Photo Credit: 3dv1n iStockphoto.com
Have you ever noticed that kids rarely misbehave when they feel truly happy and deeply secure? There’s a reason for this.
When our children misbehave, there is almost always underlying discouragement or anxiety that drives the misbehavior. Rushing to address the misbehavior without understanding the discouragement often backfires, in one of two ways:
- It fuels the power struggle flames and misbehavior escalates.
- The intensity of effort to make it stop “works” to curb misbehavior in the short run, but feeds the discouragement, which feeds further misbehavior in the long run.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We often see a common parenting cycle when kids are prone to anxiety. In short, it goes like this:
- Child feels anxious
- Worried, but well-meaning parent “encourages” the child toward to overcome the anxiety by pushing the child
- The child gets more anxious and withdraws, or has a meltdown in order to feel in control
- The child feels more ashamed and anxiety builds
- Parents feel scared about the future and the anxious (and usually very emotionally sensitive) child picks up on this and grows even more anxious
- Repeat at increasingly higher intensity
This cycle might be about homework, new experiences, social situations, or any number of challenges.
We’ve often heard parents say, “I hate to yell, but the kids just won’t listen until I do!”
If the kids aren’t listening to requests, it may be about more than inattentiveness. It could be that the family culture of listening does not exemplify respectful listening. We have seen in many families that often kids who don’t listen well are kids who don’t feel very listened to. Learning to view listening issues as a whole family problem — and not just one disobedient child’s problem — has helped many parents better address the listening issue with their child.
Recently in a parent coaching session a parent shared a feeling that I’ve felt a few times myself: “Sometimes my kids deserve to be yelled at when I’ve asked them to do something multiple times and they ‘forget’ or don’t do it!” Not only might we feel like they deserve it, but it also feels good to let off some of our pent-up steam.
Over the years, we’ve learned a few things about what’s really going on when we yell at our kids:
Every parent wants obedient children. But the parent who wants an obedient child without putting in the hard work to earn that child’s trust is on shaky ground. You see, true obedience grows out of the soil of trust. Compliance, though it looks like obedience, grows out of the soil of fear.
Sadly, most parenting literature emphasizes the importance of gaining obedience without imploring parents to do the hard work of earning their children’s trust. This sets parents up to work far harder on fear-based compliance than on true obedience. Kids who are punished for misbehavior tend to either comply out of fear, rebel out of resentment, or some combination of both responses.
There is a better way. We call it “Discipline that Connects.”
Recently we got an email from a mom asking what to do when her 10-year-old son refused to help with the dishes after dinner, even when punished with spanking or loss of electronics. Conflicts around chores are something that many parents and kids struggle with, so we thought we’d share our response.
When kids say “No,” parents’ first instinct is often to go right to threats or punishment to gain obedience. Spanking or yelling usually happens from a place of demanding obedience as a first goal. But if a parent’s first goal is to tap into God’s holiness and the fruit of the Spirit on the way to helping the child learn to value obedience, the scene usually goes much differently.
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.
Parents frequently say, “It’s my job to be ‘the parent’, not my kid’s friend!” Or, “My kids need to learn that I don’t have to explain everything. Sometimes they just need to know that it’s time to obey without explanation, because I’m the parent!”
These statements beg the question, What does it mean to “be the parent?”
Nearly every day we coach parents who say something to this effect. “I want my kids to be quickly obedient. I don’t owe them any explanation.”
I found myself in this very mode one day with my teen son, Daniel. It was one of those arguments where I didn’t have time to think through my “No!” to him. I just said it so we could keep moving.
“Why not?” he asked with a whine.
I could feel a power struggle coming on, so I said, “You can spend as much energy as you want trying to get me to change my mind, but it won’t get you anywhere. I am NOT changing my mind.”
He decided to spend more energy anyway. “But I just don’t get it. You have no good reason!”
I finally played they “because I’m the parent” card and said, “This is one of those times when, because I’m your dad, my no means no. No questions asked, final answer!”
His next response shook me. He was quiet for a moment and then in a defeated voice said, “OK dad. You win.” He paused. I didn’t like how I felt. He then continued, “But if you want me to respect you… the way I want to respect you… you’ll help me understand your reasons better.”
“This mustang is really just a cranky teenager,” I mused as I intently watched the horse-trainer’s keen discernment and saint-like patience. Nicole would take a small step toward the wary horse, carefully assessing his response. If he even flickered a muscle to hint at moving away from her, she took a step back to give him space. Only when the horse showed signs of comfort would she take another small step forward. If he seemed unsure, she stayed where she was until he became more comfortable. Her goal was to move toward him at the pace he determined, always keeping him comfortable.
When our children are cranky, it can feel natural to take that crankiness personally. But in almost every case, we have found that a child’s distance or critical reaction is actually self-protection flowing from their own hurt or fear of rejection.