If you’re listening to the Project Parenthood podcast, you might be hoping to learn some respectful parenting tools and collaborative ways to encourage your child to behave in ways that are more acceptable to you. And sometimes collaborative parenting tools can be a quick fix for less entrenched behaviors.
But in my private practice, by the time families seek my services, the cycle of anger-triggering child behaviors and angry parental reactions has resulted in an adversarial atmosphere. And that kind of dynamic isn’t conducive to collaborative parent-child interactions, so respectful parenting tools usually lead to resistance instead of cooperation.
You might be the kind of parent who’s good at expressing anger in ways that don’t leave your child feeling emotionally cut off from you. Perhaps you’re able to let your child know you disapprove without leaving them with feelings of rejection.
But if you’re a parent who struggles with regulating your emotions—maybe you’re more likely to show overt or underlying rage, react coldly, or withdraw from your child in a way that conveys disappointment and helplessness—you may inadvertently evoke shame in them. And if your child has a lot of challenging behaviors, they probably invite a good deal of criticism from you and other adults, which only reinforces the shame.
Your child can internalize these chronic admonishments and the resulting shame can get tied up with their self-identity. When parent-child dynamics have veered off the rails, the first thing that needs to occur is for your child to feel more positively about themselves and less anxiety about the relationship with you. Before you can work on behaviors with parenting tools, you have to work on the atmosphere you’re parenting in.
For your child’s brain to create new relational pathways, it requires new relational experiences.
Imagine that, growing up, you were certain that you were exactly the person your parents or caregivers wanted and loved. That there was nothing you needed to do differently to earn their love, because that love couldn’t even be won or lost in the first place. Imagine that you grew up in an atmosphere that demonstrated to you that your parents’ care for you didn’t depend on how you achieved or behaved because their love was unconditional. They let you know when your behavior wasn’t okay, but they didn’t behave in ways that left you feeling unacceptable as a person. You could show as much developmentally normal emotional distress or unpleasant social behavior as you needed to without being afraid that your relationship with your parents would somehow be in jeopardy. This is the type of environment that allows for connection and collaboration with a child.
The vicious cycle of challenging behavior and angry reactions disrupts your relationship with your child, which causes them emotional pain that leads to more challenging behaviors as a defense against feeling further pain. For your child’s brain to create new relational pathways, it requires new relational experiences. Helping your child learn to regulate their behavior means first transforming your child’s internal experiences by reducing their anxiety about rifts in their relationship with you. Before any parenting tools you use can be successful, focusing on developing safer, more supportive, non-adversarial interactions with your child is necessary. Lead with the radical acceptance of your child, yourself, their challenging behaviors, and your own – and you can start creating a more unconditional environment at any time.
5 ways to restore your relationship with your child
Parent, heal thyself
If you’re emotionally stressed as a parent, it interferes with your child’s emotional development in that it interferes with your capacity for attunement.
What is attunement? Attunement is the ability to demonstrate to your child through your words, gestures, facial expressions, sounds, and smiles that you’re responsive to their mental and emotional states. But without genuine—not feigned—attunement, a child’s development of emotional self-regulation is hampered.
In order to engage in this attunement process, you must be in a relatively non-anxious, non-stressed, and non-depressed state of mind. You can break the cycle of escalating rejection and anger by working on your own anxiety and self-control. Work on your ability to tolerate and not to be threatened by your child’s negative reactions or expression of negative emotions. You’ll be less likely to get caught up in emotional hostilities with your child.
Actively foster your child’s self-acceptance
Take responsibility for your relationship with your child by initiating contact and connection with them. Instead of just talking about how much you love your child, actively demonstrate that you want their company. Invite them to spend time with you doing activities of their choosing or ask them if you can hang out with them while they’re doing something they enjoy. Put 100% of your active attention on them. Let them know with your presence and the loving energy you radiate in their direction that you appreciate, enjoy, and want them in your life simply because they exist.
Avoid evaluating and judging your child
Reduce your child’s sense of shame or insecurity by avoiding words, actions, and tones of voice that leave your child feeling deficient or dismissed. Resist the urge to point out your child’s faults, shortcomings, and mistakes. They need to know that your acceptance of them is unconditional and not dependent on how well they perform.
The other side of the criticism coin is praise. Judging a child positively still reminds them that they are being externally evaluated—and that your evaluation could just as easily be negative. They may worry, “What would they feel about me if I didn’t do well?”
So instead of lavishing praise about the outcomes and results of the things they do, warmly acknowledge their accomplishments by remarking on how pleased they seem about it, how hard they worked on it, and how they persevered when it was difficult. Demonstrate that you place a high value on who your child is rather than what your child does.
Don’t try to parent your child from a place of anger
When you offer opinions, give orders, or criticize your child from a place of anger, it switches your child’s nervous system into survival mode. Survival mode is a state in which they are unable to learn, reason, or think clearly—so you’re likely wasting your breath, anyway.
Parenting from anger can be damaging to your child’s developing self-esteem because it induces in them a great deal of shame. They internalize your expressions of anger as an accusation that they’re responsible for the momentary break in your relationship where the “loving parent” version of you is emotionally unavailable.
Conflict with your child is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be damaging.
Instead, if you feel your rage rising, take a break until you cool off. Let your child know that you’re upset, that it’s not their fault, that you can manage it—you just need a break. If there is another adult present, have them take over until you calm down. On the other hand, if you can control your anger and address behavior without attacking your child, they may actually learn something from it.
Practice parent-initiated relationship repair
If nothing your child can do can threaten your relationship with them, then it follows that they should not have to work to repair it when there is a temporary rupture. And forcing your child to apologize for their role in a conflict is more likely to cause humiliation than remorse.
Instead, you need to take responsibility for restoring the interpersonal bridge between you and your child. Acknowledge the conflict and that your child might have feelings about it. Then listen to what your child has to say with empathy and without becoming defensive, explaining yourself, or justifying your behavior. This way your child learns that not all conflict ends in emotional disconnection, and that your relationship with them, their emotional security, and their well-being is more important to you than any behavioral goal, argument, or disagreement.
Conflict with your child is inevitable, but if it’s not chronic or catastrophic and you prioritize repair, it doesn’t have to be damaging.
Take the challenge!
Here’s a challenge: for 30 to 90 days, try putting your emotional bond with your child above anything else. Once your child is certain that no matter how they show up, their emotional “cup” will be promptly refilled by you when it gets low, you may begin to see your child display more cooperative behaviors. At that point your relationship may be stable enough that using a respectful parenting approach and working collaboratively to solve long-standing problems between you and reduce challenging behaviors is more likely to be effective.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.