When Parents Act Like Children
Make A Choice To Grow Up
Beverly D. Flaxington :
I recently had the personal experience of dealing with the parents of one of my children's dear friends, who was acting out in very concerning ways-the parent, not the child.
After becoming upset over a basic life incident, this parent started to scream and rant, grabbed the child by the shoulders to yank them across a threshold, engaged in a screaming match, involved the stepparent in the screaming and then, when I gave the child a ride to my house to remove them from the situation, called to threaten me they would call the police and have me arrested for kidnapping.
This incident thrust me into a legal scenario I have never participated in before. The parent ended up with a restraining order against them and I had to report to the police what I had witnessed. When I told the police officers in my town I was going to write this blog, they asked me if I could interview them!
They explained that most of their time was spent dealing with adults acting like children. I also reached out to others who often are called to intervene in these situations. This does not count the multitude of situations where parents are on drugs or alcohol, or sexually or physically abusing children.
These are examples of parents who emotionally abuse their kids, and in doing so model "childish" behavior so their kids do not have an opportunity to know what it is like to act like a grown-up:
A parent whose child was removed and put into a state-run home where the "rules" were not to bring outside food or drink where the parent then continually brought fast food and soda when visiting the child. The parent was spoken to, repeatedly. The parent, while holding the food, then threw a tantrum in the waiting room, screaming and crying in front of the kids.
A parent who got mad at their child in a store because the child wanted to buy a larger size jersey than the parent believed they should have, so the parent drove away from the minor child and left them in the store. The store had to intervene, call the police and find a way to get the minor child home.
A parent who tossed all of their teenage daughter's belongings on the front lawn when she came in a bit past curfew on a Saturday evening. She was trying to make curfew but found herself unable to get a ride home, and the parent refused to pick her up, so it took her longer than expected to finally get home.
A parent who threw their child's schoolbooks into the kitchen sink and turned on the water, because the child was "too stupid" to learn anything. The parent refused to pay for replacing the books, so it became a legal matter with the school for ruined property.
A parent who locked their child out of the house because the child talked back to them. It was winter time; the child had no coat or warm clothing, and ended up being taken in by a neighbor whom they did not know.
These are just a handful of seemingly small incidents that represent thousands upon thousands of similar events that play out in family homes and elsewhere every day. The common denominator is that these adult parents have not learned how to put their own needs to the side, manage their triggers and resulting anger, and act like grown-ups.
When a child is seen to be at fault and be the one who "caused" the problem, or the child is considered to be the "manipulative" party, it is time for the parent to examine their approach. If we want to raise a culture of adults who can be open-minded, thoughtful and objective, the parents have to model this behavior so their children learn how to do it.
So what do you do if you are a parent who gets triggered and struggles to control your negative emotions? What if you recognize yourself (which is the first step in the process) and realize you are probably hurting your children and perpetuating a negative cycle by your actions? What if you are ready to grow up, but maybe you didn't have parents who modeled adulthood for you, so you aren't sure where to start?
The first step is to acknowledge what you are doing. Not to beat up on yourself, not to emotionally berate yourself but just to make a decision that you want to act differently. Next, you want to gather resources to help you-this could be talking to a therapist (there are many great ones on this website; you can search for one in your area), it could be learning relaxation techniques such as meditation or self-hypnosis, or taking "time outs" for yourself.
Most importantly, learn how to recognize your triggers and manage your self-talk. If you have a belief that you are in charge because you are the parent, or the adult, it might be time to review these beliefs. Your self-talk will kick in and tell you "I should not be spoken to like this" or "This child is manipulative and has no right to speak to me like this" or "I need to be in charge." Recognize this self-talk and realize that it is dragging you down and keeping you trapped in behaving like a child. Refuse to be pulled in and change the self-talk-"This is a child. Children know how to push buttons, and I refuse to be triggered." Or "I will stay objective; as soon as I lose my cool, I am acting like a child." It can be helpful to write out these sayings so you are ready to pull on them when you need them.
If you need to go into your room, or your car or some deserted park, and just scream, then do it! Let the emotions out so you are ready to deal with your child objectively when you need to. Take whatever healthy steps you need to (no medicating with drugs or alcohol). Release the frustration and the anger, and allow yourself to remain calm and objective. Remember that when you are triggered, and lose control, wellâ€¦ you lose control. You are no longer in charge, but rather are out of control and triggered.
Practice a new way of being with your child or children. It's important to their future, to yours - and to all of ours!
(Beverly D. Flaxington teaches at Suffolk University).