Originally published on the Imperfect Families blog.
Battle lines are drawn.
Your child is not giving up without a fight.
As they dig in their heels, you feel pressured to stand your ground.
Panic sets in: “If I lose this fight, he will never do anything I ask ever again!”
You start to yell. Threaten. Punish. Anything to “show him who’s boss.”
And yet, in the midst of all the chaos, you don’t feel very confident.
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In fact, you feel just like your child: out of control.
Why your kids need you to step up
When your kids are feeling overwhelmed and out-of-sorts, they search for someone to guide them. Someone who knows how to handle the situation. Someone they can trust.
Unfortunately, when your kids look to you for this guidance, they often find you screaming, threatening and throwing up your hands in frustration.
In these moments, they start to doubt. They’re not sure you are capable of guiding them through this problem.
And so, they decide to take on the challenge themselves.
They put themselves in the driver’s seat. They act older than they really are, take on more responsibilities, become bossy, whiny, or may even try to soothe your emotions.
Your first instinct may be to 'lay down the law' or tighten the reigns to confirm your position of authority. Unfortunately ... it leads to more confusion, disconnect and insecurity.
Kids are not meant to be in this position.
Kids are designed to depend on their caregivers and rest in the security that their caregivers will help them safely navigate confusing situations and big emotions.
In other words, your kids need you to step up. They need you to be the boss. To take charge.
To show them that you’ve got this.
How to be in charge (without telling them who's boss)
Your first instinct may be to “lay down the law” or tighten the reigns to confirm your position of authority. Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect. It leads to more confusion, disconnection and insecurity.
Instead, you can show your kids you’re in charge by being confident, cool and collected.
- Taking a deep breath.
- Calming your own emotions before your respond
- Using empathy
- Trusting your gut instinct
- Being in tune with your child’s needs
- Listening well
- Setting firm and fair limits
- Offering support and assistance
- Being flexible when necessary
- Exploring solutions
- Embracing imperfection
- Realizing that you are the perfect parent for your child (even if you’re not a “perfect parent”)
By demonstrating time and again that you are safe, trustworthy and fair, and by focusing more on keeping your own emotions in check, rather than trying to squash every big emotion, tantrum or argument that your kids express, you show that you’re “the boss” without saying, “I’m the parent, that’s why!” or “Because I said so!”
Dr. Vanessa LaPointe calls this “Hulking It Up” (referring to the Marvel Comic superhero the Incredible Hulk). Here’s how she describes it in Discipline Without Damage.
"Big people who are hulking it up do so in more subtle ways. They are capably and confidently handling whatever needs to be handled with quiet, assured, consistent actions that are full of compassion, care, nurturance and understanding."
Why this works
When you focus more on yourself and less on managing your child’s behavior, you begin to realize that your parenting authority is not a punishment, but a gift.
It allows your kids to be kids. To grow and explore at their own pace, knowing that you will be there when they need your support.
It gives them the freedom to have a horrible meltdown over a dropped ice cream cone, and then come to you for comfort; knowing that you understand their big feelings, will help them calm down, and find a solution.
It opens up space for communication, problem-solving and teamwork, instead of division and arguments.
Your kids are longing for you to be in the driver’s seat. They want to depend on you as they go through difficult situations.
But, you don’t have to be perfect.
It’s OK to be a work in progress, to slip back into old habits from time to time, or to forget that your authority comes from being calm, cool and confident rather than demanding, angry, and out-of-control.
Next time your child starts to dig in their heels and you feel that familiar twinge of panic, you may do things differently.
Instead of thinking, “If I lose this fight, he will never do anything I ask ever again,” you remind yourself to be the boss. To step into the driver’s seat and guide this conversation back to safety.
“OK, OK. We disagree,” you say, after taking a few deep breaths. “I really want to hear what you have to say, but shouting at each other isn’t going to help. Let’s sit down and you can start over. I’m ready to listen now.”