November 21, 2017

Parenting When We’re Angry

The guy didn’t know I was listening. Or maybe he just didn’t care. It was a glorious skiing day, bright sun, almost shirtsleeves weather. But he wasn’t having any fun. His child, a boy maybe of seven or eight, was sitting down on the hill. The dad said: “Stand up.” the kid didn’t move. So the dad said it again. The kid still didn’t budge. So the dad said it again, this time with an edge: “Stand up!” He says it a few more times, sounding increasingly mad, but the kid doesn’t move.

I leave at that point, because it’s becoming excruciating listening to Dad shoot himself in the foot and if I stay any longer I’m going to offer assistance where it is not wanted. It is excruciating to imagine what’s going on in that child’s head. This is not dissimilar to the situation I witnessed the next day in a family restaurant. The kid in the next booth ordered a burger and fries. The dad said: “How about some vegetables?” The kid said no. The dad repeated himself. The kid hung tough. The dad repeated himself a few more times, while the kid kinda disappeared into himself, in the way that kids can hide from unpleasantness. Their bodies are still present, but emotionally they’ve flown the coop.

‘Twas thus as well with the boy on the ski hill. Same parenting technique, same response from child. If you could read the child’s mind, he might be thinking: “You keep giving me the same order over and over again, but I can’t do it. How come you don’t get that? It’s scary how mad you sound. Maybe this is all my fault.” Is that how we want our children to feel about us, and to experience our parenting? I’m guessing not.

We want our children to feel supported and to see us not as scary, but as helpful coaches. Which requires a different approach from the one chosen by the two dads. First step is research. Neither of the dads in the above stories bothered to find out what was going on with his child. How come the little skier isn’t standing up? What’s driving burger boy’s veg refusal? Maybe the skier is scared or wet or cold or tired. Maybe burger boy feels like he was promised a special treat and dad isn’t keeping to the deal. So let’s find out. It’s not rocket science: When your children don’t do what you tell them to do, first inquire. Why? Ask what’s going on: “Is there something making it hard for you to stand up?” “Is it feeling especially important to have a burger and fries tonight?”

Research will be the opposite of what you want to do, especially when you’re mad. When we tell our children to do something and they don’t do it, we usually tell them again. The second time they ignore us we start to get angry. That’s human nature and it’s hard to fight it. But fight it we must, because parenting while angry is a bit like driving drunk: Your impulse control switch is on the off setting, and somebody is going to get hurt.

So when you start to feel angry at your beloved child, step back. Stop. Take a deep breath or count to 10 or take a time out. It’s okay to say to your child: “I’m feeling pretty mad right now, so I’m going to walk over there and sit down for five minutes, and when I get back I’m going to be able to help you better, cause I’ll be calmer.” That’s a great lesson to teach your child. It models self-awareness and anger management skills, which is pretty great stuff to teach our children.

Do whatever works for you when you need to control your anger. We usually do this only with other grownups, but our kids need it more, because it’s way too easy to scare them and make them feel at fault. Despite how we often feel, we have all the power in that relationship.

After you do whatever you need to do to get a little calmer, do your research. Ask how your child is feeling. If he doesn’t answer, make educated guesses – in a friendly, non-judgmental and calm voice. In my experience with children, nine times out of 10 they let us know what’s bugging them. Then do Step Two: Ask your smart child: “What can we do to solve this problem.” Then listen. Don’t interrupt, don’t instruct. With your loving ear, and maybe just a little help, they’ll tell you what they need right now. Step Three is to provide the help they ask for.

Children inherently love and respect their parents; and want to be around them. We have to work pretty hard to change that, and unfortunately we do a pretty good job of that when we get mad. They push our buttons with reliable frequency and impressive expertise – and when that happens, we lose it. But don’t. How can you expect to raise a child who can control his anger if you can’t control yours? You want to model self-control, but as important, in the moment, when your child is making you mad, she needs you to help her get out of that bad place, rather than push her deeper into the hole. Those are the moments when you get to choose: To choose to be your best self – and the most helpful life coach your kid will ever know.

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