You’re driving home from work, and you call your teen and tell him to clean his room and finish his homework. Before he grunts a response and hangs up, you swear you can hear the T.V. blaring in the background. You feel your stress levels rising and think, “I know the house is going to be a mess when I get home. Jake won’t have done his homework, and I’ll bet he’ll be playing video games.” Sure enough, when you walk through the door, the scene is exactly how you pictured it, and you’re steaming mad. The fighting starts immediately.
No matter how your child acts, he does not control how you behave.
If you’ve gotten into a pattern with your child where you’re arguing all the time, understand that if you’re already geared up and braced for a fight as you walk through the door, you’ll probably get one. Learn to recognize when you have this type of anxious expectation. You might say, “Well, I expect it because my child always acts like that.” For example, I expect my daughter to give me a hard time in the evening. When I walk in the door and she doesn't say hello, I react to her from my anxious expectations and assume that she's rude or disrespectful. And because I have this expectation, I don't stop in the moment and objectively look at the situation. I react to her as if she's disrespectful. She gets upset for being misunderstood and now I get just what I expected: a fight with my child. You always look at, “Is there any way I might contribute to a behavior that I see?” If you can ask yourself that question a lot, you might be able to discover why you tend to perceive your child that way. Is it possible that it’s coming from some anxiety or worry rather than how they really are? You have to step back and look through objective lenses, rather than just from your emotional state. This is not easy to do. But somehow, try to get that difference between the feeling versus “What’s really going on here?” When you always expect your kid to respond the same old way, why is that—and does that expectation have anything to do with his behavior? Be as objective as possible. Get on the roof, go as far up as you can and look down from above, and then think about what you see.The truth is, when you’re in that fight with your child, you tend to take things more personally—which is not effective in changing that behavior.
So first, make sure you're being as objective as possible before you walk through the door. Realize that anxiety can cause you to be highly judgmental and not see things as they are. Take a deep breath and try to leave any negative assumptions outside the door. No matter what the behavior is that you find, try to see your child through clear lenses, and give her the chance to do well.
If she is then disrespectful and behaves badly, your first goal is to work to calm yourself down. Have a plan and prepare how you want to behave regardless of how your child is behaving. Just think about how you want to act no matter what your child is doing. Put yourself on a movie screen and see what kind of parent you want to be, and how you want to behave. Remember, no matter how your child acts, he does not control how you behave. Say to yourself, “I’m going to decide, based on my own principles, how I want to parent. If my teenager screams at me, I’m not going to yell back or respond in an angry voice. I’m going to take deep breaths. If I need to, I’m going to say, “Let’s talk about this after we both calm down.” Stay clear, calm, and matter of fact. If your child continues to be upset or agitated, do whatever it takes to not go there and lose your cool. Think about how you want to parent; try not to base your reaction to your child on the feeling of the moment. I know this isn’t easy—it’s something all parents really have to work at.
I also think you should try to expect better rather than worse from your child; try to respond from that place of believing in him. When you’re carrying an expectation, your child reads that. He can read an expression that says, “My child is a loser,” just as he can read one that says, “I have faith that we can do better on this one today. Let’s figure it out.”
Here’s an example. Let’s say you walk in the door after work and the house is a mess. Your kids are fighting, and they’re on you immediately, accusing each other and calling one another names. You feel the mercury rising and want to scream. The question becomes, What do you do at that moment instead of losing it?
First, simply tell yourself that you’re not going to scream. Say, “I’m not going to go there no matter what.” Don’t give yourself permission to get reactive. Instead, take some deep breaths, do whatever it takes. And then pull out your emergency plan.
Here’s one that I recommend—I call it the “STOP Plan.”
S: Stop what you’re doing. Pause and take your own timeout rather than jumping into the fray immediately. Do not respond until you’ve taken that pause. You can say to yourself, “I need to take a timeout and get myself together. I want to respond from the right place and get myself centered so I can think better and then come up with a plan.” Your responsibility is to get yourself under control before responding to the child.
T: Think about what you want to say or do. Once you get yourself down from 100 to zero, get some perspective on the situation. Talk to your spouse or a friend, take a walk, do whatever you have to do get yourself down. Once you’re calm, your brain can think better and you’ll be able to problem solve. But pause, pause, pause.
O: Options. Consider your options. Depending on the situation, you have options about how you want to behave, how you want to act, and what you want to do.
P: Plan of action. What comes next? How can you disengage from the fight? Can you send the kids to their rooms? What consequences should you give your kids, if any?
Have your emergency kit on hand. Use slogans or sayings that help, like, “This too shall pass,” or “This is how my child is dealing with his own anxiety; I don’t need to get hooked into it.” Just take that minute to pause; it’s in that space that you have control. Now, decide how you will take charge of how you want to be.
Be aware of the negative expectations that you might have of your child. Recognize that much of the time, these expectations are about your worry, fear and anxiety—and that you are projecting them onto your child. Try to see your child as he is, rather than what you fear he is going to become.
Recognize that when you get angry, you’re going to have judgments—and with judgment comes anger. Breathe into the moment and just recognize your emotions. You may have feelings of grief or sadness or frustration or something else. I advise clients to put these feelings in a balloon and let them float away. Don’t get caught up in the judgments that go with negative feelings, because that will only make the reactivity stronger.
It’s also important to know your triggers. Is it a look your child gives you, or is it coming home to a messy house? Know your triggers and have a plan on how you want to respond to them. Think about the consequences of fighting with your child—you’ll feel upset and the problem may not get resolved. Then, think about the positive consequences if you handle it in a different way: you won’t be drained and frustrated all night. Always remember that there are two different directions you can choose—and the best one is to have a plan and go at it calmly.
I know it’s not easy to be a parent, especially when our kids hit adolescence. Kids and teenagers don’t always make the best decisions or do the right things. But try to have faith in your child. Don’t let your anxiety overwhelm you so you feel like, “Oh my God, this is the end of the world” when he makes a mistake or behaves badly. Have a basic belief that your child is a work in progress—and that he’s learning the skill set he needs to function in the adult world.