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Are you and your child battling for control?

Do you believe children should do as they’re told, or do you want them to behave considerately towards others? Clinical psychologist DR LOUISE PORTER says we need to ask ourselves this question. By Kate Barber

When you’re dealing with resistant or explosive behaviour from your young or not-so-young child, it’s really tough. If you’re feeling exasperated or desperate about your child’s behaviour and your response to it, and saddened about your relationship, you’re not alone. 

WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR YOUR CHILDREN?

Louise says how we want to parent boils down to our beliefs about human nature and what we want for our children. “Do we believe children are out to get us, manipulative, attention seeking? Do we need them to turn out how we want them to be?” These beliefs underpin the ̔Controlling’ parenting style, where the basic objective is that the child will do what they are told, says Louise.

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“Do you want your child to do what they’re told or to behave considerately?” Louise asks. “If it’s the latter, it’s about engaging children’s thinking about what happens to others when we behave a certain way rather than what happens to us, which is what rewards and punishments teach.” This is what the ̔Guidance’ approach is all about.

YOUR CHILD IS TRYING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING

Louise says that all behaviour is communication about whether our needs are being met. She encourages parents to think about needs as cups that need filling. “If parents are trying to make children do something that isn’t meeting their needs – to be understood, for connection, for independence, for instance – their cups will be emptying, and they will be resistant, disruptive, even explosive.”1

As a parent, their behaviour may be exasperating, embarrassing and stressful, but it is a response to their unmet needs. Louise says, “our biggest mistake is telling them off or trying to quieten them down.” Instead, we need to translate their outburst into communication about
their needs. 

Empathy is the key, she says. Ask what they need or might help, and really try to listen to them. “Instead of saying ̔you’re fine’ (they’re not), tell them you’re there for them and that they’ll feel better soon.” 

Remember: “When someone is drowning, it is not the time to give swimming lessons,” says Louise. “Say something like, ̔You’re hurt, you’re angry. What will help you? Would you like to go somewhere quiet and play with your cars?’ If they can’t answer, decide for them, but reassure them you’re there for them.” Of course, realise that at that moment, they may need space from you. (This isn’t ̔time out’ for ̔naughtiness’, it’s space where you don’t overload them, but instead reassure them that you’re there if and when they need you.) 

What if they tell you they hate you, and you’re ruining their life? Louise acknowledges that it’s really hard, but says: “It’s not personal. They are angry. Respond by saying, ̔You’re angry at the moment, I get that.’”

Afterwards, you can talk about it. “At the end of the day, you could say: ̔When you got upset like you did this morning, what else could Mum or Dad do to help you?’ Use them as a consultant. Let them know you’re still there for them. Perhaps they’ll tell you about their needs that weren’t being met. You can tell them it was stressful for you, but don’t lecture them and make them feel ashamed of having big feelings.” 

THE ‘DANCE’ OF CONTROL

Children get self-esteem from feeling they belong (they want you to like them and want to cooperate), and that they have some command of their own lives. For some children – Louise calls these children ̔spirited’ – having autonomy is their main source of self-esteem. “Spirited kids are willing to risk your displeasure to prove that you can’t make them do stuff,” she says.

All children want some autonomy in their lives, especially ̔spirited’ kids. “Children who display repeated emotional or behavioural difficulties are often protesting about our efforts to control them,” says Louise. We get into a ̔dance’ for control. “The longer the dance goes on, the more convinced each is that they are responding to the other. The parent says, ̔I’m controlling because he’s so out of control’, and the child says, ̔I’m out of control because she tries to boss me around.’”

CHANGING THE PATTERN

You can change this ̔dance’ by stepping out of it. “Have a conversation with your child: ̔I think I’ve made a mistake, and I have heard about other ways of doing this. I wonder whether we can work together to think of some ways that will work for you and me.’”

Louise says it can be hard to learn the strategies and be authentic. “It’s a two-step forward, one back process, trying to change your responses to focus on your child’s needs.” And, “it takes about a week per year of your child’s age for them to recover their self-esteem.” But, she reassures parents, “our kids love us so much, and as soon as the door opens to some empathy, they’re going to soak that up”.

“If we have the courage to say to children, ̔I messed up, I forgot what I stand for, let’s have that conversation again, shall we’, we won’t lose face. They know we’ve messed up. You gain traction by saying, ̔I forgot again, and I’m sorry.’” She urges parents to keep trying.

If you feel like you’re in a battle for control with your child and desperate to change the way you respond in those difficult moments, Dr Louise Porter’s book Parental Guidance Recommended unpacks the Guidance approach to parenting (and raising emotionally healthy kids) with strategies for teaching children to act in ways that are considerate of others. louiseporter.com.au

1Louise provides a comprehensive list of human needs in her book Parental Guidance Recommended. Identifying your child’s needs isn’t always easy when emotions are high, and familiarising yourself with these needs can help.

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