Does your child’s behavior make you crazy? The truth is, there’s no such thing as anxiety-free anything—let alone anxiety-free parenting. You worry about your child’s behavior, health, attitude and relationships. You’re anxious about how he’s going to turn out and if he’ll have success in life, and yet you’re told over and over to “be calm.” “Calm?!” you scream. “How am I supposed to be calm when my child doesn’t do what I say, talks back and has a bad attitude?” You might also be thinking, “How else can I get her attention?” In saner moments, you might agree that it would be nice to have a calm home and peaceful relationships, but feel like it’s an impossibility.
“Understand that when you need something from your children, you become vulnerable to them because they don’t have to give it to you.”
This is a common response to the idea of being a calm parent. While part of us might love the idea because we don’t like yelling and saying things we regret when we’re mad at our kids, another part of us might simply not believe it’s possible to be calm when our kids are pushing our buttons. That’s why we often resort to screaming or other types of reactions with our kids. For many of us, the only way we believe we can calm our own stress or feel validated is by getting our kids to behave the way we want them to.
Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: when you do this, you become so over-focused on getting your kids to give you what you need that you become under-focused on soothing yourself. In effect, you’re putting the power to calm yourself down in the hands of your children. That’s when you begin to feel needy, and say things like, “I need you to stop bugging your brother. I need you to talk nicely to me. I need you to respect your father.” The implicit message is, “I need you to calm me, validate me, reassure me because I don’t know what the heck to do.”
Understand that when you need something from your children, you become vulnerable to them because they don’t have to give it to you. That’s when you begin to feel overwhelmed and powerless, because you’ve handed that power to your kids. Your anxiety goes way up, and you feel out of control, so you try to gain control over your kids. And as your anxiety increases, so does your reactivity. You react to your anxiety by yelling, hovering, controlling, ignoring, giving in, criticizing, and blaming. You try to control your child—and in his own way, he’ll fight back. At that point you’ve lost sight of him and of yourself. You’re trying desperately to manage your distress in the only ways you know how, but these ways are not working; they simply cause heightened tension, more power struggles and acting out. Soon, everyone in the family is acting from anxiety and not from thoughtfulness. The power struggle begins and seems to never end. This is the reason why it’s so important for you to learn the skill of becoming a calm parent.
Do You Feel Responsible for Your Child’s Success in Life?
When you believe you’re responsible for how your child turns out, you put a huge amount of pressure on yourself, because you’ve given yourself an impossible task. It’s part of the reason why you get anxious, reactive and mad at your kids. But remember, anxiety breeds reactivity and calm breeds calm.
“How else am I going to get my child to behave and act like a good citizen?” you ask. “If I don’t get him to do it, who will? And how can I be calm when he’s not calm?” The way you will get him there is by getting the focus where it belongs—off of him and onto you.
Here are some ways to stop being an anxious parent and start being a calm one:
1) Make being calm your number one goal. Most of us have had a boss at one time or another who infuriated them. When dealing with this person, how did you keep your cool? As much as you would have liked to scream at your boss, you probably kept it together, because you didn’t give yourself permission to lash out. This is the first and most important step: Remind yourself that losing it is never allowed.
2) Don’t make your child’s behavior about you. When you react as if your child’s behavior is about you, then it becomes about you. But her behavior is her choice—how you decide to respond to it is always your choice. This is where you have control—over yourself, and no one else. The bottom line is that your child’s behavior is ultimately hers to decide. It is not about you.
3) Always decide how you will behave as a parent, no matter how your child chooses to behave. Your child doesn’t control your behavior, but sometimes if you’re not careful, you’ll act as if he does. If you’re looking for your child’s validation, then you’ve put him in control of you. Remind yourself of the following: “No one can validate me but me.”
4) Turn your focus on yourself. Focus on your own behavior, not on your child’s. Part of this is learning ways to better manage your emotions. When you get focused on your life and your goals, you’ll have more connection and influence over your child.
5) Put your “thinking self” in the driver’s seat and put your emotions in the passenger seat. Make decisions from your head instead of from your fleeting emotions. Most importantly, know the difference between the two—are you reacting to your child out of anger, or are you thinking through your responses first and calmly telling him what you’ve decided? Let your emotions inform you, but don’t allow them to take over the steering wheel. This is the best way to thoughtfully decide how you want to lead your family.
Take Time for Yourself
Remember, you have the right to take time for yourself. You don’t have to answer your child immediately with a knee-jerk reaction if something makes you upset. Take the time to figure it out.
A thoughtful response always starts with pausing, thinking, and then asking yourself “How do I want to handle this?” Your goal is to problem solve with your child, but it’s hard to get there if you’re upset. Take some time first to figure out what’s bothering you the most. Ask yourself, “Why am I so upset? What’s being triggered here for me?” Recognize what’s pulling you in different directions. Use whatever it takes to get clarity on what’s happening with your child versus what’s happening with you. The closer you can be to “What does my child really need in this situation?” the better you can help him.
What you can—and can’t—change about your child
You can change how you react to your child, but you can’t change him. Remember, it’s not about changing your child, it’s about changing yourself and how you react to him. The process of attempting to change someone else is actually flawed from the start. Instead, recognize that you have to change yourself, which means getting your anxiety in check, managing your emotions, being an observer of yourself, and knowing what’s being triggered for you.
I like to think of parenting as being similar to leadership in an organization. If you have an immature leader running an organization, it’s not going to be very good leadership. The more that leader is his own person and acts in fair and respectable ways, the better everybody’s going to do. It’s the same thing with parenting. One question I always ask clients is, "What do you want to do in this situation as a responsible parent?" Sometimes you might back off, and sometimes you might set a firmer limit with your child. Essentially, you’re creating a boundary for yourself. What will you put up with? What’s your bottom line? The key is to take a clear approach in what you will do as a responsible parent.
Look at who your child is naturally. You’re not going to change a zebra into a leopard. You can help your child stretch a little bit and work on her skills. If she’s very outgoing and reactive, she may have to be reined in. If she’s very introverted, she may have to stretch a little bit. While you can’t change your child’s personality, you can influence her toward better behavior by calmly giving thoughtful consequences and setting limits.
When you shift your way of doing things and become a calm parent, you’ll shift your whole family system. Think of it this way: somebody can work for a boss and be terrible, and then work for another boss and be great. That worker’s personality hasn’t necessarily changed—rather, the boss/employee dynamic has changed. The same is true with your child. If you stop focusing on what’s wrong with your child and instead focus on what you need to change in yourself, you’re on your way.
About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
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.