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Misguided Control
writes, "We love our children. They make us laugh. They amaze us. They are intelligent beyond their years. They replicate us in so many ways. They challenge us to grow. The list goes on and on about the ways children are our gift. So how is it that we can feel so angry, challenged, threatened or defeated by them sometimes?"
Among other things, children want control, independence and respect. The times our children decide to exert their will are often the most challenging. Some people will look at a tantrum or a misbehavior and see a bad kid, an out-of-control child, or bad parents and immediately pose judgment based on the surface of this behavior (whether they have kids or not). That judgment is something most parents often fear, especially when our children aren't "perfect angels" when others are around. In public we may respond differently than if we were at home, just to get the behavior to stop. This short-sighted approach does not take into consideration the long-term impact. It takes major awareness on our part as the adult to attend to the emotion we're experiencing and to be conscious of how we respond to ensure we are working towards the long-term goal.

When a child behaves in a way that triggers us to feel angry, challenged, threatened or defeated, we can actually narrow down the child's misguided goal to find the root of the problem. Fighting back with the child to "show them who's boss" or to make sure they "don't get away with it" reinforces this misguided goal. Wanting to be right as the parent or wanting to make sure they do what you say intensifies the behavior and the child may throw a tantrum, become more defiant or belligerent. Then we are caught in a loop of frustration. If we give in to avoid a scene then we have reinforced this false sense of control and will increase the likelihood of seeing that act again.

When a child behaves in this way they are really saying "I only belong when I'm in control." They may see themselves as equal to the adult and struggle for that power. Your child may even assert "you canít make me," or "if you don't let me X, then I'll..." It's important to acknowledge you can't make them. You can ask for their help, offer limited choices or have an agreement about something prior to an issue arising. Having routines helps because there is a pattern and an expectation that helps in dictating the order. Have your child assist in creating the expectations, setting reasonable limits and follow through.

Here's an example: You have a birthday party to attend and you anticipate your child having so much fun that leaving might be a challenge. You have two approaches you can take.

1. Just prior to going into the party acknowledge that this is going to be fun but when the party is over it will be time to leave. Ask how they want to handle leaving. Do they want a time limit? How are they going to respond to the cue to leave? What are the expectations? Make agreements. When the time comes you may say "OK Jane, we agreed to a five minute limit when it was time to go. It's 1:45 now and when the clock says 1:50 we'll be saying good bye. Is there anything you want to do before we leave?"

2. Another option is to simply wait until you are approaching the time to leave and to say something to the effect of "It's almost time to go home because the party is over. Do you want to stay another five minutes or leave now?"

There is no perfect response, however, there are options to approaching your child. You do not have to use the same approach every time, but you may find one that works well and use reminders and agreements with your child about those. One of the main keys is to pay attention to what the misguided goal is and you can respond appropriately if you haven't had an opportunity to head it off at the pass with a proactive plan or agreement.

Shannon Miles, MFT


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