Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Monday, June 11, 2012

5 Strategies for Figuring Out What's Really Angering Your Child


Not long ago, my daughter, her best friend, and I had a full day’s worth of activity and adventure, enjoying carnival games at a local festival, eating bags of salty popcorn, running through icy cold fountains when the day’s heat became too intense, and following it all up with a late afternoon movie.  It was Girl Time at its best!

Which is why I was totally blown away when, after dropping off her friend, my daughter’s answer to my innocent inquiry of, “So, what should we do for dinner?” was met with a raging, “Nothing!  Can we just go home already!  I think we’ve bonded enough for one day.”

“Was that a car that just rear-ended me?”  I thought momentarily.  Can words cause whiplash?” I wondered.  My white knuckles clutched the steering wheel with primitive force and I’m pretty sure the woman in the lane next to me witnessed steam coming out of my ears.

Seriously?” I started out calmly.  Unfortunately, I only began that way.  Quick as a flash, angry words of hurt and indignation rang forth from my mouth.  I promised to never take my daughter anywhere…ever…again.  I threatened to cancel our “bonding plans” for next weekend’s end-of-school-year trip.  I lied and told her that I had had a miserable day too.   In short, I mirrored the emotions my daughter had just unleashed on me and fueled the out-of-the-blue conflict with ten additional gallons of gasoline.  When my rant was over, I looked at her in the rearview mirror and I knew I had blown it.  

“What happened?” my husband asked as we both stomped into the house.

“Nothing,” my daughter muttered as she walked past him.

“Nothing?” he questioned, slightly amused by the obvious incongruence between her words and her body language.

Nothing comes from nothing.  This truism, coined by Dr. Nicholas Long of the Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI) Institute, usually inspires me to look beyond my a child’s surface behavior to understand the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that trigger intense outbursts.  

Unfortunately, sometimes these words-to-live-by are more easily translated into my professional work than they are into my own parenting practices.   It’s not that I don’t feel a compelling commitment to clients, but rather that my deep emotional investment (read: having spent all day doing everything in my power to be a “fun Mom” and to make sure that my daughter and her friend were having the “best day ever”) in my own children sometimes hijacks my rational thought and leads me to react emotionally rather than to respond effectively.

I hate it when that happens.  

I wish I could get a re-do when it does.  Here is what I would do if I could have a “Take 2” on that moment in the car:

1.       Pause for a Moment

The most human thing a parent can do is mirror a child’s behavior and respond with equal emotional force.  This, however, usually only serves to escalate the conflict and forfeits an opportunity to teach kids about effective anger expression.  

With a do-over, I would pause after my daughter’s “bonding comment” and follow all of the same “count to 10” and “take a deep breath” advice I give to my kids.  It’s not that these quick time outs alone soothe a person so much as that they gives the brain a chance to re-gain control and to move on to Step 2.

2.       Recognize that Nothing Comes from Nothing

To my knowledge, my daughter, her friend, and I had enjoyed a fantastic day together, but clearly there was more to the afternoon than I had been aware of. A do-over would have me remembering that nothing comes from nothing and that my daughter’s over-reaction to my casual dinner inquiry was a red flag that a problem had, indeed, occurred.  

3.       Drain Off the Emotion

The first stage of LSCI, a strategy for turning crisis situations into learning opportunities for kids, teaches parents and professionals that before they can rationally engage a child in a discussion about his feelings, they must first reduce the emotional intensity of the situation.  

My do-over would have featured me using de-escalation skills such as paraphrasing, affirming, and active listening to my daughter when she showed her first signs of distress during the car ride.  In short, I wish I had listened more and reacted less.

4.       Gather the Timeline

Once the intensity of my daughter’s initial emotional reaction was drained off, I would use open-ended questions to encourage her to talk about the events of the day from her perspective.  Questions like, “How were you feeling when Addison was still in the car?” would have helped me get a sense of her emotional state just prior to her outburst.  Asking, “What kinds of things were you and Addison talking about while you stood in line at the movies?” would have led me to understand that Addison’s comment about an upcoming sleepover at a mutual friend’s house—an event that my daughter hadn’t been invited to—had wounded her deeply and changed the mood of the entire day.  

These “insight nuggets” are the basis for helping adults and kids develop insight into the underlying causes of intense emotions.  They create “A-ha” moments where we realize for certain that the problems kids cause are not the causes of their problems.

5.       Explain the Dynamic of Displacement

One of the most common patterns of self-defeating behavior in young people is the phenomena of displacement.  Displacement occurs when a child takes out his anger on an unsuspecting, often undeserving target.  Because the target is taken by surprise, he often reacts in a conflict-fueling way.  Opportunities for healthy self-expression are lost.  Relationships are damaged.  Both parties lose.  Sounds a lot like my situation, huh?

In my do-over, somewhere during the process of gathering the Timeline, I would begin to recognize the pattern of displacement.  Instead of getting caught up in the conflict, however, I would have continued on with questions, such as:

·         Who were you really mad at?
·         Who did you take your anger out on?
·         Did that person deserve your anger?
·         What could you do to prevent the situation from occurring next time?

Open-ended questions such as these empower kids to develop insight into self-defeating behaviors and to build up confidence to manage comparable situations more effectively in the future. 
Oh, and by the way, included in this process is a whole lot of personal owning up and apologizing for my role in escalating the situation just at the time that my daughter could have really used an adult to soothe her.  You would think that the fact that I teach and write about LSCI skills and parenting would mean I had graduated from all of this conflict-mirroring stuff…but parenting is tough, emotions get the best of us, and we all drop out of Parent-of-the-Year contention from time to time.

The bad news is that do-overs are just a wish for me.  I can’t go back in time and re-enact a “perfect” parenting textbook response to my daughter.  The good news is that conflict situations with kids tend to replay themselves over and over, which gives parents multiple shots to improve on past responses and to get things “right-er” each time.  Understanding the dynamics of displacement and recognizing that nothing comes from nothing helps me to put aside my automatic defensiveness and be a better parent with each passing day. 


Signe Whitson, LSW is the chief Operating Officer of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute and author of How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens.  For workshop information, please visit www.signewhitson.com or Follow Signe on Twitter @SigneWhitson.

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