Tired of arguing with your child or teen? (Pt 2) Four steps to defusing their resistance
I’ve had enough of the constant challenges to my authority (I have 5 kids). But I also dread becoming a tyrant. Is there a better way than coming down strongly on my kids every time?
Mysteriously (for low-EQ dudes like me at least) the more I validate my kid’s feelings of disagreement with my decision, the less they resist it.
In my previous post, I said that my kids don’t always respond well to my leadership. Truth be told, sometimes war breaks out. When I decline their demand or request, or tell them to do something they don’t want to do, they sometimes push back with emotional intensity. At this point, I have discovered (with scars to prove it) four ways I can up the ante into a full-scale, win-lose battle of the wills…
- React in counter-argument.
- Repeat my command with greater punch. (‘Because I told you so’)
- Criticize what they’re saying or feeling.
- Bolster my instruction by giving reasons.
These reactions overlook the fact my child (like yours) is a creature of emotion not logic.
How should we respond to their emotional resistance or outburst instead?
A better approach is variously called ‘reflective listening’ or ‘responsive listening.’
Rather than reacting with emotion myself (which only throws fuel on the fire of their reaction), I should respond with empathy. And rather than speaking back, or worse yet arguing back, I listen. At no point however do I abdicate my leadership of my child.
It is counter-intuitive, but it usually works like a charm.
Four steps to disarming their resistance. Next time you tell them what to do and they react, do this…
1. Listen to what they’re saying – their feelings, wishes and opinions.
For whatever reason, your child really wants to play with this toy now, or wants to stay longer at their friend, or wants to go to that sleepover, or wants to watch the end of the movie, or doesn’t want to eat or bath now. They feel strongly about this. Realize their feelings and wishes are valid, even if their preferred path or behavior is not best. So let them know you’re interested. Invite them to share their mind and opinion about the issue. Give them your full attention as they do. Do not react or correct them.
2. Gently reflect back to them what they’re feeling or saying.
‘You seem to feel you’ve been treated unfairly by me.’
‘You were so excited about swimming / playing longer / watching longer / coming with me / that sleepover and now you’re frustrated / disappointed.’
‘You feel you deserved that sweet.’
‘You really wanted to hold the cake.’
‘I realize you don’t feel like climbing in the car / doing homework / sleeping / supper.’
Then sometimes add, ‘Is that right?’ They might take the gap to correct your understanding, but even if they don’t your question for clarity does wonders to show that you’re trying to understand them.
3. Pause and then announce your final instruction or decision.
This is when the conversation switches from understanding to your final ruling. Your listening has sent a message that you’re open to reconsidering your initial command. Before your final decision, sometimes it will be best to say, ‘Let me think about it for a few minutes.’ But usually this won’t be practical, in which case count to four, and then announce your decree. (The reason for the delay is to clarify in your child’s mind a transition in the conversation from discussion to decision.)
‘You’re loving playing with that toy (pause) but it’s time to put it down and come bath.’
‘Your brother is really irritating you, I know how that feels, (pause) but it’s never okay to hit him.’
‘You want to eat dessert first. Wouldn’t it be great if we could? (pause) I am not going to allow it.’
‘I know how much you want to go to that party (pause) but I have decided you’re not going.’
Then look or walk away, the matter is decided. You’re the boss, remember. What you say goes.
4. If need be, validate your child’s dissatisfaction with your resolution even while you follow through on it.
Say, ‘I know you want me to change my decision. But I won’t.’
This is often the right time to gently explain the reasons for your call. But do so in a way that makes it clear you’re not inviting debate.
Why responsive listening works (and why it’s probably best).
1. It’s more empathetic. Put yourself in their shoes. Nobody likes to be told what to do. Parents, especially in the early years of a child’s life, are by necessity benevolent dictators. We do know best. We know what happens next. Many times a day for kids, many times a week for teens, we issue commands. That’s a lot of humble pie for kids and teens to swallow. You’d react too. In fact, when you were younger, you did react.
2. You spare yourself and your family a fight. If we allow ourselves to be forced into an argument with our kids, we are brought down to the child’s level. This approach may feel time-consuming, but it actually saves you a lot of time and energy had an argument ensued. Besides, every fight tears at the fabric of relationship and as long as you’re listening, there’s not an argument.
3. You get to know your kids better. When my kids were crying babies, Julie and I spent time trying to figure out why – maybe he’s wet, or teething, or sick, or hungry? But now that they can talk, why do I make so little effort to engage their feelings?
4. You don’t crush their will in the process. Your child’s readiness to stand up for their opinion and desires is exactly what they will need to withstand pressures as well as be an independent human being one day. This method refuses their will, without annihilating it.
5. You master your own emotions a little bit more. Every time you respond with empathetic listening rather than react emotionally yourself you grow a little as a person. As a dude I spend so much time trying to master my work skills, my use of time and money, my hobby of surfing – it’s about time I learn to master my emotions too.
6. You help your kids figure out their emotions a little more. This way teaches your kids to articulate and name their negative emotions, while at the same time teaching them that life is not to be governed by these feelings. You also model to them how to listen non-defensively to the feelings of others.
7. You make it easier for your child to accept your leadership. As William Nichols puts it, ‘Responsive listening won’t make a seven-year-old want to go to bed on time or a teenager feel good about missing a movie with his friends. But having their feelings heard and acknowledged will make them feel less unfairly treated.’ The battle of wills is won not by surrendering yours, but by making your child feel heard.
Why not give it a go?
Have you seen it work in your parenting? Let us know.
Also published on Medium.