Girl uses her doll to process her feelings

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 29, 2011 06:00 AM

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I am very nervous because my daughter is saying things to her dolls that her mom is saying to her. Not the nice things, but the not-so-nice things. "I'm not proud of you; you're being fresh," was the straw that made me write in, but it has gotten to the point where my daughter is repeating my wife's unduly harsh reprimands verbatim. I don't know why I find this so frightening. Should I be concerned? What do I say to my wife? I am worried that this is the start of an unhealthy, resentful relationship and I want to derail the train before it becomes a runaway. Help.

From: Conducting a Runaway, Providence, RI


Dear Conducting a runaway,

Yes, she's likely reflecting language she's hearing from her mom. But it's not necessarily bad that she's using that same language with her doll. It's a way for her to feel a sense of power in a relationship. Giving voice to dolls, stuffed animals, and imaginary friends play -- these are typical and healthy ways in which young children discharge emotion and work through their feelings, especially feelings of anger. In itself, it's not cause for alarm.

That said, however, I share some of your concern. Here are some things to consider:

How often does mom say these kinds of things to her? The statements you cite are shaming and, indeed, have the potential to harm a child's self-esteem. Is your daughter's getting a steady dose of them, or are they the exception rather than the norm? Does your wife say them in anger or are they ever said in a joking kind of way? Does your wife ever take pleasure in your daughter, or is she more often angry, sullen and/or unhappy, which could be signs of depression? What kind of role model did your wife have from her mom? For some women, it's as if there's a tape running in their head of how their mother talked to them and they can't help but repeat it, whether it was positive or negative.

Obviously, you need to assess your family's situation. At the very least, though, I'd suggest that you find some kind of parenting workshop the two of you can do together that might lead to a more positive approach to daily life for all of you. I'm thinking of something like this, that Nancy Samalin offers in NYC.

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6 comments so far...
  1. I don't find "I'm not proud of you" or "You're being fresh" unduly harsh at all. What's wrong with telling a child that their misbehavior doesn't make a parent proud? What's wrong with defining fresh talk? Unduly harsh is "I can't stand to see your face when you talk like that" or "I'm going to wash out your mouth with soap" or "You never behave, you little witch."

    Too much info is missing here. How often does mom say these things? 1-2 times a day in response to misbehavior or in a constant litany without positive feedback during appropriate times? A child *needs* misbehavior defined in a productive way and they *should* feel slight discomfort when misbehaving. It provides the impetus not to do it again. It develops her conscience.

    Just because she says them together to her dolls doesn't mean mom said them together to her. That could have been days apart.

    Dad, how do you prefer to define her boundaries when she's fresh or misbehaving?

    Posted by NoName123456789 December 29, 11 11:00 AM
  1. I am with NoName. The example given doesn't seem out of line to me either. A child does need to be told when she is misbehaving, and expressing disappointment in the behavior is a valid thing to do. Knowing how old the child is would be helpful -- a 2 year old isn't fresh (she is simply too young to know better, so she needs to be taught rather than scolded) and doesn't need to be told about mom's not being proud, but, say, a 7-year-old is a different story. And how often does it happen?

    Using dolls isn't worrisome. Kids need to process, and processing with the help of "friends" (dolls) can be perfectly healthy. But if there is little positive interaction between mom and daughter, that is a big problem. Or if the mom scolds her out of proportion to the crime, or the daughter is too young, etc. More info would help!

    Posted by jjlen December 29, 11 12:59 PM
  1. I think the problematic part of the statement that is quoted is that the part about not being proud is so broad. If a behavior needs to be addressed, comments should be about the specific behavior not the child in general. So, "It's not okay to use those kinds of words" is better than "I am not proud of you." And we need to teach our children to do what is right not just what pleases other people, so pointing out the problematic behavior and why it isn't okay or isn't allowed is better than shaming reprimands.

    Posted by Kris December 29, 11 03:42 PM
  1. Sounds to me as though Dad is trying to get the world on his side against Mom. Children use dolls as a window into other worlds that they've been read to about or have seen in movies. They are also fascinated by trial and hardship. As a child, my favorite pretend with my dolls was that we were the children in the workhouse from "Oliver". In different pretends, I also spanked them rather a lot, though I was very rarely spanked myself. My daughter's dolls were quite often orphans subjected to dreadful cruelties by orphanage directors, or, alternatively, some equivalent of the Lost Boys from "Peter Pan". (Said daughter is now a wonderful writer.) It's okay, honestly - and probably great for her imagination and creativity, as well as for her ability to entertain herself.

    Posted by alien57 December 29, 11 09:40 PM
  1. Thank you all for the feedback.

    For the frequency, every extended interaction between them ends in a screaming match that usually leads to this kind of statement and its always in anger. They do enjoy each other's company in short doses, however. They spend three hours a day together, total, on weekdays, but my wife often avoids our daughter (almost 4) even during that time. My wife and her mom had a very close relationship and it seems that goes back to childhood.

    I believe that the focus should be on the behaviour, not the child. My daughter knows I am always proud of her, but that her behaviors are sometimes embarrasing. My defining boundaries is very systematic. She:
    1) Gets a warning
    2) Loses a privilege
    3) Gets a timeout

    Finally, all I am after is some harmony at home, especially with a son on the way.

    Posted by Conductor January 3, 12 01:36 PM
  1. Guys, this Dad is concerned about "unduly harsh reprimands" from his wife. I can't imagine why anyone, let alone all four of you who have commented so far, would challenge his observations. Yes, the words of the one example he cited could be harmless in certain contexts, but you are all treating this Dad like a visitor in his own home who has extremely limited information and has not observed enough directly to draw the conclusions he has reached. Shame on you.

    Posted by geocool January 4, 12 01:45 PM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. I don't find "I'm not proud of you" or "You're being fresh" unduly harsh at all. What's wrong with telling a child that their misbehavior doesn't make a parent proud? What's wrong with defining fresh talk? Unduly harsh is "I can't stand to see your face when you talk like that" or "I'm going to wash out your mouth with soap" or "You never behave, you little witch."

    Too much info is missing here. How often does mom say these things? 1-2 times a day in response to misbehavior or in a constant litany without positive feedback during appropriate times? A child *needs* misbehavior defined in a productive way and they *should* feel slight discomfort when misbehaving. It provides the impetus not to do it again. It develops her conscience.

    Just because she says them together to her dolls doesn't mean mom said them together to her. That could have been days apart.

    Dad, how do you prefer to define her boundaries when she's fresh or misbehaving?

    Posted by NoName123456789 December 29, 11 11:00 AM
  1. I am with NoName. The example given doesn't seem out of line to me either. A child does need to be told when she is misbehaving, and expressing disappointment in the behavior is a valid thing to do. Knowing how old the child is would be helpful -- a 2 year old isn't fresh (she is simply too young to know better, so she needs to be taught rather than scolded) and doesn't need to be told about mom's not being proud, but, say, a 7-year-old is a different story. And how often does it happen?

    Using dolls isn't worrisome. Kids need to process, and processing with the help of "friends" (dolls) can be perfectly healthy. But if there is little positive interaction between mom and daughter, that is a big problem. Or if the mom scolds her out of proportion to the crime, or the daughter is too young, etc. More info would help!

    Posted by jjlen December 29, 11 12:59 PM
  1. I think the problematic part of the statement that is quoted is that the part about not being proud is so broad. If a behavior needs to be addressed, comments should be about the specific behavior not the child in general. So, "It's not okay to use those kinds of words" is better than "I am not proud of you." And we need to teach our children to do what is right not just what pleases other people, so pointing out the problematic behavior and why it isn't okay or isn't allowed is better than shaming reprimands.

    Posted by Kris December 29, 11 03:42 PM
  1. Sounds to me as though Dad is trying to get the world on his side against Mom. Children use dolls as a window into other worlds that they've been read to about or have seen in movies. They are also fascinated by trial and hardship. As a child, my favorite pretend with my dolls was that we were the children in the workhouse from "Oliver". In different pretends, I also spanked them rather a lot, though I was very rarely spanked myself. My daughter's dolls were quite often orphans subjected to dreadful cruelties by orphanage directors, or, alternatively, some equivalent of the Lost Boys from "Peter Pan". (Said daughter is now a wonderful writer.) It's okay, honestly - and probably great for her imagination and creativity, as well as for her ability to entertain herself.

    Posted by alien57 December 29, 11 09:40 PM
  1. Thank you all for the feedback.

    For the frequency, every extended interaction between them ends in a screaming match that usually leads to this kind of statement and its always in anger. They do enjoy each other's company in short doses, however. They spend three hours a day together, total, on weekdays, but my wife often avoids our daughter (almost 4) even during that time. My wife and her mom had a very close relationship and it seems that goes back to childhood.

    I believe that the focus should be on the behaviour, not the child. My daughter knows I am always proud of her, but that her behaviors are sometimes embarrasing. My defining boundaries is very systematic. She:
    1) Gets a warning
    2) Loses a privilege
    3) Gets a timeout

    Finally, all I am after is some harmony at home, especially with a son on the way.

    Posted by Conductor January 3, 12 01:36 PM
  1. Guys, this Dad is concerned about "unduly harsh reprimands" from his wife. I can't imagine why anyone, let alone all four of you who have commented so far, would challenge his observations. Yes, the words of the one example he cited could be harmless in certain contexts, but you are all treating this Dad like a visitor in his own home who has extremely limited information and has not observed enough directly to draw the conclusions he has reached. Shame on you.

    Posted by geocool January 4, 12 01:45 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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