THE BLOG

When Your Child Calls You 'Stupid'

05/22/2015 02:11 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016
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Dear Parent Partner,

Whenever my 3-1/2-year-old son gets frustrated, he takes it out on me by saying, "Stupid mom." I am heartbroken and angry, feeling like my son completely disrespects me. I put my career on hold to stay home with him, and it takes such patience to take care of him and his sister all day, but I do it with love and care. And this is what I get for all my dedication? What is the best way to handle this?

Signed,

Brigitte

Dear Brigitte,

I fully empathize with your feelings of sorrow and anger. But please be assured that, though this is an awful experience, it's far from an uncommon one.

When your child says those words, it can feel like the ultimate betrayal. You might feel like howling: "look at all I've done for you!" You gave up your career -- something that presumably offered you stimulation, satisfaction and a paycheck. You traded all this for long and demanding days in a 3-year-old world. You cook the meals, launder the clothes, read books, buy toys, research preschools, play with trucks and wash the dishes. The high point of your day might be sneaking into the bathroom and jumping on Facebook. It. is. so. hard!

So, to be called stupid by the person who inspired all these sacrifices can feel soul-crushing.

I know this feeling well. Your 3-year old sounds like a very spirited child, more pioneer than pleaser. If he's like my own son at 3, he has the most pressing needs and intense desires with little to no awareness that other people (like you) have desires of their own. When my son was 3, every day was a struggle, because no matter what I did, it seemed he wanted the opposite. He fought every guideline I put in place, no matter how thoroughly I explained it or how many choices he was offered otherwise.

One day we were on the playground after preschool, where I had agreed to let him play with his friends. After a good hour of chasing and climbing and rock-hunting, after everyone else had left, after I'd issued the five-minute and two-minute warnings, I told him it was really, truly time to go.

And that's when I heard it. "Stupid Mom!"

I had no idea what to do with my rage at that moment. I didn't want to unleash it on him, but I also didn't want to let him get away with that kind of disrespect. I didn't know the right response and so as the kids got into the car, I didn't say anything at all. I just buckled them in and began driving home, processing my anger and resentment on the way.

Kids feel our energy, so pretty soon, the silence got to Eli. He asked, "What are we having for dinner?" in an upbeat, nothing-ever-happened kind of voice.

"I'm not sure," I answered. My tone was flat.This continued all the way to our house: His upbeat questions, my brief and distant responses.

We arrived home and I set about getting dinner ready. I was still hurt, still unsure of how to handle the situation, still noticeably short on small talk. Soon, Eli came into the kitchen.

"Are you OK, Mommy?"

"Not really," I told him. He went upstairs and I continued making dinner. Soon, I heard him crying in his room. I went upstairs and asked what was wrong.

"I feel baaaaaad!" he wailed.

"Why do you feel bad?" I asked.

"Because I said something meeeeean!"

Knowing that he felt remorse melted my resentment and cleared the way for empathy. I held him and stroked his hair, telling him that I know how it feels to make a mistake. I explained how important it is to show respect to each other and let him know that I forgave him. He asked if we could cuddle, and I could see that I was no longer "stupid mom" -- I was the mom he could turn to for both guidance and comfort.

What had I stumbled onto that afternoon? The power of authenticity. My response was not to dispense punishment or engage in a power struggle, but simply to tune into my own feelings and honor them. I hadn't forced him to apologize, and because I hadn't made him feign an emotion he didn't yet feel, I allowed him to experience the impact of his words upon someone he loves.

So often we feel the need to modify our children's behavior, and we try to apply a stock response. But when we allow our real feelings to move through us before jumping into action or reaction, we give ourselves -- and our children -- the space to be guided by our true and better instincts.

Brigitte, you do not deserve to be called stupid, and your feeling that this is utterly wrong is utterly right. If this were any other relationship -- a friend or relative telling you you're stupid -- how would you respond? It is time to set a real boundary around this. When your son says, "Stupid mom," you say "Not Ok," and take him to his room. Don't force an apology, but allow your own emotions and give yourself the gift of time away from him, until you can let the anger move through you and return to your center. Honor yourself by owning all the ways that you're a great mom.

Sooner or later, he'll ask, "Can I come out?" He will feel the distance his own behavior has created and want to reconnect with you. But be true to your own emotions. Do you need a little more time? Then be authentic. "Not yet, Sam. I'm not quite ready." Wait until you are truly ready, after you've tapped into your sense of worth, self-regard and adult perspective. When he asks again, you will be able to respond from that place. You'll say something like, "Are you ready to treat me with courtesy?" You'll hear a resounding "yes," and it will be genuine.

No lectures, no rehashing. The boundary will teach him. He will see what self-respect looks like. He'll realize that you have a limit, and pushing past it will cost him. Every good relationship has such a line, and it's time for him to learn this. Please know that at 3, your son is at the nadir of his ability to empathize, but this will improve sometime after his fourth birthday.

There's nothing wrong with you or your child. This is simply the time to demonstrate that healthy relationships stem from self-respect and clear boundaries. The sooner you do, the sooner he will respect you, which is ultimately what kids want the most.

In warm support,

Sheila

The Parent Partner