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Guilt-ridden Parents Don’t Make Pack Leaders

It’s amazing what we can learn by observing animals — things that also reveal truths about human relationships.

For example, many pet owners who adopt an abused, homeless or disabled dog quite naturally feel sorry for it. They “love” the dog, but this can actually be more pity and spoiling than love, which is not healthy for the pet. The animal doesn’t need pity — it needs a Pack Leader. Dogs need confident, firm, decisive owners, not owners who talk in “loving” voices or are permissive.

Animals live in the moment. They move on from past abuse or neglect if the owner does. When the owner exhibits weak, emotional behavior, rather than Pack Leader behavior, the pet won’t know WHY this is happening, only that the owner is weak. Dogs sense a person’s energy. They don’t understand that the owner is well intentioned, only that the owner isn’t behaving as a secure, confident Pack Leader.

I see often this same dynamic with humans families, especially those involving adopted children or divorces. Parents feel guilty about the child’s situation and then pity the child, reacting by being permissive and not enforcing chores or rules, and by spoiling with gifts or excessive attention.

The TV show “Intervention” offers fascinating observations on this permissive, pitying behavior in parents. In one episode of “Intervention”, the family had a child, Terri, who was abducted from the house, raped and murdered when she was about 9 years old.

While this was a shocking incident, the mother, Diane, grieved excessively, not leaving her bedroom for 6 months. She probably felt guilt about her perceived role in the kidnapping, perhaps believing that she had failed as a mother by “letting” this incident occur.

This behavior was also self-involved, weak and Submissive, because she did not do what was best for her remaining family. She had two other children who needed a mother. She did not step up, manage her emotions in a healthy way, and help the family move past the tragedy. Instead she wallowed in it far too long.

Then she got pregnant. As you might predict, her guilt affected this new child, Brittany. Diane spoiled Brittany in an effort to make up for the lost child and to assuage her guilt. She essentially ignored the older two children. She also put tremendous direct pressure on Brittany to live up to Terri’s unfulfilled life.  The mother never saw Brittany as an individual, merely as a placeholder for Terri. Brittany perceived her mother’s weakness and took over, becoming Dominant and bossy, to the point where she demanded money for drugs from her parents and grandparents, took their car keys and threatened to prostitute herself if she didn’t get money for her drug habit.

This mother was living in the past, guilt-ridden and grieving for her lost child — for over 20 years!

But the children in the present needed her to be present for them. They needed her strength, not her weakness, yet that is the energy she expressed to them — submissiveness, insecurity, fear, and worry. Children who depend on their parents don’t need those emotions and behaviors. They need confidence, assertiveness and calmness. They need a Pack Leader.

Honor past traumas, but live in the moment, as a Pack Leader would. Don’t pity the person (or dog) who experienced the trauma.

If you treat people as if they are too fragile to handle a situation, they may believe you. They will also certainly believe that YOU are fragile. That is not a message parents should send to children.

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