Your Child’s Mess Is Your Message

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

Many parents use control to manage their children’s behavior. Why wouldn’t they with parenting books and programs teaching them to do that very thing? Unfortunately, control is risky business, that when it works, leaves parent and child uncertain about who really won the battle. Rather than try to control a child, parents need to encourage self-control. This develops from taking responsibility for their actions and learning to clean up their own messes when they make them and make them, they will. This is where the mess becomes the message!

After a child makes a mess, such as hitting a sibling, lying to parents, not completing their chores, they need to figure out a way to clean it up. Messes create disconnection in relationships but cleaning them up re-connects them. The process of discovering how to clean them up is where a child learns self-control and parents find more joy in parenting. 

Parents do not get angry at messes. They require their child to clean up their mess. Because of age and inexperience, they may not be able to come up with a solution but one can be offered, by the parent, or they can try their own and then another try until the mess is completed. Parents who feel powerless don’t realize that they control the environment of the home. Children always want or need something and parents can simply state: “Of course you can have a snack sweetie as soon as you clean up that mess you make with your brother. And, by the way, I took out the trash for you since you were too busy playing video games and so you can do my chore of folding all the laundry. Take your time sweetie, the snack will be there when you are done.” 

Instead of a snack, the child may want to sit go to the neighbors to play or go to the shoe store to get new shoes or sit down with the family for dinner. The child can decide how long they want to take to clean up their messes and get the things that the parent has control over. Never fear, arguments, tantrums, screaming fits and vows of running away may be involved. They are ways the child believes he or she can control the parent. Parents must be patient and model how control is an illusion for them as much as it was for the parent. This information will serve them well in all their relationships for life. 

The good news is that this process will only take a few times (days?) until the child realized the parent means what they say and discovers cleaning up a mess is so much easier than testing the parents resolve. 

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