I get lots of questions from parents about their kids--parents who don't know how they got where they are and don't know where to go from here. The older your child gets, the more out of control you can feel as a parent.
QUESTION: My 12 year old got so mad at being told (repeatedly) to go to bed that when he slammed the door, it shattered. I am at my wits’ end.
ANSWER: Oh, wow. That must have been so upsetting for you.
Although your instinct might have you wanting to come down hard on him, he needs your love and understanding just as much as a four year old does. I get that that might be really hard for you. A broken door is a big deal and having a kid that wound up feels completely out of control. But here’s the truth: When you get into a physical power struggle with a teenager, chances are he is going to win—which means you lose, which means everyone loses. Even if he is not physically bigger than you are right now, he is smart and can think of a lot of ways to get around you or to infuriate you.
Besides, you don’t want to “win” over your child. You want your child to be happy and expending his energies in positive ways.
The older a child gets, the harder it is for us to be patient and empathetic (He ought to know better, we think). And yet a twelve year old is still a child—a child with hormones racing around inside until he feels he has to explode to feel normal again.
So start with empathy: “I am so sorry you are feeling so upset. It is really scary to feel so out of control. I am guessing that you wouldn’t have reacted so strongly if you felt that your needs were getting met. When you are feeling calmer, we need to brainstorm some solutions that might make everyone happier.”
When everyone is calm, consider having a family meeting. Be ready to do a lot—a lot—of listening. (Click HERE for access to my free ebook on The Family Meeting.) Children who really feel seen and heard calm down enough emotionally to access their prefrontal cortex (where their most creative thinking goes on). Be prepared to make some compromises. Remember, your child is not behaving badly to spite you. He does not want to feel disconnected from you. If he could get what he needs peacefully, he would. It is not too late to work on nonviolent communication. Keep at it, and eventually he will be able to tell you what is so important to him. In the meanwhile, based on my many years of working with middle school kids, here are some things you might guess he needs:
•more responsibility outside of school (chores, being trusted with some money, making decisions about things like where/how to hang the Christmas lights)
•reassurance that you believe in him
•reassurance that you will love him no matter what (even if he breaks the door)
•reassurance that adolescence is a phase; it will get easier and he won’t always feel like this
•recognition that he is a work in progress; you don’t expect him to be perfect
•help reframing his so-called weaknesses into strengths
•understanding that messing up is a chance for learning next time
•lots of praise for what he does well
•appreciation for his contributions outside of his school performance
Use family meetings to engage his critical thinking skills. Present issues as problems that you would like him to help solve. For example, you might say, “Doctors recommend that 12 year olds get 9 to 11 hours of sleep. How are you going to arrange your schedule so that you get enough sleep?” By having him come up with a plan, he is more likely to follow it. If getting to bed on time is an issue, offer a lot of empathy and press for more ideas: “I can see how tempting it is to read one more chapter of your book, and at the same time, a teenager with two hours less sleep than he needs is functioning at the same level as someone who has had two beers. I worry that the rest of your day tomorrow is just going to be that much harder and I want you to have lots of energy. How could we rearrange your day so you have enough time to enjoy reading your book?"
Once your child is calm, brainstorm ways for him to calm down before he gets that out of control (deep breathing, stepping outside for a moment, excusing himself to the bathroom for a few minutes).
It is also time to brainstorm ways to make sure the door gets fixed. Does he have the money to pay for it? If not, how can he earn it? Does he get an allowance? Can it come out of that? When things fall apart and so much damage is done, it is going to take a while to make things right. Through it all, offering your child empathy and your steadfast belief that he has learned from the experience is what will allow him to forgive himself and move on.
Let's go back to how to avoid having a broken door in the first place. When kids get that out of control, chances are something has been building up for some time. I love the family meeting as a structure, because it guarantees that on a weekly basis each family member gets to share three good things. This keeps everyone focusing on the positive. If your child is struggling to find three good things, it is a red flag that that child probably has issues that are overwhelming him. The agenda portion of the family meeting allows each family member to bring up concerns and to brainstorm them together. In this case, Mom might have backed off in the short run, knowing that she could talk about bed time and listening at the family meeting.
My FREE ebook, THE FAMILY MEETING: GET 4 POWERFUL STEPS TO HARMONY AND CALM IN YOUR HOUSE, will guide you through how to optimize the meeting not only for logistics, but more importantly as a tool that helps you honor each child as an individual, giving them time and space to feel seen and heard.