Yes, children are annoying.
They whine, they cry, they break stuff, they hassle you. You can’t get rid of them. They treat you like you’re their slave and they don’t appreciate anything you do.
A famous psychologist from the old days, D.W. Winnicott, even wrote a paper about the many ways mothers hate their babies, all of them being “the consequence of his ruthless use of her in the service of his own development.” Let’s face it, being a parent is a thankless job in many ways.
The thing is, if they didn’t use us the way they do, they wouldn’t survive. We are mammals, and like all mammals, we have evolved to live in social groups for survival. Our brains are literally developed in relationship to our caregivers. Without social engagement, a child will die. Less drastic, but as important for you to know, your child’s personality is developed in relationship to you. They need to interact with you to grow their brains. And the way their brains grow is a direct response to the ways you interact with them… No pressure.
To make this idea a little clearer, let me explain it with an example. Your child learns to regulate their behavior by anticipating your responses to them. If your responses communicate that you don’t like or can’t tolerate their aggressive feelings, they do not allow themselves to be directly aggressive. They know they cannot live without you, and fear your disapproval as confirmation that they will be killed, or abandoned, and so die; therefore, they find ways to express their aggression more covertly. This often looks like “accidentally-on-purpose” behavior, and it is annoying.
This will happen any time a child believes they cannot express feelings directly, whatever they are. They will make you experience whatever it is they are feeling that they cannot express directly, and more often than not, it is annoying.
That’s because children are often annoyed by the prohibitions that come with being socialized, and they have no way to directly express these feelings. As parents, your job is to socialize them, so it doesn’t often occur to you that the annoyance, anger, sadness, or betrayal that they feel over the way you are treating them is legitimate. If it’s “for their own good,” then why should you let them feel that way? Let me explain.
By no means am I advocating that you allow your children to be entitled, poorly behaved brats. Far from it. What I am saying is that if you do not show empathy for their pain in the socialization process and give them a time and place to express those emotions directly, you are going to have much more annoying (or neurotic, or otherwise disturbed) children either in the present or when they are older. Their feelings about the process are legitimate, because all feelings are legitimate, and you are the source of their unhappiness. Just because it’s “good for them” or “that’s the way it is,” doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck. As the parent, you have to be the one to help them tolerate and manage those feelings, and that starts by legitimizing them.
Helping your children find appropriate times and places to express their feelings directly to you is not an easy task since you were probably never taught this yourself, but is critical for keeping them from being more than mildly annoying most of the time. Helping them learn to tolerate the wait that might be necessary until they can express their feelings directly, or stepping in, without judgment, to contain your out-of-control child will show them empathy.
When you show empathy for your child’s feelings, they learn how to be empathetic. As a result, over time, they are much more likely to be empathetic with you when you are suffering and to be more cooperative with you when you need them to be. Think about it. We are nice to people who are nice to us. When someone acts like our feelings don’t matter, or manipulates us, it makes us mad. We get back at them, now or later, on purpose or accidentally. It will happen. Children are no different.
Our mammalian drive to be “felt” by “the other” makes us automatically and unconsciously find ways to make others feel what we feel if they do not do so voluntarily. This is the primary reason children are annoying, and if you want them to be less so, find a way to connect with their difficulty being “civilized.”
Feeling annoyed? Call me, we’ll talk.
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