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  • Writer's pictureHaim Omer

Until what age do children need firm limits?

Along the years I've received requests for help from parents of children from the age of 3 to 62! Actually, in the case of the 62-year old "child", not the parents, but his sisters came for help, asking how they could protect their old and frail parents from blackmail, exploitation and abuse.

There are a lot of problems from which both the child and the parents suffer, when the parents feel unable to confront the child's demands. This happens already with babies. Studies on babies with sleeping problems (most of the research is about babies older than 9 months) show that when the parents run to the child's rescue at the first sign of discomfort, taking her out of the bed in order to comfort her, sleep problems deepen. Those babies find it more difficult to fall asleep and also tend to wake up more frequently in the middle of the night. The reason is that the parental promptness in rescuing them from any discomfort prevents them from developing a crucial life-skill: the ability to sooth themselves! Parental training that helps the parents to wait a few minutes before rushing to the cryng baby, and even then to comfort her without taking her out from her bed, leads to quick and stable improvements in sleeping.

An important parallel to parents who rush to a crying baby are parents who rush to protect an anxious child from frightening situations. It turns out that parents who constantly protect their anxious child deepen the anxiety problem. This parental attitude has been termed "accommodation". The parents accommodate to the child's anxiety, in other words, they change their behavior and the house rules, so that the child may not suffer. Those parents have to learn "how to support, instead of accommodating". When parents support a child, they place themselves behind the child, but the child stays in the situation. When parents accommodate, they place themselves between the child and the situation, thus keeping the child from learning how to cope. Thus, parents of a child with "separation anxiety" have to learn to leave their child with other people (first for short and then for longer periods), parents of an over-sensitive child, who demands that things be done exactly as he wants, have to learn to stop fulfilling those demands, and parents of a child with social phobia have to learn not to mediate between the child and other people. When the parents learn to stand up against the child's anxious demands, without attacking or belittling the child for his fears, the child starts to improve. Actually, the parents ability to withstand the child's demands are the child's main hope!

Similar situations are manifest during adolescence or early adulthood. When parents are willing to supply an adolescent or young adult with services that protect him from his fears or weaknesses, they actually provide him with a "degenerative shelter", that is with the conditions that guarantee that the grown-up child will remain helpless, dysfunctional and dependent. This kind of problems has become more and more prevalent in recent years. I and other colleagues who practice our approach are litterally flooded with requests for help from the parents of dysfunctional "adult-children", who do not study, work or function independently. The 62-year old child I mentioned above is just an extreme example of a growing trend.

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