Has your child ever done things, repeatedly, that you find completely unacceptable?
Maybe your child has a habit of hitting you, masturbating in your presence, swearing at you, listening to loud music that you hate, throwing food on the floor, refusing to wear clothes or wash, stealing money from you, exploding in rage, self harming, stimming in ways that alarm or offend, pooing their pants or biting and scratching their friends?
Or maybe you’ve got your own horror story about what your child does that you can’t stand?
I’ve found myself in this situation a number of times with my two sons – them doing something on repeat that I thought I couldn’t live with – and I’d like to share an insight that helped me to move from a state of frustration, rage and panic to one of calm acceptance and peaceful solutions.
What “type” of child have you got and what values drive you?
I assure you this insight I’ll be talking about isn’t a magic solution. If only!! Instead, what I’m hoping is that I can help reduce the terrible frustration and anger that you’re experiencing and in doing so, clear the way for a fresh and creative solution to appear – one that is respectful and compassionate for both your child and yourself. My aim was to have a peaceful and respectful relationship with my two “highly spirited” children.
I put the “highly spirited” in quotes because it’s a label I’m not wholly comfortable with. It’s a shorthand way of saying that my children were not gifted with compliant personalities. They were not the kind of children that responded willingly to parental guidance, advice, threats or teaching. In fact, they were fiercely determined to live according to their own inner compass and directions.
If this description fits your child to some extent then this article may be relevant to you, especially if you also want the “peaceful and respectful relationship” part. I state this up front, because I’m never going to suggest that you punish, impose rules or shame your child. I’m always looking for solutions that do not rely on parents exercising power over their children or intentionally harming, scaring or shaming them.
So what is this insight that will bring calm to your life?
A huge amount of parental frustration and anger is generated by this simple thought: “This behaviour is totally unacceptable and he/she won’t stop it.”
The reason this thought causes so much emotional pain is that it is based on a flawed assumption. It assumes that the child COULD stop the behaviour if they wanted to – that they could if they really tried or wanted to or if they were scared enough of the consequences.
I used to believe this myself and it caused a huge amount of suffering. This belief is part of our cultural conditioning and it’s remarkable if you DON’T have it. I didn’t even realise I was believing it until I read something that presented an alternate view when my children were already well past the toddler stage.
The book that changed my mind was “The Explosive Child” by Ross W Greene. The central theme of this book is the following understanding:
“Children do well if they can……. An explosive outburst – like other forms of maladaptive behaviour – occurs when the cognitive demands being placed upon a person outstrip that persons capacity to respond adaptively.”
This understanding, that children do well if they can, runs counter to a whole lot of mainstream thinking about children’s behaviour. How many times have you heard, or thought, “He’s just doing to for attention”, “She does just fine when she wants to” or “He’s doing it on purpose to upset me.”?
How often have you heard or thought that your child’s unacceptable behaviour was planned, intentional or manipulative?
Have they been labeled wilful, out of control, defiant, pathological, bad, naughty or resistant? Do you cringe when you imagine what other people think of them or you?
Ross Greene’s hypothesis is that your child is experiencing a developmental delay. They are delayed in developing the executive functioning necessary to handle their own emotions in a more socially adaptive way.
Whether the cause is developmental delay or some other factor doesn’t really matter. The key that changed my thinking was the understanding that children want to adapt and behave in “acceptable” ways if they can. They don’t choose maladaptive behaviours and they can’t just stop it. If they could, they would.
How does this insight change the situation with my child?
When I assume that my child is motivated towards greater acceptance, learning social skills and expressing their emotions in ways that don’t harm or offend others I am much more compassionate towards them. The frustration and anger that was once clouding my relationship with them starts to dissolve. I can stop blaming my child and making my child’s behaviour “wrong”, “bad” or even “unacceptable”.
Once I perceive the situation differently and my judgments of my child start to drop away, it is amazing how my emotions calm down. I can start thinking more clearly and open my mind to some alternative strategies and solutions.
For example, I discovered that one of my sons was much calmer and less likely to suffer explosive rages when he could regulate his own exposure to social situations. He needed to be able to leave when the emotional charge within him built up to a certain level, or avoid some group social activities altogether.
Allowing unrestricted access to self-soothing activities such as playing video games, watching YouTube and movies also seemed to assist the gradual process of my children learning new ways of expressing and dealing with emotions.
There were also solutions that involved changing the environment or changing my own behaviour. I learned to be more flexible in the way I responded to my children and to sometimes just stay out of the way until the challenging moment passed.
Sometimes the best solution was the simple acceptance that my child would grow out of the maladaptive behaviour as soon as they could. Finding ways to peacefully “wait it out” then became the goal.
Once I got past the block of thinking “He won’t stop” and drowning in frustration I also learned the skill of creative problem solving. I opened up to the challenge of involving my children in finding solutions to our problems that everyone in the family was happy with or could at least accept. Ross Greene gave me some guidance here and I also learned a lot from “Parent Effectiveness Training” by Thomas Gordon. I adapted their processes to something that I found simple and effective for my family. I describe my version in my book “Joyful Parenting” (print copies are currently free) and the Joyful Parenting Course. It is truly astounding how many more options open up when children are directly involved in the process of finding solutions.
The benefits of questioning my beliefs.
What happened when I read Ross Greene’s book was that I questioned my belief that my child could stop their behaviour if they really wanted to. I’ve gone on to question many other beliefs that were associated with this type of situation – like the belief that parents should be able to control their children’s behaviour and the belief that parents are responsible for how their children turn out. I realised how much stress and conflict those beliefs brought into my life. The more I was willing to open my mind whether those things were actually true, the more I discovered the answers within myself.
I’ve discovered that more love, more acceptance and more positive change will always blossom up from within us once we’ve questioned the beliefs that are causing our suffering. More love, acceptance and clarity will always bring us towards the peace and harmony in our family life that we really desire.