You can’t control your child’s emotions, but by questioning your assumptions and expectations you can become a calmer parent.
Your child screams out that you are stupid and demands that you leave him alone. Your teen responds to your well-intended piece of advice with an eye-roll and a ‘Whatever.’ Your preschooler is having her fourth mammoth meltdown of the day over a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit.
You can’t seem to get your kids to even brush their teeth when they are told to. And so you lose it. You blow up at them, releasing your pent-up emotions just like they do. You have to get them to change somehow, right? You are not alone. It happens to the most well-meaning parents.
Your enraged reaction means your button has been pushed. What your child has said or done does not comport with your expectation of what your child should say or do. You might spew words that you swore you were never going to say to your kids. You probably know that you’ll get better results if you can keep your emotions in check: when children feel threatened, they will not be able to think clearly, and neither will you.
So, you might desperately want to stay calm. But what if you can’t? Some people can decide to change a behaviour and just do it, while others, who might be desperate for change, have a harder time doing so.
Perhaps your reactions feel out of your control. But they are not. While you can’t control your children’s emotions and reactions, you can learn to control your own – so that you can respond, rather than react, and be the parent you always thought you’d be.
We all get our buttons pushed, but what pushes my button doesn’t necessarily push yours. Your button – your trigger point – could stem from a belief planted in your mind many years ago. Perhaps you developed the belief that I have to do what I’m told or else, which activates voices in your head about your child (How dare she say that? I would have never dared…) that in turn fuel your fury and your threats.
Beliefs such as this one can be linked to what was expected of you when you were a child, and what was said and done by people in authority, as interpreted by your then-immature brain. Filtering their words and tones egocentrically, you might have created self-defined truths: I’m a disappointment; I’m too emotional; my opinions don’t count; I don’t count. Unexamined, such beliefs can become buttons that your children are the very best at pushing.
While it seems that buttons get pushed when we are merely subject to situational stresses, loaded agendas and everyday impatience, the degree to which we are triggered and thus are able to recover has much to do with whether deeper beliefs are at play in directing our behaviour.
Consider Katie, mother of 13-year-old Liam, who would argue with her, shout obscenities and refuse to do what she asked. Liam’s behaviour provoked Katie’s rage and threats. A negative feedback loop consumed their relationship. Katie’s negative attitude in anticipating her son’s resistance was met with his ignoring her, or darts such as: ‘I can’t stand being in this family. Leave me alone! I don’t have to do anything you say.’ She would yell back that he was disrespectful and threaten to take his phone. To find a way out, it helped Katie to look back at her own childhood.
Katie was a strong-willed child who got the belt from her father and was slapped by her mother when she displeased them. She felt scared and defensive, and early on developed a belief about herself that everything was always her fault. If something bad happened, she was to blame, because she was a bad girl. As an adult, Katie was plagued with perfectionism and a need to prove herself to be right.
The deep-rooted belief in her ‘badness’ appeared to be compensated for by her drive to ensure control so that no one discovered her ‘true’ self. As a mother, she had to be right in her parenting – at a cost to her relationship with Liam. Life had become very stressful.
Through our work together, Katie has gained a newly connected relationship with her son. Liam’s trust in her has returned. He is becoming more cooperative. It started with Katie taking responsibility for her part in the vicious cycle of actions and reactions. She saw that Liam did not intend disrespect but was protecting himself from her disapproval, similar to how she protected herself from her own father.
Awareness, knowledge of child development, and taking responsibility for one’s emotions and behaviour can be enough for many to change old habits. For other parents, it takes unearthing beliefs rooted in the past. Over 30 years of working with parents, I have been able to guide them through a new understanding of themselves by helping them take new pictures of their past experiences through an adult lens.
With clarity comes the capacity for exercising empathy and compassion instead of being driven by knee-jerk emotional reactions. In this Guide, I share some of the perspective shifts and techniques that have been helpful in achieving this change.