What can I say to a 7-year-old who constantly says, “You don’t love me”?
First, a few basic assumptions. One, you’re referring to your little girl and not some youngster you just met yesterday. Two, you do love your daughter and you show and tell her often. Three, this is her comeback when you are doing something loving, such as disciplining or setting rules and expectations.
Odds are, all three assumptions are accurate, not because I’m so smart, but because almost always each is present when loving parents are called unloving by a momentarily frustrated child.
Because this accusation is about as far from the truth as a child can feel about us, it can really sting. If she said things like “You always growl when I’m around” or “You like sleep better than me,” we might, in our more brutally honest moments, silently admit to a few grains of truth there. “You don’t love me” is pure nonsense. You know it, and, believe it or not, so does your daughter. Temporarily, she may think you don’t love her because she’s upset and her 7-year-old mind can’t comprehend the long-range reasons for your actions. Or maybe she thinks no such thing but is bringing on the big guilt to decrease your parental confidence.
How do kids know that this line hurts? At first, they can read our reactions, however subtle our flinch or pained look. Over time, they come to realize its power, as we compulsively explain and re-explain ourselves each and every time they say it. My hunch is that you repeatedly tell your daughter how what you’re doing in no way whatsoever comes from a lack of love. In fact, if you didn’t love her so much, you’d let her do anything she wants. Finally, citing parenting-manual Code 307.65-A, you tell her that you always love her but sometimes you don’t like her behavior.
These all make loving sense, but, like most talk, they lose effect with too much repetition. Then begins the game of “I’ll accuse you of something totally ridiculous and then you try to convince me how I’m wrong I am, and then I’ll argue illogically and then you get frustrated and feel bad and then I win.” The only foolproof way to instantly convince a child you do love her is to give her what she wants. In the short term, you’ll be back in her good graces. In the long term, you’ll get pulled into the game more.
If you feel an overpowering urge to reassure, do so occasionally. Every time is recycled frustration and unnecessary justification. Most of the time, a quiet “That’s wrong” or “Yes, I do” or a silent, head-shaking “No” is plenty.
I think it was a mother who observed: You never have to explain what you don’t say.
Dr. Ray Guarendi is a
clinical psychologist, speaker and author of You’re a Better Parent Than You Think! and
Back to the Family.