Disciplining misbehaving kids is often a difficult and emotion-laden task. Our oldest son Daniel, sometimes said to Lynne, “Mom, you just bursted all over us!” And he was painfully right. Jim had his share of quick, harsh reactions as well. Those were discouraging times for all of us, and we wished we knew how to get unstuck from that negative pattern.
When kids act up, it’s a parent’s job to guide them through the difficulty. But kids’ trouble often pushes parents’ buttons. Need for control? Push. Desire for quick fixes? Push. Anxiety about what’s gonna happen with this demanding kid? Push. Inconvenient timing? Push.
The kids get treated as if they’re the only ones in trouble — but in fact, their parents are in trouble too. It’s a different kind of trouble. Harder to solve. But trouble nonetheless.
To the Dad in the front row at our workshop,
You are here — and, based on your eye contact and nods, you are attentive. As Lynne and I present, your gaze is fixed. You write notes and take the time to write down the kind of parent you want to be at the end of each section. You want to get this parenting thing right. I watch you as we present and make some intuitive guesses informed by twenty years of speaking to moms and dads like you.
Your kids are young. You and your spouse want to be together in this parent journey, but there is tension. I see you occasionally exchange knowing glances – like you’ve been found out together. I sense discouragement not far around the corner, so I try to keep an encouraging tone and relate my own struggles so you know I understand you. I very much want you to know — you are not alone! You and your wife are here together, wanting to be on the same page. Wanting to encourage each other. Not knowing how.
Dad in the front row, I know you. I was you and I am you. I can see in the glances and eye contact with me and with your wife that you two really long to embody God’s grace with each other, for each other, and for your kids. I’m guessing by your responses to stories of Lynne’s and my struggles that you’ve had your share too. Maybe even more than your share. I can’t help but wonder if you’re feeling burdened and overwhelmed. Believe me, I know about that.
I’ve blown it many times. But the following event stands out as an example of both failure to live by the stuff I teach, and the power of the teaching. Upon reflection, it’s a tale of battling giants.
One warm afternoon my blooming adolescent son Daniel pushed me beyond my limit. We’d been arguing and the basic conclusion was, “Son, you’re going to do this because I’m the dad!” He didn’t like my conclusion. So he kept arguing. I tend to like when my kids stand up for their beliefs when dealing with others. But not with me.
Ed was trying to be patient and thoughtful, but he was at the end of his rope. Instead of helping him fix dinner, his two daughters were upstairs arguing loudly and disrespectfully. As he listened he thought to himself, “That’s it, I’ve had enough. That’s the last straw!”
Seconds later the inevitable happened: screams cascaded down the steps and into the kitchen as the older sister innocently appeared for her table-setting duty. With loud voice and popping veins Ed erupted. “Are you happy now? Your sister is crying! Did you get what you wanted?”
As Ed retold the story he looked discouraged. He’d been working on asking constructive questions and empowering his kids to solve their own problems. Technically, he asked a couple of questions, but we can immediately recognize the intent was not to discover new information or empower his daughter. “I was angry and I knew I wanted to ask some questions,” he said sadly, “but those were the only ones that came to my mind.”
I said, “That is awesome!”
Have you ever directed an angry child to go punch a pillow, hoping that would provide some release of their frustration? Parents have even bought their angry kids punching bags in hopes it will help. Good idea. Bad plan. It turns out this usually backfires.
Here’s why: Punching a pillow or yelling loudly to let off steam does nothing to constructively direct the anger. It gets a kid all worked up, adrenaline flowing, with no real resolution to their anger. After the punching and yelling are done, the problem is still there, and the child has learned to aggressively vent their anger at something they’re not really angry at. This usually teaches kids to be passive aggressive.
So if your idea is to truly help your kids constructively express their anger, help them make a plan that involves expressing it at the object of their anger. Help them learn new skills for constructively expressing anger.
The way parents deal with anger often gives kids the impression that anger is always bad. Unfortunately, as kids grow up learning that anger is bad, if they aren’t equipped with ways of dealing with their anger, they tend to do one of two things. They either develop the habit of fighting for the sake of gaining control or they build a habit of “fleeing” (avoiding conflict and stuffing feelings) in order to escape the pain of conflict. Psychologists call this “fight or flight.”
Habitual fighters somehow believe there is significance gained in the fight for power and control. They become overtly angry and aggressive about too many things. They react quickly and unreasonably to the things that anger them. Almost every child’s first expressions of anger are some form of fighting. But if kids regularly get sternly confronted or angrily punished for these expressions, they quickly learn from their parents’ example that anger is a weapon. They either keep fighting harder in order to win, or they learn to flee because they know they can’t win.
Kids who flee get quiet. They get sad. They withdraw into worlds of their own and do little if anything to let us know they’re angry. The most troubling thing when kids “take flight” is that at first glance they don’t seem angry. They are often compliant to our requests. They don’t like the requests, or the feel of being controlled, but they don’t have the will or energy to fight. So they give in and coast along. But there is a limit to how much anger they can hold in. So they have to express it somehow.
Just like us, our kids sometimes react angrily when something important to them feels attacked. First expressions of anger are almost always aggressive. As kids get old enough to express themselves, the aggression becomes words and actions.
One day I even saw it at the Post Office. A toddler was angry that her mom wouldn’t give her the sucker the postmaster handed out. She chased her mom through the lobby, and when the mom stopped at her P.O. box, the feisty little gal hauled off and whacked her mom. Mom turned quickly with her finger extended and brow furled. “Stop it!” she yelled. It’s a natural response that doesn’t really teach kids anything constructive. But before the mom could say anything else I simply and rather loudly said to the child, “Wow! You’re really mad! You really want that sucker.” I looked right at her from across the lobby and she looked back. I paused for just a second or two. Her mad face immediately softened. I then said, “but you can learn to be nicer when you’re mad.”
The mom looked at me, looking a bit ashamed but also relieved. She then immediately looked at her daughter and calmly said, “Did you hear him? You should be nicer when you’re mad.” She held out her hand and the daughter took it, and they walked quietly out to the car.
Now it could be that the little gal quieted because she was shocked that some ugly old balding man with a grey beard would talk to her that way. But we’ve seen time and time again that when grown-ups can validate their kids’ anger – even aggressive anger – and put words to what the kids feel, it helps the kids feel understood and then settle down. It helps the parents settle too. Then the resolution can be much more constructive.
I was mad.
Several times in recent weeks our kids had become careless about their toilet flushing habits. So when I went in to use the bathroom and saw the most recent “solid evidence,” I was irritated to say the least. As one prone to reversing words in sentences my loud expression of this frustration was notable, “Who flushed without pooping?!”
Anger is tough to understand. Most parents, in the name of getting their kids’ anger in check, tend to act quickly and without much thought to the deeper layers of what’s going on in both the child and the parent. We have come to firmly believe that if parents are to deal constructively with their kids’ anger, they must first look more closely at their own anger.
This is hard. It is unnatural, especially at first. It takes new ideas and new attitudes. It’s more normal and natural to greet kids’ anger with anger, frustration, commands to stop, punishment, or some combination of these. These approaches may or may not get kids to behave, but for sure they do nothing to teach kids new skills for constructively managing their anger. So over the next weeks, we’re going to share some basic ideas that can help.