“I hate myself! I’m stupid!” Gleek shouted from her curled-into-a-ball spot on the corner of the couch. She was wet from the knees down and cold. I’d had to drag her indoors from the slushy snow because she refused to come in when I called. She had directly defied me and now was berating herself for it, but that did not change the fact that consequences still needed to be applied.
Among the things that parents don’t want to hear, an impassioned “I hate myself” ranks right under “I hate you.” My mind spins so many unpleasant futures from theses statements. People who truly hate themselves develop all sorts of self-destructive patterns. Most actions motivated by hatred are destructive. I want to argue with Gleek, but I’ve had that conversation before. It goes like this:
Me: “You don’t hate yourself. You’re just mad right now.”
Gleek: “Yes I do!”
Repetition only makes Gleek more upset and more firm in her determination that she hates herself. My attempts to pull her out of the mood drive her further into it instead. I don’t want to waste effort on that dead end tonight.
So sit on the stairs and look at my little girl. She sniffles and curls tightly around her pillowcase filled with blankets and stuffed animals. I can’t remember when she started using the pillowcase as a bag for her comfort objects. It was a while ago. She hides her face from me. She knows she was wrong and she feels terrible.
Howard suggested that her consequence for defiant disobedience could be being sent to bed and missing all the evening activities. It is a stricter consequence than we usually apply, but then this defiance was more direct as well. Perhaps they match. Perhaps the strict consequence will help her remember and avoid making the same choice again.
Upon hearing the suggestion, Gleek cries out “Just do it! I deserve it!”
I rub my face in my hands. If we send her to her room, she will curl into a ball in her bed. She will feel miserable, lonely, disassociated from the family, left out, and ostracized. These are all feelings I have been working to reduce in her mind and heart. She wants to feel these things because they give her reasons to hate herself and that is the mood of the moment.
I look over to Howard and I see that he realizes that his suggested consequence is not going to provide the resolution we hope for. I just wish I had an alternative to offer. So I sit on the stairs and throw a little prayer heavenward.
“Please help me see a way to apply consequences which makes her a stronger happier person instead of a more miserable one.”
There is no rush of inspiration, no answer becomes clear. But I can tell that I am waiting for something. I am like a person walking through the fog. I can see the lamp post ahead of me, but nothing beyond that. I just have to keep walking and trust that the next lamp post will be visible once I’ve passed this one.
Howard suggests that perhaps a chore would be a better consequence. That way Gleek could do something hard, but feel a sense of accomplishment about her work when she is done. It is a good suggestion, but I don’t see how to make it fit yet. So I keep sitting.
“I hate myself.” Gleek mumbles again.
I am tired, and I don’t have a better answer, so I say “Okay. So you hate yourself.”
Gleek’s head raises a little at my atypical response.
“So what are you going to do about it?” The words are spawned by the memory of a conversation I had with Gleek a week ago. We talked about how the only person you can change is yourself. “If you don’t like yourself, then it is your job to change yourself into a person you can like.”
As soon as the words are spoken, I can see the next lamp post. I know what the consequence should be.
“Gleek, you need to choose a consequence for yourself. Mom and Dad have to approve it, but you have to pick it. I’m pretty sure the consequence needs to be a chore of some kind. And you have to stay right here on the couch until you pick it.”
Gleek does not like this. She would much rather be exiled to her room. But the more she complains, the more I know the direction is right. We have given her power over her own destiny. We have put the responsibility into her hands. Now it is not Mom and Dad forcing her to stay on the couch. She can get up as soon as she chooses to take action rather than cuddle her misery. Suddenly she is no longer a victim and she does not like that.
The fog has cleared and I see the path. I get up off the stairs and go about my business. I have to give time for Gleek to think things through. She makes a cry of dismay as I leave the room. She does not want me to go. But alone with her thoughts and with the path we’ve set, she quickly chooses a chore.
The chore is done slowly and with much complaining, but the shape of the conflict has changed. Gleek tries to reclaim victimhood a time or two, but I just reiterate that she can be done as soon as she chooses to work. She finishes the job and the rest of the evening goes pleasantly.
I must remember this consequence structure. I’m sure it will be useful again.