Sometimes when parents make constructive parenting changes, things appear to get worse before they get better. This is because changes, even positive ones, throw kids off-balance. They live by a well-learned set of unwritten rules and it sometimes takes a while to grow comfortable with new “rules” of engagement. So they will often push even harder to test their parents resolve.
One of my coaching clients experienced this with her 9-year-old son, and gave permission to share it in hopes that it would help other parents.
Andy walked in the door after school ready to fight. He was angry about having to attend an event that night, and that he would have to do his homework right after school, eliminating outdoor play time. He came after me with all the verbal abuse he could muster.
“You’re the worst mom ever! Everybody hates you! The only one who likes you is dad! Any other mom would be better than you!” And on and on….
I calmly and quietly prayed for my son and my own inner sense of calm. From previous stressful encounters with him I knew that I’d get pulled into the fight he so desperately was trying to start, if I didn’t spend time calming my heart and believing the best about my son. One big parenting goal I have for him is to learn to stay respectful and kind when angry. If I can’t be an example of how to do that, how can I expect him to learn from me?
Andy kept it up. He even, at one point, said, “I’m going to keep doing this until you do something stupid. Then I can tell everyone tonight what a horrible mom you are!”
Knowing that Andy, more than anything, wanted a big ugly reaction from me was a huge motivator for me to keep my cool. My coolness kept me out of the fight and able to empathize. I affirmed his anger by calmly saying, “I can see that you are really disappointed and angry. It’s hard having to go somewhere you don’t want to go.”
After much fuming, he realized that I wasn’t going to join his fight and that he actually did need to get his homework done before our event. So, he finally calmed down and got to work.
At dinner I was telling my husband what a fantastic day I had and my son piped up, “That is, until I came home.” This was right before our evening event and I didn’t want the chance for his anger to control our dinner or my husband to say something that might push him into fight mode again. So I looked over at him and said, “Hey, that’s okay, we’ll talk about that later.” Strangely, he let it go.
Well, later did come. That night when I was tucking my son into bed I asked if I could crawl in so we could talk for a few minutes. With little enthusiasm or warmth, he said yes. He was likely expecting a lecture on how his behavior and his words were unacceptable.
What I’ve learned from Connected Families parenting tips, books and coaching is that the time in between “the incident” and “the conversation” is holy ground. It is when I ask the Holy Spirit to speak to me using these questions:
- “What does my son need right now?”
- “How can he learn from this experience?”
- “Will this draw us closer together or push us apart?”
- “Will he feel honored and validated?”
- “Will he learn?”
- “Will he see Jesus in me?”
My desire is to hold my tongue until I feel settled in these answers.
So this time, instead of lecturing, I asked questions:
Me: On a scale of 1 to 10 how do you feel about how things went for you after school? How do you feel about how you acted towards me?
Son: a 2
Me: On a scale of 1 to 10 how do you think I handled your anger?
Son: a 9 and ¾
Me: Huh – what could I have done differently to make that a 10?
Son: Nothing. I just didn’t want you to get a 10.
Me: You know I’ve been working really hard on my own heart so I can be the best mom possible to you when you are angry. Anger is OK. You just need to learn how to express it better. Does that make sense?
Me: You also said something I want to ask you about. You said that you would keep yelling at me until I reacted. Can you tell me about that?
Son: I was just testing you to see if you really were a good mom.
Me: And what do you think?”
Son: You passed with flying colors.
Me: Hey – do you think you could do me a favor?
Son: Not test you anymore?
Me: (with all the love that was spilling out of my heart) Yup – no need to test me.
I chose to not give my son a consequence for his verbal abuse this time, but let him know that if he continued to express his anger like that he would have a make-it-right consequence in the future to rebuild our relationship.
In this story, the mom worked hard to keep calm and stick to her parenting goals of teaching her son how to control his anger when he is upset, even though her son was deliberately trying to bait her. The fruit of her hard work was an opportunity to have an honest discussion with her son about what was going on with his behavior.
Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying the answer to kids’ testing boundaries is always to calmly endure! What I am saying — and what this mom exemplified so well — is that when kids push back, keep praying and listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to respond in a way that communicates safety, love, and responsibility to your children.
Apply It Now:
- When your child’s words are disrespectful and hurtful, what thoughts and feelings are going on inside you?
- What is a strategy you could use to get your own heart under control before attempting to interact with your child?
- What difference might it make for your child if in the midst of a big blow up, you remained calm?
Want to learn more about these concepts? Download our one hour recording of a Discipline That Connects workshop.