This week, my 13-year-old son’s verbal abuse turned physical for the first time. Needless to say, the incident really shook me up, and I ended up phoning the Coaches of the Total Transformation Program for help.
Here’s what happened: My son refused to eat leftovers at home the other night. He wanted to go out for a sit-down dinner instead. I didn’t want to give in to his tantrum. Then again, I worry when he won’t eat. I decided to get us out of the tense situation by bringing him to a church function with me, along with stopping by a fast food place on the way.
Yes, I’m shaking my head at myself, too. I was giving in to that compromise to gain peace at home. My son, like many defiant kids, lives to push limits. He proceeded to sabotage the plan, and I realized my mistake. At the KFC drive-through, the complaints began. The menu was not exactly what he wanted; he couldn’t see the board clearly; they didn’t answer the bell soon enough.
My patience already thin, I drove around to the door and invited him to go in and place his order while I waited. “Forget it,” he said. “This place sucks anyway.” We’d left home to break the tension, but now we were confined to a small car and I was ready to unravel! I told him he would have to live with his decision not to eat and tried to end it there. Mentally, I was kicking myself for going out of my way to give him choices.
As we drove away, I became the target of verbal abuse. Halfway to our destination (only about three blocks from home), I fought the urge to give him a cuff to the noggin with the back of my hand. I held up my hand, but stilled it in the air and managed to keep my cool. Then he looked me straight in the eye, drew back his right arm, made a fist and punched me in the side. Stunned, I immediately pulled the car into a parking lot.
“You never hit me or anyone else. That’s abuse and there is no reason for it. Get out of the car now and just walk home,” I said, as calmly as possible. He dug in his heels. After a brief staring match, he calmly got out and walked home, giving us both time to cool down. I drove home and waited for him, and watched as he went into the house. Then I went to church for an hour. I assigned consequences when I came home, but by then the entire evening was a blur. I practically needed a video replay to figure out which behavior originally needed correction.
Later, I called the parent coaching Service, about the issue of his obstinate refusals. I explained my biggest challenge to Carole — making consequences stick after rules are broken — and we talked about something important I was skipping in between. I realized that I was neglecting the “disconnect” step. Carole told me how important it is to take a break and disconnect from an emotional battle before talking about consequences. If you don’t, anger can escalate and confuse the issue. She also told me that next time my son refuses to go to his room or take a walk, I may need to do so. This week I’m working on finding effective phrases to use to disconnect. I personally like the phrase, “Let’s not go there.” Carole also let me know that I’m on the right track in consistently letting my son know it is not okay to speak to others with disrespect or use verbal abuse.
Next, we talked about giving consequences effectively. I’ve often made the mistake of jumping right into threats of additional punishment when my son won’t stop arguing. “Go to your room and get away from us right now, or I will have to take away even more computer time!” Or, “You are just making your situation worse. Do you like being grounded?”
Carole pointed out that this only prolongs the conflict, adding another reason for my son to feel angry rather than letting the anger subside. I agreed that it made more sense to coach him about the benefits of a “time out” rather than shouting about the consequences of refusing.
My job is to teach both of us to make a clean break. Once we calm down, I have a better shot at explaining what his consequences will be for the specific behavior in question. I think there will be less chance of getting tangled in all the drama that happens when emotions boil over. I realize now that those intense feelings will be dumped on each other unless we take a time out.
This week, if he fights the suggestion to cool down, I’m coaching him, rather than escalating the fight out of frustration. If he refuses to leave the room and continues to verbally abuse us, my mother (who lives with us) and I ignore him or leave the room. Once the situation is calm, I proceed with immediate consequences. For example, I’m already getting better results with taking away an hour of computer time tonight, rather than all computer time for a week. That way, it’s a short term consequence that gets him to practice better behavior in order to earn his privilege back. And if he resists the cool down time, even after coaching and setting a limit, I discuss how the consequences have to be increased a certain amount because of his decision.
I now see that by prolonging conflicts, my son controls me. As a result, neither of us sees the situation clearly. I know that most of all, it’s up to me to coach my son about the importance of taking a time out to cool down.
I have to admit, I didn’t think that the transition time between experiencing conflict and giving consequences was all that important. Now I realize it is all important. My plan is to continue working on this phase of my parenting journey.
Have you ever faced this situation with your child? What did you do?
Lola Howle is a parent blogger for EP and the mother of one son.