Often the test of your concern comes in the form of behavior children know would be socially unacceptable. So be ready for it, except it, and recognize it as a situation with growth potential when it happens. It is important for children to know you would not reject them for their words or actions, and that your primary concern is for their needs and protection.
Sands was a good example of this approach. At various times, she tested my acceptance of her, especially before she was able to trust me with questions and information about herself that were very frightening or emotional. When she drew pictures of a naked female body, I avoided judging the behavior as good or bad, looked for the message in her action, and showed my concern by helping to bring her questions about sexual development to the surface and finding helpful, clarifying answers for them. At an earlier time, she had asked me if I would still like her if she used a certain four-letter word. I assured her I would still like her no matter what words she used.
It was important to explain that I could love and accept her as a person, without liking her behavior or agreeing with her. We then went on to talk about the possible consequences of using such words freely around other people. She realized other people’s reactions might not be as accepting and concerned as mine. As her trust in me grew, she began telling me about her other behaviors, such as the fire setting. We had by this time set the tone of our relationships and agreed that I would be honest and objective, keeping her interest in the forefront of my mind when I listened to her. Her question, “Will you still like me if…?” had been an important signal that a primary question on her mind was, “Would people love me or reject me if they knew about my worst behaviors?” She herself knew she needed help in dealing with them, but first had to find out where she stood with me.
Every child I worked with tested me. In working with Albert I recognized he needed to learn something all children need to learn: to play games according to the rules and to be able to tolerate losing. Since I was preparing Albert for reentry into school, both academically and psychologically, I worked with games challenging enough to stimulate creativity and intellectual growth. What this also stimulated in Albert was what I like to call creative cheating. While in another child I might utilize some aspect of creative cheating to build upon, I felt Albert needed to learn I would stick to my word. My word was that we played each game according to its rules. If he didn’t understand a rule, he was free to ask for clarification at any time. If he broke a rule, I would explain the rule correctly once more. However, if he broke the the rule a second time, I would end the game. It was hard for Albert not to break the rules, since he found it very difficult to lose any game. It was a very special day for both Albert and me when we finished a game that he lost and he was able to say, “I liked playing the game. But I like it better when I win.” With a hug, I told him it was certainly much more fun to win, but I was proud that he was able to play by the rules, even when he knew he was losing. I told him he was a good sport. However, this did not end Albert’s need to test me on the limits I set with him.
When parents don’t set clear limits and guidelines, children may feel that their parents really don’t care about them. My point is that limits are still important, even if they are broken many times. Children will keep testing the limits you set, but remember that what they are ultimately testing is if you really care enough about them and their safety, nutrition, sleep, and other needs.
Limits and the reasons for them need to be talked about with children so they can understand how your loving and caring is operating in the limit setting. It is also helpful when children can be involved in decisions about the rules and limits that concern them. Of courses, parents are ultimately responsible in a family and carry the final authority, but it’s helpful for the self-esteem of the children and fosters the self-esteem of the parents when limits and rules are worked out in an atmosphere of mutual trust and concern.
Children need to know they’re loved. I can’t stress this enough. They also need to understand the difference between being loved and their behavior being acceptable or unacceptable. Children need to feel your loving constantly enough to tolerate the times when their behavior meets with disapproval in order for them to test and develop their own identity and values. Even when you may not approve of their behavior or agree with their values, you still need to show that you love them and accept them as persons.
Self-Esteem Principle: Children with low self-esteem usually find it easier to accept themselves if you show you are concerned about them and can accept them, especially when their behavior seems unacceptable.