Transforming Struggles with Kids into Parenting that Works
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas that occur in families.
The challenge of getting distracted, strong-willed and many other kids to follow routines and guidelines can test any parent’s patience. The flavor of the struggle varies with age and topic, but begins when toddlers first discover autonomy and revel in saying “no,” persisting throughout adolescence.
Kyle, an energetic, good-natured 6 year-old, was busy playing after dinner when he was supposed to be clearing the table. His dad called him repeatedly, trying to get his attention to help. Kyle didn’t respond, seemed oblivious, and kept on playing. Dad got angry, yelling louder and louder. "This has to stop! You’re selfish - you cannot keep doing this every night!" After various attempts to force him and pull him into the kitchen, things escalated and Kyle yelled back, "You can’t make me!" storming away crying. Later, Kyle’s dad had a talk with him about selfishness and the importance of respect. Kyle put his head down and said he was sorry.
Kyle’s dad alternated between feeling righteous - when he viewed Kyle as selfish, and feeling bad and guilty - when he saw that Kyle was scared, confused and ashamed. He was pained to see Kyle frightened by him, the way he felt with his dad.
It’s not difficult to see what would be irritating about this scenario for Kyle’s dad. But what caused the repeated escalation?
How we understand another person’s behavior and intentions affects how we feel and respond. Typical mindsets with kids that contribute to such overreactions:
• Reading negative intention into children’s behavior - a framework that sets parents up to be angry, obstructing effective solutions.• Getting into a rigid state of mind, repeating ineffective “strategies”.
It’s common for parents to unconsciously re-experience feelings from their own childhood in situations with their own kids, causing them to unknowingly view parent-child interactions through the lenses of their past. This phenomenon can be a hidden culprit behind repetitive out of proportion, rigid, and predetermined reactions.
Common reactions with kids propelled or intensified by feelings from childhood:
• Feeling resentful - from re-experiencing not having had fun as a kid.• Feeling powerless - from re-experiencing helplessness growing up in an out of control or rigid household. • Feeling slighted, taking kids’ behavior personally - from re-experiencing having been ignored or mistreated.
The improved scenario with Kyle looked like this. Kyle’s dad approached Kyle, coming close to him, crouching to his level. He looked him in the eye, put his hand on Kyle’s head and whispered animatedly, “Hey, buddy, come into the kitchen and hang out with me.” Kyle looked up right away and happily followed along. “You can be the clean-up boss. Should we grab the bowls or the plates first?”
Why did this work? A more interesting and effective way to get Kyle’s attention was to whisper, rather than yell. Kyle was motivated by his dad’s positive attention, wanting to be on his team. This approach allowed Kyle to feel respected, bypassing a control struggle. Kyle’s dad transformed his son’s difficulty being told what to do by leveraging Kyle’s desire for leadership, autonomy, and connection.
How did Kyle’s dad pull off the new scenario? Kyle’s dad was a good father, but was triggered by feeling helpless, particularly when stressed. He learned that many of these triggering situations were predictable and recognized that, without being proactive, he would revert to his “natural” reactions and disappoint himself.
When he got home from work, before leaving the car, he practiced the following steps:
• He anticipated and visualized likely scenarios with Kyle.• He thought explicitly about the kind of dad he wanted to be.• He pictured what he loved about Kyle (including his energy and spunk).• He reminded himself that the problem was a normal attentional issue, and that Kyle was just being a kid, and not disrespecting him.
Engaging his higher mind and creating a new perspective made it easier for Kyle’s dad to stay in the present, see his son more clearly, and be tolerant. Doing this protected him from falling into the same groove from his past. From this new mindset he could be playful and creative, rather than determined and rigid, allowing him to get Kyle’s attention in a positive way. With children, just like in relationships with a spouse, it’s more effective to behave in a way that naturally encourages the other person to want to be with you, talk to you, or help you - rather than complain, yell, or withhold affection.
Tips for Parents:
• Become aware of how you react when angry or frustrated and realize that this sets an example for kids.• Recognize and become familiar with mindsets (feelings and thought patterns) from the past - and remind yourself to cool off when this mindset is beginning to take over. • When you feel urgency and intensity in non-emergency situations, it is a clue that you are being triggered from your past - pull back rather than take action.• Create psychological space in a consistent way to anticipate difficult situations with children. • Mentally rehearse likely difficult scenarios with kids and how you want to respond.• Take care of yourself - “Put your own oxygen mask on first.”• Be present with kids, rather than distracted and preoccupied.