So often, parents walk into our offices with little hope left. They are exhausted and out of ideas. They’ve read every book, and tried every method. Yet, they still cannot understand why their children keep acting up. They ask questions like, “why can’t they just…?” and “why do they always…?” They want to know why their children are not responding to incentives and consequences. They don’t understand why their children keep choosing to misbehave.
These parents, who are truly trying their hardest, are out of ideas and out of energy. They find themselves engaging in fights with their children, or attempting to reason with them when they are out of control. My advice to these parents is…stop. Take a moment to breathe and reassess the entire situation.
First and foremost, I recommend that parents take a break from a difficult moment if they are unable to control their own emotional reactions. If parents find themselves reacting to their child’s difficulties in ways that angry or upset (i.e. yelling, name calling), the child is only going to feel less secure and calm, and the situation is likely to spiral into a power struggle or major fight. With this in mind, I suggest parents find a way to stay calm. Walk away, get a drink of water, shut the bathroom door and yell into a towel, use visualization or breathing, or simply find a way to say and do nothing in the moment (beyond keeping the child safe and secure). This is a hard position for parents, because it forces them to find a way to clamp down on their own emotions, and to respond to what is often very negative behavior in a calm and measured way. Additionally, parents often start out by trying to reason with their upset child, but quickly find the situation escalating into a fight or power struggle they never intended because the child is not thinking clearly or rationally. Thus, I also recommend that instead of trying to reason in the moments, parents find an appropriate discussion time later, problem solve after the fact to avoid the same situation from occurring again, allow a logical or natural consequence with calm understanding, or if the situation demands it, simply let the situation resolve itself without discussion or consequence.
Since this calm is understandably so hard for parents to achieve, I find that the first step toward helping parents regain their own emotional calm is to help them understand that their child probably is not acting up as a choice. If the child is having trouble, it is because something is wrong. Maybe they lack a certain skill, maybe certain tasks are frustrating, maybe they are overwhelmed, tired, hungry, etc. There are a number of things that could be going on, and if parents are able to recognize that the child is notchoosing to act up or behave negatively, things often begin to improve. Parents find they are more patient when they realize their child “can’t just [insert positive behavior here]” or their child “always [insert negative behavior here]” because of some unlearned skill, unmet need, or some other deficit, difficulty, or concern. Once parents begin to recognize this, it is often much easier to start identifying triggers and specific areas of concern in order to understand what is going on with the child, and to start teaching skills, addressing deficits and difficulties, and meeting needs.
To help parents begin to relax with their children, I also encourage self-care. Parents are much better able to meet their children’s needs when they are taking care of themselves. Many parents experience feelings of guilt when they plan a date night, go out with friends, indulge in hobbies, go to the gym, or choose other activities that they feel put their needs before their children. I encourage parents to think about this differently. If parents take some time to care for themselves, they tend to be happier and more relaxed. As a result, the time spent with children is also happier and more relaxed. Parents find they have more energy and patience. They can manage their own emotions, and they react with clam to their children’s emotions. They feel more connected to themselves as individuals, and not just as parents. And yet somehow, that makes them happier and better parents.
These steps of course, are only the beginning to helping parents build better relationships with children, and understand and resolve behavioral problems and power struggles. However, they are excellent first steps that set the groundwork for helping parents figure out the rest of the ‘recipe’ for helping their children. The ultimate ‘recipe’ may include continued work in therapy, medication management, specific behavioral techniques or plans, or a combination of different services and plans. Figuring out the right ‘recipe’ often takes creativity and hard work. It involves truly understanding the child, the nature of the difficulties, the where’s and why’s of concerns, and a number of other biological and environmental factors. Additionally, the ‘recipe’ might vary based on changing circumstances. But, once the groundwork is set — once parents understand the children are generally not choosing to behave negatively, once parents stop engaging in power struggles and fights, and once they take some time for some personal TLC — it is much easier and much less overwhelming to make forward progress.