She sits in my office on the verge of tears, the feelings of desperation and helplessness emanating through the quakes in her voice. She says things like, “Is there something wrong with him?” “I feel like this is all my fault,” “He’s running our house–we all walk on eggshells around him.” She has tried everything she can think of. She is scared for him, she is scared of him. And she doesn’t know what to do to turn the nasty undertone in their household around.
This is not the story of one specific mother that I have worked with. It’s many of the mothers and fathers that have come to my office and asked me for help. While there are sometimes some deep-rooted challenges the child may be facing that need to be addressed, in any situation we can work on turning around the negative dynamic that is pervading the household and leading the parent to feel out of control and inadequate.
Digging Up The Roots
When we look at a child’s negative behavior and all we see is negativity, we often label it as angry, mean or nasty. But when we excavate further and dig up the roots of this behavior we may discover something that elicits a lot more compassion and empathy. At the root of an angry and frustrated child’s behavior is overwhelm, fear, hurt, sadness, and all-around stress. This is what changes the way lens through which we view it. When I see my child as scared and hurting (rather than angry or nasty) my capacity for compassion is far greater. Ask yourself, what is going on in his world that may be causing him this much hurt? It may be a change in the family, in your work schedule, a situation at school, a recent loss in the family. It’s not always clear what the source of the behavior is but if we can determine the change that may be making him feel this way we can work with it, give him tools to cope with it and give or get him support around it.
What is the benefit?
The next crucial piece that I work with parents around is this: What is the benefit of her behavior? What is she getting out of it? How is it helping her accomplish what she is trying to achieve, even if it feels maladaptive? When we understand the need beneath the symptom, we can address the need and typically the symptom lessens or goes away entirely. It is in a child’s DNA to say “no!”, particularly to parents who are their safety net. When a child learns to say no at home she is getting excellent practice for the real world: for asserting herself, having a voice, having power. When we hear the child’s no (which doesn’t mean we give in to it), we are reinforcing that we want them to be in their power. “I hear how hard that is for you!” “I don’t blame you for not wanting to stop,” “I get it! You don’t want to do it right now.” Each of these validating statements sends the message to the child that it’s ok for him/her to have a voice. It doesn’t always mean they’re going to get their way. That’s where the next piece comes in.
Parents in Charge
Children need boundaries. They feel safe within them. Children want to know that their parents are confident and in charge. Using Daniel Siegel’s terms, it’s that balance point in between chaos and rigidity in which a child feels safe. When the parent can come to the child with a spirit of genuine authority, the child can rest confidently knowing that mom or dad is in charge and he/she can go on being the kid. He no longer needs to be the one in control of the situation. And when the parent shows up confident, empathic and understanding of what is driving the child’s behavior, once again he doesn’t need to resort to those same tactics to be heard and seen, to get connection and to have a voice. She knows that dad is listening without her having to “turn up the energetic volume”.
The Connection Foundation
For all of this to work and make sense for a child, we need to start with a foundation of connection. Children of all ages are longing for connection with their parents, even when their behavior seems to demonstrate the opposite. This may mean ten minutes of listening to music together. It may mean that you sit on the floor and play legos, take a drive to a special place and go for a picnic or plan a movie night together. What is your child passionate about? Get curious about this and authentically take an interest in it, even if it doesn’t directly correspond to your passions. Show your child that you want to connect with him by listening to him and appreciating him. Never dismiss your child’s opinions and beliefs. Saying, “Thanks for sharing that with me. I will consider it,” or (if it’s not up for consideration) “I appreciate your opinion, honey, but that doesn’t work for us today.”
What do you need to feel more confident and grounded as a parent? What will help you trust your intuition and believe in your capacity to show up in your fullest? What if your child’s behavior was exactly what needed to be happening in order to make something critical happen in your life and that of your family?
Power struggles are challenging for all parents, but when we reframe the way we see our child and his/her behavior, we can create shifts in the family dynamic that may have gone awry. We can regain an authentic sense of control of our vessel and foster an environment that allows everyone to be heard and seen the way they need to.