Don't overanalyze behavior
Q. Help! For the second time in three months, my 6-year-old has cut off her bangs almost to the root. I can't figure out why she keeps doing this. She is a well-behaved, independent, wonderful child in every aspect. She says that the bangs bother her. The only other recent change in her life is having a brother who is now 9 months old. Is she insecure and needing more of my attention?
I am really concerned as she is going into first grade, and she is a very social little girl. I don't want kids making fun of her. It takes four months for the bangs to grow back! Part of me is furious because she is being disobedient (I warned her the last time), part of me thinks she's demonstrating her need for more autonomy, and part of me thinks she's seeking attention. Help!
A. Your question, and the confusion and anxiety embedded therein, reflects the tendency of today's parents to regard any quirky thing a child does as indicative of some deep-seated psychological conflict. "Psychological thinking," as I call it, transforms the child from a perpetrator to a victim; in the present case, you speculate that your daughter cut her hair off because she is wrestling with the loss of attention she has "suffered" because she now has a younger sibling.
The fact that the child is now a victim (or may be ... who knows?) paralyzes the parent's ability to respond effectively to the child's behavior (i.e., to discipline properly, or to even know whether discipline is warranted). The parent now fears that a wrong response to the behavior may drive the spike of the "real" problem ever deeper into the child's psyche.
At this point, the confused, anxious, perhaps even guilty parent (because, as with you, the parent is angry) conducts what I call a "therapeutic conversation" with the child, trying to bring the supposed psychological mechanisms to the surface, understand them, and help the child deal with them. These conversations make little sense to children, so when the parent asks things like, "Is that what's really bothering you?" the child agrees, wanting the bewildering conversation to end as quickly as possible. In the process, however, the child has been given what I call a "misbehavior credit card" -- permission to do the same thing again.
It is inevitable, therefore, that the child does it again, causing the parent to believe that the first conversation was not therapeutic enough, and so a second conversation ensues, even more bewildering than the first, and around and around parent and child go, and where this ends, no one really knows, if it ever does.
And then, to make matters even more complicated, you forecast that the kids in school will make fun of her. In the first place, you cannot protect your daughter from insult from the rest of her life. In the second place, children this age rarely make fun of each other. At most, some child might ask your daughter what happened to her hair, to which she will reply, nonplussed, that she cut it off because she didn't like it.
Perhaps she will say, "My mom thinks it's because of something called autonomy," and they will have a good laugh together. Your daughter has told you why she cuts her bangs off: they bother her. The solution: get her a hairdo that doesn't involve bangs. In other words, you need a good barber, not a psychologist.
XJohn Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th Street, Suite 26B, Indianapolis, IN 46240 and at his Web site: http://www.rosemond.com/.