Does it seem like you have a war going on in your family—with you on one side, and your kids on the other? Many parents feel like they live in the middle of a battle zone and that at any given moment they might step on a landmine. Maybe you have a teen who is disrespectful and says rude and insulting things to you. Perhaps you have a child who won’t stop badgering you and fights with you when you set limits. Maybe your preteen insists on having the final word on everything and puts you down all the time. Or it could be that you, like many parents, feel like your kids act entitled and ungrateful and take advantage of you—and it drives you crazy. Debbie Pincus, author of The Calm Parent AM and PM, has worked with kids and parents for more than 25 years, and she can teach you how to stop fights with your kids. Read on to find out what you need to do to gain peace in your home, starting today.
When you need something from your child so you can be calm and feel like the responsible parent, you put yourself in a vulnerable position because they don’t have to give it to you.
Parents today complain more and more about their kids being entitled and rude, as witnessed by the recent “Facebook Parenting Dad” story in the news. This father was angry and upset by his daughter’s tirade against him on Facebook, so he decided to teach her a lesson by shooting her laptop with a pistol. While this isn’t a tactic I would ever recommend, I understand his frustration in part. Parents have started to feel “bulldozed” by their own kids. They can’t imagine ever treating their own parents this way when they were young—let alone living to speak about it! Many parents get to a point where they feel so angry and victimized by their own children that they start to see their kids as an “enemy” that must be defeated. They respond by yelling more, invoking harsh punishments, and feeling overwhelmed and at odds with their child.
So just how have we gotten to this place? We all know that times have changed—and parenting is much more difficult as a result. Years ago parents valued obedience above all else. They would use hitting, fear tactics, threats and withdrawal of love to scare kids into good behavior. And if we use these tactics today, we would probably get kids to act the way we want them to—at least temporarily. The problem is that this parenting style does not lead to good long-term connection, trust, or security and can easily backfire and cause major rebellion. While we still value obedience, now we also value connection, communication and independent thinking. But problems arise when we find ourselves at a loss when it comes to getting our kids to be respectful, grateful and under control. Instead, we can find ourselves in a state of war 24/7 in our homes.
3 Critical Changes That Shut Down Fights
Here’s where I believe the problem starts: the moment we convince ourselves that we must teach and lecture our kids into better behavior. Often, we don’t stop lecturing until they change or until we are confident they “get it.” We panic and wonder, “If my child doesn’t learn now, when will he learn?” Or we think, “If I don’t teach him how to do things right, who will?” While rooted in natural instincts (who doesn’t want their child to be happy, healthy and successful?) this can cause a cycle that leads to a series of escalating battles.
Let’s take a closer look and find a way out of this madness and toward a better way to parent.
Shine a light on yourself, rather than on your child. Get out of the mindset that your child is the enemy and you must win. Win what? No matter how your child behaves, you must commit to parenting from thoughtfulness, not anxiety and reactivity. Keep in the forefront of your mind that even at times of high stress, no matter how obnoxious your child’s behavior, you must remain a calm, steady leader. What are the characteristics that make up a strong leader? Strong leaders focus on the preservation of their own integrity. They have a willingness to take responsibility for their own emotional wellbeing and do not try to “make” other people happy by changing their character. Being a strong leader is a quality that will actually help your child want to be led by you, rather than to battle you.
Stay out of your child’s way. As long as there’s not a health, safety or other dangerous risk involved, let your child make his or her own mistakes—and then let them face the natural and logical consequences for their actions. When you step out of your child’s box and let them make their own choices, there’s something crucial you’re not giving your child: ammunition. Simply put, there’s nothing for them to fight with or against. Staying out of their way allows them to grow.
Stay on your child’s team. Remember that you’re on your child’s team, not on the opposing side. Don’t become his adversary. You are his coach and limit setter, not someone who needs to “win” a battle to prove you’re in control. The truth is, every time you give in to the urge to wield the parental hammer—when you lose your temper and yell, scream or give an overly harsh punishment—you’re bringing yourself down to your child’s level and showing him that you aren’t really in control.
Putting Advice into Practice
How do battles begin and escalate? How do our once sweet little angels turn into our enemies? And what does this actually look like in real time with our kids—particularly our teenagers?
Let’s take a peek into the homes of Sara, age 13, and Daniel, age 9. “I want to sleep over at Lily’s house tomorrow night,” Sara says. Mom responds, “I’m sorry, but not tomorrow. I want you fresh and alert Saturday morning for our visit with Grandma and Grandpa.” Over at Daniel’s house, dad says, “We’re going to eat in a minute. Please set the table.” Daniel is playing a video game and says, “Not right now, I’m busy.”
What’s happening? In each case, the child wants one thing and the parent wants something different. Both children are being asked to accept limitations they don’t like, so they throw down a gauntlet.
Sara: “I’m going to that sleepover no matter what you say and you can’t stop me. I’m not going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I can’t stand my family!” Daniel gets mad at his father and shouts, “Why should I have to do all the work around here? It isn’t fair!”
What’s happening now? The parent has stated their position—and the child has stated their opposition. The stage is set for a battle which will truly begin if either parent picks up the gauntlet by responding at all.
Let’s pause the tape for a moment and talk about your role here with your child, because this is a very important moment in the anatomy of a fight. If you are going to preserve your integrity at this point and care for your own emotional wellbeing—and be the leader in your family—what would you do next? The answer: Stop participating. At this moment, the best thing to do is state your well thought-out position one more time—and then walk away.
“Easy to say,” you might be thinking, “but what if my child continues to battle by screaming at me, tantruming, calling me names, following me into other rooms, or throwing things around? I can’t let her just get away with that! I need to show her who’s boss.”
But here’s the truth: When you need something from your child so you can be calm and feel like the responsible parent, you put yourself in a vulnerable position because they don’t have to give it to you. When the message becomes, “I need you to behave. I need you to stop badgering me. I need you to be respectful. I need you to listen to me,” you have effectively put yourself at your child’s mercy. Feeling at a loss, many parents go to desperate measures to try and get what they need from their kids—respect and obedience. The child resists the parent’s effort with equal intensity and now the power struggle is in full force. They bribe, cajole, threaten, punish, appease, to no avail. And their once darling child now feels like the enemy that must be taken down.
So let’s go back to Sara and Daniel’s scenes and push “play.” Let’s say that in each case the parent wasn’t able to disengage from the fight, but instead started yelling back. The fight is now in progress and the argument is escalating. Now Sara says, “I’m going to Lily’s house no matter what you say or do to me. I hate you! I wish I had a different mom.” Daniel says, “You treat me like a servant around here. I get asked to do everything and blamed for everything. It’s not fair!”
What’s happening? These are maneuvers by Sara and Daniel—predictable ones. If your child tries this, don’t get thrown by them. Kids are good at strategies that push our emotional buttons, especially when you allow them to work. The purpose of this kind of manipulation is to pull you back into battle when you hear your child’s threats of leaving, bad language or cries of "poor me." They know how to push your buttons and they desperately want to get a reaction from you. Why? Because once they have you in battle, they gain a sense of control and power. They also have a feeling of connection with you, albeit negative. This feels good to your child, at least in part. She prefers this to feeling alone or feeling the pain of her disappointment. Teenagers particularly both need and want to be independent of you. By battling, she gets to feel independent and engaged with you at the same time. Trying to get her to stop by jumping into the fray will only escalate the battle.
Remember, defining your well thought-out position and not letting yourself get thrown off course is true leadership. The argument will end if you don’t continue to engage. When you drop your end of the rope, your child must wrestle with herself instead of with you.
If the parents in our two scenarios are able to disengage, the scene might look like this: Once she calms down, Sara might think to herself, “I really want to go to Lily’s, but I don’t want to get in trouble. I guess I’d better stay home.” Or Daniel might reason, “I don’t want to set the table, but I really should if I don’t want to have a consequence. I’d better go do it.”
What if you have a defiant kid or are in an ongoing, entrenched battle with your child? You’re probably reading this and thinking, “My kid will never calm down and comply.” And you might be right—he might walk out or defy you in some way. That’s when you have to decide, from your own place of integrity, what to do next. You have a choice as a responsible parent. You might let the scene play itself out. You might disengage from the argument and set down limits around his behavior. If your child is destroying property or being physically abusive, you might choose to call the police. Be the leader you need to be as a parent and ignore the gauntlet that gets thrown down. Respond from a thoughtful place with limits and consequences, and keep reminding yourself, “We’re on the same team.” The important thing is that you continue to show up for your child.
Our children are not our enemies. They just need grownups to help them grow up. By staying out of your child’s way and in your own box, regardless of how defiant your child is, he will have the chance to face his own conscience. This is exactly what he needs to do in order to grow up. And staying in your box is exactly what you need to do to grow as a parent.
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.