Kyle, a happy, active, strong-minded 5-year-old, was busy playing after dinner when he was supposed to be clearing the table. His dad called him repeatedly, trying to get his attention to come help. Kyle, seeming oblivious, did not respond and kept on playing.
Common scenario 1: Dad got angry, yelling louder and louder. “This has to stop! You are being selfish — you cannot keep doing this every night!” Eventually Kyle protested, then started crying and screaming. Dad struggled some more but finally gave up and told Kyle to go to his room for a timeout.
Common scenario 2: Dad got angry and frustrated, yelling, “Kyle, stop ignoring me! I expect you to listen to me when I talk to you.” After some attempts to force him and pull him into the kitchen, Kyle yelled back, “You can’t make me!” and stormed away. Dad finally gave up, but then didn’t read him a bedtime story. The next day he had a talk with Kyle about respect and consideration. Kyle put his head down and said he was sorry.
Kyle’s dad alternated between feeling self-righteous, when he viewed Kyle as selfish, and feeling bad and guilty, when he recognized that Kyle was scared, confused and ashamed. He was pained to see Kyle frightened by him, the way he felt with his dad.
What are the undesirable effects of parents’ reactions in these scenarios?
- Fuels control struggles and negative parent-child interactions.
- Promotes shame, anger and defiance in kids.
- Fails to demonstrate positive, effective ways to get others to help.
- Deprives kids of opportunities to be helpful and successful.
- Sets a negative example and reinforces tantrum-like behavior: escalating anger, and use of emotional force through guilt and withholding affection.
What caused this escalation?
- Reading negative intention into children’s behavior — a framework that sets parents up to be angry, which obstructs effective solutions.
- Getting into a rigid mindset and repeating ineffective “strategies.”
Some issues may be unconscious. Parents may unknowingly re-experience feelings from their own childhood, causing them to view parent-child situations through the lenses of the past. Buried feelings emerge, propelled by an automatic inner dialogue, which recreates past dynamics and perpetuates overreactions.
Common reactions with kids that come from the parents’ childhood feelings:
- Feeling resentful — from re-experiencing not having had fun as a kid.
- Feeling powerless — from re-experiencing helplessness growing up in an out-of-control or rigid household.
- Feeling slighted and taking kids’ behavior personally — from re-experiencing having been ignored or mistreated.
Other causes may include:
- Wishful rather than realistic thinking.
- Difficulty managing frustration.
- Failure to be proactive.
- Failure to take care of oneself and manage frustration and stress.
An improved scenario might look like this:
Dad approached Kyle, coming close to him, crouching to his level. He looked him in the eye, put his hand on his head, and whispered animatedly, “Hey, buddy, come into the kitchen and hang out with me.” Kyle looked up right away and happily followed along. “You can be the clean-up boss. Should we grab the bowls or the plates first?”
Why did this work?
A more interesting and effective way to get Kyle’s attention was to whisper, rather than yell. Kyle was motivated by his dad’s positive attention, wanting to be on his team. This approach allowed Kyle to feel respected, bypassing a control struggle. Kyle’s dad transformed his son’s difficulty being told what to do by leveraging Kyle’s desire for leadership, autonomy, and connection.
How did Kyle’s dad pull off the new scenario?
Kyle’s dad was a good father, but was triggered by feeling helpless, particularly when stressed. He learned that many of these triggering situations were predictable and recognized that, without being proactive, he would revert to his “natural” reactions and disappoint himself.
When he got home from work, before leaving the car, he practiced the following steps:
- He anticipated and visualized likely scenarios with Kyle.
- He thought explicitly about the kind of dad he wanted to be.
- He pictured what he loved about Kyle (including his energy and spunk).
- He reminded himself that the problem here was a normal attentional issue, and that Kyle was just being a kid and not disrespecting him.
Engaging his higher mind and creating a new perspective made it easier for Kyle’s dad to stay in the present, see his son more clearly, and be tolerant. Doing this protected him from falling into the same groove from his past. From this new mindset he could be playful and creative, rather than determined and rigid, allowing him to get Kyle’s attention in a positive way. With children, just as in relationships with a spouse, it’s more effective to behave in a way that naturally encourages the other person to want to be with you, talk to you, or help you — rather than complain, yell, or withhold affection.
Tips for Parents
- Become aware of how you react when angry or frustrated and realize that this sets an example for kids.
- Recognize and become familiar with mindsets (feelings and thought patterns) from the past — and remind yourself to cool off when this mindset is beginning to take over.
- When you feel urgency and intensity in non-emergency situations, it is a clue that you are being triggered from your past — pull back rather than take action.
- Create psychological space in a consistent way to anticipate difficult situations with children.
- Mentally rehearse likely difficult scenarios with kids and how you want to respond.
- Take care of yourself — “Put your own oxygen mask on first.”
- Be present with kids, rather than distracted and preoccupied.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas that occur in families.