Most children are naturally possessive and territorial. Shouts of “Don’t touch my things!” “It’s my money!” “Get out of my room!” are part of the daily soundtrack in many families. As the child grows, he has to learn that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways of clinging to what’s his own. For instance, he has to learn that others also have a right to their property.
He has to learn to share. And he has to learn not to use his things in damaging ways. Many parents come to us because their children (whatever their age – the oldest “child” whose parents we treated was 62!) abuse their computer, room, and money. Typical examples are of adolescents who become addicted to screens, turn their rooms into impregnable fortresses and use their money to gamble or buy drugs. Parents are then challenged to redefine their and their child’s property rights. Abuse of property rights has a lot to do with anxiety. It is anxiety that leads many adolescents to keep to their rooms and avoid the world outside. Anxiety leads many kids to drop out of school and become totally immersed in computer games. Anxiety also shows in some children’s attempts to control every aspect of their room and house. In the following case, a highly anxious 5-year old girl took control of the whole household!
Every night, before Esme went to sleep, her mother, Eva, had to fulfill a whole ritual to demonstrate that the whole house was secured against burglary.
They would check all the locks (Eva had to open and close them again so that Esme could hear the click). Esme and her mother would try to open each window and door to guarantee that the locks were working the air-conditioning would be shut down. The mother would then turn all of Esme’s dolls and plush toys (she had many!) with their eyes to the wall, giving instructions to each of them not to move before they woke up in the morning. After reading Esme her bedtime story, Eva would answer Esme’s questions about how the house was protected from burglars and other bad people. This could take a long time, depending on Esme’s mood. Tom (Esme’s father), who had long lost his patience, would go to his study and get immersed in a thriller. The therapist told the parents that this seemed to be too much responsibility for a 5-year old! Wouldn’t it be a good idea to relieve her of her burden? Together with the therapist, they developed a way to “re-own” their house. To this end, they built a “counter-ritual.” Eva and Tom would take Esme by the hand to a tour of their house. They would point to the important objects in each room and say that it belonged to them when they had bought it and how much it had cost. They then pointed to the whole house and told Esme that it belonged to them, when they had bought it, and how big the mortgage was. They then put her to bed and said: “All of this house belongs to us! We take care of it, and we’re sure to do it well because we spent so much money to buy it all! All of the doors and windows and locks belong to us! This is also your house because you’re our beloved daughter! But the house and everything in it belongs to us!
Your dolls and plush toys are guests in our house, so they have to obey the rules of the house. So from now on, we, and only we, will take care of locking the house for the night. We won’t hear one word from you about that! In our house, no doll or plush toy sleeps with the face to the wall. If we find them in that position in the morning, they’ll be locked in our closet for a whole week. Good night!” They did this only one time. Esme’s night ritual vanished and was not replaced by others. It was not Esme who changed in the first place.
It was the parents. The counter-ritual made them reclaim their role as a parental anchor for Esme. Now she was no longer swept away by her anxiety because the parents had learned to stand their ground.