As a mom to a strong willed child I really WANT these to be 3 simple and easy keys to less conflict, but that would be dishonest. If you've parented a challenging child for any length of time, you've tried every “easy” trick out there to reduce conflict in your family. Sometimes we find things that make a difference, but more often than not we come back to the hard realization that this isn't about some “quick fix”. It's possible to have more peace in your family, and it's simple, but it takes some core level shifts in how you relate to yourself and your child.
I've been doing emotional work and healing in my own family and this year and I was lucky to meet parenting coach Allison Livingston at a retreat about healing and preventing childhood emotional neglect. Allison's 5 Steps to Connect Framework is specifically geared toward helping families thrive with strong willed children. She and I are working together now to open an online community to support families and I spoke to her recently about the difficulty of having a child who is seemingly constantly trying to start fights and conflict.
What can we do in the face of a child who seems to always be angry or intense?
It's really hard to feel calm when your child is starting fights, using negative words, tones and actions. This sounds like my daughters when they were younger and it would make my stomach ache and my jaw clench.
A few things supported me and guided me to develop the 5 Steps to Connect framework. It isn't easy, but it is clear and works. My older daughter is strong willed and what the Enneagram awareness system calls The Challenger. When I read Russ Hudson's book, it started me on the path to not take her behavior personally, and realize she was doing it FOR herself, not TO me or her sister. And that she needs structure and strong boundaries, but hates being told what to do (the not easy part!)
Here are 3 simple, but not easy keys to peace with your strong willed child:
Be Willing to Stop – The first step is to fill your tank and have your child fill theirs. When I am upset (notice my body tight/clenching) it is my signal that I too am out of alignment and it’s time to stop and take a break. I am much more resilient and able to flex with her intensity when my tank is full of self care. (Again, not easy during this shelter in place with everything closed!) When my daughter was intense, it told me her tank was low and she wouldn't be able to hear a word I said. I learned to stop and take a break myself, when possible, or it would just get worse.
Plus the more I had an agenda of her needing to change, the more she resisted. The counter-intuitive part is that the strong willed ones aren't the only ones who need to be open to shifting, which leads us to my next key:
Take care of what's under your control – The next key is to notice how I'm relating to/thinking/interpreting her behavior. My thoughts are under my control and my belief about her behavior is just one of many possible interpretations of her actions/words/tone.
The reason to notice how you’re thinking about behavior is because there are many ways we end up increasing our own rage through interpreting our kid’s actions negatively: for instance if my daughter is calling her sister names, one belief I can fall into is, “She's such a brat! Why is she doing this to us?!” You see how this would only increase my distress, and make me tend to see my daughter as the enemy. Sometimes it's very hard to shift out of this kind of belief.
When I'm not open to understanding that my belief about her behavior is just one of many possible interpretations, this usually means I need to feel more, but am resisting.
Feel more – what does THAT mean? Well, feelings are natural responses in our bodies and if we repress them we wind up lashing out trying to blame others for what we're feeling and trying to get them to solve it. If we instead allow the feeling to pass through (without acting on it – you can feel furious without hitting someone) then we can choose actions based on our values rather than reacting from our fear or anger.
Speaking without blame – And finally, another key to connect with my strong willed child is to speak in a way that doesn't make either of us wrong. I do this by saying I feel… I want…I value… (instead of you should…, you don't… you never… you always… These are all triggering and will usually illicit a defensive ego response in my daughter.)
The bottom line for your intense child is that he’s leading with anger and intensity to protect himself. Underneath all the bluster he’s hurting or scared or unsure and yearning for your acceptance, love and seeing his light. His intensity is about him, not you, even though your nervous system accurately detects that it is directed right at you. So as much as possible ask yourself, “Wow, this is intense, I wonder what is underneath this behavior? Something is important to him” See him as the hurting puppy he is, not the snarling wolf he's displaying.
Big heaping of self care and compassion for all of you! No one is to blame. No one is wrong. Love for all.
About the 5 Steps to Connect Community:
Allison and I are creating the 5 Steps To Connect community online to bring together parents of strong willed children to learn how to transform intense, hard interactions into chances to grow and connect so we can feel more peace and joy in our families. You can find out more and get on our early bird list here.