Not Taking Our Children's Behavior Personally

04/15/2015 11:27 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

My 11-year-old daughter -- who lives with my former wife -- is becoming very self-conscious around me. I walk with a limp and have a speech impediment (from a stroke some years ago) and she is now angry about my disability. I want to have a good relationship with my daughter but I feel hurt by her rejection. It makes me want to pull away and tell her to enjoy her mother and friends and leave me out of it.

This question was posed to me not long ago at an event for my new book, Parenting with Presence. I could feel the ache in this father's heart as he spoke, and was touched by his courage to ask for support.

Our children can push our buttons like no one else can, generating tremendous pain and frustration.

Our challenge as parents, again and again and at every stage, is to avoid taking our children's behavior personally. I explained to this father that, as a middle-schooler, his daughter was in the throes of a stage where they can be afflicted with something called Imaginary Audience Syndrome -- the phenomena whereby she imagines that those around her are judging and evaluating her every move.

My 24-year-old son happened to be in the audience for the book launch event, so I looked over at him and smiled as I recalled a time when he was about 11 and I started very discreetly bobbing my head to a song on the radio.

"MOM! DON'T!" He was mortified! What if someone saw him in the car with his mother moving to the music? Poor guy -- caught in Imaginary Audience Syndrome, he couldn't bear for someone to see him under such embarrassing circumstances!

I reminded this father of a story I included in my new book. It goes like this: Imagine yourself drifting peacefully along in a boat on a lake. You doze off, but are awakened when another boat slams into yours. You're angry. How can that person be so irresponsible! "Why can't they watch where they're sailing?" You think to yourself, "I'm going to give him a piece of mind!"

But then, you wake up fully and discover that there is no one on the other boat. It had come loose from the dock and merely drifted into yours because of the water's currents. It wasn't personal.

Your entire attitude changes. Now you're looking for ways to tie it to your boat so you can return it safely to dock.

What changed? Only the meaning you made of what happened.

I encouraged this father to see his daughter's behavior not as an indictment of him, or even a reflection of her feelings toward him. Instead, if he could see it as evidence of her affliction with Imaginary Audience Syndrome, he might be able to respond with empathy for her "condition," rather than reacting out of hurt or anger.

I suggested he might say something like this: "I know it's disappointing that I don't walk or talk the way other dads do. I'm guessing it might be kind of awkward when we're together. And maybe you're uncomfortable when your friends look at me and wonder why I'm different. Is that what goes on for you honey? Is it hard for you to have a dad that's different?"

By demonstrating to his daughter that he is capable of being what I call the Captain of the ship -- capable of hearing her truth, even if it's painful -- he could build a deeper, closer connection with her.

We cannot control every circumstance in our child's life, or prevent them from feeling disappointed--even in us. But we can let them know that whatever their truth, we can hear it, and help them through the awkwardness that comes when their insecurities get the better of them.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the upcoming, Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

To learn more about her online parenting courses and support, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.

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