We all try to be more intentional as parents— make time at dinner to talk about each other’s day, give each child some time alone to get to know them better, etc. But as hard as it is to be intentional during times of peace, it can feel IMPOSSIBLE to stay intentional when your kids are acting up or screaming or ignoring you. You just want to scream back!
Sadly, as parents we can’t do that; we need to model behavior and good character for our kids. And the best way to deal with childhood misbehavior is to understand it and be prepared for it beforehand.
After 30 years as a pediatrician and parenting expert, I’ve seen every parenting dilemma known to man. There are three common parenting situations that really test us as families. Below, I’ll break them down and show how YOU can survive them.
Our first parenting situation is the Meltdown. You may know the Meltdown by its other name: the dreaded temper tantrum. It’s when the volcano erupts—tears, screaming, and crying— all at the same time.
In these moments when your child has a tantrum, you have three choices:
- Pick the child off the floor and yell at or punish them immediately.
- Give in to what the child wants (a later bedtime, a toy, dessert).
- Be the authoritative parent.
I think you can guess which option is best, but you probably don’t know why. The first two options might solve the problem in the short-term, but what lesson do you teach by yelling or giving in?
Being an authoritative parent, on the other hand, means establishing firm discipline without being a drill sergeant and practicing kindness to your child without being a pushover. Being authoritative means hitting middle ground. (To learn more about these three choices, which each indicate a parenting style, check out my article on parenting styles and my parenting style quiz.)
So how do we do that? The authoritative parent Creates Calm. The more out-of-sorts your child becomes, the louder they yell, the harder they cry, the calmer you need to be. Don’t yell, tell them to knock it off, beg them to stop, or give in. If you do any of these things, the temper tantrum lasts longer or the child gets their way and learns nothing.
Creating calm is so important because it keeps you from giving your child more ammunition for their meltdown. If they’re crying to a brick wall, they’ll learn pretty quickly their tantrum isn’t working. Temper tantrums and meltdowns are designed to test our patience. When our kids act up like this, we want to react because we’re angry and frustrated.
But we need to be patient and in control to diffuse the situation so that nothing gets derailed, particularly good discipline. So with meltdowns, create calm.
Kids don’t always act up for the same reason. There’s an important difference between children who are out of control, and those who are willfully defiant and disobedient. Welcome to the Explosion.
While meltdowns involve the waterworks, explosions bring the fire. This is when your child is loud and angry, and they’re letting it rip on you. An explosion feels more like a personal attack, but you can’t take it personally.
Let’s say you have a 15-year-old you’ve been fighting a lot with recently. They’re starting to rebel and you just can’t seem to get them under control. One afternoon your child angrily runs down the stairs and screams, “I hate you, Mom! I’m gonna go to that party anyway; I don’t care what you say.” He slams the door, and is gone.
You look at the closed door and think, “What just happened?” You start to panic, and that’s when the negative thoughts come out. “Why am I such a bad parent? If I were a better parent, that never would’ve happened.”
This is NOT true. It’s completely natural to have healthy debates and dialogues with your kids. But as a parent, you can NOT get lured into arguing. No child or teen has the brain that you do. They don’t have the cognitive maturity yet to truly understand what you’re saying.
Imagine you’re arguing with your 15-year-old about why they can’t go to the party… “Well, I don’t know what kids will be there, and there’s probably a few bad apples, and who knows what could happen if you hang out with them, you could end up in jail by 21.”
Don’t do that! When you try to argue your reasoning against your child’s, they won’t understand and they’re going to get frustrated. That’s what leads to the explosion. Be straightforward, firm, and understand that because of their developmental stage, they can’t process the conversation the same way you do.
This means one thing: Continued Correction. When your child acts up, correct them. Again and again, for as long as it takes. If a marathon runner stopped after two miles because he got tired of putting one foot in front of the other, he’d never reach the finish line.
Remember, when you discipline, you’re shaping and molding your child into an adult with strength and self-control.
What happens when kids stop lashing out, and start pulling away?
Several years ago, I had a 16-year-old patient who desperately needed my help. She had withdrawn completely from her parents. Any trouble a 16-year-old girl could get into, she did. She ran away from home, drank, and dated guys much older than her.
When her parents finally brought her into my office, they had nowhere else to turn. They asked me to recommend a program for troubled teens because at this point, they felt they had no choice but to send her away.
I knew of a lot of programs for troubled teens that I could have recommended. But I had a better idea in mind. I challenged the family to an experiment… “I will recommend some programs for you, but first I want you to try something. I would like you to go on a five-day canoe trip together.”
I’ll never forget their faces. They looked at me as if I’d just asked them to cut off their legs. “Didn’t you just hear us? We can’t be around each other.” I convinced them to give it a chance, and miraculously, they agreed. They went home, and a few weeks later the father and daughter embarked on their canoe trip.
The daughter wouldn’t talk. She scoffed at everything he said, refused to help with any of the work, and splashed water on him to make him miserable.
Halfway down the river, the daughter started to cry. The father didn’t know what to do so he just kept paddling.
The daughter started calling her dad names. She told him how stupid he was, what a terrible father he could be, and pointed out all of his mistakes. He sat there, paddling, and said nothing.
Something changed. The father asked a few questions, and the daughter quietly answered. She asked a couple questions of her own, and he replied.
The father found himself opening up… “You know what, honey, when I said this and did that, I’m really sorry. I should have been there for you.” The two talked to one another, really talked, and each apologized for the hurt they’d caused. And by the end of the day, that disconnect felt a little bit smaller.
That daughter is now grown and a parent herself. She and her dad have a beautiful relationship. The best part? She never went to the home for troubled teens.
The point is, when we’re having trouble with our kids, the answer isn’t to pull away or throw up our hands…
Instead, we must PURSUE our kids. This father proved to his child that even as she cried and screamed and called him horrible names, he was willing to stay in the canoe and keep paddling. It’s on you to initiate the healing, to get your kid in the canoe. Your job is to stay there and paddle. Give that child Constant Care.
Lastly, know that positive changes in behavior happen not over days, but over weeks, months, sometimes years! It’s hard. I get it. You have to hang in there and keep doing the best you can. Parenting is a lifelong journey, but it’s worth the work in the end. I promise.
If you’d like to learn about other parenting dilemmas and how to solve them for good with effective discipline, check out my Discipline with Courage and Kindness course (completely online and self-paced) here.