Step one ... stay calm!
Most of us had kids because we thought parenting would be a delight — full of fun moments, laughter and meaningful connection. We like to believe we're the type of parents our kids think are "cool." We convince ourselves that we’re better at parenting than our parents were.
After all, the drama we had with our parents was because THEY didn’t handle things well, right? We justify our own rebellion as kids and we're righteous in our confidence as parents.
And then, we wake up from the daydream.
Even if we successfully fulfill this ideal vision of parenting, foul moods and hurt feelings still happen at some point. No matter how "nice" we are, we’re going to put limits into place that our kids won't like. And then … watch out!
Your happy, united family suddenly shifts to you versus your tired and hungry pre-schooler, frustrated elementary kid who isn’t getting what she wants, or worse — a snarling, seething, moody, hate-mongering … TEENAGER!
Even if we remember what it was like when we were kids — the yelling, the sulking, the drama — somehow we become indignant when reality strikes and our own kids behave the same way.
Snarkiness from your kids is normal (and even necessary).
It seems strange, but a certain amount of snarky, mean, dramatic interactions is actually critical to the natural process of child development and healthy separation. Why?
Kids’ brains change constantly, which naturally leads to changes in their behavior.
For little kids, disconnection between what they want to do and what they’re capable of doing, can lead to excessive frustration and upsets. Likewise, research on teens and risky behavior identifies biological foundations that lead to behaviors that reject authority and disconnection with family.
Plus, being a kid is hard. Today’s fast moving stress-filled society puts pressure on everyone, but especially on our kids.
According to the Journal of Child and Family Studies, clinical anxiety rates among our youth are at a steady rise. As they get older, research shows that teens are more susceptible to this pressure than adults, in part because they desire acceptance and connection to the world outside of their family.
Stress puts the best of us in a bad mood. Add hormones to the mix and that leads to a hot mess.
Even though our kids (eventually) want and need their independence, it’s not always easy to manage it, at any age. Whether it’s a toddler going off to pre-school, a child going off to camp, or a teen preparing to fly the nest, these forays into independence feel stressful (for them, as well as you).
I vividly recall my stepson, now 30, taking this step. He was cooperative as a kid with relatively little drama. He loved being with us. After all, we were fun, we provided some stability, and it was "easy" to live at home.
When he was ready for independence, it was hard to break away. He actually started to create some drama in order to make it easier to leave home, a necessary step in helping him step into his independence.
So what do should you do as a parent when your kids start to view you as "the enemy?" (Especially those of us who still really want to relish whatever connection we have with our kids?)
When you set realistic expectations — (actually expect your kids to lash out, sometimes) — you're less likely to freak out when they do. Your kids are also human beings, after all. Everyone loses their cool sometimes (your boss, your spouse, and even you).
The best way to disarm your kid's screaming fit is to NOT react. Don’t take it personally. Stay calm, cool and collected, and model respectful behavior.
Sounds simple, right? I know it’s easier said than done. So to help you keep your cool, here are some techniques to use when you feel triggered by your kids’ reactivity:
1. Show some compassion
Do you remember being a kid? Can you recall what it was like wanting your independence, but not (quite) ready for it? Start by acknowledging and validating their emotions and struggles, while being slower to judge or jump in and "fix."
Try this: "I know that it made you mad when I told you that you couldn't go to Tara's house, anyone would be disappointed."
2. Give them space
Focus on finding opportunities to let them test their own decision making skills, celebrate with them when things go well, and support them in failing forward when things don’t work as planned.
Try this: "I can tell you're upset. Let's talk in 10 minutes when you have some time to calm down." (Make sure YOU'RE the one to check back in!)
3. Communicate clearly
Our kids need stability to help them figure out their own rules and preferences in life. Get clear on which rules are "nice to haves" vs "must haves", for you as a parent.
Be willing to let go a bit, but draw a line clearly and distinctly. Then, make it clear for your kids where you will and will not bend.
For example, in my house it’s OK for my kids to "lose it" occasionally, but it’s a requirement that they apologize, make amends, and work to more consciously manage their triggers. After all, most adults lose it (occasionally) as well.
4. Love them unconditionally
Some of our kid’s behavior changes are a way of feeling less connected to us, and more connected to the outside world — their next adventure. Sometimes, what they need most is to know that there is safe place to return after a hard day of living life.
Sending them love even when they don’t ask for it, even when they might not reciprocate, is the most powerful gift that you can give your child. The side-effects for you probably won’t hurt either. Give them a hug (probably goes best with #1 or #2).
5. Take care of yourself at the same time
No one told us that being a parent would be as hard as it is on some days. It's draining, even exhausting, being with someone who used to idolize you, but now argues every word, and pushes every button.
Take some time away, get some support, enjoy the time you have, feed your own fountain, so that you have some energy for the next battle. Soon enough the battles will be over, and the ending will be bittersweet — a grown, independent, adult.
Elaine Taylor-Klaus and Diane Dempster, founders of ImpactADHD.com, teach/write about practical strategies to parents of “complex” kids with ADHD and related challenges. To help your kids find the motivation to get anything done, download their free parent’s guide, The Parent’s Guide to Motivating Your Complex Child.