The majority of parents would agree that their kids know how to push their buttons better than anyone else.  It’s almost as if all kids have been required to take a class on this subject matter, learning the ins and outs of how to make mom or dad lose their cool.  The truth is, as parents, we spend more time with our children than anyone else and because of this, our kids quickly become experts on picking up mom and dad’s triggers just as easily as identifying their favorite TV shows, foods, and hobbies.  Responding versus reacting takes practice.

It is completely normal and expected for parents to be triggered by their kids.  When these moments happen, it is often difficult for us as parents to remember to respond and not react.  A reaction is something that takes little to no effort or thinking.  It is quick, and it typically occurs during those times when we are experiencing a heightened negative emotion, such as anger.  A response is just the opposite. A response involves managing our emotions in the moment in order to remain calm, and replying to our children in a way that models the behavior we expect from them.  Responding to our children allows us to help them learn and grow because by doing so we are responsibly and intentionally guiding them through the struggles they will inevitably face on their journey to adulthood.

mother working in kitchen, family, perspectives therapy services

Here is a small, but not uncommon, example to illustrate the difference between a reaction and a response.  Imagine for a moment that you just spent a long time cooking a nice dinner for your family when your 10 year old son comes running through the door.  He looks at you and says, “Can I go over to the neighbor’s house for dinner tonight? They invited me and they’re having hot dogs!” You look at your son and tell him, “Not tonight.  I just finished making a big dinner for everyone, so we are all eating here.” Your son stomps his foot, crosses his arms and exclaims, “That’s so unfair! I hate this family! Everyone is so mean to me!”

Reaction:

“Oh really?  You hate this family?  Do you know how long I just spent making a nice dinner for you?  You can be so selfish! Why don’t you go up to your room so you can be away from your family that you hate so much.”

responding versus reacting, perspectives therapy services

There are several reasons this reaction is unhelpful:

  1.  The parent in the scenario is clearly triggered by what the child says, most likely because the parent’s efforts of spending a long time cooking dinner are going unnoticed.  It is okay for parents to be triggered by their children, but it is important for parents not to let their own emotions take the lead of their parenting abilities. The parent in the scenario is clearly angry, and the reaction to his/her child breathes a strong sense of anger and annoyance which is likely to only escalate the situation with the child, as the child’s original statement is also coming from a place of anger.  
  2. The child’s feelings are not being validated. It is common and developmentally appropriate for children to lead with their emotions as opposed to logic. That being said, it takes time for children to learn not to speak the first thing that comes to their minds. Even though what the child said was disrespectful and inappropriate, it is our job as parents to help our kids to navigate those tough feelings by learning to calm down enough to use more logical thinking and make better choices.  
  3. The parent’s reaction in no way models the type of behavior he/she is expecting from the child. In other words, the parent clearly views the child’s statement as disrespectful and would likely agree that the child needs to learn not to say whatever angry thing comes to his mind first. However, the parent is reacting in a way that is modeling this poor behavior. The parent is also letting anger lead.

Response:

“Wow.  You seem really frustrated.  I can tell you really wanted to eat at the neighbor’s house tonight.  Since tonight isn’t a good night, why don’t we talk during dinner about another night that might work this week.  Why don’t you step outside or in your room to take a few minutes before dinner to calm down.”

When the child calms down later on in the evening, it would be important and helpful to bring up the inappropriate and disrespectful language that was used.  The parent could say something like this:

“Earlier when you said you hated this family, that really hurt my feelings.  I know you didn’t mean it, but it’s important for us not to say the first angry thing that comes to our minds because words can hurt.  I’m wondering if you can think of a different way you can express your frustration to me without being hurtful? What could you say next time?”

mother and son, responding to your child, perspectives therapy services

There are several reasons why this response works in both the parent and the child’s favor.  

  1. The parent takes a moment to check in with his or her feelings to make sure what comes out of his/her mouth next is not an angry reaction.  This allows the parent to have a clear train of thought before he/she responds to the child.
  2. The parent is acknowledging the child’s feelings.  This is key. If your child feels like you understand where he is coming from, he is more likely to begin to calm down. 
  3. The parent did not try to lecture the child about the disrespectful language immediately.  When a parent tries to lecture their child during an escalated situation or when the child is clearly angry or upset, they might as well be speaking to a brick wall. When we are experiencing an intense emotion it becomes difficult for our brains to retain new information.  In addition to this, lecturing during an escalated moment leaves the child feeling invalidated, and may also increase the parent’s level of anger. The best approach is to teach your children when they are calm, as this is when they can focus and retain the most information.  
  4. The parent is modeling to the child the expected behavior in the home. The best way to help a child who struggles with anger outbursts learn to take more control of his emotions and behaviors is to demonstrate this to him when we are feeling the same way. The child in the scenario knows that what he just said was disrespectful (most children do).  The child most likely knew in the moment, or at least found out later on that the parent was upset when the angry statement was made.

What the child takes away from this is that mom and dad are able to remain calm during times when they are experiencing an intense emotion, and speak appropriately. This seems to be a goal most parents have for their children.

To sum things up, it is important for parents to make an effort to respond more to their children, as opposed to reacting.  Is it okay for parents to make mistakes? Of course, we are all human. A powerful learning experience for everyone involved occurs when a parent does make a mistake (maybe she reacted out of anger and feels badly about how she spoke to her child) and then proceeds to apologize to the child and own up to the mistake when things calm down, emphasizing which emotions took the lead of the interaction.  Again, the parent is modeling to the child several important life skills: apologizing, owning up to mistakes, and identifying feelings.

Finally, when responding to your children, keep several key tips in mind:

  • Take a deep breath to remain calm in the moment.  Remind yourself that if you lead with intense emotions it will only escalate the situation
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings.  Even if you don’t agree with what your child said or did (you probably won’t) it is important to let them feel like you understand the feelings behind the behavior.  If you don’t understand the feelings, ask your child.
  • Give your child the opportunity to calm down and try again.  Some kids may need more help than others identifying ways to calm down.  Depending on the child, some enjoy having a parent help with this, others prefer to do this independently.
  • “Lecture” your child when things are calm.  Think about it more as a conversation or learning experience than a lecture.  Remind yourself that they will not retain anything if you try to do this while they are upset.  They also are unlikely to retain anything if the conversation is one-sided.

Connect with us if you want to learn more about these skills.  This blog post may also be helpful

Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.