The Mudpuddle - Birth of a Dependency Disorder

by Mark Sichel, LCSW

When I walk my dog in the park, I like watching parents and children interacting, because it teaches me a great deal about the process of separation and individuation.

One day after a rainfall, there were many parents and children playing in the park. Everyone had been cooped up for days in the Spring rains, and today the sun was out and people were enjoying the Spring sunshine.

I watched a mother and her three year old daughter interacting. The little girl was playing nicely, when her eye caught a very tempting puddle of water. The mother sat on a nearby bench, engrossed in a book. All of a sudden she noticed her child frolicking in the mud puddle. "Get out of there, Suzie," she shouted, and the little girl turned and looked at her mother and dejectedly walked away. She continued to play and her mother continued to read. The little girl kept eyeing the mud puddle, and then darting her eyes back to the mother. She bravely inched closer to the puddle, and when her mother didn't notice, she gleefully stepped back into the puddle. Again the mother shouted at her, with more vehemence this time.

"A dependency disorder in training," I thought to myself sadly. I didn't know what kind of dependency would unfurl from these formative experiences, but here was a little girl definitely learning that attention from her mother was contingent upon dysfunctional and destructive behavior. Other parents were actively steering their children away from the puddles, and rewarding them for "puddle-avoidant" behavior. These are children being prepared for independence, I mused.

One of the major theories of how children build independence, and the theory to which I subscribe, is that parents who need their children to be dependent, crippled, and possibly addictive will "reward" them only for dependent clinging behaviors. These are the parents who invoke shame and doubt in their children as the toddler struggles to do things on their own. These same parents are cold and withholding when the child triumphs in acts of independence, but are warm and comforting, or at least attentive, to difficulties in mastering self-sufficiency skills.

On the other hand, parents who want to help their children become independent reward for autonomous behavior and praise their children for self-sufficiency. They manage to help their children with the feelings of shame and doubt, and encourage them to pursue new avenues of independence.

Want to learn more about the healthy processes of separation and individuation? Take a look at The Ties That Bind, the Ties That Strangle.

Do you have trouble with dependency? Learn more about being independent in Independence Day the Psybersquare Way.


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