“I can’t take it anymore. My child is so disrespectful to me—especially in front of other people. I feel like a failure as a parent.”
“My teen is failing three classes. She’s throwing her life away. I’m so worried about her I can’t sleep.”
“My kid makes me crazy. He’s so angry and hardheaded. He always has to do it ‘his way,’ and then he ends up blaming everyone else when he gets in trouble!”
When you need your child to act a certain way so that you can feel calm, power struggles will undoubtedly ensue.
Does your child’s behavior, the choices he makes—and fears about how he will turn out—weigh you down, making you feel like it’s all somehow a reflection on you? When our kids don’t act in ways we think they should, it’s natural to feel anxious and responsible: we’re only human. But when we do this, we stop seeing the boundary between where we end and where our child begins—we become “fused” with them. The danger here is that the more we feel responsible for the choices they make, the more we parent them out of anxiety, which leads to that panicked “out of control” feeling and knee-jerk parenting. In effect, your parenting becomes about needing your child to behave so you can feel okay. This causes parents to hover, nag and get in their kid’s “box.” When your well-being lies in your child’s hands, the more invested you’ll become in him—and the more anxious you’ll feel about his every move.
The behavior of difficult, acting out kids makes us all the more anxious. “How in the world,” you’re probably saying, “can I be calm when my child is swearing at me, getting in trouble at school or constantly starting fights with siblings?” Of course these behaviors make us incredibly frustrated and overwhelmed, leaving us dangling at the end of our ropes, held on by a thread. But believe it or not, there is a way to handle even acting out behavior calmly—I know, because I help parents do it every day. Remember, if you parent from an anxious place, you will have more anxious kids—anxiety is contagious, but conversely, so is calm. Even when your child is way out of control and defiant, you have to find a way to stay in control of yourself. Parenting calmly will help your child calm down and will lead you to make better decisions on how to respond to these acting out behaviors and not give your kids anything to react to.
I want to make an important distinction here: What I don’t mean by “calm” is that you should be stiff and robot-like, or afraid to tell your kids what you think and what you believe. Parents can get so caught up in doing it right that they end up hiding their real selves. What our children need is genuine, honest engagement. They need us to be separate people with our own thoughts that we communicate to them.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s say your child is refusing to do her homework. Look at the difference between these two statements that you might make:
The first statement comes from an anxious place: It puts blame, criticism and your own anxiety on your child, and tells her that you’re ashamed of her—and that you need her to take away that shame and anxiety. The second statement is thoughtful while also showing your true feelings. Expressing a concern like that will not only get your child’s attention, it will also show her that you care deeply. If you are emotionally separate enough, your child will usually understand that it’s an expression of your genuine love and concern for her. That’s where the real connection happens. Kids want and need us to be separate enough from them so that they can feel deeply connected to us—otherwise there is no “us” to connect to.
Another benefit: if you are separate enough from your child, you can be honest and discuss the realities of what she can handle, talk about what the real world is like, and then state your real concerns. If I’m saying “Your choices concern me” because I’m neurotic, fearful and I won’t let my child out of my sight, then it’s not coming from a separate place. But if you are calm and separate, you can be truthful, because it’s coming from your authentic parent self—one that’s not fused together with your child.
I think the best way to explain anxious vs. calm parenting is to ask yourself these two important questions when an important decision comes up:
Believe me, I know this is not easy to figure out all the time! The good news is that once you’re responding from an emotionally separate place—and your child knows it and feels it—they’ll be less likely to draw you into power struggles, and you’ll be able to parent more calmly.
What does it take to be able to do this? Here are four important steps you can take to begin shedding anxiety and start parenting more calmly starting now:
This is a big one. We all know this truth, but it can happen regardless of our best intentions. Why should we avoid doing this? It’s not good for your child or for you. Instead of having your world revolve around him, take care of yourself and your own emotional life. Attend to your adult relationships and friendships and pursue your own goals. Don’t fuse with your child, and try to stay mindful of where you end and he begins. Don’t get into his box if it’s not where you belong. This kind of over-stepping won’t sustain itself—and it won’t work for the relationship in the long run.
Make a commitment to pausing and thinking about how you want to respond to your child, rather than falling back on the old knee-jerk reaction. Again, you always have a choice on how you will behave, no matter how your child is behaving. Something you might say to yourself in order to stay calm when he’s acting out might be, “This too shall pass,” or “How can I be most helpful to my child at this moment?” or “What does my child need from me right now?” What he needs might be for you to disengage and walk away—or it might be to have some firm limits set and consequences handed out. Or it might simply be an empathetic response.
If you need something from your child in order to feel validated, you will find yourself at her mercy because she doesn’t have to give it to you. When you need your child to act a certain way so that you can feel calm, power struggles will undoubtedly ensue. Instead, do things in your own life that give you a sense of validation. You might ask yourself, “What do I need in my life to help me feel fulfilled and valid? How can I work to keep myself calm and separate?”
Know when your baggage is getting spilled onto your kids. Try to see them realistically, rather than from your own worries, fears and unfinished business. Deal with the problems in your life so you won’t spill them onto your kids and start over-focusing on your children.
I understand that when you have a kid who’s acting out all the time, it’s very difficult to be calm—often, that child will suck up 99% of your time, attention and energy. My guess is that he knows how to pull you in and it’s working. When there’s one person in the family who tends to take over and ruin the mood by saying something hateful or acting out, his bad attitude can permeate everything.
It’s important to realize that there are reasons why your child is doing what he’s doing. His behavior is effective in getting a lot of focus and attention. As a system, you also have to look at how everybody in the family is contributing to keeping that status quo going. The question is not, “Why is this kid such a problem,” the real question is, “How are we all contributing to keeping this going?” Think of it like a dance—your child is trying to pull you in, but you have to find a way to stay separate and not join in. Part of the answer may be that you learn to set limits and then walk away, rather than engaging with him when he blows up, or it might be to recognize it when you pursue him with too many questions right after school and he explodes.
Again, another big part of the answer is to take care of your emotional life. If your ego is attached to how your child is behaving, you’re probably going to have a stronger reaction than if you were able to remain separate and say, “What’s going on here with my child—and what’s the best way to handle his behavior right now?” When you’re able to ask that question in the moment, you’re going to look at it from a much calmer, thoughtful place than if you allow yourself to be pulled into the bad behavior. Start small by simply pausing and looking at the situation as objectively as possible the next time it happens. Trust me, there’s a big difference between getting pulled into something without thinking, to instead pausing and asking “Why am I getting sucked in to this again?” If you can do this, you’ll likely gain a lot of self-focus as to what the dynamic is, versus simply reacting in the usual way. So get self-focused, and then start asking yourself, “What do I feel when this happens? What do I tend to do and how does that impact what happens next?”
Instead of seeing your kids from your own needs, worries and fears, work at being separate enough from them to be objective and to actually view them through clear and calm lenses. You will then find yourself parenting from your best principles and thoughtful guidance, rather than from your needs and anxieties.
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.