A matter of control ILLUSTRATION: Tim Furey

A matter of control

Projecting your own problems onto your child is bad for both of you

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 09/08/2011

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­­Dear Patti,
My 6-year-old son, Devin, is out of control. He rages, screams and breaks things if he doesn’t get his way. I can’t put him in his bedroom for a timeout because he’ll break his TV or window. After numerous test results confirming that he’s emotionally and physically healthy, his pediatrician, child therapist, teacher and my husband all concur that the problem lies with me for acting helpless during these tantrums and not giving Devin consequences. He doesn’t act out at school except when I’m there. My husband recently took him on a weekend fishing trip and there were no behavioral problems at all, because Devin knew his father wouldn’t tolerate it.

My husband admits he can’t handle our son when I’m around and believes it’s because Devin knows I’ll always interfere with any punishment and save him. I know better, but I get so caught up in feeling bad for Devin when he’s screaming and yelling.

The ironic thing is that I taught elementary school before I had Devin and worked well with children. In spite of that expertise, it’s embarrassing I have such a bratty child. What no one understands, though, is that I don’t want anyone to hurt Devin or make him feel like I did when I was a kid. When we were younger, my brother and I used to get hit, yelled at, berated, called names and sometimes forced to stay in our rooms an entire weekend by our drunken father. I know Devin’s a good boy, but he gets so angry and scared. I can’t bear the thought of him being mistreated. ~ Polly

Dear Polly,

Sometimes you can intellectually have all the understanding and knowledge of a subject but — as you’ve just illustrated — still have trouble following through with the right behavior when it comes to your own circumstances.   

One reason this may be happening is because your feelings concerning how your father treated you are overriding your knowledge and education and interfering with your being an effective parent. If you decide to engage in psychotherapy or counseling, I’d encourage you to explore the possibility that you have unresolved feelings toward him and certain historical events that are affecting your present emotions and behaviors. If, for example, you have strong negative feelings such as rage, you may have developed what is known in psychoanalysis as a reaction formation — a defense mechanism where you condemn something that has an unconscious appeal. In other words, if you have suppressed rage toward your father, you may be unconsciously acting in the exact opposite way — passive and helpless — in order to keep these feelings buried.

When one has suppressed feelings, they become rigid and variations become indiscernible. At the time of Devin’s temper tantrums, you might be unable to distinguish between your behavior (which might be firm or disapproving) and behavior like your father’s (which was abusive). Until you explore the reasons behind your repressed hostility, you’re likely to perpetuate responses that are the opposite of your father and, accordingly, diminish your own effectiveness as a parent.

Another term I’d like to share with you is called projection. This is another defense mechanism in which someone ascribes a disturbing personal thought or feeling onto another. Is it possible that you’re projecting all the pain, anger and loneliness you felt as a child onto Devin and automatically assuming he has those same feelings, even when you’re just parenting with a firm hand?

Projecting your feelings onto him does him a disservice because you’re viewing him as an extension of you and your childhood instead of seeing and understanding him as the unique individual he is. For all we know Devin might not feel anger or pain at all when you punish him but actually feel relief that you’re giving him structure. I recommend going into therapy and exploring the traumatic events that occurred in your childhood so you’ll be able to lovingly realize that Devin’s not you, he’s him.

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site: patticarmalt-vener.com.


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