Ending Reactive Parenting
Ever feel like you are stuck in a cycle of negativity?
Thanks to a standing invitation from Rachel to assist her readers and share our public dialogs, I was able to offer this mom an answer and share it with you here. The relevant sections of our dialog follow.
...I have a strong-willed 6 yr old daughter who I seem to struggle with every day. I turn into a screaming monster most nights. I am so tired of apologizing for my actions. Tired of her asking me why I am so mean, why I always yell.
But at the same time, I am not breaking down and crying about it. I feel badly, I do, and what I want most in the world is to have a better relationship with her than I had with my own mother. But at the rate we are going I don’t see that happening. And she is SO… just disrespectful, bossy, argumentative, sassy, that even though I know my actions are wrong and over-the-top, they also feel justified.
I feel like her dad and I have tried our best to teach her right and wrong, manners, to be a well-behaved child, but all she does is argue with everything we say, doesn’t listen or follow directions, seems to think everything is all about her... [I] was expecting this behavior as a teenager, not a 6 yr old. I just want this cycle to stop, and I don’t know to get out of it...
...The pain you are experiencing and your longing for a better relationship with your daughter than you had with your mom are very clear, and I want to let you know that there is hope. Actually more than hope – an answer, for you and anyone else caught in this kind of cycle.
What you described is indeed a self-perpetuating cycle, full of anger and pain for both you and your daughter. I’m so glad you recognize it as a cycle, because the good thing about a cycle is that if either one of you can change one thing, the cycle will be broken and can be replaced by a healthy relationship that includes respectful behavior and appropriate boundaries.
Currently, you are wishing for your 6 YO to break the cycle by changing her behavior, and you are right that it would help you change your reaction. But this is true, too: if your daughter were old enough to think this through, right now, she would be wishing you would change your behavior so she could change her reaction to you!
...Here’s the hard part: she can’t; you can. A 6 YO cannot even think at that level, let alone do anything about it, so as the parent, it has to start with you!
Changing your reaction is not simply a matter of self-control. Self-control can help you contain an emotional reaction and a physical one, but understanding and seeing your child through loving eyes is the best way to change your reaction permanently. You react to what you perceive, so when you change your perception, your reaction changes automatically.
That’s why putting your effort into understanding and changing how you SEE a child instead of into controlling and changing how you REACT offers huge, instant and permanent rewards.
...I know you feel justified in your reaction to your daughter... The fact that you repeatedly have made the effort to apologize is a strong testament to your desire for a loving relationship with [her]. But here’s the truth: you do get angry when you see “disrespectful behavior,” of course you do! Anybody would. Likewise, your daughter gets angry when she sees a “mean mom.” Of course she does! Anybody would. That’s not what understanding is about.
You probably sense this already, but the most likely source of each of your reactions is deeper than it seems. If you are willing to see the way you react to your daughter (and the way she reacts to you) as a symptom, not the ultimate cause of the problem in your relationship, you will be on your way to a new understanding of yourself and your daughter that could repair your relationship.
Because you wish you had a better relationship with your mother, you can start there. When you look for the beginning of a parent-child cycle in your life, look back to when you were the child. When you do, you will probably find that you have a core thought about your mother that goes something like this, “She doesn’t understand me. She doesn’t care.” That thought would make any child disrespectful, because disrespectful behavior is how people react to feeling misunderstood, uncared for, and disrespected. But more than that, it makes children ANGRY!
Children feel trapped and stuck when they feel like their parent doesn’t understand them and won’t try to see the good in them.
In their efforts to be heard, trapped children act out using the only power tools they know – those they learn from their parents: they scream, yell, argue, boss, punish…etc.
Acting out is the child’s way of communicating. A child who is doing those things is actually trying to get you to understand that she is right to feel the way she does and wishes you could see past her actions to the person she is underneath. When the parent only hears and sees and reacts to the disrespectful behavior (symptoms) instead of the message – “I want you to understand who I really am!” – the child eventually gives up and writes her parents off. (Equally true for girls and boys and their moms and dads.)
The good news is, as long as your child is angry, she has not given up on you! Her anger is a good thing. It tells you she still believes she can get through to you and get you to see who she really is – a child who loves you and wants to know you care.
You may still feel that way about your mother to some degree. If you can imagine how you would feel even today if your mother finally woke up and saw that your behavior as a child (or whatever it was that she didn’t like), was you trying to get her to understand you and get her to show you that she cared, that will reassure you that it’s never too late to improve your relationship with your daughter.
Whatever your wish is about your mother, deep down, your daughter has the same wish about you.
Instead of reacting to any given moment, saying to your daughter what you wish your mother would have said to you could turn your whole relationship around. Both relationships actually - your relationship with your daughter and your mother.
If you want more help working through this, please contact a local counselor, parent coach or psychologist, or you are welcome to contact my colleague or me at our websites.
As I said: there is more than hope. There is an answer, and it starts with you.
REPLY FROM THE MOM:
Wow! Thank you Sandy, your reply was more than I was expecting!
I over-reacted again tonight and after I got my 2 tucked into bed, I decided to see if there had been a reply that could help get started on this cycle-breaking. I think I am going print this out and read it every day!
I can totally see what you mean about my daughter trying to get my attention and seeking validation from us on a daily basis... I think I need to try some new tactics. Including spending some one-on-one time with her, like some mommy-daughter dates.
Thank you so much for your response. I truly appreciate it, from the bottom of my heart!
You are welcome. It warms my heart to know I’ve been of some help.
Changing the way you see those difficult moments you describe is still easier than changing or controlling your reactions when you see them as you do now. A key piece is understanding that all of your children’s behaviors, even the ones you don’t like, are driven by healthy needs. The behaviors may not be healthy, but the needs driving the behaviors always are, and they are very real.
If you’d like some new, simple tactics and a better understanding of what really works with children, I invite you to read my little book, SAY WHAT YOU SEE. It’s short and to the point. You will find an online version of it and much more on my website.
After that, if you'd like to go deeper and learn how to create one-on-one playtimes that can change how you see your child, heal rifts, and deepen the connection between you, you can find detailed instructions in Dr. Kellam's book, The Parent Survival Guide; and/or get on the interest list for my 8-week online Language of Listening Mastery Class.