If you’ve heard yourself saying things like, “What’s the matter with you? Why are doing this to me?” or “You’re making me crazy,” you’re probably taking your child’s behavior personally. And when you fall into that trap, you begin to assume the worst of your child. In other words, you start to believe he has malicious intentions when he disobeys you, even when he doesn’t.
I think it’s important to stress that everyone personalizes things from time to time, and we all do it for different reasons. Who hasn’t gotten mad at another driver after being cut off in traffic? At certain times, any parent can overreact and take things too personally. And frankly, if your kid is standing there calling you names, it would be hard for anyone not to take that personally.
"A more effective way to deal with the situation is to focus on your child's behavior, not his—or your—feelings."
But James Lehman cautions the following: “Personalizing inappropriate behavior often leads to fighting with your children, with nothing to be gained. Remember, we want to avoid power struggles and fights whenever we can.” So let’s say your child is staying out late and has missed curfew, and you’re taking this behavior as a sign of disrespect, because your child is not obeying you. Your feeling might be “You’re disrespecting me because you’re breaking this rule.” But the truth is that your child probably broke that rule because he wanted to stay out with his friends. A more effective way to deal with this situation is to focus on his behavior, not his—or your—feelings.
Related: Good behavior is a skill any child can learn.
Many parents say “I don’t think my child cares about my feelings at all.” And you may be right—teens have not yet developed a mature sense of empathy, so appealing to it often won’t work. To expect your child to understand and care about your feelings when he disobeys you is also a sign that you’re over–personalizing his behavior.
Some parents adopt a very strict, rigid parenting style while some choose a really permissive one. Neither of these parenting roles is effective. Look at it this way: if you're too rigid, your child won’t be allowed to be in charge of making his own decisions. How will he know how to make the right choices when no one is there to tell him what to do? And if you are too permissive, your child will have few limits set on him to show him the right way to behave. When this happens, you’ll see your child steadily gain more control in the household until he's in charge. When still other parents take things very personally, they overreact by saying abusive things, giving severe punishments or even physically hurting their children. These parents may become frightened by their reactions and pull out of disciplining altogether—leaving this job to their spouse or no one at all. Being out of control scares them so much that it often results in their having minimal interaction with their children.
What to Do When Your Child Pushes Your Buttons
If your child pushes your buttons, yells or calls you names, it’s hard not to personalize. What should you do or say? Here are some real techniques that I’ve given callers on the Parental Support Line.
Breathe: If you have been personalizing your child’s behavior and you want to make some changes, the absolute best thing to do first is breathe deeply several times. Focusing on your breath can distract you from your emotions. It also lets you pause for 10 seconds so you’ll make a more appropriate remark. That small action is going to let some of the anger subside and might allow you to respond rather than react.
Tell your child you don’t like it: James Lehman recommends that you say, “It’s not okay to speak to me that way; I don’t like it,” and then leave the room. Be sure to speak in as calm and even a tone as you can, and be serious when you say it.
Related: How to disconnect from your child’s anger
Remember that you are the mature one: Remember that you’re dealing with somebody who is less mature and less capable than you are. Your children are going to make mistakes, they are going to be impulsive and say things they shouldn’t say—they’re kids. Just remember that you’re the mature one.
It really isn’t about you: The other thing to remind yourself is that it isn’t always about you—even if they are screaming “I hate you!” The behavior that pushes your buttons might be something your child is struggling with or needs some limits set on. So even if the inappropriate behavior is directed at you, it’s not really about you. It’s about them.
Ask yourself what behavior you want to change: James Lehman says, “Don’t focus on the emotions, focus on the behavior.” So instead of asking yourself why your child won’t do what you want them to do, ask “What behavior would I like to see changed?” I am a mother myself, and I understand that sometimes kids do push your buttons on purpose to try to get to you. But rather than reacting to their attempts to derail you, focus on the behavior at hand and give consequences for it. This allows you to start working toward real change.
By the way, there’s a misconception that if a consequence isn’t given immediately after your child misbehaves, the teaching moment has been lost. But that’s not really true. You can go back and talk to your child later—and sometimes, it’s better to do that when everyone is calm.
What do you want your child to learn? The problem–solving piece in all of this is the question “What do I want my child to learn?” This is often a better question than “What do I want my child to do?”—especially when you feel the tension building. Just step back and ask “What do I want my kid to learn?” I know that it’s not always easy to do this, but it’s like anything else—the more you practice the easier it gets.
Find out what your triggers are: I also recommend that you learn what’s definitely going to trigger you. Is it when your child swears, slams the door, or curses at you? Try to get an idea of what your hot buttons are. Awareness is half of the battle—and the other half is having a plan of what you’ll do when your buttons are pushed.
Name–calling and Cursing
I think that it’s normal to be offended and have a huge emotional response when your child calls you names or swears at you. And when you’re triggered, you need those techniques of taking a breath, telling your child you don’t like what they’re saying and leaving the room. Above all, you don’t want to respond in kind. (Click here to read James Lehman’s article on how to handle swearing.) Again it’s focusing on the behavior and not on the emotions of the moment.
I always tell parents not to feel like they have failed if they lose it and get angry—because sometimes you will get angry. There is no such thing as a perfect parent—and you don’t have to be perfect to be a good parent.
Related: Does your child yell, call you names or swear at you?
When you personalize and react to what your child is saying, it’s easy to get into a tug–of–war with them. So again, try asking yourself “What lesson does my child need to learn?” What should I teach him here?” Your answer can’t be “My child needs to do what I say when I say it.” Rather, the lesson should be related to the kind of person you want your child to grow into. In other words, if your answer is wrapped around your child doing something for you as a person—if it’s “He needs to obey me at all times,” then you need to rework that until it sounds more like, “He needs to be responsible when it comes to doing his chores on time.” And “I want him to learn to say ‘no’ when his friends try to convince him to stay out after curfew.”
Think about the skills you want your child to have as he matures. I think it’s important for kids to learn how to be responsible and to be accountable for their actions. You also want them to learn how to think for themselves and make good choices. In the end, we want our kids to be independent thinkers who are able to function as healthy adults in society.
“I’m worried that my child doesn’t love me.”
I think it’s important to understand that kids are in their own world. They’re out there learning, doing, hanging out with friends, being propelled forward into the future. Your child loves you, but you’re not everything. And the older your child gets, the less he needs you. As parents, we know that it’s not the same for us. Our love for our children is often huge and all–encompassing. As hard as it is, I think you have to be whole in yourself and have a strong enough ego to let your child do things on his own and leave you eventually.
Parenting has always been a balance between thinking and feeling, and both are very important. When you’re over–personalizing, you’re letting your feelings drive your actions. Some parents get upset because their kids don’t “feel like” doing their homework, for example, but that may never happen. Rather, you want them to learn to do what they need to do, even if they don’t feel like it.
Many parents worry that their kids don’t love them. The truth is, if your child yells at you, calls you names and says, “I hate you,” in that moment he probably really is angry and maybe he doesn’t like you very much—but that doesn’t mean that’s the way he feels about you all the time. When people are mad at each other, I think it’s normal not to like each other in that moment. When you’re mad at your spouse, you might say something hurtful and regret it later. It’s not always the best response, yet most of us do it sometimes. But it doesn’t mean that when that argument has passed, you don’t have good feelings toward each other any longer.
It’s the same for kids and parents. When you set boundaries on your child, he won’t always like it. But if you avoid setting limits and try instead to be your child’s friend, you won’t be an effective parent because you won’t be able to teach him what he needs to learn as he grows up.