My children have not always lived with me. After their mother and I split, she and I decided together that it would likely be best for them to live with her and visit me so that they were not bounced back and forth. I think still that this was the right decision for them. In their later teens each one, for various reasons, has lived with me for varying times. Whether they have stayed with me for a weekend or a week or just moved in, I must say that I absolutely love having my kids around me. I like my relationships with them. And I love them dearly.
No, it has not always been smooth sailing. Issues come up. In my practice I often hear parents say things like, “I feel so bad because the other night I completely lost it with my kid.” So I have to ask things like details…what was leading up to them “losing it” and what emotions were beneath the final straw etc. Then, understanding that in its context, I begin to ask things like, “Did you hit them?” “Did you humiliate them?” “Did you intimidate them?” “Did you belittle them?” “Did you swear at them?” “Did you call them names?” and so on. The answer is usually “no” to most if not all of those types of questions. If they are “yes”, then we work on behaviour modifications. But the thing is…they are usually “no”.
Parents often feel guilty about a myriad of things, and “losing it” on their child is a real hot spot. Our society views parents who lose it on their children as losers and abusers. But I don’t agree. I think that it is actually quite healthy in a parent/child relationship for a child to know that a parent has a threshold of tolerance for ridiculous and immature behaviour. I think that it is healthy for a child to know that they can only push mom or dad so far and then said parent is going to lower the boom. It teaches them respect. It teaches them that parents are people. It teaches them that there is this thing called boundaries. It also teaches them that the entire world does NOT revolve around their teenage feelings. It actually prepares them for actual adult relationships. Out in the world, they are not going to have it easy. People who do not know and love them are far less likely to put up with their crap than are their parents. This is something that every child has had to learn for the last numbers of thousands of years of the human race. Styles of communicating when enough is enough have definitely changed. When I was a kid back talking resulted in a back hand across the face. Now it more likely results in an extended time out. It really doesn’t matter which style one views as the “correct” style, they both give the message. So yes, let’s choose the less abusive style.
So when we are pushed to the point of losing it what is okay to do? I do not pretend to know all that there is about perfect parenting, and I do not believe that ANYONE is a “perfect” parent. I can only share some of the things that I have learned. These are the things that will not scar a child for life. So here goes.
1. Isolation in conversation. I do my best to not lose it on my kid in front of other people. Sometimes it cannot be helped and that depends upon some circumstances. I don’t like to embarrass my child in front of others out of anger. That is counterproductive and then the point that we are trying, as parents, to make gets completely lost.
2. Yes, now and then a swear word will come out. This is not a horrible thing. I view it as a sentence enhancer. But it will never be just a string of expletives. That would be pointless. Besides, I reserve my strings of expletives for when I injure myself…like hitting my head on a cupboard door or something.
3. Raising the voice is not abusive in my books. It is a way of communicating that you are upset and that this has got to stop NOW. Besides…the only time I get outright frightening to anyone when I am angry is when I get very quiet while speaking angrily. It freaks them out completely. So I don’t do that often at all and I cannot think of a time that I have ever done that to my child.
4. Keep on point. Don’t bring up past foibles that the child has had. Yes, you can tell them that you have spoken to them about this before and here we are again, but keep that only to related things. So if a child has screwed up by blowing off curfew, don’t also make it about the computer they trashed last week. That would be a different issue altogether.
5. Make it clear what the PREFERRED behaviour would be. Any fool can criticise, condemn and complain…and THEY usually do. What is required is a stated preference. So, for example, “It is too late at night for your friends to come over to game, next time have them arrive around 8 and leave before 11.” This says that gaming is still on the table, but that there are boundaries around that. And remember that sometimes rules and boundaries need to be “soft”. So if we were to use the gaming example, this might be something that is true for week nights when those who pay the mortgage have to be up early for work, but on weekends it might not matter so much. Be clear with that.
6. Be open to negotiation, but firm in terms of what is acceptable and not. Allow yourself, during negotiations, to come at it from a perspective of “convince me” rather than an automatic “no”.
7. Although it is preferable to address issues when one is past the angry stage and has become more calm, this is not always going to happen. In times when it needs to be dealt with NOW, just remember that you were a kid once too and screwed up just as much, or perhaps in different ways.
8. Sometimes there do need to be consequences for actions taken. I believe that this builds character for a child. Those consequences, however, should never include physical or psychological violence. Physicality is something that needs to be reserved for when someone’s life is at risk. So if one teenager is beating the crap out of another one, break up the fight. Each to their respective corners. Calm it all down. THEN talk to each one about it. The goal: harmony and love. So there needs to be a healthy dose of compassion involved in order to achieve that. And in my books there is NEVER an appropriate time for psychological violence.
So then what about this consequence thing? Well, consequences help a child to earn back respect. And it should be related as much as possible to the issue at hand. For example, your child may be one who has broken a window in careless play. We have choices here. If they have an allowance then the cost of replacing the window can come out of it. That means that you also do not float them any loan for any monetary activity while that is happening, or the consequence becomes meaningless. Or, you cover the cost of the window replacement and they have to wash all the windows inside and out once a month for the next six months. Yes, you may have to show them how, but then the only thing you need to do after that is implement the when. This teaches children respect for others’ property. Consequences are not actually punitive. If it were about punishment, then any action would do. It is actually about a TEACHING opportunity.
9. Be constructive in your anger. This does not mean that it is appropriate to simply rage. Show your kids that anger can be used constructively. Speaking firmly and using voice and tone to communicate anger is completely alright. Screaming at a child on a daily basis is not. Show your children that someone being angry is not a reason to fear them, or to be intimidated by them. It is an opportunity to understand a situation and find a solution.
10. When you screw up, make sure you apologise to your kid. And then do your absolute best to not screw up (at least in that fashion) again. This will show a child that their parent is human and can make mistakes but that he/she can also own those mistakes and create a remedy.
We live in a world where the general message is to coddle our kids. This does not prepare them in any way for the world. We can be in charge and we can be in charge in a loving manner, but we don’t have to make our kids think that they are accountable to no one. If they have done wrong they will learn a lot more from the experience of correcting their behaviour and making themselves better people than they will from having it all shoved under the rug.
Parenting is difficult. There are no manuals that will teach you everything that there is to know about it. There are some that portend to do so, but they are wrong. There is ALWAYS going to be something that comes out of left field. It is our jobs, as parents, to do our best to deal with that. When children understand our authority in our homes, our homes become a safe haven. If we have no authority in our homes, our children will learn that there is not such thing as safety. They will then turn out to the world at large to find something and someone to trust, instead of trusting those who love them the most. And we should also always remember that the quality of parenting that we provide will be reflected in the quality of senior care that THEY provide later on.