Although you might do your best, the fact is you simply won’t be able to honor my request. In fact, the more I insist that you do not think about the color red, the more likely you are to think about the color red. If I am persistent enough, I’m guessing you might, over time, even develop an obsession for the color red. If you are the compliant type, you might try your best to hide your obsessive thoughts, presenting the pretense of a life that never thinks about red or, if you are the rebellious type, you might openly flaunt your frequent thoughts about red while challenging me to do anything about it. Either way, I’ve got you thinking about the color red.
Unintentionally, partly due to unresolved issues, some parents attempt to shut down any and all thinking about uncomfortable issues, not only in their own minds, but also in the minds of their children. So, by example or by words, they tell their children not to think about certain foods or sex or drugs or death or any number of other sensitive issues. More often than not, the goal is worthy. Parents are trying to protect their children either from pain or from subjects they believe their child is not yet ready to encounter (often a rationalization). This is understandable. Unfortunately, although honorably motivated, the end result may be that by insisting your child not think about something, you conversely create within your child obsessive thoughts in the very areas you have encouraged him not to think about.
Any obsessive thoughts or behaviors are problematic as they tend to take control over the individual, making life more difficult and therefore more maladaptive. One consequence may be that your child compartmentalizes the “unacceptable” behavior, successfully hiding this behavior because he knows this behavior to be wrong or unacceptable (according to the most significant people in his life) while attempting to present only the behaviors that he has come to believe are acceptable. Such compartmentalizations are honest attempts to present the best of ourselves while hiding the worst. Paradoxically, the more we attempt to present the best and hide the worst, the more problematic the unacceptable behavior becomes. In effect, we are feeding a monster hidden within by the very act of trying to conceal it. The more we conceal, trying as hard as we might to forcefully keep this monster hidden, the more this monster demands our time and attention. Given enough time and growth, this monster can gain enough power to lurch out and destruct an otherwise healthy individual.
All of this can be avoided by encouraging your children to feel the freedom to think and talk freely, even about the most sensitive of subjects. This increases the likelihood that they learn to manage such thoughts and feelings without unnecessary fear, thus never providing a place for a monster to be caged within.
Please know, it’s OK to think about the color red. Really, it’s OK. The last thing we need is a bunch of people running around Cleveland obsessing over red.