“If you think your child needs you, maybe experiment, tentatively trying different ways of being there for her and making sure she knows you are there for her and want to do what she wants and not what she does not want.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
“How do you deal with a situation in which your child is saying ‘Go away’ or ‘I don’t want to talk about it’?”
If your child says “Go away” when she wants privacy in the lavatory, you should go away. If you are having a big fight with your child (not good!), and she says “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it” you should definitely honour her request and go away or stop haranguing her to continue the fight she didn’t want to have in the first place.
The above kinds of situation seem straightforward. But what if the situation is more unclear, such that it is not obvious what is the right thing to do? What if your child says “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it” but your gut says she actually wants you to stay right there with her, despite the fact that she is clearly saying “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it”? What if you cannot tell whether you are getting mixed messages, and what the best thing to do is if you are?
If you are a consent-minded libertarian or taking your children seriously, it may seem obvious that the right thing to do is to take your children at their word and honour the “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it”. If I myself asked someone to go away or I said I do not want to talk about something, I would hope that that would be honoured. And I would hope it would be honoured even if I were in an upset state. I personally cannot imagine saying that I want to be left alone when I or another part of me actually does not want to be left alone.
However, many people, including children, are sometimes in upset states of mind in which they do explicitly say “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it” when they or another part of them actually wants you to do the opposite of what the part of them that is speaking is explicitly saying.
For those of us trying to take people seriously, it is often not at all obvious how to proceed in such cases. For a start, how on earth can we tell whether this particular “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it” is the person’s clear wish as it would be if I myself were saying such a thing, or whether this is a case in which one part of the person wants one thing—for you to go away or drop the subject—while another part or even most of the person desperately wants you to be right there for them and to do whatever you can to enable them to find their way back to feeling good?
If your child actually wants you to go, or not to talk about it, and you do not honour that request, you are violating the child’s consent and being coercive. That is not taking children seriously.
But what if your child is actually in the kind of conflicted state with the explicit speaking part saying the opposite of what she or most of her wants, and you mistakenly guess that she wants you to go away, and you honour that request? In that case, when your child actually really needed you, you were not there for her. You left her all alone when she most needed you. That is an unmitigated disaster.
And it is no good saying, as a libertarian friend of mine did, “That’s crazy! They should just say what they want! I can’t help it if they’re not being responsible and owning their wants. I’m not staying without their consent!”
And it is no good saying, “That’s irrational! This wouldn’t be happening if they hadn’t been coerced.” Blaming and shaming parents is not helpful. The question is: what are we parents to do in such situations, starting from where we are? How should we proceed from here?
And if this is where we are, the child is already literally acting (speaking) against her own will, so we are not dealing with a simple problem; there is already (self-)coercion in the system. The different parts of her mind are clashing rather than solving problems in harmony together. So the obvious, clearly-stated consent or lack thereof that is otherwise quite a useful and reliable guide cannot be relied upon.
If our children are able to understand a conversation about this issue, then this kind of dilemma would seem to be something to raise with our children (in a good moment, not in the midst of them feeling upset), to see if they might be willing to say how they would prefer us to proceed in cases in which we are not sure what they actually want. It may be that just laying out what a dilemma it is and how we want to be there for them if they want that, and not stay coercively if they don’t, and that we sometimes can’t tell what they actually want, etc., might make a difference such that they then are more able to say what they want. But it might not. Children do not always feel able to say, or perhaps they do not even know in the moment, what they want. But I think it must be worth broaching this subject with them to see if a conversation about this helps.
It might not help though. It might be that when this happens, the “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it” speaking part of the child’s mind is activated and will continue to say “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it” against the will of other parts of the child. If I had such a part of my own mind saying such things when I really want the opposite, I would go inside my mind and talk to that part of my mind using Internal Family Systems (self-) therapy, to help that part relax. (See this post for more on IFS.) If you are a parent of a child who seems to have a part that says “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it” when other parts of them want the opposite, I highly recommend learning IFS and seeing if IFS might help. It is brilliantly non-coercive therapy anyone can do for their own mind.
However you proceed in such cases, what the right thing to do is, is not at all obvious. For example, it might be that even if a child is upset, she might wholeheartedly want you to go away or she might actually not want to talk about it. If I am upset myself, there are times when I love to be comforted by a loved one, but there are times when I actually definitely do not want that, and when such sympathy would feel to me like keeping me stuck in the upset. So the fact that a child is upset is not cast iron evidence that what she is saying she wants is not what she actually wants. And if there is one part of her wanting one thing and other parts wanting the opposite, how would that upset state be distinguishable from the other kind?
It is possible that if when your child is saying “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it”, your gut feeling is that not all parts of her mind agree with that part’s request, and it does not feel right to leave her alone, your gut feeling is picking up on some inexplicit communication that she wants you to stay. But it is also possible that you just think that is what your gut feeling is doing, and actually, your gut is mistaken, and actually she definitely does want you to go away. There is no mechanical way of getting the right answer here.
But one thing that is worth bearing in mind is that, especially if you are a libertarian, a rationalist, a Myers Briggs INTJ type, aspie, someone who is in your head a lot, someone who tries not to be coercive or intrusive or boundary violating, or someone who tries to take everyone seriously, is that you may have a tendency to make what I call “the rationalist mistake” (fetishising the explicit, and in effect ignoring everything else). (It was David Deutsch who first noticed this mistake. He calls it “the Libertarian mistake”.)
The conscious, explicit part of our mind is the mere tip of a vast iceberg of our mind, the bulk of it being unconscious and inexplicit. Most communication is not explicit. Our micro-expressions and body language speak volumes. So if we are unable or unwilling to read communications not expressed in spoken words, or if we lack knowledge of how to read others’ feelings, or if we treat the words spoken as if they accurately and totally represent the wishes and the mind of the speaker, or if our stance is that people jolly well should state their wishes accurately and it is their problem if they don’t, or if we take the view that our children will soon learn to say what they want instead of giving us mixed messages if we do what they say they want and ignore their inexplicit or unconscious communications, we are likely going to be falling into this mistake.
And to the extent that we are falling into that mistake, we will be inadvertently selling out on our relationship with our child, violating our parental commitment to our child, indeed, in effect betraying our child by not being there for her when she most needs us. But again, if this is the situation, something has already gone wrong: normally, when there is a conflict in the mind, it is resolved. The conflicts associated with mixed messages and distress are stuck. Not being resolved in the way they normally would be being.
So what is the answer? I do not know. There is no mechanical answer. It will depend on the unique individuals and circumstances involved. My best guess is that if your child is upset and your gut feeling says she needs you, maybe experiment, tentatively trying different ways of being there for her and making sure she knows you are there for her and want to do what she wants and not what she does not want, but you do not know if the speaking part of her is speaking for all of her or just a part of her. ? Somehow, we have to find a way not to ignore the non-speaking parts’ wishes, as well as not coercively staying if the child actually wants us to go away. Definitely a conversation to have with your child at a time when it is not a live issue in that moment.
What do you think the answer is? If you have a good idea about this, please do say. Many parents will be very interested to hear your idea.
- The can-do attitude versus the can’t-do attitude
- How to transmit inexplicit knowledge without using real life examples
- If you are not coercing your child, what do you do instead of coercion?
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘What to do when your child says “Go away” or “I don’t want to talk about it”’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/what-to-do-when-your-child-says-go-away-or-i-do-not-want-to-talk-about-it/