“You’re not the boss of me”; Your Seven-Year Old
It seemed like an overnight change. My charming, huggable, snuggable and sometimes stubborn six year old turned into this defiant, tenacious, seven-year-old the day after her birthday! “You’re not the boss of me,” she’d say, looking me straight in the eye, hands on her hips, a new found victory curving her lips into a smile/sneer.
And I? I was in pieces. Just days ago I was feeling more and more confident as a mom ever since I had licked the tantrums at age two and four and found a great way to handle nightmares at age 3; Time-outs honestly helped for five and six, as I used them to help calm her down not as a punishment. Plus, I was back in graduate school getting my degrees in counseling psychology and later social work, and my life was finally heading in a direction that felt great.
And here was my charming Sarah, defiantly taking complete control and succeeding! My insides were in knots as she continued to find power in her ability to steer her life in the direction she wanted, while making mine hell.
Her room remained a mess, okay, pick your battles I’d say to myself. Allow her room to be a mess, she’ll soon learn. Her friends will say something to her, and she’ll clean it up out of embarrassment. It was the little things that would build up over the week such as: not let me hug her in front of her friends: make me stop singing in the car to the radio while I was carpooling her friends. (back then there were no I pods and ear plugs); not letting me in her room without her permission: not wanting to play cards or watch movies with me; but wanting ALL of these things at points when I couldn’t possibly give them to her.
And no matter how much I promised myself I would not yell at her, I found us both out-screaming each other, ending with her slamming her door to her room, and me on my hands and knees begging Whoever was There for help.
Thankfully, I was in graduate school for psychology and was beginning to learn a few things. Like the Stages of Development.
I was reading that Sarah’s sudden change in behavior could be due to her brain expanding to take in more realities. She had gone through a growth spurt which meant the brain was growing. And when the brain grows, the child begins to see the world and herself in new ways. At age 7, this development is called The Age of Reasoning.
Before this stage, is the one called The Age of Magical Thinking.
Magical thinking is when the 3-6 year old honestly believes in Santa, the Easter Bunny and wishing on stars. When the brain changes around the age of 7, the child is beginning to reason, how can Santa visit all of those homes in one night? And didn’t I see Mom buy that present for my brother?
The child also begins to experience a new sense of self, and wants to test this new self out against, who else? His parents! That expression, “You’re not the boss of me” brings an enormous sense of power to the child, and yet the power is new, and if the parent continues to give in to the child, the child will then be overburdened with too much power and the defiance and anger will increase!
So what do you do?
I was so pleased to find out that there were several things that could be done! I describe one of them here: Validation.
Remember, this is the Stage of Reasoning, so that your child understands consequences for the very first time.
I thought hard about that statement, “You’re not the boss of me.” And in fact, it is true. We are not the boss of our children. They are little people developing their own sense of selves; and just like us parents, they do not like to be “bossed around.” Think about it for a moment, is there anyone who really is the “boss” of you?
So what I said to her was, “You are right, I am not the boss of you. However, I do need to talk with you about how you physically push me away when I try to hug you. That hurts and makes me want to yell at you. I understand you no longer want me to hug you, but can you find a different way to tell me? And it does get confusing, because sometimes you do want me to hug you.”
In the above conversation I validated both her comment and her feelings, and then I expressed my own concerns. She was surprised to find that I wasn’t screaming back at her, and that I had actually acknowledged her truths! This got her listening to me.
During this process there were many times I felt her wielding the power out from under me, and many a time where I wanted to scream at her. Instead, I practiced what I had asked her to do. I said, “I need to go to my room now, and put myself in a time-out. I’m angry at myself, and what you are doing is exasperating that anger. I don’t want to yell at you. So please leave me alone. I promise I’ll only be in for fifteen minutes.”
She learned not to bother me, and about two months later she came home, throwing her back pack on the floor. Crying, she looked at me with her huge tear-filled brown eyes and said, “I’m in a really bad mood. I’m not mad at you, just at myself. I need to be alone for a few minutes. Please don’t come in.”
With my heart in my mouth, I cried as I cooked meat sauce, watching it sizzle in the pan. I breathed into my own aching heart, so grateful that I was able to listen to her, and she to me. So sad that she was so hurt, and I couldn’t help her. But was that true? When I took the time-outs I needed, I cried and journaled and felt so much better. Wouldn’t that be true for her?
I tiptoed over to her door, and put my ear to it. She was talking to herself and creating a story. I didn’t know if she was playing with her stuffed toys or her dollhouse, but I knew not to remove either even though she was seven, and could reason her way through things.
She was seven. She was still a baby. Mine. Seven, after all, could be about growing pains. A child at this age wants to believe in Santa, and wants to be little and at the same time wants to stay up later, call the shots, boss others. It’s up to us parents to learn what’s best when and then guide.
And sure enough, there Sarah was making her dolls/stuffed animals reenact whatever had happened to her at school that day. And just like me, I knew she would feel better, and come bursting out of her room, defiantly demanding dinner!
It’s not an easy process, this parenting thing, and I know you all have similar stories to share, and need as much support as your kids! That is why, by popular demand, I am starting up my Conscious and Creative Parenting Support groups again. The groups are for parents with elementary school aged children. There is still room to sign up.
Molly Salans, LICSW, LMFT has been serving the Greater Boston area for over 20 years. She is currently in private practice at the Westford Center for Counseling and Alternative Therapies. She is also the author of Storytelling With Children in Crisis.