Nowadays, even young children talk back, roll their eyes, are sassy and snarky, and demand to know why before doing what parents want. These kids act as if they can set all the standards, know everything and are entitled to express their thoughts and feelings in any way they want about anything.
Many parents think this is their toughest disciplinary problem. Many parents want to know why this behavior has trickled down from teenagers through tweens to children. Is this behavior the result of the bad influence of the media – television, movies, internet – or their peers? If so, these parents think, how can we control what children are exposed to?
I attended a wonderful presentation on cyberbullying and sexting by an officer from a local police department. The question came up about spying on our teenagers’ phones and computers: “Do our teenagers have a right to privacy?” That was followed by the question: “If we spy on our teens, how can they consider us friends? They’ll never open up to us. Won’t that thwart our efforts?”
Let’s distinguish between two types of threats to our teenagers:
Adult predators who lure them and groom them – whether to exploit them or to gain personal, family information to use against their parents.
Other teens who will slam them, cyberbully them and share sexted pictures.
Although most parents worry about the first situation, most kids worry about the second or will blow it off as “Drama.” But the answer is the same in either case.
Teenagers have no privacy. I want us to know what our kids are doing so we can help them. We’ve been there and done that and have more wisdom, even though they don’t think so. If we don’t have wisdom, we should make learning a first priority.
As long as they’re dependent on us and we’re responsible for them, we must know. They may be more technically savvy but we can learn enough. That’s what our friends are for.
In addition, of course, we can be alert to the first signs of cyberbullying. Have they withdrawn or stopped eating, being with friends, or wanting to go to school? Have they become emotionally labile (mood swings, happy, crying, excited, depressed, angry, hysterical all in 10 seconds)? Do they engage in negative self-talk and put-downs? Do they lack self-confidence and self-esteem? Are they changing everything in order to get friends or please boy or girlfriends? Are they anxious, stressed, not sleeping?
When they accuse us of not trusting them, we already know the answers:
It’s not about trust; it’s about experience, wisdom and safety.
They’ve hidden, lied and deceived us before and will do so again. Of course we don’t trust them, just like our parents shouldn’t have trusted us.
It’s about which risks we’ll allow them to take and which we won’t.
When they insist that they’re old enough to make their own decisions, we also know the answer to that: “When you’re capable of supporting yourself and living independently, then you’re old enough to be responsible for yourself.
As for their opening up because we’re their friends; how many of us opened up to our parents – or would have if they tried to be our friends? We thought we could or had to solve things on our own or we knew better than to open up.
Whether we physically check phone and computer logs or we also use spyware, we must take the initiative. If they don’t like it, they don’t need a phone. Also, we should take steps to find out about their friends and what their friends’ parents allow or encourage.
Unfortunately, too many examples can be found in the headlines of what happen when parents don’t know what their teens are doing.
If used well, blame and guilt don’t lead to self-bullying. They’re useful ways of motivating us to do better, even though they can cause a lot of wear and tear on our bodies, minds and hearts.
If we analyze our actions objectively we might take on the blame for some of what we did or failed to do. We can decide how to make amends. We can decide what actions would be better and we can strive to do better next time.
We can also use guilt and feeling ashamed of an action to motivate us to act better next time. That’s a hard way of motivating ourselves but it’s often effective.
Unrelenting and deep shame, on the other hand, leads to destructive self-bullying – negative self-talk, self-doubt and self-harassment, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and increased anxiety and depression.
By shame, I mean the idea that “There’s something wrong with me; I’m bad, evil or defective; I’ll never be free from sin; I’ll never succeed; I’m cursed.”
This kind of deep shame, as opposed to the way I’m using blame, guilt and feeling ashamed, is not focused on an action. This kind of deep shame points us at supposed defects deep within us, at defects that we can’t change, at defects in our identity. There’s no escape from the flaws we imagine are inherent and permanent. The self-laceration of this kind of shame is endless and self-defeating.
Where does this deep shame come from? We’re not born with this kind of shame. We’re born demanding that we be fed, clothed and have our diapers changed. Little babies don’t question whether they deserve to get what they need for survival; they demand it. That demanding approach is necessary for our survival.
Deep shame can only be taught to us through continued and brutal repetition – physical, verbal, emotional. Eventually, most children internalize constant harassment, criticism, put-downs and denigration – assaults on our identity.
Imagine how you’d feel if someone shouted or scolded you, 24/7, “You’re bad. You’re defective. You’re wrong. You shouldn’t have been born. You’ll never do better. I wish you were dead.”
However those harsh and shaming messages were thrown at us, whoever the bullies were, our task as adults is to leave them behind. The two critical steps in leaving home are to leave physically and to leave mentally-emotionally.
The first leaving is obvious to most of us; we get financially independent in order to stay physically independent. We test ourselves against the world, not our parent’s opinions. Can we earn a leaving? Can we meet people and make friends? Can we love and be loved?
The second leaving is mental, emotional and spiritual. We put aside all their beliefs, ideas, attitudes, values, opinions, rules, roles and moods – all the ways they thought mattered in how to face the world, how to earn a living, what equaled a good life, how to be a good person.
We put aside all the false ways they thought about us – whether we were good or bad, strong or weak, stupid or smart, pretty or ugly, hard-working or lazy, the prized child or the scapegoated child, probably going to be successful or guaranteed to fail, blessed to be happy or doomed to be miserable.
We put aside all we were handed when we were children and all we accepted because they were the big, right and righteous people and we were the little and learning people, and because we knew what would happen to us if we disagreed.
To become independent adults we must cast aside all of their opinions and, as independent no-longer children, we must choose and adopt our own beliefs. Some may be the same as theirs; some may be exactly the opposite.
The two important aspects of that mental, emotional and spiritual leaving: One is that our ideas are now adopted by us as adults, with our adult understandings, meanings and limitations. The second is that they are not carved in stone as childhood ideas are. We change them as we get feedback from the world – does this idea actually fit the reality I can now see clearly with adult eyes; does this way of facing the world get me closer to what I want; does it help me be and do good as I now think of that?
In this destroying and creating anew our inner world and our ideas of the ways of the outer world, we can choose whether to keep blame or guilt. But, in order to be free and independent, we must discard deep shame as a way of thinking about ourselves and of facing the world. We can excise the stain we once accepted, we can heal the great empty space we once had, and we can fill us with ourselves at our best. We can develop strength, courage and skill.
Then we can look back at the bullies in our family and decide whether to be with them at all or when and how to be with them. If they continue to bully us, if their bullying continues to trigger our self-bullying patterns we are better served by disconnecting, by making distance – electronically and physically.
If they treat us as newly made adults they’ve just met and want to be friends with, instead of forcing us back into their old images, instead of continuing to try to beat us into the shape they want we will probably want to be with them sometimes.
My recommendations: Don’t stay where you’re continually blamed, guilted or shamed. Be where you’re respected, appreciated, honored. Also, don’t accept the one of you that continually blames, guilts or shames you. Train and discipline yourself so that you have better internal self-talk. Live with the good inner coach you create, not with the internal bully who sounds like your parents, still ripping you down.
An article by Hillary Stout in the New York Times, “For Some Parents, Shouting is the New Spanking,” focuses on the damage to children done by parents’ shouting and, therefore, the need for parents to control their tempers.
Although I agree that a steady diet of shouting and bullying isn’t a good way for well-meaning, devoted parents to act, the experts in the article miss the real source of the problem and, therefore, the real solution.
Those experts point out that the proper way to be a good parent is “never spank their children,” “friend our teenagers,” “spend hours teaching our elementary-school offspring how to understand their feelings,” “reminding, nagging, timeout, counting 1-2-3” and “have a good interaction based on reason.”
I disagree with their basic assumptions about good parenting and their solution that parents should control their tempers.
Of course, repeated sarcasm, criticism, beatings and abuse are bad parenting. I’m talking here to frustrated, well-meaning, devoted parents; not abusive bullies.
Good parenting sometimes involves spanking, has nothing to do with “friending,” is not focused on teaching children to merely understand their feelings and is not usually about good interactions based on reason. Reason is only a small part of being an effective parent, especially when the children are young.
Children are exquisitely adept at knowing your true limitations and which buttons to push. It’s a survival skill for them. They know exactly how many times you’ll yell before you act. They distinguish between yelling and threatening that won’t be followed up, and the “Mom” or “Dad” look and voice that means you will act. And they perform a precise calculus based on how much they’ll get the next time versus a punishment and your guilt this time. They know when they can get unreasonable and stubborn, and win. They also know that if you blow up and yell now, they’ll win later.
What leads to repeated shouting is frustration. Those parents have so limited their allowed responses that they’re no longer effective – the kids know that they don’t have to do what the parents want and nothing serious will happen. Those parents have taught their children to be stubborn and unreasonable in order to win. See the case study of Paula as she stops being bullied by her daughter Stacy in "How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks."
Those parents’ lack of creativity and effectiveness increases their frustration until they blow up and shout. Then those parents feel guilty, apologize, give the kids more power and set in motion the next cycle of not getting listened to leading to more frustration and further shouting.
The solution is for parents to take charge and be parents – speak and act straight. Decide – as age, stage and specific kid appropriate – what decisions you make and when the child simply must obey, and what decisions the kid gets to make and within what limits. In your areas, it’s nice if the child understands your needs and reasons, but you’ll never convince a two or sixteen year-old by reasoning that your way is best and they should be happy not getting what they want.
Sometimes you must be firm about your sense of urgency, which is not matched by theirs. Sometimes, your needs and wishes must be taken into account. You’re not their slave or servant all the time. They don’t get what they want every time. More important than helping them understand their feelings is teaching them how to deal effectively when they’re feeling demanding or angry or frustrated or needy.
And some kids seem to want to be punished sometimes. Really, they do. And they feel much better afterward. When you’ve gone through the sequence of reminding and timeout without effect, a spank is sometimes the best thing to do.
Your frustration and shouting is a message to you that you’re not being effective. You need to do more than merely learn the latest technique; you need to change the limits you place on yourself. That will open up other ways to making them do what you need when you’re under pressure.
Good parenting means that you can say, “Here’s the way it is. I need to move fast and I insist that you do the same.” Or “You don’t vote on this decision and we’ll talk about it later.” Of course, you will talk about it later. Or “I’m not taking you there today. I need to unwind right now over a latte. I love you. Now go read and leave me alone for a while.” Of course, most of the time we devoted parents will take them to places they want to go.
Don’t reason more than once with a five year-old who doesn’t want to brush her teeth, “You’re making a bad decision,” as those experts suggest. Simply say, “In our family, we brush our teeth, so you will.”
It’s not, as those experts say, that “Yelling parents reflect a complete inability to express themselves in any meaningful, thoughtful, useful or constructive way.” It’s that yelling parents aren’t allowing themselves to express the right thought, which is that “I, the parent, am drawing the line here and you will do what I want. I have good reasons. I hope you understand now and I know you’ll understand later. But even if you don’t understand, you will do what I want now.”
In addition to what I learned professionally, we have six, now-grown children who taught me that well-meaning parents yell when they’re irritable, anxious, pressured, overwhelmed and frustrated because they don’t know how else to make things work for them