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Posted Tuesday February, 27th 2024


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Parents often come to me with concerns about behaviors that their child is exhibiting. Some of the most alarming behaviors are those that seem to attack the parent or show a deep level of disrespect. So the question is: How do we work with a child who is acting in a way that gets under the parent’s skin? Take this example for instance…

A mom recently reached out to ask for advice about her son who has been using curse words in front of her. Like many parents would, she told him that she didn’t like when he speaks this way, and that it’s inappropriate. She said that at first it seemed like he used curse words because he has an intense personality and the curse words seemed to help him express that intensity. That is true: some kids are intense and using curse words helps them let off steam, and in that case, maybe it’s not worth fussing about their language. But this mom said that the behavior has gotten worse and more vulgar, and it’s really starting to upset her. Now it has become a relational issue between the parent and the child.

What do I mean by a relational issue? When a child’s behavior feels personally targeted toward the parent or makes the parent feel out of control, resentful, hopeless, helpless or depressed, it is a relational issue. When the parent begins to feel hesitant around the child because there’s a potential that the child will hurt their feelings, it’s relational. If the parent feels guilty or like they’re doing a bad job as a parent, it can lead to a cycle of avoiding the child and/or letting them do what they want and then becoming short-tempered with the child. If a behavior has become a relational issue, then working towards a solution has to involve a two-step process: Step one must be a parent reflecting inwards at their own state of mind. Only after that can a parent begin to address the child’s behavior.

So what is this first step? I recommend that the parent take a moment to ask themselves, “What am I saying to myself about myself related to my child’s behavior?” Have the parent ask “What does my child’s behavior mean to me? Am I feeling violated and disrespected? Am I feeling guilty that I let this go on and it feels like my fault?” Help the parent uncover the core feeling underneath their reaction to their child.

We all have nonconscious thoughts about how we’re responsible for our child’s behavior or what it says about us. We evaluate ourselves in a conflict and we attribute the problem to some sort of deficit in us. That’s just human nature. It might come from our own childhood histories or from our personalities. The nonconscious thoughts are called our “core negative beliefs”. This core negative belief will steer parents in the wrong direction about how to best respond to their child because they are misattributing the reason for the child’s misbehavior. The thing to do is have the parent stop (before reacting) or after (because it will help for next time) and determine why they are feeling the way they are. Once you get to the core of what’s bothering the parent and why it might be triggering for them, they will be able to let go of reacting from a personal place of hurt.

You’ll also want to ask them to notice the feeling in their body when they think of their child - is there a tightness in the chest, butterflies in the stomach, fatigue, heaviness, heat in the cheeks? Once the parent has identified their feelings and how their body is reacting, have them respond with a message of self compassion. This does not have to be said aloud; it’s the parent’s private message of self-compassion or self-affirmation. If the parent struggles to come up with a compassionate message for themselves, suggest that they imagine what a spiritual leader or a trusted friend might say to them. Some examples are, “I’m good enough, I can handle this, I’m okay as I am, I have a lot to offer, I can keep myself safe, I can show up.” Now the parent is ready to assess how best to respond to their child’s behavior! By first reflecting inward, the parent has cleared some of the “fog” or “static” that can blur a parent’s vision of what is really at the heart of their child’s behavior.

In the example of the mother whose child was using harsh language, she already tried grounding him and taking his phone. But those interventions were not working. Here are some other options.

Once the parent has stabilized her response by caring for herself first, she can make the child’s behavior into sort of a joke. She could make it a paradox - Tell him, “Say it louder.” Or she could turn it around by asking him a question, “Does it make you feel better to say that? It must make you feel good to say that, because I know that you are a good kid and that you normally don’t say hurtful things just for fun.”

Another thing you can do is to not react and say really calmly, “When you call me a stupid bitch, it doesn’t make me feel like doing nice things for you, like driving you to your friends’ houses. So keep that in mind.” Parents have leverage, and depending on the age of the child, it could be as simple as getting items from the top shelf or driving them to the park or a friend’s house. The response has to be done in a sincere way, and not vindictive at all, or it won’t work. Have the parent repeat the child’s hurtful words. If after the incident, the child asks to be taken somewhere, the parent can respond with, “I’m here for you, but you called me a stupid bitch. Now I can’t take you to the park. Right now it feels bad between us. What you said felt very disrespectful, but you can try again tomorrow.” The parent needs to express this with confidence, not with hurt.

In the end, it’s about changing the situation so it’s not about the parent’s value or self-worth anymore. Parents don't need their kids to behave a certain way for them to respect themselves. When parents can calm and affirm themselves so they aren’t reactive, it helps them to see what their child needs. Maybe the child is feeling hurt or just exhausted. This two step process removes the static in the power struggle, and allows the parent to see the child in a different way when they are in a calm state of mind.

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