It can be sink or swim in the sea of love
Love is a fragile thing. It has to be built, nurtured, maintained, and protected, or it can disappear. Even “mother love” — that instinctive attachment to one’s child — is not shatterproof. When a child is abusive enough to her parent, the parent naturally, understandably, and sadly, stops liking her. That’s bad for both parent and child. And that’s why it’s so important to do everything possible to prevent a deterioration of affection.
“My 11-year-old has a very difficult nature. When she doesn’t like something, she says so, without regard for anyone’s feelings. I can work for hours to prepare a delicious meal for my family, and she’ll poke her fork at it and ask in a threatening tone if I’ve fried the vegetables (‘….because you know I HATE fried vegetables and they cause cancer!’). She does this even though she knows I never fry anything and that I’m the one who told her how unhealthy fried food is in the first place.
“After eyeing the food suspiciously and finally taking a teensy taste, she’ll spit it out (whether we have guests or not) and scream that it’s disgusting. She’ll go on to accuse me of making food that I know she hates, that I only cook for the other people in the family and that she wishes she lived somewhere else. When she does this sort of thing I tell her how much she’s hurting my feelings. She seems to be indifferent to my pain; she just continues behaving this way.”
This woman’s child clearly has some problems. Is she emotionally disturbed due to trauma? Does she suffer from an impulse disorder, a mood disorder, or a personality disorder? Is it just a behavioral problem? Only a professional assessment will reveal the root problem and point to the appropriate interventions. Meanwhile, her family has to live with her, and they must find a way to forge a respectful, caring relationship.
Even a person suffering from mental illness responds to his environment. Creating a healthy environment, with high doses of positivity, calmness, and clear boundaries, doesn’t guarantee high functioning in loved ones, but certainly contributes to best possible scenarios.
While most people know what constitutes a warm, tranquil atmosphere, many are less clear on healthy boundary-setting. For example, in the story above, Mom tries to set a boundary on her daughter’s out-of-control behavior by telling her, “You’re hurting my feelings.” This is called “sharing feelings,” not “boundary setting,” and it doesn’t lead to behavioral change. In fact, emotional sharing usually only works between loving adults.
Easy way out
“Dad was a pushover and Mom was, and still is, a tyrant. Dad always wanted to keep the peace so he just went along with her demands, whatever they were. I guess he figured out early in their marriage that there was no point arguing with her and he just gave up. So she insulted him in front of us, mistreated us in front of him, and did whatever she wanted, while he just looked on. He never stood up for himself or us.”
We might fail to set boundaries because we don’t want to “fight,” or because we just don’t know how. However, the result is usually a dysfunctional relationship and lots of pain for the whole family.
In the above scenario, Dad saved himself at the expense of his children. He didn’t show them how boundaries are set or what healthy relationships look like. He didn’t protect them when they needed protection. He provided an unhealthy model of a husband, father and man, all to keep the peace.
Boundary setting — drawing a firm line with real consequences — requires strength, commitment, and courage.
“Don’t call me names; it’s completely unacceptable,” is a good opening line. But it requires an “or else.”
“If you continue to speak to me like this, then we need to speak with a professional and get help.” The boundary-setter must take it all the way and apply the consequence, getting the help he needs to do so if necessary. There can be no “forgetting” or “letting it pass” when highly destructive behavior is occurring.
Drawing a line in the sand separates unhealthy, unloving behavior from the kind that can build healthy, loving families. Draw it. And step on the right side of the line — stay on the beach and don’t get pulled into the sea.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 655)