“Hey! Keep your hands to yourself! I’m talking to you, mister! Excuse me! Don’t make me count! That’s it, no Shabbos party! What’s the matter with you? Come here right now, young man!”
This is an example of a parent not in control. The parent is not in charge. Talk may be cheap, but emotional output is expensive. This child is in full control of Mom or Dad’s feelings and is winning the power struggle.
There is a common misconception that effective parenting means children listen - that they are “good kids.” This is mostly incorrect. Of course, our goal is that our children listen to us. However, our expectation that they jump into line at our command as if we are drill sergeants is unreasonable, unhealthy, and sets us up for frustration.
I recently saw the following quote: “When people say, “You’re such a good boy,” it often means, “You express no needs and do as you’re told.” A lot of the ‘good kids’ are anxious kids. They are the sensitive kids who sense the frustration of the adults in their lives whenever they express their needs.”
When we shout, yell, and complain to our children about their behavior, they have two options: follow directions because their parent is getting angry, or exercise their independent instincts to ignore and stand strong.
A child who follows directions out of fear may learn to fear disappointing others as well. Besides the resentment that parenting through intimidation causes, children may learn to chase the approval of others just as we trained them to chase ours. A child who stands strong, however, may be strengthening their muscle of conviction to act as they see fit, not to be swayed by the influence of others. We would much rather our children listen to us in their youth, leaving independence and conviction to be learned at the expense of others. Wouldn’t that be convenient.
We have to help our children balance their “sense of self” and their “need to follow authority.” This is not accomplished by shouting louder than their need to individuate. Balance is taught by role modeling. A parent who treads the line properly allows a child to do the same. If a parent manages to show the importance of listening and following directions, while also showing the utmost respect and concern for their children’s thoughts and feelings, a child will learn this balance through osmosis alone.
It is okay when our children do not listen. What is not okay are the warning signals that go off in our brain. The damaging self-talk that says, “Uh-oh. If you let him get away with that he’s never going to succeed in life. He needs to listen this instant!” This kind of thought process leads to many unnecessary power struggles in our relationships.
Parenting is all about messaging. What message is my behavior as a parent portraying to my children? It makes us uneasy to consider that our behavior is usually riddled with horrible messages.
You’re a pain. I’m sick of how you’re acting. I’m disgusted by you. You make my life difficult. I resent you. I need you to be better. When you act like this, I don’t feel proud of you.
Changing our messaging is vital to raising healthy children. It’s not easy, but is necessary nonetheless.
One of the primary responsibilities in raising children is to protect them from the dangers of life. One of those dangers is ourselves. We say mean, nasty, even vindictive things. Before deciding how to respond to our children, we must first bring ourselves to an emotional state that is capable of considering what is best for them.
Imagine a 5-year-old having a meltdown in the middle of a grocery store. This nightmare is all too realistic. People all around, baby in the seat of the shopping cart, 2-year-old reaching for oranges and shouting “Ball!”
Before we decide how to react, we must check ourselves and realize that we are in no state to respond right now. Prior to executing a complete embarrassment of a 5-year-old in public, we must take a few deep breaths, splash water on our face, or engage in some deep breathing to bring ourselves out of crisis mode and into a functional state of mind. (Search “DBT TIPP skills for crisis survival and stress tolerance.”)
In the words of Dr. Haim Ginott, a child psychologist and psychotherapist who pioneered techniques for conversing with children that are still taught today, “No parent wakes up in the morning planning to make a child’s life miserable. No mother or father says, ‘Today I’ll yell, nag, and humiliate my child whenever possible.’ On the contrary, in the morning, many parents resolve, ‘This is going to be a peaceful day. No yelling, no arguing, and no fighting.’ Yet, in spite of good intentions, the unwanted war breaks out again.”
We must preempt this war by arming ourselves with coping skills to regulate in times of crisis. We must learn to navigate stressful circumstances by looking inward, settling ourselves, and then addressing our overwhelming circumstances. If we can do this, we give ourselves a chance to parent from a reasonable state, rather than react out of emotion. If we look inside to hear some of the terrible things we communicate to our children through our body language, perhaps we will understand the dire need for these coping skills, before we damage the way our children look at themselves for the rest of their lives.