Housekeeping: Please Service This Room / “Handful” Is an Understatement
Dear Dr. Hurd,
And so it begins: My partner and I spent a lot of effort to finally make Rehoboth Beach our home. But no sooner do we get settled in than he wants to play “bed and breakfast” to anybody we know who wants to visit the beach. I feel that this is our home now, not some part-time condo, but when I express my feelings he gets mad and tells me not to be “selfish.” I don’t think valuing the privacy and comfort I earned is being “selfish.” I’m tired of cleaning up after family and friends who feel entitled to free lodging just because we live at the beach!
Dr. Hurd replies,
I don’t like that word “selfish.” When people tell you not to be selfish, they’re telling you to do what they want, rather than what you want. But isn’t that selfish of them? In truth, we’re all “selfish” in that we have wants, desires, and needs to fulfill.
Your dilemma isn’t an issue of selfishness. It’s an issue of negotiation. Let’s start by giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he thought this was a small decision that didn’t require collaboration; like picking up an item at the grocery store. Maybe he thought you wanted to have lots of guests as well. He was wrong to jump to calling you selfish, which is really nothing more than an attempt to intimidate you into agreeing. On your end, you might have come across as too hostile or defensive, in which case you both contributed to the conflict.
At this point, I’d ask him if he’s willing to start over on this issue. Calmly tell him that you understand having guests at the house is exciting and fun for him. Explain that you realize he probably assumed you felt the same way. But in all honesty, you don’t. Tell him that while you realize dispensing with guests altogether will not work for him, having the number of guests you currently have does not work for you. So perhaps you two can come up with alternatives that are acceptable to you both.
Maybe you’ll find you actually like having guests once in a while, so long as you’re an equal part of the decision-making process for inviting people. One thing’s for sure: Using the term “selfish” is toxic, is designed to intimidate, and always comes with a hidden agenda. And taking that route can be a dead-end street for a loving relationship.
Dear Dr. Hurd,
My partner and I are the full-time guardians of my four-year-old granddaughter. We work hard to be good (grand)parents to her, but she is becoming increasingly difficult to handle. She stole a toy from Walmart the other day, and when I tried to explain to her that it was wrong, she screamed at me that I was being “mean.” Her instructor at preschool tells me that she is abusive to him and to the other children—to the point where they might ask us to remove her from the school. We are at our wit’s end.
Dr. Hurd replies,
I don’t place much stock in child psychiatry. It tends to label and pathologize children, without providing any real solutions. However, I do recommend you seek out a good family therapist who will work with you and your partner. You can pick apart the precise dynamics and find out if there are ways you are perhaps unintentionally fostering the behavior you’re seeking to eliminate. I’m not blaming you here; I’m talking about dynamics. You might be responding to this child in a way that’s reasonable with other four year olds, but doesn’t work with her.
Let me recommend two good books. One is a classic, The Difficult Child by Stanley Turecki. It has stood the test of time and gives perspective and advice on how to cope with children who are particularly oppositional. The book was first written before all the fallacious frenzy about “ADHD” and the myth that “medication conquers all” entered the picture. That’s why I like the book so much. Another good reference for you is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by co-authors Mazlish and Faber.
I won’t sugarcoat this. You have a handful here. I have two bits of advice when it comes to difficult children: Don’t take it personally, and remain strong. Don’t let her get away with things because of some false idea that she’s a victim of circumstances and therefore can’t help it. There’s no more surefire way to create a future criminal or antisocial personality than that.
At the same time, don’t let her wear you down. Selectively pick your battles and struggle with her on those handful of battles—never letting her win. There will be lots of screaming and hysteria, and you might let many things go, but try to pick the most important ones to win so you don’t squander energy needlessly. Tyrannical kids are not all that different from tyrannical adults; they seek victory through “divide and conquer” and trying to wear you down. Maintain some ongoing professional support, because you need to take on this challenge and you deserve to win it. Good luck!
Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D., LCSW is a psychotherapist and author. His office can be reached at 302-227-2829. Email questions or comments to Dr. Hurd.