Parents sometimes feel like hostages to the intense demands of their children, intimidated into submission with the threat of “the big gun” – a deafening meltdown. One of our online course participants asked for help:
Our 3 1/2 year old son often wants a specific plate or cup. So if we set him up with one that he doesn’t like, he can be very vocal about it. Sometimes our initial reaction is something like “It doesn’t matter if you have the blue cup or the orange cup. Why can’t you be flexible & move on?!?! Get over it!” But perhaps he wants to exercise his choice & preference.
How do I get my 7-year-old son to stop talking back to everything we say? He is always right and we are always wrong! … We try discipline, taking away some of his toys, etc. but nothing seems to work. Any suggestions would be GREATLY appreciated!
Parents get justifiably exasperated with incessant backtalk, but the typical reflexive response — punishing backtalk — is like putting fertilizer on it.
Recently in our online course a parent asked the following question:
I see the difference you’re talking about between typical parenting and parenting with the four messages in mind… and I like the difference I see… here comes the BUT… what about when you are pressed for time and have to get out the door and your kiddo won’t comply in a timely manner?
As CF’s workshop coordinator, I often attend workshops to help run the table and answer questions — and, since I have some experience in acting, sometimes to jump into the impromptu skits that parents suggest. I can play a great misbehaving 5 year old!
On this particular day, Jim played the dad who was tired after a long day of work and arrived home to find his two girls — Lynne, age 7, and Ellie (that’s me), age 5 — arguing over a toy. Sound familiar?
Julia was fed up. Her kids fought daily about their responsibilities, and Julia was at the end of her patience. Daily power struggles were beginning to define their relationships as the kids grew more discouraged and Julia more determined to stop the “misbehavior.” So Julia came to us for help.
As we sat and talked, it was clear from Julia’s description of her children’s behavior that there was more going on than mere misbehavior. We discussed how kids’ “misbehavior” is often just the tip of the iceberg of hunger, discouragement, anxiety, or tiredness. Julia went away from her session with a resolve to better understand both her challenging son Josh and her daughter Ashley, and help them better understand themselves. She wrote this report in preparation for our next session:
When we get into those familiar power-struggle patterns with our kids, it can seem like every mess, every chore, every bedtime is a battleground. And we can feel like oft-ignored commanders — trying in vain to “remind” our children back to the straight-and-narrow.
But these transitions and tasks don’t have to be battlefields.
Instead, turn your conflict into collaboration with one simple but powerful tool: questions.
Brian and Jana were very concerned about how much work it was to get their 8-year-old son, Brady, to do much of anything – look up from his book when they talked, get ready for school in the morning, get dressed for baseball, take a shower… Just to get the kid to tie his shoes was an aggravating power struggle.
Brian observed, “I need to out-think him to get him to do something. And it has to be creative, or it doesn’t work.”
To help Brian understand and feel the impact of the “outfoxing game” on his son, I asked Brian how it would feel if his boss needed to outmaneuver him or threaten to dock his pay to “get him to perform” at work. Brian answered, “Pretty unmotivating.”
When kids say “No!” parents tend to react rather than respond. Reacting tends to lead to unconstructive power struggles that follow this basic pattern:
Parent: “Yes or else!”
Child: “I don’t care!”
Parent: “Well I’ll show you who’s boss!”
Now parent and child are in a power struggle, and when this happens no one really wins in the long run. Even if kids eventually give in to their parents’ “yes,” they feel defeated. They will likely seek power in unhealthy ways later, because they have a God-given need to have a sense of power over their lives. A lack of healthy power can lead to depression, passivity, resentment, or even rage.
Asking sincere questions, even with small kids, is a great way to build wisdom. Here’s a story a mom emailed to us that shows the difference between making demands and asking questions.
We were getting ready to leave the house, and I told Matthew it was time to go potty before we head out the door. He began to protest, whine big-time, and even throw himself on the floor. I told him again that it was time to go potty, and the same thing happened. Clearly this wasn’t going anywhere, so I stepped back to assess what was happening. I knew there must be a better way to handle this. I remembered the Connected Families principle about how important it is to teach wisdom rather than just give commands. So I tried again. Our conversation went something like this:
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.
I saw it just today. The toddler at the Post Office 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.