Mr. and Mrs. S. came into the office with their ten year old daughter, Sharon. They were very distraught with their daughter and had numerous complaints about Sharon’s behaviours. Not only was she having problems academically and behaviourally in school, but they complained that every time they asked Sharon to do something at home it became a major altercation. They felt that they were living from one crisis to the next. It seemed that the more problems she was having in school, the more the problems she had at home. They identified a direct relationship between the two. Their question to me was how to avoid such crises.
Family disruptions and its associated anger issues due to children’s behaviours is a common cause for referrals to Regesh Family and Child Services. Likewise, I find myself giving more and more presentations to parent groups on how to de-escalate crises in the home. I could never understand why parenting is not a mandatory course in every high school. Also, why don’t we find more support groups for parents, even for those not experiencing problems but more for preventative measures? I have the questions, but not the answers.
For conflict resolution in the home, first let’s agree that conflicts in families are inevitable. Next, parents who come to talk about their children’s behaviour often talk in generalities and surprisingly have difficulties being specific about the disruptive behaviours they would like to correct. It seems when we are emotionally involved and stressed out with behaviours, they all congeal into one big “headache”. The problem with this is that when we try to rectify the troublesome behaviours, we do not isolate the behaviour or aren’t specific with the behaviours we want to change. For example, we often use a general term that may mean a different thing to different people. By “stealing,” do we mean taking pennies off the dresser or taking merchandise from a store without paying for it? By being late for curfew, do we mean consistently or randomly? Is it fifteen minutes late or hours late? By saying the child is irresponsible, what are we referring to? Is he or she not admitting to their transgressions or not being on time? The problem when parents come to a therapist with such complaints is trying to get them to be specific. Without clearly identifying and understanding the problem, one cannot work on a resolution. Rather, the issue remains an emotional problem which is difficult to resolve.
Once we realize that identifying children’s behaviours need to be specific, it helps to analyze the problem. Of course, parents are not going to sit down with paper and pencil and analyze each situation, but if we could be taught to go through a process in our heads to better understand the problem, we can be one big step ahead of resolving the situation. For example, is the particular behaviour typical of a certain developmental stage? When does the behaviour occur? Why might children in general behave this way or why might this particular child behave this way? Is this a new behaviour or one we’ve seen before?
One common question I ask myself is whether the behaviour of the child (or even adults) is one of an emotionally disturbed person or is the behaviour emotionally disturbing? The first is that of a person where a mental health problem is influencing the behaviour, while the later is where the person is causing mental stress to another person. Often in school or home the child is causing emotional stress to the parent or teacher and is thus emotionally disturbing the other person. The child is causing havoc for other reasons than having mental health issues. On the other hand, it might be stressful to the parent or teacher because the child is not in their control but is still in his own control.
Often we describe a child as “out of control”. Another question to ask is whether the child is really out of control or just misbehaving and not following directions. That is, whose control is the child out of? Is he out of control of the adult who is asking him to do something, meaning he’s not following their direction, or is the child out of his own control and perhaps having a temper tantrum? If it’s the latter, and he’s having a temper tantrum, he cannot stop himself at that moment. In determining what to do, we must understand this behaviour very clearly.
When analyzing a situation with respect to your children, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the child able or capable of processing the situation with either a parent or third party?
- Is the behaviour causing the problems dangerous? What is the danger? To whom is the danger? Does this behaviour, when it occurs, need an immediate response or can we process the situation with the child?
- What are the long-term consequences of this behaviour or our reactions/responses to the behaviour?
- Why does this behaviour bother me? Is it disturbed or disturbing? Is the problem my problem or the child’s? This is a much more difficult question than it appears. Does the behaviour push only my buttons? In other words, would others agree that the behaviour is disturbing to them also?
- Is it part of normal development?
So the question remains, how do we engage our children for better cooperation? Here are some helpful means of achieving this goal:
- Describe what you see as the problem
When parents describe the problem, it gives the children a chance to tell themselves what to do. Also, you are insured that you both are identifying the same problem. This is an important first step and you should keep attempting to agree on what is the problem. Sometimes different people perceive things differently. For example, is the problem the teen came in late from curfew or “my parents are just in a bad mood”? One is breaking a rule why the other is a problem with a person. The key is to keep a calm voice and demeanor when doing this exercise.
- Give information
Information is a lot easier to take then accusations. When given information, kids can usually figure out for themselves what to do. Ask the child what he/she thinks should be the resolution and praise them for their effort. Sometimes information quickly turns to accusations and name calling. Of course, this becomes provocative and leads to more conflict. We soon forget the original disagreement and now concentrate on the new problem.
- Say it with a word
Less is more effective. Kids dislike hearing lectures. The long time parenting program called 1-2-3 Magic is so successful because it reduces the amount of words and lecturing to a minimum. The more words, the more there is to fight about. Keep it simple!
- Talk about your feelings
Kids need to hear their parents’ feelings. We can be genuine without being hurtful. It is important for kids to know that parents have feelings too. We don’t have to protect them from this. In fact, it encourages them to use their words and talk about how they are feeling and what’s bothering them. On the other hand, when parents get overly emotional with their feelings, it often frightens the child who feels they have to protect themselves or the parent.
- Write a note
Sometimes it’s easier to read a note than to be told something. Compliments are also shared in notes. Note writing avoids heavy emotional reactions. I’ve seen this strategy work over and over again. It is also a good strategy to avoid the lectures or give praise. It’s amazing what a ‘thank you” note will do for relationship building between a parent and child. I once worked with a family where, after tremendous strife one day between a father and his daughter, the father bought a rose and just placed it on his daughter’s pillow without any card or lecture. She got the message that he still loved her and the relationship was on its way.
Of course, this is only the beginning of building better relationships in a family by developing good conflict resolution strategies. Many books and articles have been written on the topic. What are YOU doing to de-escalate crises in your family when they arise? You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your strategies and thoughts on this topic. I will share your ideas and strategies with our readers.