As a parent coach, I’m frequently asked how to tame tiny tyrants-in-the-making. How do we understand and use our intuition to help our bratty, bullying and beautiful children?
My advice: Focus on the emotions underneath the bossy surface of your child’s difficult behavior. The easiest and simplest way to tap into your child’s emotional life and begin to unspool their need to bully is to begin a sentence with, “It sounds like…” or “It sounds like you feel…” and insert any feeling word that seems to fill the bill. The beautiful thing about children is that they are happy to correct you when you are wrong about their emotions.
Here is how a situation with a child named Brett might play out if you use emotion rather than logic:
Brett: I want the Star Wars cup or I am not drinking the water.
Parent: I get it. It sounds like you really love that cup.
Brett: Yes, and it is all I will use. I will only drink from the Star Wars cup.
Parent: Huh. It sounds like you are dedicated to using that cup, no matter what.
Brett: Yes. Now give it to me.
Parent: I cannot do that, and I imagine that will make you feel pretty disappointed.
Brett: Yes, now get it.
Parent: I cannot do that, and I think you will feel frustrated by that.
Brett: MOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! (Whining begins or crying or tantrum throwing.)
Parent (Stays silent while Brett throws himself on the floor and he swears to never drink water again. Brett eventually wears himself out and takes the cup of water initially offered, looking as sad as a child ever has.)
You might be confused why the above scenario is better than punishment or giving in. Every parent I have ever met wants a strategy or parenting technique that results in peace, and I don’t blame them! But as I like to say to my coaching clients, “There is suffering in the service of change and progress, and there is suffering for nothing but the sake of suffering.” Yes, Brett ends up having a full-blown tantrum, but there is some good stuff happening here. Allow me to explain.
Tears That Heal
Remember: When Brett is pushing your boundaries around, he is filled with anxiety, despite the fact he is getting what he wants. His yelling and screaming result in a lose-lose for both of you. But the tears that come after you hold the boundary? These are different. Here is what’s happening: As Brett’s brain pushes and pushes his agenda forward, his frustration is increasing. As we peacefully hold the boundary, his frustration will eventually reach a breaking point where there is nothing left to do but cry about what he cannot change. As Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, “What you cannot change changes you.” To sum it up, this is what resilience looks like when it is happening in real time. While exhausting, annoying and heartbreaking, Brett breaking down in tears over his lack of a cup is a sign that his brain has grown a tiny neural pathway that says, “When Mom says she cannot get the cup, I don’t get the cup.” This is profound, this idea of his brain changing simply because you held a peaceful boundary. And a million little moments like this add up to Brett accepting that life will not always go his way, and my heavens, we need humans to get that, right?
If we want to maintain strength and grace, we might decide to give Brett the cup. It might sound like this:
The Scene: Hosting all of your in-laws for Thanksgiving at your house (or any other situation jam-packed with stress).
Brett: Mom, I want a water.
Parent (Fills a red cup with water and hands it to him.)
Brett: Mom, I want my Star Wars cup.
Parent (Pauses and assesses her reality. She has to make the gravy, her father-in-law won’t stop complaining about the beer supply, and her spouse is nowhere to be found. She decides to fish the Stars Wars cup out of the dishwasher, rinse it off and hand it to Brett.)
Parent: Brett, I have decided that you should have your Star Wars cup; it’s a special day. Go show it to Grandmom, OK? (She smiles widely, confident in this decision.)
Brett (Smiling, takes his cup and is off to find Grandmom.)
Did the parent give in to Brett’s command? Yes and no. I am less concerned about the cup and more concerned with who has the power in the scenario. Though the parent decided that Thanksgiving was not the time to hold a boundary with little Brett, she is still completely in charge of the situation.
My hope is that as you continue to focus on emotions and not just rational thought, the child will be able to eventually say something like, “I am really upset because I love that cup. There’s just something special about it, and I am sad I cannot have it.” I know that this might sound like a pie-in-the-sky interaction, but the more that you are able to kindly and strongly hold your boundary, the more your children will be able to cry about what they cannot change. Yes, it is painful to watch our children cry; it doesn’t bring any caring parent pleasure to watch their children suffer and cry, but this is how humans adapt, become resilient and hence, less bossy. And so, while we don’t want to force our children to cry all of the time, we do want them to be able to feel sadness and use a more-emotional language. And the more you are able to use emotional language, the more likely that your children will become adults who can access their own feelings, have compassion for others and communicate peacefully with all other humans.
Our children are developmentally meant to challenge our commands (some more than others), and as they push, we drop our boundaries to sidestep the whining, crying, violence, begging, nagging and harassment. We just want them to stop. As we chronically drop our boundaries, the child becomes increasingly insecure due to the flip in the roles of who should have the power in the family. The more insecure the child, the more power grabs they make, creating a neverending cycle of bossiness. The parent is at their wits’ end, but punishments and challenges to their power result in worsening behavior. But if we decide to judiciously and peacefully hold our boundaries, we will bring the child to the tears they so desperately need. These tears signify that their brain has accepted that life is not going their way, and that’s OK. All of this is tough work, but well worth it. And remember: Even the most intense children were not born to bully you. Yes, parenting them is hard, and yes, you are going to have to grow up in ways you never saw coming, but the alternative is suffering on top of suffering. It is worth holding the boundaries and allowing the tears to fall.
Reprinted from Parenting Outside the Lines by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020, Meghan Leahy.