“I’m so upset! She’s working completely against me. No matter what I do, she continues to speak to me disrespectfully.
I’ve tried punishing her, but she doesn’t seem to care. What am I supposed to do? I want a good relationship with my daughter, but she’s making it impossible!”
Maybe you can relate to this mom’s struggle. She had tried all the usual suggestions, but things hadn’t improved. She had no idea what to do next. Many parents feel this way and find themselves at the end of their rope.
I’ve been there as a parent myself. I wanted to parent from a loving place, but my kid’s behaviors were driving me crazy. Like a really bad kind of crazy. I didn’t know what to do.
It took me years to figure it out, but I finally found something that really worked.
These suggestions are a bit counterintuitive, but I promise they work to make big shifts in your relationship and in your child’s behaviors long-term. I’ve seen big shifts in families who apply these ideas, even though they’re counter to what most of us grew up with or see in our culture.
4 things to try:
1. Set the behaviors aside. Yes, I’m serious. Whatever you think should be happening in that moment can’t or it would be happening. If you can remember that all behaviors are a communication, it can be helpful to be more curious in the moment. The behaviors let you know how your child is feeling about himself and also how he’s feeling about his relationship with you. Focus on the child instead, not what he’s doing or not doing. See number 2.
2. What can you do to connect in the relationship right now? We’re often so busy worrying about what our child is doing that we don’t think about our child having her own experience. It doesn’t mean her behaviors are all completely acceptable, but it means that we focus on the connecting part. Slow yourself down. Really look at your child’s face. Does she look sad? Would she welcome a hug if it was offered? Can you validate his feelings, even if you don’t understand why he’s upset? (“You look really sad because you can’t find your favorite toy?”)
3. Make room for the feelings. When you acknowledge how your child is feeling, you may be able to have a little more access to the feelings beneath the surface. Your child may start crying, for example. This is actually a good sign, especially if she was angry or really unreasonable to begin with. This is what was beneath it and you’re moving through to the deeper layers. Just be there with your child and try not to say too much. Allow the feeling cycle to move through (this takes about 90 seconds, so do your best to stay with it) and things will begin to shift. Avoid asking your child “why” questions in these emotional spaces unless you can’t listen anymore. “Why” pulls the child back into the thinking brain. When we do this too early, they don’t finish it and it starts over again later, usually stronger.
4. Wait until after the emotional expressions are over before you try to address the behavior. Going back after the upset has ended is far more effective than trying to address what they did wrong and what they can do differently next time. This conversation needs to happen, but when your child is on “green” or in his thinking brain, not the feeling brain. (We lose access to about 25 IQ points when we’re in our emotional brains. That isn’t the time to bring up changing behaviors.)
What does this look like in real life?
A client came to see me because she was concerned about her teenaged son. He wasn’t doing well in school and he was lacking motivation for just about everything. She had tried talking about his grades, discussing the long-term consequences of his actions, punishments, bribes. Nothing was working.
Let’s shift our paradigm here and focus on the relationship.
I suggested that she not mention the school work or what she was seeing that he was doing “wrong.”
Instead, I asked her what she could do to connect more with him. She decided to meet him after school and do some special things with him, showing an interest in him and what was going on in his life, which she realized she really hadn’t been doing. This didn’t mean it was OK that he wasn’t doing well in school, but it means that the relationship is more important than the school work. When we put the relationship first, the school work will often fall into place (unless there’s something else going on that needs attention, which we are more likely to figure out if we listen first).
During the time they would spend together, slowly her son began to share his concerns. There was room for his feelings and his experience. The mother just listened.
In this situation, the mother brought up grades and school work after about a week by starting to talk about his classes and his goals. But this didn’t happen until after they had spent a good amount of time connecting first. His mom showed an interest first so that he felt safe to share.
Just that little bit of extra time and attention without the conversation about his lack made a big difference. In just a couple of weeks, he was spending more time doing his homework and keeping up with assignments. His motivation increased. He knew what he needed to do. He had been feeling disconnected and it was showing up in his school work.
It’s all about the relationship. When we put the relationship first, seeking to understand our child’s point of view, many of our conflicts have a way of naturally unfolding in a way that helps us all to connect with each other in this very moment.