Updated: May 25
One thing us humans like is habit. It frees up our attention to focus on new and interesting things that come our way. We may see these habits in the way we eat, our routines, the way we respond to our children and the way we relax. This can be very helpful, except of course our children grow and change! Many parents report getting used to one particular stage of development, only for their child’s behaviours and feelings to change into something new and unexpected. On top of this, we ourselves go through periods of growth which require everyone else to make adjustments at home that can also cause stress and uncertainty in the family home.
It can be extremely challenging to parent during these periods of change. We can't rely on the expected any more. We and our children may behave in ways we don’t expect. If we are distracted – and most of us are juggling so many things, it’s probably safe to say we are most of the time – our reactions may not get us what we ultimately want for ourselves or our family. For example, we may give in to our child over something we’d normally not let them do. Or else we might snap and tell them off, rather than explain expectations and give them a choice to think of another solution for what they and we want. What happens in reactive parenting then, is a matter of control.
Historically, control has been a very basic strategy of influence that is enacted through complaining, getting angry, punishing or using physical force. In other words it’s a way of making someone else feel very uncomfortable until they give in and do what the other wants. Both parents and children are capable of using these tactics, and in the short term can create some desired outcomes, which is probably why it’s such an easy fall back strategy. Unfortunately controlling others also tends to breed resentment, as one person has to deny their own desires in order to satisfy the other and there is a distinct power imbalance that is unfulfilling for everyone. You might like to take a moment to reflect on who typically has to compromise in your family.
If we realise we are trying to control our children, we usually feel guilty, but don’t really know what else to do. We have after all been responsible for their well-being and care from birth and if they make choices that don’t support their well-being it can be very shocking to us. If we notice we’ve been giving in to our child’s resistance, it can make us feel both resentful and helpless. Our inaction recognises we can’t control our child, but then how do we get them to do the things we know are best for them? In both scenarios, notice how we are coming to the situation after the event. Reacting after they’ve done something we don’t agree with can only be a matter of damage control.
Perhaps we can think about being proactive instead then? Of course we can’t anticipate every change, but once things start going off track we can take some time to notice and to think strategically. Notice the specific situations that cause your child’s resistance or your anger. Be honest about the way it makes you feel. Those feelings are there to remind you that something you want is not being fulfilled. Now consider what specific outcome you want that is best for everyone. Working backwards from the outcome, think about what actions need to be taken to achieve that. Now consider when you can take action to help everyone go in the direction you need, and what that specific action might be.
Two effective antidotes to control and power are inclusion and collaboration, and children often respond favourably to being asked to contribute. It can be helpful to talk honestly with our children, especially around what we want and hope for them and ourselves. We can invite them to help come up with solutions and how to make them stick. We might want to apologise, owning those reactions that came from trying to enforce control. Allowing our children to see we struggle with feelings and frustrations helps them recognise and work with their own challenges. Finally we might need to admit that we can’t control our children, only ask them to work with us. Explaining the outcomes and how it helps everyone to be happier can give children good reasons to choose to comply. When they choose not to, we may need to set stronger limits but we can help ourselves by setting them proactively, rather than after it’s already happened. For more tips on how to manage your own reactions check out our go-to guide of quick and easy strategies here.