When a child or teenager goes on the rampage in response to a ‘no’ from a parent, what is the parent to do? Certainly, a clip around the ear would only be fighting fire with fire and does not model for the young person a mature way of managing a conflict situation. The immediate response to a child who is attempting to gain control through destructive or terrorising behaviour is, in a way that is physically safe for the parent, to hold the child in a firm and non-threatening way, thereby preventing the child from continuing the intimidatory behaviour. When it is a teenager, the parent needs to keep a safe distance, maintain strong eye-contact and request firmly that (s)he immediately desists from the threatening behaviour. If the teenager continues rampaging, then within the young person’s earshot, the parent needs to ring the police and request immediate help. This latter response is both a kindness to self and to the son or daughter.
Once the dust has settled there is a serious relationship situation that still requires resolution. Separateness is critical to conflict resolution. There are three aspects to separateness, one, the young person is not his or her difficult behaviour; two, the young person’s trail of destruction is about him or her and, three, the parent’s response is about the parent.
The maintenance of relationship is paramount when it comes to a parent responding to children’s or teenager’s challenging behaviours. No behaviour justifies breaking relationship; to do so – to throw the baby out with the bathwater – is more deeply troubling than the young person’s challenging responses. A child (or adult) is not his troubling behaviour and so in maturely responding to this behaviour, parents need to do their best to stay connected with the person of their son or daughter and be definite and clear about needing him/her to take responsibility for the threatening reactions. The message here is that ‘I love you but I will not tolerate being threatened and I need for you to take responsibility for the outrageous outburst’.
As regards the second aspect of separateness, any enmeshment of the offspring’s behaviour with the parent’s response makes it impossible for any true and lasting resolution to emerge. For example, when a parent blames herself – ‘I’ve totally spoilt him’ she deprives the young person of owning and taking responsibility for his own troubling actions. Furthermore, the parent loses the opportunity to get to know her son or daughter more by genuinely inquiring – when the timing is right – ‘how was it that you responded in such a destructive way to my ‘no’ to your request?’ The young person may respond ‘but you always give me what I want’ or ‘I’m embarrassed about telling my friends I won’t be able to go to the disco’ or whatever. The parent can now respond by saying: ‘I’m glad to hear now about where you are in all of this, but I need for you to first take responsibility for the aggressive manner of your response and to pay for all of the things you broke.’ Differences arise in all relationships but how these are handled is critical to family wellbeing. Even if this was one of the first ‘no’s’ that the young person has encountered, his violent response was to get his own way – it was not due to being spoilt! Unless the young person is solidly confronted with responsibility for his own reactions then his progress toward maturity is seriously blocked. Parents need to ensure that the young person is not allowed to slide out of the responsibilities arising from his/her outburst – in this way parents retain strong boundaries around their need for each person to take responsibility for his or her own actions within the family.
Children and teenagers are members of a family and live under the same roof. There are responsibilities that go with these circumstances and the earlier that children are give their responsibilities, the better. If parents want to have a mature and responsible fifteen year old then they need to have started with the three day old. As children get older the age-related responsibilities need to be laid firmly at their door. When young people are not co-operating, it needs to be quickly challenged – not ten/twenty years later – so that any blocks to the mutual co-operation critical to effective family functioning are resolved. Examples of the responsibilities of children and teenagers are:
- tidying away their toys
- tidying their room
- going to school
- household chores
- taking due care of their clothes and belongings
- responding to reasonable requests
- being kind to parents and other members of the family
- learning from mistakes
- doing their school homework
- being home at an agreed hour
- attending the weekly family meeting
It is a separate issue when the parent, on examining his or her own behaviour, discovers that ‘I have spoilt my son and neglected myself in being over-there for him and under-there for myself.’ The parent has the responsibility to correct this serious imbalance and take the necessary actions to be there for self and create the opportunities for her son or daughter to be responsible for his or her self and actions. Strong boundaries around these responsibilities are crucial. Parents are certainly responsible to their children and teenagers in terms of bringing them from a place of total dependence to utter independence. However, parents are not responsible for their children, but they do have a responsibility for their own selves and all feelings, thoughts, words and actions. In homes where such responsibility operates, it is not a case of parents saying ‘do as I say’ but a clear situation of ‘do as I do’
Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a Clinical Psychologist/Author and International Speaker. He is also Director of UCC Courses on Communication, Parent Mentoring and Relationship Studies. His book Myself, My Partner is currently available.