“People always say ‘choose your battles in parenting’. Let’s choose peace instead. After all, children are not our enemies, and childhood should not be a battleground.’
This wise thinking from L.R. Knost is a wonderful aim—and something that most parents strive for.
None of us begin parenting hoping to spend hours locked in battle. But as our babies grow into children it feels impossible to avoid power struggles. Or is it?
When you step away from control-based parenting methods and start using connection-based tools, challenging behavior is easier to understand and stop. If you are stuck on how to reduce the battles and stop defiance or disrespectful behaviour, read on for five simple reframes that will help.
New ways to melt disrespectful behaviour away
When a child speaks disrespectfully, it can be incredibly difficult to avoid the tug of war that often follows.
- Shut up!
- You’re just an idiot!
- You’re not the boss of me!
- You can’t make me!
- But why?
Disrespectful words are so hard to hear. Whining, pestering or arguing zap us of energy. It’s natural that we want to stop the tirade as fast as possible.
And yet any teaching we attempt in these moments so often fails. Our advice falls on deaf ears, or causes the behaviour to flare. Our own upset grows and we respond in unreliable ways.
As a power struggle begins, choosing peace seems a lovely but completely unattainable goal.
The good news is that this pattern is not your fault.
What the brain has to do with power struggles, meltdowns and disrespectful behaviour
You see, the brain has its own response to upset. Let me explain.
We can think of the brain as being divided parts. The brain stem governs life processes, like breathing, and is in charge of the well-known fight or flight response. The limbic system, or middle brain, which includes the amygdala, plays a key role in our emotional responses and attaches emotional content to our memories. This is the part of our brain that determines whether we are ‘in connection’ and feel safe. It lets children know, ‘Yes! All is ok here. We are fine to learn and play, to share and have fun'.
Finally, the neocortex is our higher brain, where our thinking happens. The prefrontal cortex within this is the part of the brain that helps children reason, organise, be considerate and play and think well. At least, it does when the limbic system tells this part of the brain that all is safe and secure.
But when we are upset, the amygdala flips the thinking brain and sends it into fight or flight. A child is cut off from thinking or acting well, no matter how much we try to talk calmly or appeal to their logic. And, governed by our own upset, we may make rash decisions or say harsh words.
Our brains and bodies run best on connection. When connected, we feel calm and carry a sense that all is well. We are able to cooperate, learn and grow.
When we feel a sense of disconnect, defiance and power struggles often arise.
Disrespectful behaviour is a sign
Disrespectful behaviour is one of the first signals that your child’s limbic system may be feeling shaky and disconnected. It can be seen as an early warning that your child’s thinking has flipped or is about to. We know, and we see, that to try and teach a child in this moment of disrespect results in a power struggle.
And yet, how many of us, faced with a child who is shouting, “Just shut up,” have felt the need to teach that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable? And how many of us, when our talking and teaching fails, have resorted to screaming back or have sent them away, to “think” about their actions?
How many of us have done this, despite feeling—and seeing—that this response is unhelpful for both sides?
We do this because most often it’s what we grew up with. It's also the pattern that mainstream parenting frequently advises. We see friends, teachers, grandparents repeat the pattern.
After all, what else is there to do?
Why we need to let control-based responses go
Power struggles often happen because of a widely held view in our society. We are expected to be ‘in control’ of a child’s behaviour.
This is a tall order. Anyone who has attempted to convince a toddler to eat their mushrooms or remind their teen to take out the trash has probably seen control-based strategies backfire.
Bribery that leads only to bigger bribes. Negotiations that take hours, and come with a million conditions. Punishment, blame and shame lead to ugly shutdowns in communication that can cause cracks in the relationship (and rarely stop the behaviour for long).
This is not to say that toddlers should eat only what they want or teens should be allowed to get out of chores. Of course not!
But if control-based responses only cause bigger explosive upsets and meltdowns, we need a different approach.
We can start with seeing disrespect as a symbol that our child’s sense of connection is faltering.
And instead of feeling that we need to “enter battle” and control the disrespect, we can seek to restore the connection, and watch the disrespectful behaviour decrease.
You will no doubt be surprised and pleased by the positive outcomes you see, including greater cooperation.
Want to know more? You can read more about moving away from punishment and coercion here.
These five reframes will help you to handle disrespectful behaviour differently (and see better outcomes)
- Reframe #1 – Meet your child with a different energy
- Reframe #2 – Why ‘freedom of mouth’ builds intelligence
- Reframe #3 – We are the safe space
- Reframe #4 – Allow your own feelings
- Reframe #5 – Expect mistakes (ours and theirs)
Reframe #1 – meet your child with a different energy
Disrespectful behaviour is often a retort when children sense that we are not seeing them with love. For example, if your children are fighting, and you enter the fray as a judge and jury, deciding who is in the wrong and what needs to happen, it’s likely that you’ll see some defiance!
Indignation at injustice is another common time we see defiance and power struggles. You’ll hear them tell you something doesn’t feel fair, or “so and so gets to….”
Children—particularly teens—can also sense a lack of integrity from a long way off. If we insist they do not use a device at night because we worry they won’t sleep, but they know we wake up grumpy having stayed up until midnight watching Netflix, you can bet they won’t be polite about these double standards.
Take a moment to reflect on how you meet your child in hard moments. Can you hear beyond their disrespectful words to the true meaning behind them?
Could it be that your child’s defiance and disrespect is a message that you need to listen and trust them more fully?
Children need us to take charge with a focus on their goodness. In the middle of a hard moment, we can lose sight of this. If your tween or teen is asking for more freedom and responsibility, and chafing at the boundaries you set, listening to their feelings will help you gather information to lovingly lead with a fuller sense of what’s happening. And, if you can greet them as good, smart and to be trusted despite it all, you can work as a team.
And a tip—if you find yourself judging your child, gripping tightly on to a power struggle, use Abigail Wald’s idea of a ‘drive by.’ Pause, walk away and take a moment. This models beautiful respect and kindness to our children.
Reframe #2 – Why ‘freedom of mouth’ builds intelligence
Once we understand that crying, tantrums, raging, perspiring, laughing and trembling release tension and bring growth in intelligence and closeness, we’ll value opportunities to listen to our child’s feelings. If they are off-track, and we warmly set a limit, this is NOT a power struggle.
How do we set limits without power struggles?
We use fewer than five words.
We listen openly to the outpouring of emotion.
We carefully monitor our own internal state to ensure it is calm and loving.
This approach means that we are taking charge with a focus on our children’s goodness combined with the wisdom of allowing them ‘freedom of the mouth’ to scour out their emotional pipes.
In those difficult moments it is a mistake to begin ‘teaching’. As mentioned, the part of the brain that can respond to logic and reason is at this point, offline. Rather than explaining, lecturing, scolding, and generally getting drawn into a power struggle, we can repeat a new mantra: Reach don't teach.
Reach for their limbic brain to let it know all is well and that they are safe, because safety is what restores their thinking brain. Remove the threat of the power battle and you show their brain that the flight or fight response is not needed.
Let your body, your tone, your eye contact and your warmth do the communicating. Show understanding. “I know. Of course you're upset with me. I'm here. I care.”
As you practice this, you become the beautiful solid rock upon which the waves of their emotion can crash. When you don't get drawn into a power struggle those waves very quickly loose their strength.
This works best if you dive in and experiment. The next time your child is angrily demanding something, or defiantly refusing a request, move in close and listen. Hold the limit warmly with just a few words. Keep holding out the expectation but don’t force.
Make space for feelings. Keep listening for as long as you can.
Don’t forget to look for changes later in the day or the next day. Are things smoother between you? Is there more cooperation?
Giving your children the gift of your warm attention builds a strong sense of connection between you.
Reframe #3 – We are the safe space
I recall a post from Connected Parenting expert Tosha Schore that I have often found useful. “Trust in development”. If your tired, hungry 2-year-old screeches, ‘I want dinner!’ you can safely presume that she won’t be screeching that way when she is an adult. When your indignant, unhappy 10-year-old calls you an idiot because you set a limit, you can feel confident that his usual sunny demeanour will return once he has gotten those big feelings out of the way. Teens, too, need us to remember that they are in a state of huge change and development.
Whenever your kids are sassy or rude, keep in mind that they need us as their safe spaces to let off steam in a world that treats them with huge disrespect.
Knowing they have this safe space helps them develop resilience. Chances are that it is entirely developmentally appropriate for them to be entirely inappropriate in the way they show their feelings. It’s fair to say that even we sensible grownups can have difficulty in expressing ourselves politely when having big feelings!
But what happens when you just can’t? You are lost in the moment, pitched in battle with your child, stubbornly arguing or shouting. Read on for the most important reframe of all. This strategy literally changes lives.
Reframe #4 – Allow your own feelings
Don’t forget that you carry your feelings with you through each and every day. Your fear, your worry, and your tension all form a heartbeat that becomes the backdrop of your busy days with your children. No wonder we slip into old patterns and behave in ways that leave us feeling regretful. No wonder we vow to “choose peace,” and then explode.
If we have the chance to feel our feelings fully, the knots we carry in our hearts and minds can loosen. Bringing your worries and fears out into the light, as well as your anger and your irritation, dissolves them. Listening Partnerships are tailor made to support parents. They work so beautifully because they provide a safe holding space for our feelings, just as we aim to provide that space for our children.
Many feelings about disrespect and defiance originate in how these moments were handled when we were children. These ideas will give you a good place to start exploring your feelings and triggers in your Listening Partnerships:
- Answer: If I behaved like this when I was a child, what happened?
- Say the things you wish you’d been allowed to as a child.
- Stop trying to be a patient parent. Tell your LIstening Partner every single thing you wish you could say to your child and let out all your frustration.
- Who does your child remind you of? What is/was your relationship with this person like?
- Wring a towel or push on the wall as you tell your Listening Partner about how unreasonable your child is.
Reframe #5 – Expect mistakes, ours and theirs
We will make mistakes as we head towards our ultimate goal of leading without punishment, shame, blame or even rewards. There are many reasons for this. Deep patterns take practice to replace and we are all recovering from a society saturated in power play.
Your child has been on the planet for a matter of months—somewhere between 12 months for a one-year-old and 216 months for an eighteen-year-old. Their bodies naturally head towards the elegant and reliable process of emotional release, even as society tells them to stuff their feelings down and hide it.
It is little wonder that our stress-fuelled nervous systems meet theirs with some angst and tension!
But if we can accept the slip ups and move on, if we can approach this journey with a light attitude, we are more able to learn and grow together.
How does this sound?
- “Oops, Mama was arguing with you, I don’t want to do that, no way, nuh-uh. Let’s hug instead!”
- “Uh-oh, I think you just called me a poop head, I’m sure you didn’t mean to call me that because you think my head is actually adorable, right?”
- “Oh gosh, I love the way you say no so loud and proud! Say it again, louder!”
Final thoughts on stopping power struggles
These reframes are intended to be useful as you work to dissolve power struggles and melt defiance.
Respect and kindness builds the kind of cooperation and caring that makes life feel sweet.
Try to hold on to your perspective and understanding that these challenging behaviours are not forever. And when you can’t remember, know that your own work on your underlying feelings will restore that perspective and lighten the emotional backpack you hold.
And in all of this, please remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect parent, and no such thing as a perfect child.
We are all making mistakes and learning together. That’s just as it should be.
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