Does your child’s behavior make you feel out of control? Do you find yourself walking on eggshells so that you don’t “set him off?” It might be your five year old who has tantrums and acts out, or perhaps it’s your teenager who fights with you all the time.
Your consequences mean nothing to him, and in fact seem to make him more defiant. Whatever the reason, you’ve got the kid who simply doesn’t react to parenting the way you thought he would.
Debbie Pincus, creator of the Calm Parent: AM & PM, explains how you can change the way your family interacts.
When a child becomes the “anxiety sponge” for the family he or she will often develop some problems.
If you have a “problem” child, you are not alone. Many families struggle with difficult, acting-out kids who act like nothing matters to them, which in turn leaves you feeling baffled and lost. You lose sleep most nights wondering, “How did my family get here? What’s going on and how can we change things so our lives aren’t a battle zone?”
While there are many helpful techniques parents can use with their kids—in fact, Empowering Parents is full of articles that will help you parent more effectively—I’d like to view this problem from a slightly different angle today. So let’s step back and look at the big picture: What really happens when a kid acts out chronically in a family and the attention all goes to them? And how can parents turn this around?
In order to turn things around with your child, I believe it’s helpful to widen the lenses that we use to view our difficult kids. Let’s say you’re focused on your acting-out child—attempting to fix and change him—only to find that his behavior is worsening. (Or perhaps it changes, but only temporarily.) To a certain extent this happens because you’re looking at your child as the “problem” rather than seeing the way the family operates as a whole.
When you can see your family in this new way you’ll recognize that your child is only part of this unit—a fragment of the whole.
What do I mean by this? Think of it this way: Each family member is only a part of the larger group. Children with problem behaviors are rarely the underlying problem, though some kids are more defiant and rebellious from the start, and therefore more difficult to parent. They may come this way, genetically predisposed to act out more and be rebellious.
As a result of their difficult behavior, you naturally begin to focus on them. For the most part, kids who act out are symptoms of something much larger—often, it’s an emotional or relationship problem. This does not lay the blame on anyone; it simply means every member of the family group is a contributor in some way.
I believe that if you want to go about changing the problem, you need to get the focus off the “symptomatic” one and instead onto the relationship patterns in the family. I also want to add here that if this is going on in your family, it’s not too late: it’s possible to change your family’s pattern no matter what stage you’re in with your child.
Let’s consider how anxiety travels in a group of people. If Dad comes home from work upset about a deal that didn’t go through, he may automatically take it out on Mom by criticizing her about the messy house. Mom may react to this by shutting down or defending herself, but either way the anxiety has moved to Mom. Next Jack, the two-year-old, seeing or feeling Mom’s distress, starts crying. The anxiety has moved to him. Now Chloe, the six-year-old, experiences this emotional intensity and feels uncomfortable and upset. She runs to her room and starts yelling and acting out.
In this way, anxiety moves from person to person in a family unit. This is a natural and automatic response. Most of the time, rather than disturbing everybody in the family, anxiety seems to settle in one person—often a child. In the family just described, the original anxiety exchange was between the two parents. If they don’t get it worked out over time, the six year old might continue to react to the intensity by acting out more and more—and the adults will begin to focus on her. Not realizing that their child’s response is an expression of anxiety that came from the family unit, they may come to see her as the problem and begin worrying about her. The more she is fretted over, the more anxious and symptomatic she will become—and the more symptomatic she becomes, the more focused they will become on her. The cycle has now been set in motion.
When a child becomes the “anxiety sponge” for the family he or she will often develop some problems. If the adults put the focus on the child and not on themselves, they never get to resolve their own problems or ineffective patterns—instead, the over-focused child will develop problems. Take into account that when anxiety collects in a person, their brain and body chemistry becomes changed. As a result, the child may show hyperactivity, learning issues, or behavioral or social symptoms. Once a disorder develops, more and more intense focus is drawn to their problems at home and at school. It becomes a vicious cycle that’s hard to stop.
This snowball effect can start simply: Let’s say every time a mother is upset, she offloads her stress by complaining loudly. The father shuts down and withdraws and then the child picks up on his distress. Kids are very tuned in. If you have a child who’s particularly vulnerable to moods, he might absorb or take on the stress and become the sponge. You’ll see him becoming anxious in some way; he’ll be the one with the “symptoms.” While there’s no one to blame for this, it’s ultimately our responsibility as parents to keep an eye out and not let our stuff spill onto our kids.
If you see this cycle happening in your family, the first thing to do is recognize it for what it is. Stop it by taking the intense focus off your acting-out child and pay more attention to yourself and your relationship patterns. Ask yourself some hard questions, like the following: “By putting so much focus on my child, what do I get to avoid in myself and in my own adult relationships?” Consider what he might be expressing through his behavior. Are these expressions of tension in the family, or ineffective relationship patterns that need more attention paid to them?
Remember that your family, not your child, is the emotional unit. This will help you see that you are a part of the problem, and also part of the solution. Work to change what is under your control instead of worrying, over-focusing and trying to control your child. If you begin to see that your child is the symptom-bearer of the family unit rather than a “problem child,” you’ll be more understanding and empathetic rather than angry and frustrated. Don’t get me wrong, you still need to hold him accountable for his poor behavior. But now, instead of seeing him as “broken” or the problem, you’ll hold him to higher expectations.
Don’t get me wrong, when our kids are acting out, we need to hold them accountable rather than anxiously focus and fret about them. What’s the difference between anxious parenting versus being parental? Being responsible and standing our ground is being parental, because we’re doing what our child needs to guide him to a better place. Anxious parenting happens when our emotionality slips in and we start reacting to our child rather than responding to his behavior thoughtfully, and most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
Pause and ask yourself some important questions.
Most of the time we think we’re being thoughtful in our responses to our acting-out kids but often we’re actually being reactive, adding fuel to the already hot inferno.
Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself emotionally and physically, so your children don’t end up with that job. Pay attention to and attend to your adult relationships. Instead of being irritable and upset, say what’s on your mind. Resolve issues so that your unresolved anxieties don’t get spilled on to your kids.
Observe. Observe yourself and your relationship patterns: your own thinking, feelings and behavior. See how your family’s (both nuclear and extended) emotional pressures contribute in producing your child’s negative behavior. Consider what’s going on from wider lenses. See the whole family drama.
Set limits and give enforceable consequences. If your child is acting out, set limits and give him enforceable consequences. Take charge, not control. Be parental; don’t parent with an “anxious focus” on your child.
Recognize your own contribution. Start with yourself and go from there. After all, you’re the only one you really have control over in life. Look at what’s in your hands, not what’s not in your child’s hands. Watch what you’re doing and try to be as clear and direct as possible. You’re not responsible for your child’s outcome and you’re not the cause of the problems. If you can look at your contribution then you can change that part of yourself that’s adding to the cycle of anxiety and bad behavior.
Try to parent from your principles, rather than from your deepest anxieties. By understanding how your family operates—and how anxiety operates in your family—you can use your principles to guide your thinking and responses. This will help to stop the reactivity that often gets moved from one family member to the next. Your principles, rather than your anxieties, will lead the way. And when you see your child as separate from you, you will also see yourself more clearly and more objectively.
Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child Makes You Angry
Losing Your Temper with Your Child? 8 Steps to Help You Stay in Control
Empowering Parents Podcast: Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher
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.
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Thank you for reaching out to Empowering Parents with what sounds like a very distressing situation. It's not uncommon for parents to not be on the same page, or even for one parent to undermine what the other parent does. A parent really only has control over their own actions and choices. In situations when the other parent is not on the same page, or actively working against you, it can help to focus on what you have the most control over, namely how you react or respond. It sounds like your situation is really starting to take a toll on your mental health, though. I encourage you to see what types of local supports are available to help you and your family. If you are in the US or Canada, the 211 National Helpline is a referral service available 24 hours a day, nationwide. They can give you information on the types of support services available in your area such as counselors, therapists, support groups/kinship services as well as various other resources. You can reach the Helpline by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto 211.org (211.ca in Canada.)
We appreciate you being part of our Empowering Parents community and wish you all the best moving forward.
First of all... THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS ARTICLE!!!! It has really opened my eyes and set an entire new perspective for me.
I have shared this with my partner and we have decided to try and implement some changes to see if this makes a difference.
I have twin boys, 4 years old and the one is extremely "difficult" we actually have an Appointment scheduled with an OT for the 3rd of June, because we couldn't understand what was going on and his behavior has started rubbing off on his brother, who is now becoming more and more anxious as well.
Your article has definitely helped and I am so grateful for this. Thank you very much
With regards to TV Time and Playing Games on a Phone/Tablet, are there any suggestions of Programs/Games to not watch/play? Is there any programs/games that will help calm him more if he is feeling anxious?
Thansk so much:-0
I have a 8 year old boy with Adhd and we have good days and bad days. His dad has never been in the picture and we live with my parents.
My mom has gotten to the point that she can't see him as a 8 year old and continues to excessively baby him. When I try to intervene I get screamed at, toys thrown at me, and punched and kicked. When I try to talk to him he screams he hates me, he wishes he was dead, he wishes we weren't his family, etc.
My mom constantly blames me for this behavior and my son totally disregards me because he knows he can avoid a punishment. When I talk to my mom about the situation, we both agree he's headed for serious trouble, but she says she is unable to stop her behavior when it comes to babying him since that is her only grandchild.
If I tell him no at the store for toys or just tell him no in general he goes directly to my mom to get his way and he's very manipulative.
I don't know what to do anymore with this situation and I hate feeling this frustrated over my mom and my son's behaviors.
I am a mother. Well stepmother of 2 children a 14yr old boy and an 8yr old girl. I have been with them for 5 years and I love them like no other thing on earth. In my eyes they are my children and I will bare hand fight a bear for my kids. And that is exactly what I am doing at this moment.
The boy I have no trouble with he is autistic and an amazing kid. So sweet.
The 8yr is a totally different story. She is agressive, abusive, cruel. Yesterday was my birthday and I had to hide all day because I had asked her to put up her laundry. I literally had to run from her and lock myself in the bedroom while she screamed and kicked on the other side yelling terrible things. I am terrified of her. I endure this every day I am alone with her. I have begged her father and mother to not leave me alone with her but they tell me they have no one and I need therapy.that I'm overreacting. It has gotten so bad I have panic attacks even if I think I am going to be left alone with her. Which I am. No one seems to understand how serious this is. I try to set boundaries, I reward good behavior greatly. I dont give into her demand no matter how physical she may get or how loud she screams or how much she refuses to do anything I ask and I only get answers in insults. I have tried behavior charts and taking privileges away. I have literally done everything I know to do. Even money. I will pay you to be nice to me. Her grades are terrible. But she doesn't act out anywhere else. She is sweet and plays and asks for stuff. With everyone else but me.
I have begged my husband to put security cameras in the house so they can actually witness what really goes on. My poor baby girl is miserable and I cant find away to fix it. I finally talked her dad into going to therapy with all of us. It only took 3 years. I am extremely exhausted I cant eat, I cant sleep, I am terrified to leave my house my anxiety has gotten so bad and fear That my 8yr old may explode in public. I'm desperate to save my beautiful family.
I’m so sorry to hear about the outbursts you are experiencing on a nightly
basis with your grandson.If you are
looking for local resources, one place to start is by contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-6222.211 is a service which connects people with
services in their community.In the
meantime, I encourage you to use some of the articles and other resources
available on our site.Here are some you
might find useful for your situation: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/anger-rage-and-explosive-outbursts-how-to-respond-to-your-child-or-teens-anger/
and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/is-your-defiant-child-damaging-or-destroying-property/I recognize how difficult this must be for
you and your family, and I wish you all the best moving forward.
common for kids to act out more when they are in a situation which feels
unstructured and scary, so you are not alone in experiencing this with your
daughter. From our perspective, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/its-never-too-late-7-ways-to-start-parenting-more-effectively/ an ineffective parenting pattern. While it
might take some time, being consistent and structured with your rules and
expectations can go a long way to turning around inappropriate behavior. Please
let us know if you have any additional questions. Take care.
I'm mother of 12 years girl child and saying with deep sorro that my doughter doesn't listn anything, talking loudly, misbehave and thieves money and even books of her couligue. I don't understand what to do. Feeling helpless. So, plz, give me any advise.
I am sorry to hear about the challenging behaviors you are
seeing from your daughter. When you have so many valid concerns, it can be
tough to know where to start in addressing these behaviors with her.I often suggest to parents to start by making
a list of all the concerning behaviors, and prioritize them starting with the
most serious or disruptive ones at the top. It can also be helpful to both you and
your daughter, to just focus on one or two behaviors at time.Carol Banks, an Empowering Parents author, has
a great article with some additional tools to help you get started https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-childs-behavior-is-so-bad-where-do-i-begin-how-to-coach-your-child-forward/.
Best of luck to you and your daughter and please let us know if you have any
find themselves in a similar situation where they feel powerless to address the
patterns they observe between the parents and their children. You are not
alone. As Debbie Pincus advises in her article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/grandparents-and-parents-disagreeing-11-tips-for-both-of-you/, one tactic you might try
is to ask the parents how you can be helpful or supportive as they try to
address your grandchildren’s behavior. I recognize how tough this must be
for you, and I hope that you will check back and let us know how things are
going for you. Take care.
I am sorry to hear you are facing these challenges with your
teenage son. It sounds like he has been making some poor choices and responding
to limits in ways that put both himself and others at risk. I know it can be
worrisome as a parent to think about your child having to face incarceration
for his behavior. Truthfully, going to court and having to face possible time
in a detention center are natural consequences of the choices he has made. As
tough as it may be to have to handle, we would recommend not trying to rescue
him from any possible consequence or outcome. It can be helpful to look at this
situation as not only being about your son taking accountability for his
actions but also about your son getting the possible help and assistance he
needs to guide him to better behaviors. I can hear the toll this situation is
starting to have on you. It may be helpful to find support services in your area for you as well. It can be tough to stand by and
watch your son go down a possibly destructive path. Finding resources who can
offer a listening ear and suggest ways of taking care of yourself could be
beneficial. The 211 Helpline would be able to give you information on resources
such as counselors, parent support groups, and other services. You can reach
the Helpline 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by going online to
211.org. Hang in there. I know this is a difficult time but you can get through
this. Be sure to check back and let us know how things are going. Best of luck
to you and your family.