The following is a question that I recently answered online on a parenting board; this was asked anonymously. Since I felt it was such an important issue with so many misconceptions surrounding it, I spent a long time composing a response and am sharing it here.
>>my oldest is 11.5 and I need advice He has been going to sleep late and then going late to school because of it. He just called me up from school to ask if he could go somewhere that finishes late. I told him no – because he left for school after 9:30 he cannot be home late tonight as a consequence. His reply was “your going to get it mommy” and I know if he says this he will come home and do everything possible to make my life miserable including hitting his sisters. How would you deal with this? this is a difficult child we are dealing with.<<
I don’t generally have time to respond at length to parenting issues on discussion boards, but I still sometimes find it interesting to see the questions and responses. In this case, the advice given by another poster was a hard line discipline approach comprised of escalating consequences to push him into obedience and submissions, and a number of posters agreed that this was the way to handle this situation. I, on the other hand, felt it would be disastrous in the situation described, and addressed why I felt that approach wasn’t beneficial or productive. Here’s what I wrote:
“Firstly, there are so many things about your post that are important – to understand how attachment, child dominance, and the roots of frustration and aggression all go together. It’s more like something for a book than a post, but I’m going to share the following to flesh it out a little bit.
A parent is meant to have the lead in a parent/child relationship, and when a child is is the lead, the roles have been reversed. The child calls the shots, feels in control, and the parent responds from the passive position. The dominant behavior you see is a sign of an alpha child rather than a reflection of the child’s personality. (Here’s something worth reading if you’d like more details on what an alpha child looks like.)
There are a number of steps involved in dealing with an alpha child, and one major step involves taking the lead – but you must simultaneously be dealing with the underlying attachment issues for this to be able to happen. What you’re describing absolutely is an attachment issue – realize that the reason taking things away has the potential to be effective (in the short term) is because your child is more attached to those things than to you – and using someone’s attachments against them is a very risky parenting strategy.
Don’t think creating attachment and unconditional love means you become a doormat to them – this is a huge misunderstanding of the terms – you must have standards that you uphold, but you don’t give your child the message that you only love them when they behave according to your standards. Children must know we love them not matter what, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept whatever behavior they want to exhibit. When you invoke consequences and keep upping the ante, when you use what they care about against them, you are desensitizing them to caring, not to respecting and loving you more.
As parents, we want to raise our children, not just control them. I’m not saying all of this as someone whose kids get away with whatever they want – not at all – but the tough love approach can only work unless you really work on the emotional connection aspect and are able to convey a clear message of love for the child as he is right now, otherwise you’re going to push your child further from you. (When a person is pushed to do something beyond the level of his feelings of emotional connection, he’s going to respond with counterwill, which is a defensive reaction to any perceived coercion – and alpha children are full of counterwill. “I don’t care what you say/do, I’ll do what I want.”)
So to begin to deal with the aggression, the alpha behavior, etc, the first step is to emotionally connect with your child. (Thwarted frustration turns into aggression when a child is unable to adapt and move to futility; a child can only move to futility when his heart is softened, which can only happen when he has a strong emotional connection with his primary caretaker.) Flooding a child with frustration (eg consequences) who doesn’t have the ability to feel his feelings of disappointment and sadness is going to provoke him to aggression.
Basically, attachment is the primary thing to work on in the beginning because behavioral issues like these are symptomatic of deeper relationship problems. Start by conveying your love, appreciation, and enjoyment of your child when around him. He’ll be tough for a while, but your goal is to soften his protective shell and show him that you’re his ally, that you’re there for him and aren’t giving up on him no matter what.”
At this point, there were further responses by other mothers sharing their frustration with the difficulty in parenting these challenging children. I could really feel the discouragement and a strong sense of despair, almost as if there was nothing to do for children like these – some mothers mentioned that their children had been to therapists and were on medication, but it wasn’t making a difference. I was concerned, though, about what seemed to be an attitude of making the success of the relationship dependent on the child’s behavior. So I wrote the following:
“It’s so, so challenging to have a difficult child, it’s so painful as a mother to feel like a failure, to feel that our best efforts are thrown in our face again. Maybe it would help if you were able to see the pain that is at the root of their behavior? You’re seeing very hurt children who are afraid of rejection and feel very unloved at some level.
Don’t think of them as manipulative or trying to hurt you; it doesn’t serve you. Everything a person does makes sense when you understand their developmental needs. Children who are this tough on the outside have hardened their hearts because their deeper emotional desires for closeness with a parent weren’t being filled. I’m not saying that to guilt anyone, and I’ve had to admit the same thing in my own relationships with some of my children at times. Being honest about where we’re lacking is the first step in finding an answer.
I have nine children and let me tell you, it doesn’t matter how perfectly what you did worked with everyone else. In the past I’ve made the mistake of insisting in my own mind when I’ve felt frustrated that it’s my child’s fault that he’s not acting the way he should because if all of my other kids were so wonderful, it can’t me me, right? (And don’t you think a child feels this, no matter how nice you are on the outside? You bet they pick up those vibes.) Yes, it can and is me and my responsibility. We have to get our egos out of the way and focus on what the child needs, not on getting the strokes we want.
The process of raising children is very individual and you have to find the specific key for the heart of every child. It doesn’t matter if it looks like you’re doing everything right from the outside. It doesn’t matter if it worked with all seventeen of your older children. It doesn’t matter if your house is clean and you make nice meals or buy them nice clothes. If your child doesn’t perceive it as an emotional deposit for him, if it doesn’t reach your child, it’s not right for him, and it’s the responsibility of a parent to find the key.
I spent a long time trying in my first post (ie the first part of this post) trying to figure out how to condense some very significant principles. I did this rather than share specifics of how to address behavior, because when you get down to it, parenting is about who we are to a child, not what we do. If you understand and address your child’s unseen needs, then it will be productive, and someone else using your same external strategy isn’t necessarily going to get the same results.
For children who are emotionally toughened as what has been described, they won’t back down, they will continue to escalate, and they will continue to distance themselves from you if you try to push consequences. Connecting with your child emotionally is the only way you’re going to change things, and first and foremost, that means a change in the way you think of your child. Stop blaming them for ruining what would otherwise be your wonderful life. And then it means a change in the way you interact with your child. And it’s going to mean learning to feel and express unconditional love for your child. This is the process of growing with our children that we were put here for.”