Did you see the news stories about 17-year-old Rachel Hachero, the apparently Ivy League-bound Florida student who allegedly pistol whipped her mother and threatened to kill her if she didn’t buy her a car?
Oh, she got her car. She also got arrested.
What makes this situation even more disconcerting is the fact that the mother didn’t want to press charges. It seems she feared an arrest could jeopardize her daughter’s future. (I’m not a clinician, but I wonder if that child’s future weren’t in jeopardy long before she picked up what turns out to have been a stolen gun.)
To help make sense of this story, I turned to Elizabeth Conaway, LCSW, and Joyce Davidson, MD, both of whom work with young adults, many of whom are having a rocky time transitioning to adulthood, at The Menninger Clinic.
I know it’s natural for parents to want to protect their children, but this mom seems to have taken that desire to a whole new level.
Dr Davidson: We see similar situations a lot in our work, with parents protecting children from consequences no matter what the behavior. Parents provide all kinds of rationalizations for why they’re not being firm with their children or for why they are forever excusing behaviors. The danger, of course, is that in long run, kids can escalate their behaviors, which often become more and more self-destructive. In the extreme, the kids’ behaviors can become destructive not just to themselves, but to others as well.
Elizabeth: One common result of this type of overprotective parenting is that the children never get to feel the consequences; instead, the parents feel them because they’re the ones who have to post bond, pay for a lawyer, replace a phone or computer that was damaged in a tantrum, etc., not the kids. And because the kids don’t feel any discomfort as a result of their action, their behaviors don’t change.
Why do you think parents are often reluctant to let their children experience consequences?
Dr. Davidson: Parents today often seem to want to be their children’s friends, which makes it difficult for them to risk making their kids angry by setting limits or giving consequences. Unfortunately, it’s not an effective way to parent.
Elizabeth: I also think that technology is making it easier for parents to be more involved in their children’s lives via social networking. With cell phones, especially smartphones, it’s so easy to stay in touch and to know what everyone is up to. It may very well help give the illusion of being friends. Plus, it’s simply easier to act like a friend rather than a parent.
Do you think there’s been a generational shift in parenting styles?
Elizabeth: Well, we certainly do hear more about “helicopter” parents, who maintain extreme involvement in the lives of their children, even after they’ve left home to go to college. These parents are known for doing things like calling their kids to make sure they get up and go to class or arguing with professors about a particular grade on the child’s behalf.
It’s almost as if the parents want to delay the end of a child’s adolescence. Whether that’s because they don’t want to face an empty nest or because they’re afraid their child isn’t ready for adulthood, I don’t know. But this kind of behavior definitely retards a child’s ability to make a successful psychological transition to adulthood.
Dr. Davidson: One factor in all this may be the change in family size. A generation or so ago, it was common to have larger families than we often see today; so parents may have been able to risk making them angry by giving consequences to negative behaviors. Plus, having rules and consequences helps keep order, which would have been more important with larger households.
Is it possible that this mother was simply in denial about what in hindsight appears to be some warning signs about trouble ahead for her daughter?
Elizabeth: It’s certainly possible, though we sometimes find that parents think, “If they can just finish college, everything will be OK,” but just graduating from college doesn’t mean issues won’t escalate in the future.
Dr. Davidson: One question I think is important to ask: What’s the value system here? Apparently the mom thought it was more important for her daughter to achieve academically than to obey the law.
So was it a good thing she was arrested, even if her mother refused to press charges?
Dr. Davidson: Yes. This teenager engaged in serious anti-social behavior. While I don’t know what the juvenile system is like in Florida, I do know there are enlightened judges and prosecutors out there who can see that some teens need psychological assessment and treatment, not just jail time, and often they will require that such help be part of the teen’s sentence. I hope that’s the case here.
Let’s say there are parents reading this who may have realized they’re doing their children a disservice by not setting limits or giving them consequences for bad behaviors. Is it ever too late to start setting limits?
Elizabeth: The earlier parents start setting limits, the better it is for everyone involved, but no, it’s never too late. While it can be difficult to alter entrenched patterns, it is possible to shift a family’s paradigm. We work with families all the time to help the family unit change, not just the patient.
Do you have any recommendations for parents, especially those with young children, who might want to learn more about the importance of consequences?
Elizabeth: One book we often recommend to families is The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel, PhD. It’s a great resource that outlines the importance of teaching kids how to pick themselves up and fix their own problems. When they learn those skills, they have the power to take action and find solutions, and their self-esteem is enhanced. It’s understandable that parents want to rush in when a child is hurting or struggling, but they really do need to let their kids learn how to take care of themselves.