What can I do when my kids say hurtful things?

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parenting kids janine ayling

“Sometimes my kids say hurtful things.”

The problem:

Perhaps you have heard statements like these:

“My friend has better food at her house than we do”
“You’re the only one who makes me mad, mum”
“You’re such a dragon. I don’t like my friends coming over here”
Or that old chestnut,
“I hate you!”

These critical statements, and many others like them, are usually pitched at a parent with all the force of a hand grenade with the pin removed. There are often lots of harsh words and high volume in the tense moments before lobbing these hurtful one-liners. Once these statements hit the target, the resulting ‘blast’ can leave not only deep cuts in both parent and child, but it can feel like sharp fragments of verbal shrapnel get lodged in places where they can never be removed.
It’s usually some time after this blow-up, possibly even days after, that the emotions are calmed enough so that more normal interaction can take place…but those painful wounds and jagged pieces of vitriol remain to form the new foundations of the relationship.

A new way to think about it:

It is so difficult to know what to do as a parent in this scenario. We’d like to think we are able to react to these explosive moments with the authority and maturity that we see ourselves possessing. The truth is that it is just plain hard to be a grown-up, especially in the moments when we feel threatened, belittled and shamed. Mostly we end up fighting as if it is about life and death, as if our child is actually lobbing grenades. The puzzling truth about our parental reaction is that, if we are honest with ourselves, we are the ones reduced to yelling like a misunderstood child or teenager in those moments where our brain perceives us as under threat.
Our innate desire to attack or run makes itself known – and because we are in conflict with our child (someone we have power over) in these moments – we often do a bit of both. This strategy is best known as ‘hit and run’. We say something to put our child in their place, “How dare you speak to me like that”, or “After all I’ve done for you….”, or “Well, I hate you too!”, otherwise known as ‘guilting’, humiliating, punishing, shaming, and then we leave the scene of the carnage – sometimes with as much drama as possible.

Shutting down any possibility for further conversation can be achieved in a number of ways, including:

  • insisting the child leave the room. “Go to your room and don’t come out till you’ve lost your stinking attitude”
  • leaving the room/house ourselves
  • plopping ourselves down and getting lost in TV/computer/devices/alcohol
  • using sarcasm (a sneaky, yet effective way of shutting down). “You clearly know better than I do so you can go and make the dinner yourself!”

The trouble with these methods of dealing with hurtful conflict with our kids is that no-one is being the adult in the situation. Certainly not the parent.

A new way to act:

To become the parent you really want to be, you need to work out what that looks like. What values will you live by if you want to be the best you in these extremely challenging confrontations? Do you value being fair, caring, loving, playful? Perhaps you value honesty, openness, kindness, respect? I’ve never yet heard anyone respond to this question by saying, “I really want to be spiteful and cruel, behaving like a tyrant”. How do you want to be known as you stand on this planet, as you move around in your world, as you relate to your child?

I encourage parents, after working out their topmost values, to pause (yes, pausing is possible) in the midst of the conflict and ask themselves, “Who do I want to be right now?” “What sort of person do I want to be in this relationship?” “How can I live according to my values right now?” It can be a real challenge to work out a short list of your most meaningful values in the moment of ‘battle’. So I suggest you work on this list in calmer moments so that you’re prepared for the rough times.

If it’s hard to come up with a couple of your most treasured values on your own, you could look some up, or better yet, work out what kind of parent you’d hoped for when you were pre-teen or adolescent. How might things have been different for you if your parent had been able to stand still, be a true model of a grown-up and stay present to hear the message underneath all of your hurtful words back then? What if you’d had a parent who could ignore the fact that you were being hurtful, spiteful, and nasty and sit with you long enough, care for you long enough, to understand the hurt you were feeling much deeper down?

Once you’ve developed a clear understanding of what it means to be the best parent you can be, you might be able to afford to stop seeing your child’s harsh words as threats, grenades or tools to undermine you and begin seeing them as imperfect, immature efforts to be understood. Just as your hurtful words were, so long ago.
A child who is comparing her own food with the food at her friend’s house, for example, might be trying to say that her friend’s house is a calmer kind of place, a safer place to be, a place with less tension – so that even eating there is nicer. If your child had the maturity, and the guts, to actually give that message, how would you respond? Would the ‘explosion’ be even worse than if her comments were only about the food?

What message might you hear if you paused, took a breath and allowed the ‘best-in-you’ to be present in that moment? You might hear the hurting soul of your child. You might hear that home is a hard place to be or that you are a hard person to be around. You might hear that she is longing for something else, something safer – and you might even allow yourself to hear her complaint as courage instead of a dagger aimed at slicing out your heart. Wouldn’t that have been the kind of parental response you needed if it was the younger you, standing there in your child’s imperfect, immature shoes.

It’s never too late to start working from the ‘best-in-you’. Never too late to begin to be the person you want to be when in confrontation with your angry, hurt and hurtful child. It may take a while for your teen to begin to trust the trustworthy grown-up you are working to become. Perseverance is the key, not perfection. Your child will test the blazes out of this kind of change but… soothe yourself down and hang on to your values. Letting your child know that you are a safe person for him or her to go through adolescence (and life) with is a wonderful gift for them.

Re-viewing the landscape of parent/teen conflict from battleground to learning-ground is vital if you’re keen to restore family relationships. Worth it – don’t you think?

Contact Janine Ayling to find out more.

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