When a child is being verbally disrespectful, or as we called it in our home, "emotionally biting" someone, a parent's defensive wall goes up and she screams right back! Reader Jodie M. wonders how "to manage her own anger when dealing with oppositional kids." Most parents who are having loud, ugly words screamed at them would react. The question is, "is there another option?" Yes, there is.
First, let me say that I firmly believe that parents should not be disrespected or have to endure any kind of emotional rudeness, but it does happen. Once it happens a parent feels like there's only one thing to do to stop it: punish! I want to offer another way, one that not only stops the rude and disrespectful behavior in its tracks, but also teaches.
Remember when your baby's cry was her only form of communication? Rude, disrespectful behavior is also a form of communication. Verbal disrespect and rude words are a volatile expression of feelings that haven't (otherwise) been verbalized. The feelings need to be released or all sorts of things may happen.
When a child is screaming horrible things at you, the first thing you need to be aware of is your desire to scream back, "Don't you dare talk to me that way!" or "Who do you think you are?" or "You're g-r-o-u-n-d-e-d!"
I'm not going to lie; it's hard, and it's normal to want to retaliate. But screaming and punishing in response doesn't address or resolve the original feelings that caused your child to be disrespectful. They don't teach a child how to manage the intense tidal wave he or she is feeling. Punishing her makes her swallow her intense emotions and will only cause those same feelings to erupt again in a different form.
Parents tend to think children get angry on purpose. Your child doesn't know how she got so mad. Her anger is a mystery to her. It's also a cry for help. To a child, being really mad feels scary, like she's out of control and her feelings have a life of their own. When you say, "Stop it now," she thinks, OK, but how do I hold this tidal wave of feelings back? Please show me, don't punish me.
Parents need to accept that intense feelings are part of growing up. You are their safe place; you need to teach your child how to deal with volatile feelings by doing it yourself. How? By showing her something other than reacting, retaliating, and screaming at her.
Imagine for a moment that a parent and a child are standing opposite each other. Stretched between them is a rope. As the child yells, she pulls on the rope and lets go. A tidal wave of emotion leaves the child and travels across the rope and hits the parent. Now covered in imaginary emotional goo, the parent pulls on the rope as she yells back. It becomes a tug of war, an emotional war.
In order for a parent to teach a child how to handle a tidal wave of intense emotions, the parent has to disengage and drop the rope, thereby stopping the tug of war, before any talking or resolution can begin. This is the crucial turning point. You've stopped things from continuing to escalate, and have turned things toward resolution.
Your child will try to get you to reengage. She'll scream mean words at you and she'll be rude. Stay silent. Do not reengage; do not pick up the rope! As soon as your child realizes that you're not reengaging, she will also realize she was out of line. Now is the moment for action.
You might say, "When you get this upset, you need to calm down first, hit something, and release your anger (through exercise, or whatever the rule is in your house) before talking to me." Once your child has released the anger, invite her to talk: "Now please begin with an apology and let's talk about your feelings calmly."
By dropping the rope and stopping the emotional tug of war, you're able to get to the crucial turning point and turn things toward resolution instead of keeping the "war" going by yelling and punishment.
Sharon Silver is a parenting educator and the founder of Proactive Parenting. She's also the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Discipline Consciously and Become the Parent You Want to Be.