Do you recognize any of these recurring themes in your parenting?
*Wails* I need the iPad. I’m in the middle of something! I hate you. You’re so unfair!
*Whines* I hate this! I don't want this. You never make anything I like!
*Yells* I didn’t do it. Stop accusing me! Get out of my room!
*Groans* I don’t want to do it!
How do you react when you hear something like this from your kids? How does it feel? How do you feel about your kids in those moments? How do you feel about yourself in those moments?
Let's dive deep into a power struggle and see what is going on for us at such times. I have named this difficult interaction with our kids and what ensues the parenting struggle pattern because it is a pattern that repeats itself from time to time.
This is how the pattern looks:
a parent encounters difficult behavior
the behavior triggers a bodily response in the parent
a state of frustration or acute helplessness pushes the parent to use a controlling technique (lecture, sarcasm, yell, blame, shame, punish) to ease their discomfort
the kid feels disconnected and distant from the parent
when the parent sees the child’s disconnection, no matter how justified they feel in their actions, they feel sad about the disconnection from the child.
at this point, some parents are reluctant to continue holding boundaries in order to rebuild the lost connection until they encounter the next challenge.
Interestingly, this pattern reveals that our “controlling techniques” are essentially a coping mechanism to overcome the acute discomfort we are in!
Let's understand this pattern from the lens of nervous system science. As soon as we encounter a difficult situation, our nervous system shifts into a “fight or flight or freeze” response. In this state, our prefrontal cortex cannot be accessed, which is the part of the brain that can voluntarily control our thinking, emotional responses, and behavior. We only have access to our reactive lower brain that augments our anger or fear reactions, compelling us to lecture, be sarcastic, yell, blame, shame, or punish. We clearly can't employ effective communication in this state with anger and fear as our resources. As a result, our kids naturally learn to shield themselves. They construct an emotional wall to disconnect from us, mainly to protect themselves. This makes it even more frustrating for parents whose best intentions didn't work and ended up worsening their relationship. As kids mature, parents want kids to seek their help if they ever get into trouble or find themselves in a difficult situation. But kids hesitate to approach parents in these situations because they perceive their parents as judgemental.
So what’s the answer here? The first step is to become aware of this pattern. Once you gain awareness, the next question is, “What do I do to break free from this cycle?” Many factors can contribute to the trigger that sets off the pattern. While there can be strategies you could use to escape the onset of this pattern (my next blog!), a lot of the time, you can be in a state of acute discomfort that disables you from accessing any strategy!
But there is hope … you can work on reducing the frequency of these triggers and these states of discomfort and frustration. Start by introspecting your fears concerning your child, expectations from your child, expectations from yourself as a parent, your own disappointments, and your history and conditioning. All this is a lot to unpack, and it can be overwhelming to traverse your emotional map without an objective and trained guide. It is usually helpful to seek structure and support from a parent coach. Whatever you do, remember that what you are going through is hard, and it is important that you treat yourself with kindness!