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Episode summary:

It’s easy to lose our parenting cool when we think our kids are deliberately pushing our buttons. But what if we could stop taking our child’s frustrating behaviors personally? In this episode, family therapist Susan Stiffelman offers a different way of looking at difficult behaviors that will make it easier to stay calm through those parenting storms.

Susan Stiffelman is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Therapist, an educational therapist and a highly lauded speaker. She is the author Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and Parenting With Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (an Eckhart Tolle Edition).Susan offers online events for parents around the world on topics like Raising Tweens and Teens, Parenting in the Digital Age, and Raising Siblings and also hosts a monthly support group with Wendy Behary on Co-Parenting with a Narcissist.

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Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome to the Parenting Without Power Struggles podcast. I'm Susan Stiffelman. I'm your host. I'm a marriage and family therapist and I'm the author of parenting without power struggles and parenting with present. My work is about helping parents be what I call the captain of the ship and their children's lives, and that means parenting from strong attachment, strong connection, and being that calm, confident grownup in the room. And it just means enjoying all those wonderful moments as we raise our kids without leaping over the side of the ship. When the parenting C's get rough and stormy. I also talk about coming alongside our children rather than at them when things aren't going well. And you can hear more about all of this in episode two. Now of course, we all try to stay calm and steady as we interact with our kids, but when they're talking back or they're refusing to do their tours, it can be very easy to lose our cool.

Hi, understand. Really, I do. I'm a parent and I've worked as a family therapist for 40 years, so trust me, I know that it takes a lot more than reading an inspirational book or going to a yoga retreat to break with old habits of yelling or threatening when we're upset. I know that it's hard to keep our cool and I also know how much kids benefit when we can be calm and steady no matter what's going on in their lives. Because children really do flourish when they know that no matter how bad things get, they can depend on their parent, they can lean on their parent to ferry their ship safely through the sometimes rough waters of childhood. So that's where I came up with this captain of the ship idea. And that's why everything I do, the podcast, my monthly parenting membership program, all of our online classes, they're all about helping you be that connected, confident, steady captain of the ship.

So I want to start by talking about why we lose our cool and I bet a lot of you, thank you. Now you think, well, I, I lose my cool because my kids pushed my buttons or it because they're disrespectful or they're uncooperative, but actually I see it differently. I've come to believe that we lose our cool, at least in part because we take it personally. When our kids are disrespectful and uncooperative, we may think of all the things we do for them and feel taken for granted or unappreciated when they can't even take out the trash or we get outraged when we've gone to a lot of trouble to make a nice dinner and they ignore us when we call them to the table. So when human beings are, we revert to what are called backup behaviors. These are lizard brain ways of reacting.

When we feel backed against a wall, and often that lizard brain gets activated when our kids refuse to do what we ask or when they say things like, you're the worst parent in the world after all, we're just human. Just because you've had a child doesn't mean you've changed species or that you suddenly were transformed into a sane. We all have our limits and when we do a lot for our kids, it can feel personal when they're defiant or uncooperative. But the way I see it, a child's difficult behaviors almost never really personal, even when it seems like it is, most of the time a child's difficult behavior is a message or a communication that something in his or her life isn't working. Now, of course, in a perfect world, our kids would just tell us what's wrong instead of acting it out by being defiant or uncooperative.

But unfortunately, even most of the adults I know have trouble expressing what's bothering them. So it isn't realistic to ask our children to quote, use their words instead of penting their brother or falling into a puddle of tears when something's upsetting them. They acted out. And a lot of the time we missed the message underneath the behavior and we lose our cool in reaction to what seems like they're deliberate effort to upset us or to create unnecessary drama. So the solution to losing our cool is not just to get our kids to behave as we want, even though I know it's tempting to say that would fix everything, but when we need someone else to behave a certain way so that we can feel okay, we put them in charge of our well being and that gives too much power to children. Plus it makes parents needy and resentful and very disempowered because then they need someone, their child to be a different way to feel.

Okay. And remember the only person that we can ever change is ourselves. I once had a mother come into my office with her two young children. They must've been about five or seven. They were pretty young. She sat down with the kids and I as usual, I asked her why she was there. The first thing she said was, I need help because my kids drive me crazy. So right away I turned to the kids and I told them that they were going to get to go play outside for an hour while I spent time with their mommy because I didn't want them in the room. I didn't want them to see themselves as having that much power over their mom once they were out of the room. I explained this to the mom. I explained that kids don't want to be responsible for our emotional wellbeing or stability and that they shouldn't be and that really children are smart intuitively.

They know that we're supposed to be the ones that they can depend on, not the other way around. When we need our kids to behave a certain way, it sets up the wrong dynamic where we're now dependent on our children instead of the other way around. And they instinctively understand that it isn't their job to make us feel like we're good parents or that we're worthy of love or that we're in charge. And sometimes they'll even act out more to test that limit. So I get it. It's not easy to stop taking our children's behavior personally, but when we do, we can get to the root of what's upsetting them, the underlying message that their difficult behavior is trying to convey. And that's really at the heart of all of this. And that's what kids need when they're acting out. They need our help. They need us to help them through whatever is fueling that misbehavior, which we can do when we aren't taking their behavior personally.

So I'm going to tell you a little story. It's actually from my second book, parenting with presence. And I address this kind of question with, with a story. The question was from a parent, I find it extremely hard not to take it personally. When my son misbehaves, this causes me to lose my footing and to react to him as if we were kids the same age, fighting it out on the playground after school. How do I remain the grownup when he pushes my buttons? Hopefully you guys can relate to that question because we've all been there, right? So here's the answer that I wrote in parenting with presence, imagine yourself drifting along in a boat on a small lake, so relaxed that you begin to doze off. Suddenly another vessel slams into yours immediately. He looked for the person at a tellme. How dear they ran their boats so carelessly into yours.

What were they thinking? Your blood pressure begins to rise. How could they be so irresponsible? As you rouse yourself and look for the offending skipper, you discover there isn't one. The other boat must have come loose from the dock. It merely hit your boat because the current caused it to drift there with no one to blame. You immediately settled down, perhaps even looking for ways to secure the boat two years so you can return it safely to shore. What changed? Only your thoughts about the event. You realized that the boat ramming into yours was not piloted by someone intending you harm. It wasn't after all, choose to see your sons misbehavior as something other than a desire to offend or upset you. He may be tired or hungry or feeling shortchanged on attention or perhaps he's worried about something at school or he's just out of sorts.

Even if you're sun is deliberately yanking your chain, you can look beneath that motivation to see his behavior as a clumsy way of getting one of his needs met rather than something done maliciously. Okay. One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is allowing yourself to move through life without taking other people's behavior personal. A Tornado doesn't deliberately rip apart a house. The house just happened to be in his path. Go ahead and feel your frustration or disappointment, but spare yourself the suffering that comes when you believe your son mean to you. Harm. He is simply a boat, a drift on the current of his particular challenges, address underlying causes of his misbehavior, but allow yourself the freedom to step back from taking it personally. Molly, I remember when I first found that story and I just loved it because it so beautifully illustrated the possibility that when other people are upsetting us in some way or doing something that feels deliberate and intentional, it could just as easily be that we were just in the path of their storm when our child's being difficult or demanding.

It helps to take a couple of steps back to ask this really important question and here's the question. Why does my child's behavior make sense? I've used this question for many years. I've counseled hundreds if not thousands of parents to use this question, and it's a very powerful one because when we asked the question, why does my child's behavior make sense or make its own kind of sense, we get to move away from the question, why is she doing this to me? So asking the question, why does my child's behavior make sense? Allows us to address those elements that motivate our children to misbehave. Whether it's the need to offload a lot of pent up stress and worry over issues with a friend, or maybe they're feeling very disconnected from us in some way, or they're worried and they need help untangling something that they're anxious about.

Gosh, there could be a hundred things that might be fueling a child's difficult behavior, but it starts with not taking it personally when they're behaving in ways that seem like they're deliberately trying to upset us. No. There may be times when our child is trying to upset, but even then it will be better to look at why that might be the case. Stepping back to look at what's going on and whether there's a fracture in our relationship that needed repairing. Another thing that can help in those moments when we're really feeling triggered by something our child's doing is to ask what the situation is reminding us of. Because sometimes we're especially reactive, let's say when your child ignores you because it may stir up old feelings from childhood when you felt ignored or without a voice. So this is where our child can again be one of our best teachers because we may project a lot of unresolved hurt and anger toward them because they're stirring up feelings about someone else or some other situation that is ready to be healed.

This is another reason why our children can be our greatest catalysts for growing and becoming more and more our true selves because we loved them so much that when they do things that push those tender places in us, we have a chance to resolve issues that may have been need of healing or reflection or working through emotionally. So lots of think about right? It can be very empowering to realize that we aren't at the mercy of our child's behavior to feel like we're good parents or that we're loved and not taking things personally. Of course isn't the only strategy for keeping your cool, but it's one of them. I'm going to have lots more to say on this topic and other episodes and if you're feeling the need for more personal support, please check out my monthly parenting without power struggles membership so let's wrap up with a tip this week.

If you notice yourself getting really angry with your child, ask what underlying message their behavior might be trying to convey. You can ask the question, why does this behavior make sense? Remember, imagine the situation from your child's point of view because most of the time, one we're taking their behavior personally isn't personal. They're just communicating that they're feeling disconnected or tired or worried or stressed. And another thing you can do when you're really starting to lose your cool is ask if the feelings that are getting stirred up in you are familiar and begin to look at what other situations past or present might be getting activated by the upsetting things that your child is doing. Ah, okay, so I know that many parents who follow my work think I lose my cool all the time. I scream and yell and threaten and nothing's ever going to change that.

I've read all the books, I've tried all the different ideas. I've counted to 10 I've taken five deep breaths, but trust me, this is work that is possible. This shift can happen. This change can happen. I've seen it happen in hundreds of parents who were sure that they were the exception and they were too hot tempered to stop losing their cool. It is possible and we're going to, you know, in this podcast and in all the classes I teach and in the membership program, we take this one baby step at a time. So start by just noticing if your child is doing something that upsets you, what that behavior might be communicating. I hope you've enjoyed this episode. It's been a lot of fun putting it together for you. I love talking about all of this, and I encourage you to invite a friend or subscribed so that you find out when we release a new episode if you'd like, you can leave a rating or review. That's really great. And of course, if you have a question that you'd like me to address, you can visit Susan I look forward to joining you on our next episode and meanwhile, remember that no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy.