“Here we go again,” you think as your child gets more and more beet red in the face and your voices escalate. Realizing your face color is matching his, shade for glowing shade, you command, “Go to your room!” with as much dominant “authority” as possible! But even if your child complies, you know he hates feeling controlled and grows ever more resentful. You feel stuck, and wonder how this dynamic will look in 5 or 10 years…
To get unstuck from this pattern, it helps to understand how you might feel if you were angrily sent to your room: Ashamed, intimidated, powerless and defeated? Misunderstood and seething under the surface?
Although it’s a common parenting strategy to command “Go to your room!”, it might be sending unintended messages to your kids:
- Child, you’re a problem!
- I’m right and you’re wrong so you have to leave.
- I don’t want to be around you unless you are calm and pleasant.
These messages tend to foster shame, resentment, and resistance in our kids.
Lou and Maria had come for coaching because of the frequent, strong disrespect from their intense son Aidan, often followed by his refusal to take a break in his room. All they could relate to was the frustration they felt in these conflicts, so I made an analogy:
Imagine that you just got a new job, and you are a little overwhelmed. You make some mistakes and your boss is obviously irritated. You do your best to communicate with her about it and she firmly interrupts you by saying, “Go to your office!”
Lou and Maria’s expressions softened and Lou agreed, “That helps me understand.”
Then I said, “Fast forward 10 years when your son is in his teens. If you command, “Aidan, you can’t talk to me that way! Go to your room!” even if he does go, what’s his heart doing as he goes?
“It’s exploding!…He’s outraged.” they agreed.
I added, “And he may be texting his friends what he really feels.”
Fueled by this new insight Maria stated, “I want to stop my harsh confrontation of this behavior, because it will only make it worse.”
As we shifted toward a solution, I asked Lou (who was the parent working outside the home) what a truly helpful boss would do with someone struggling at their job. Lou answered thoughtfully, “They’d try to identify what you aren’t understanding or what skills you need to develop, or what resources you need. They may sit with you themselves, or find someone to help you.”
I continued, “And they would probably encourage you when they see a little bit of progress.”
“I get it,” said Maria. But as the parent facing this challenge day in and day out at home, the task felt daunting. “But what do we do? He becomes unmanageable and blames others for the conflict and just gets angrier! I need concrete tools to help me!”
I set up a roleplay to illustrate practical ways to calm down and empathize a little to help set a new course. Maria played her son, and I played a parent in an escalating conflict. “You’re mean!” she fired at me, and then used Aidan’s bazooka power punch: “You don’t love me!”
I took a breath and answered. “Wow, those are some strong words. You’ve got some big, angry feelings and those words make some big hurt feelings in me too. My brain’s not going to work well for me right now, and yours probably won’t either. Let’s both take a little break so we can solve this.” They both agreed that felt much better and would provide the opportunity to begin to empower their son to express his intense feelings more respectfully.
If we can solve a conflict without sending a child to their room, that’s optimum (see next week’s post for ideas!). Maria and Lou reported that sometimes their son still benefited from cooling off in his room. When this was necessary, they focused on communicating helpful not hurtful messages, and they guided him in processing his difficult feelings when he returned.
If this is your situation you can minimize the hurt and maximize your child’s learning.
- Model: Take breaks in your room, in a quiet spot, or even go on a walk when you are upset. Talk about the benefit to you and the child to whom you are responding.
- Invite: When your child is losing control, “Please find somewhere to take a break, and then we’ll talk about this problem when we’re both calmer.” This communicates caring instead of shaming messages. Note: for some kids this might be in their room. For others, it might be on a couch or a comfy chair.
- Affirm: If your child comes back calmer, help him to feel really good about his choice, and how helpful and mature it was.
Almost a year later, Maria reported that she was learning to truly value Aidan’s intense feelings as an important part of their invigorating family culture. She has also noticed that with their shift in approach, their interactions have been gradually equipping Aidan to better understand his feelings and monitor his intensity.
Fast forward that approach ten years, and it certainly paints a very different picture: one of an intense teenager, working it out with his parents in a way that prepares him for life on his own, with all the relational challenges it will hold!
- If my kids were able to really articulate their feelings after being sent their room, what might they be saying to me?
- How might I either remind myself to try the response mentioned or adapt it to fit my situation?
Next week: Practical ideas to build the self-calming skills kids need to calm down wherever they are.
Need some extra help getting you “unstuck” from unhealthy patterns in your family? Check out Parent Coaching! As Pat, a single mom of three, recently said: Our family struggled with just being with each other without fighting about something or someone. The questions that my coach asked were very thought provoking – I’ve learned to look for a new perspective when things aren’t working. Writing this has brought me to tears realizing just how far I have come!
Take 10 to 15 minutes to find out your strengths and challenges with our free parenting assessment.