On helping children not feeling responsible for other people’s emotions17 min read

Maybe you know the feeling… a man­ager asks if you can work a couple of extra hours one night. You don’t want to, but you’re not sure you have a choice.

A friend or rel­a­tive would like you to attend an event you sin­cerely don’t care for, but you don’t know how to refuse while sparing their feel­ings. Someone close com­plains exten­sively about their money trouble, and you wonder if maybe this is a subtle way of asking for cash.

The Guesswork Loop

In all of those sit­u­a­tions, you know what you want to answer (“Sorry, but no,” “No thanks,” or “Wow, that must suck”), but you’re unsure. What should you answer, what are you expected to answer, and what would be the polite answer?

Maybe that friend or that man­ager will be angry with you. Maybe they’re only phrasing it like a ques­tion to be polite, and are actu­ally demanding. Maybe they’re only asking to be polite but actu­ally don’t want you to come! Which one is it?

When we tor­ture our­selves in such a fashion, we assume people don’t say what they mean (and with neu­rotyp­i­cals, can we be blamed?), don’t mean what they say, and that ulti­mately we are respon­sible for their own emo­tions.

The Ownership of Emotion-Regulation

In my expe­ri­ence, it is common for people who grew up in stressful sit­u­a­tions (with abu­sive rel­a­tives or par­ents who had a dys­func­tional rela­tion­ship, for instance) to try and guess what is going on beneath the sur­face of words.

Being able to “read the room” and cor­rectly guess what someone thinks and expects from you is nothing less than a sur­vival skill when your care­takers and/or rel­a­tives aren’t the most stable of people. And, of course, being on the spec­trum can qualify in and of itself as a “stressful sit­u­a­tion:” it tends to lower your ability to per­ceive people’s inten­tions and to heighten other people’s ten­dency to get cross with you.

The ques­tion I would like to address here is: how do we interact with chil­dren, from tod­dlers to teens, to avoid giving them the impres­sion that they have to read you care­fully before deciding any­thing?

While this is daunting in itself (think “guilt trip cul­ture”), I believe it is even harder when you were your­self taught from a young age that you should micro­manage everyone’s emo­tional reac­tions. I will, nat­u­rally, focus on autistic chil­dren, but these sorts of gen­eral prin­ci­ples apply to all neu­rotypes.

It’s a vast sub­ject, but let’s give it a try.

Note: I will refer throughout this article to the child’s “care­giver.” This might mean a parent, a close rel­a­tive, a nanny, etc. Basically, someone who takes care of a child and spends time with them.

Two Caregiver Maxims

Two things are our first givens. One, it is a given that chil­dren are human. That is to say, it is safe to treat them as rational beings (even if we don’t always under­stand their logic) with the same gen­eral likes and dis­likes that all humans share.

Two, it is a given that humans are social crea­tures. By that I mean that humans will treat humans as their most essen­tial resource in every single sit­u­a­tion.

We like other humans so much we see their faces even when there’s nothing, a phe­nom­enon called parei­dolia where we rec­og­nize faces in objects like appli­ances, wood grain, and even the moon.

We mimic body lan­guage without having to think about it. We’re so incred­ibly social the first animal we domes­ti­cated was a pack crea­ture, and we will pack-bond with lit­er­ally any­thing. If you’ve ever felt sad for the bumpy lemon no one will buy, or had a hard time get­ting rid of an old stuffed toy you hadn’t played with in a year, you know what I mean.

So a child’s need to fit in is one of their most pri­mor­dial ones.

Instinct and Adaptation

Children are com­pletely depen­dent on their care­givers, and babies even more so (younger than 12 months old). It is a common assump­tion that babies don’t have a clue of what is going on around them, and while I wouldn’t argue they have the same per­cep­tion or capacity of analysis as an adult, it’s wrong to think of them as dolls.

Babies start bab­bling around five months old, some­times sooner – but that only means they get the trick around that age. Babbling is partly stim – the vocal­iza­tions and their vari­a­tions make inter­esting noises and vibra­tions – and partly imi­ta­tion of speech.

This explains both why babies have an accent depending on the lan­guages they hear but also why a baby raised by non-speaking care­givers will still babble to them­selves. To start imi­tating the care­givers at five months old, a baby will have started to listen to them much, much younger.

Babies a few weeks old can tell care­givers apart and by five or six months old they can adapt their behavior to the people around them (the classic “baby is a dream with the nanny and a terror with the par­ents” par­a­digm).

Babies Read the Room

Very young kids are able to read a room, realize when there’s a ten­sion between people, guess when a care­giver is upset or angry, and to some extent, react to all of that. I don’t mean to say that a 13-month-old will think along the lines of, “Oh, daddy does seem tired tonight, and boy do I find that stressful.” Obviously most of that perspective-taking is uncon­scious and instinc­tive.

What I mean is that babies manage to get a gen­eral feeling of what is going on around them and are able to adapt to that.

And that is just talking about babies. The older the child gets, the more refined their under­standing and capacity to mod­u­late a response will be. Non-verbal chil­dren will be more chal­lenging for the care­givers to read because as a cul­ture we rely tremen­dously on speech, but that doesn’t mean they will have a harder time reading their care­givers. 

Atypical Adaptation is Valid

And while autistic people in gen­eral might not adapt to their care­givers’ behavior in a way that is per­ceived as typ­ical, they will still adapt, and these adap­ta­tions will have their own internal logic.

All of this to say… it is a human trait to try and gen­er­ally con­vince the people around you not to abandon you to the bears, and everyone–children and adults– will do it with var­ious degrees of sub­tlety and suc­cess.

Children want, con­sciously or not, to be kept safe, to be fed, to be loved, and to be enter­tained. So as a care­giver, it is your very first job to do those things, but also to convey to your child that these things are uncon­di­tional and that the child doesn’t have to work for them.

Meeting Children’s Needs

This seems obvious, and yet it is easy to get lost and start lever­aging those basic needs as bar­gaining chips– or to unknow­ingly send the mes­sage we are ready to use them as bar­gaining chips.

To avoid let­ting a child feel like their safety or right to be loved (which, in the end, is roughly the same) is con­di­tional. We all need to look at how we express your own emo­tions and feel­ings.

I’m not advo­cating that you never express any­thing neg­a­tive and are per­pet­u­ally frozen in a state of mild bliss, of course. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball: humans feel respon­sible for other people’s emo­tions mostly when they feel like they can’t com­pletely trust those people.

So you want to convey to your child that you can be trusted.

Consistency & Logic

For that, an impor­tant piece of the puzzle is con­sis­tency. Consistency means that a sim­ilar behavior on the part of your child will mean a sim­ilar response on your part. A child shouldn’t be for­bidden to do a thing they were allowed to do the day before – at least not without a good expla­na­tion; because let’s remember, chil­dren are rational beings.

Let’s explore an example: a three-year-old is allowed to stand up on the couch when they’re playing. One day, the child is standing up, falls down, hurts their head. As their care­giver, you decide standing up on the couch is not a behavior you want to see repeated.

You tell your child some­thing along the lines of, “I didn’t realize before, but doing this is dan­gerous. I know you were allowed to do so before, but things have changed. From now on, we don’t stand up on the couch any­more. If you forget, I will remind you.” And of course, when the child stands up again (let’s be real here), you will remind them every single time without get­ting angry.

Inconsistency & Illogic

A bad example would be some­thing like this: you see your three-year-old being unsteady while they stand up on the couch, and every time they do it, it makes you anx­ious – but you don’t say any­thing. Or rather, most of the time you don’t say any­thing, except for when you’re already stressed out from having a long day.

In those instances, as soon as you see your kid climb up the couch, you tell them to get down and that standing up on the couch is dan­gerous – and you prob­ably don’t say it in a nice and calm fashion, either.

In the end, your child doesn’t know if they are allowed to stand up on that couch or not, so they will try from time to time, prob­ably checking you out from the corner of their eye to see if today it is fine with you.

You prob­ably think you are doing the child a favor by tol­er­ating a behavior you don’t com­pletely agree with, but the truth is you’re just teaching them that you’re not to be trusted 100%.

The Unintentional Lessons We Teach

The same phe­nom­enon will happen with a behavior you find annoying, but only when repeated. Let’s imagine you’re in a public place and your child likes to yell at a high pitch – this might be a nice stim for them, par­tic­u­larly in a vast open space. It annoys you the first time they do it but you don’t say any­thing – they only did it once, after all.

But then the child pro­ceeds on yelling and yelling, and after the fifth or sixth time, you get angry and tell your child off harshly. Again, you didn’t think you were doing any­thing wrong: you tried to let them enjoy their thing, but in the end, you had to put a stop to it. But again, from the per­spec­tive of the child, you’re simply mer­cu­rial: that same behavior you tol­er­ated five times in a row got you angry the sixth time.

A much better way to react would be to act before you become angry, explaining calmly what the problem is. Perhaps some­thing along the line of, “I know you enjoy making sounds, but this is really loud, and it hurts my ears. If you want to yell like this, you have to wait until you’re on your own in the garden/on the beach/whenever it’s fine to yell. Maybe you can do a qui­eter stim if you want to stim right now?”

 Honesty

Our second impor­tant piece is hon­esty, but in a con­trolled way. By that, I mean that we must be honest towards our chil­dren, but that doesn’t mean we tell them every­thing and any­thing. It means we explain when we feel things. Too, we explain when some­thing doesn’t con­cern them, so they needn’t worry about it.

Being honest, of course, implies never lying. Lying to chil­dren is the best way to teach them they have to second guess us. Try and remember when you found out about a lie you were told: didn’t you feel betrayed? Didn’t you feel like you could have under­stood the truth if someone had both­ered to explain?

Let’s not inflict that guessing game upon our chil­dren. When we don’t want to play a game with our child, let’s be honest and tell them: “I am tired, and I don’t want to play now. I promise I will play with you tomorrow after your tea.”

Let’s not promise some­thing thinking the child will “forget in five min­utes anyway,” either, or say that some­thing we know to be painful “won’t hurt a bit,” or that the visit to Aunt Carol’s will “only take five min­utes.” Children can under­stand every­thing if only we bother to explain. So let’s explain.

Even for bigger issues, let’s avoid lying as much as we can. I would only bal­ance that with the notion that chil­dren shouldn’t be made aware of their care­givers’ issues – or rather, that the issues might be daunting even to the care­givers.

Parenting on the Fly

Let’s be real. Most of us make it up as we go along, hope for the best, and gen­er­ally, it turns out alright. Yet some­times, we don’t know how to pay the bills, or we have to get a divorce, or a rel­a­tive died and we have a hard time coping.

This is being human, and there is nothing wrong with that. I would argue, how­ever, that a child should be left to assume that their care­givers have their life together, and while they may encounter dif­fi­cul­ties, they know how to deal with them.

Striking a Balance

The alter­na­tive – let­ting a child know that, essen­tially, all adults are big chil­dren playing pre­tend very hard – might make a child anx­ious and give them the impres­sion that they have to fend for them­selves because no one has their back.

Worse, treating a child like a con­fi­dant– which can be tempting when you feel iso­lated or when your child is very per­cep­tive and repeat­edly asks if some­thing is wrong – can lead to an unhealthy emo­tional dynamic that will have reper­cus­sions on their later life.

But still, no lying. Caregivers should be honest, but also draw a firm line when some­thing is none of their child’s busi­ness. For instance: “I see you have noticed I’m upset, lately. That is because your aunt is sick, and this is making me sad. But I have ways of expressing my sad­ness, and you don’t need to worry about it. When I’m done being sad, I will be cheerful again.”

Being honest also means using our words, like I described in that pre­vious example. The care­giver doesn’t try to hide their feel­ings or their impact. Again, the whole point of the exer­cise is to teach a child that they can trust what they are told about the emo­tional state of the people around them.

So as care­givers, we should strive to acknowl­edge our feel­ings and honor them in an open way. We need to teach our chil­dren that when we are angry, or annoyed, or scared, instead of them having to guess it and deduce how to act, we will tell them, so they don’t need to worry about it.

How to Share without Emotional Burdening

This might be hard depending on how com­fort­able you are with your own feel­ings, but the more you prac­tice, the more nat­ural it will feel. Let’s look at a few exam­ples:

You are tired from a long day and your child is in high spirits, talking loudly, run­ning around, asking for a ton of atten­tion. It is beyond annoying, and your whole body lan­guage dis­plays hos­tility whether you want it or not.

The child will pick it up and get tense, too. At this point you can either try and endure it (until you burst and yell a bit later), or pause, iden­tify what’s going on, and act accord­ingly: “Sweetie, I feel over­whelmed right now because I am tired, and you are asking a lot of atten­tion from me. I would like to have a break first, and then I will be happy to talk about your day with you. How about you go and read a book for half an hour? You can stay next to me, of course.”

If this sounds redun­dant with the con­sis­tency thing, it’s because it is– of course, it’s all con­nected.

When you are scared – because you’re in a sit­u­a­tion that is scary for you or because your child is doing some­thing you think is dan­gerous – it’s the same deal: be honest and use your words. For instance, “I feel scared right now because there are a lot of birds around, and I am ner­vous around birds, even if they are not dan­gerous. I need some time to feel better. You can either go and play where I can see you, or stay next to me.”

When you are angry, same deal. Anger is espe­cially tricky to explain because you need to convey both that you are angry with your child, but also that they are not in danger in any way. I strongly sug­gest you avoid any demon­stra­tion of vio­lence such as shouting, ges­tic­u­lating harshly, or punching things.

Usually, anger is pro­voked by some­thing the child just did so you want first to make the child stop what­ever it was they were doing (hit­ting a sib­ling for instance), and then to express your anger.

Always keep in mind that the way you express it is the way the child will learn is accept­able to express anger. Here is a sug­ges­tion: “I am very angry right now because we don’t do what you just did. I feel bad because of that anger, so I’m going to go in another room for a few min­utes and calm down. I want you to sit here and be quiet while I am gone. I will be right back, and then we can dis­cuss what hap­pened.”

Make sure your child has safe sur­round­ings and they’ll be okay for a few min­utes. While away, you can scream into a pillow if you need to or punch stuff – but do make sure your child doesn’t wit­ness phys­ical vio­lence from you. Keep in mind that to your child, you are an omnipo­tent giant that they rely upon for every­thing.

If you were in a sim­ilar sit­u­a­tion and saw the omnipo­tent giant be so cross with you that they had to punch a pillow, how would you feel? Myself, I think I’d be ter­ri­fied. Let’s not take the risk.

And once you are calm and have talked the issue through with your child, do remind them that you love them: “I was angry that you hit your sib­ling because that is a mean thing to do, but I know that you did it because you were angry with them. Sometimes it’s hard to con­trol our anger. I know that you will try to do better. And no matter what you do, I’ll always love you.”

Listen and Respond Accordingly

The final and third piece of our puzzle is per­haps the most obvious, but I feel like it bears men­tioning: actu­ally, sin­cerely listen to your child and don’t play mind games. This is some­thing for older chil­dren, but I can’t exag­gerate its rel­e­vancy.

A lot of people tend to assume that when a person reaches their teens, they become dis­honest by nature and need to be firmly leashed. I assume this is done both out of worry that some­thing bad will happen to the child and also, maybe, out of memory: “I lied to my care­givers so my child will lie to me.”

Honesty Begets Honesty

The way I see it, how­ever, is that most things go both ways. A child will usu­ally not lie to their care­givers if they don’t feel like lying is their only option.

How should you convey to your child that they can tell you the truth? By actu­ally lis­tening, both when they tell you some­thing, and when they ask you some­thing.

Assuming a child does some­thing they know you won’t approve of (get drunk, steal some­thing, tries drugs, drive without permit, what have you), in what sce­nario are they more likely to tell you: if they think you will scream and punish them, or they think they will get help escaping the sit­u­a­tion?

Because chil­dren will do silly things, some of them you will dis­ap­prove of. As a care­giver, you only get to chose the cir­cum­stances in which you’ll learn about these.

When a child wants to con­fide in you, actu­ally listen. When a child wants to argue a rule they feel is unfair, actu­ally listen. And here I’m not saying you should be a pushover and let a thirteen-year-old boss you around; but, if your child feels like they should be allowed to do some­thing, and they have good argu­ments to defend it, it’s fair to let your­self be con­vinced. And if you have better coun­ter­ar­gu­ments and detail them calmly, it’s likely your child will accept the deci­sion more grace­fully.

Mind Games

And do not play mind games. This goes with being honest, but some­times we let pride or a weird sense of what’s appro­priate take us over. The best way to teach our chil­dren they don’t have to try and read our mind is to actu­ally act like we don’t expect them to read our mind!

And that means that when some­thing is on our mind, we tell them. For instance, some­times refusing a request instead of accepting and resenting it. Or asking for some­thing we need instead of waiting for chil­dren to spon­ta­neously come up with the notion.

Basically, when we show our chil­dren that we are con­sis­tent and honest people who will say what we mean and mean what we vsay, we teach them that they can trust us and be at ease.

This will lead to them assuming that most people work that way and will – at least in a way – help make them immune to mind games, intrigues, and pas­sive aggres­sive­ness. There is a real freedom that comes from assuming that when people want some­thing, they’ll say so.

I do realize that some autistic people have the oppo­site issue and struggle with even barely veiled innu­endos, but I think that assuming there are no hidden meaning, ever, is less tiring that assuming there are always hidden mean­ings, every­where.

You can learn to be better attuned to body lan­guage and facial expres­sions. It’s harder, I think, to un-learn a life­time of dis­trust and emo­tional labor.

Apologize & Adapt

And finally, let’s remember that children’s capacity to be rational also means they can under­stand apolo­gies and adapt to new ways. This means that you can screw up some­times without fearing you just ruined your child’s life. Which means, also, that it’s never too late to strive to do better. Being a care­giver is a huge respon­si­bility and, plainly, quite hard. It’s per­fectly okay to not be per­fect as long as we keep on trying.

4 Comments

  1. I think this is bril­liant par­enting advice. This is exactly how I would have wanted to be treated as a child.

    This part espe­cially res­onated with me:

    “Children want, con­sciously or not, to be kept safe, to be fed, to be loved, and to be enter­tained. So as a care­giver, it is your very first job to do those things, but also to convey to your child that these things are uncon­di­tional and that the child doesn’t have to work for them.”

    Yes! PLEASE never make your child feel like they have to beg or per­form to be loved.

    1. Author

      Thanks a lot Jaime ! <3

  2. Interesting take. I see neu­rotyp­i­cals as con­stantly making others respon­sible for their emo­tions (they just get away with it because they are the majority & their emo­tions are all pretty much the same; greed, self­ish­ness, jeal­ousy, need­i­ness).
    So raising a child to feel con­stantly respon­sible for someone else’s crazy emo­tions is real­is­ti­cally the best way to pre­pare them for a life­time of dealing with NTs con­stantly making them respon­sible for their emo­tions.
    Do you all not see how NTs force everyone around them to be respon­sible for their emo­tions at all times, espe­cially autis­tics? Consider the fol­lowing state­ment, which every autistic hears vari­a­tions of often from NTs :
    “You did not smile enough and make eye con­tact enough & return my greeting enthu­si­as­ti­cally enough, so you have made me angry and caused me to have a bad mood and treat you poorly!”
    So then it is the autis­tics who must be forced into ABA and other unfair, abu­sive “training” to learn how to con­stantly manage neu­rotyp­i­cals patho­log­ical need for atten­tive mim­icry, fake smiling, and being stared at.

    Autistics are not the ones who force others to be respon­sible for our own emo­tions, NTs are. And every child must learn to somehow func­tion in that world of ridicu­lous non­sense.
    Best of luck to them.

    1. Author

      Thank you for your com­ment. I do agree with you : NTs are very good at not being respon­sible for ANYTHING around autistic people.
      However I believe the way to go is still to raise chil­dren in the manner described, and also to work on NTs — which is less my domain of exper­tise so I cant really give advice beyond common sense on how to teach NTs not to be jerks :/

      We shouldnt avoid aiming for more adjust­ment and hap­i­ness for our kids just because there are jerks out there. We should work towards lim­iting the amount of jerks. (Does that make any sense ?)

      Also, I didnt mean to imply that it was the autistic people that were teaching their kids about being respon­sible for their care­givers emo­tions. I am sorry if i did, and apol­o­gize for that. My point was that any care­giver will sortof do that to some extent, no matter their neu­rotype, and that we should check our­selves for that type of behav­iour. I, an autistic person, cer­tainly forget myself and do it some­times.

      Have a nice day!

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