it would be appropriate to use that phrase when the child says or does something mean or uncaring.

The step-mother could model more positive parenting habits in her own interactions with the grandchild without directly criticizing the step-daughter and jeopardizing their relationship.

MOLLY: What are the possible long term consequences?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Using guilt to mold behavior in a one-year old lays the groundwork for a lifetime of guilty feelings for the child.

The long-term consequences could be the child grows up recognizing the mother’s world is focused on the mother rather than her child. This will impact her in terms of the kinds of friends she makes and, later on, the kinds of long-term relationships she has.

She could subconsciously expect the focus in a relationship to always be on the other person, because that’s how her mother taught her life works, and that will influence the type of partners she picks.

I often see adults playing out their relationships with their parents within their adult-life relationships. For a child like this baby, that might mean picking partners who use guilt to control her behavior, just like her mom did.
Molly Skyar and Dr. Rutherford publish “Conversations with My Mother,” an online resource for offering practical parenting tips and psychological insight into raising kids. Dr. Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist in practice for over 30 years. She has her undergraduate degree from Duke University, a Masters from New York University (NYU) and a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Denver. Contact Website Facebook Twitter
Photo Credit – David Castillo Dominici
© 2014 Molly Skyar