The most powerful tool for solving power struggles is a parenting journal. In your parenting journal you will record a narrative description of each power struggle, explosion, or other type of upsetting interaction that you have with your child. Each of these narratives will begin with the last moment that everything seemed fine and will include every detail you can recall of what you and your child did leading up to the power struggle and during it. In order to get the most complete and accurate description of the event possible, try to write the narrative as soon after the power struggle as you reasonably can.
You might feel that you just don’t have time to do this. Being a parent keeps life very busy, but even if you spend only 10-15 minutes a day with your journal it will bring big benefits. Power struggles take a lot of time too, and the bad feelings that they leave behind can detract from all other activities.
You might feel that it would be too painful to keep a parenting journal. Most of us feel so guilty, angry and awful after these episodes that we want to forget about them and move on. However, keeping a parenting journal actually helps prevent the unhealthy build up of painful feelings and stress that can result from family conflict. Psychological research shows that people who remember and write journal entries about upsetting events actually get over the bad feelings faster than those who try to forget about the events and move on. Recalling and writing about painful events is physically healthier too. It is associated with a reduction of health damaging stress hormones in the body.
In addition to providing a place for expressing and relieving the stress and strain of the conflicts you are having with your child, a parenting journal will provide you with the means to solve the problems underlying the power struggles. The painful emotions associated with power struggles disrupt our thinking and make remembering the important details very difficult if we don’t write them down. As philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is in remembering and writing down narratives of the conflicts that you are having with your child that you will create a record that will allow you to determine the cause of the struggles and make a plan to resolve them. Family dynamics are sticky. If we don’t remember and analyze our problematic interactions, we inevitably get sucked into repeating them over and over.
So let’s get started! First select your journal. Will it be a leather bound or other type of decorative journal book? a spiral notebook? on your computer? or on your phone? All are fine options. What matters most is that your journal can be kept in a place where you can access it relatively easily, but that you can be sure that others, especially your children, will not be able to read it.
After each power struggle, melt down, explosion, or tantrum find a few quiet minutes and write down what happened. Begin at the point that things seemed fine. Maybe you were preparing dinner and the kids were happily watching TV. Maybe you were waking them up for school. Next think about anything that might have been going on before the problem emerged. Your child seemed tired, or you noticed that he hadn’t eaten his lunch, or you recall that you were stressed or preoccupied with something. Often struggles or tantrums start with something small, but then build quickly in intensity. Try to remember what the initial moments were like. Your kids were jostling each other on the couch and you stepped in to stop things. Finally, record how things went wrong and what got the episode to end. You asked your child to turn the TV off and he blew up. You yelled, or maybe you gave in and let him keep watching TV so that you could have dinner in peace for once. Try also to record the thoughts and feelings that you were having. “I can’t take any more of this.” “I am failing as a mother.” “He’s so rigid, just like my brother (or husband, or father).”
Here’s a sample entry from an imaginary mother of a 10 year-old boy named Sam:
It was Friday afternoon and everything seemed fine when Sam came home from school. I was relieved that it was the weekend. I felt relaxed after a somewhat stressful workweek. I decided to let him have some extra computer time after his snack while I did some chores around the house. He knew we had a dentist’s appointment to go to and when I told him to get off the computer for the appointment – to my surprise – he agreed without too much grumbling. In the car on the way to the dentist’s office I mentioned that we would be stopping at Costco before going home. He blew up. He was yelling that it wasn’t fair, that he thought we were going home right away so that he could get back to his game. He threatened not to go in at Costco. I couldn’t understand what the problem was. He usually loves Costco. He pouted through the entire dentist’s appointment, but he did go in and more or less cooperated. Finally, I had to bribe him with ice cream to get him to go to Costco without a fight. I feel like nothing is ever good enough for him. Give him and inch and he’ll take a mile. I had given him extra time on the computer, but he’s not satisfied. He’s just like my brother. If he doesn’t get his way, he throws a fit.
In this entry there are a lot of clues to what might be going on. It’s Friday after school, so Sam might be tired from a week of school. He had a snack so hunger probably isn’t an issue. Although he handled leaving his computer game to go to the dentist, Sam indicated in his outburst that he expected to return to the game later. There were many unclear expectations around the computer game. Sam’s mom gave him extra time that she expected him to be satisfied with. Sam’s expectation was that unrestricted computer use would continue when he got home. The unexpected trip to Costco tipped things over the edge. We also see that Sam’s mom has some negative feelings that he might be reacting to. She was stressed at work. She associates him with her difficult brother. She sees him as a kid who wants too much.
So much information can be present in a single vignette like this. When you start adding several together, you will see a clearer picture of how the power struggles with your child get set off and what causes them.
Exercise: Write your first journal entry. Select a recent, or a bad episode with your child and record as much as you can remember. What was going on before it started? What were you feeling? How had your child been that day? What happened and how did it resolve?
My first job, when I work with a new family, is to assess whether the home is a safe place for all family members. Before you follow the advice in any blog, in any book, or from any friend your, home needs to be safe for everyone in the family. If your home is not safe for all family members, this is not the time to go it alone. You need professional help.
If the power struggles and explosions that you are experiencing with your child reach the point where you, your spouse or your other children are being physically injured, seek professional help immediately. If your challenging child is bullying a sibling and that sibling is becoming anxious, regressed, or is becoming physically aggressive him or herself, seek professional help immediately. If the power struggles and explosions that you are experiencing with your child are leading either you or your spouse to lose your temper in a way that is harmful to your child, seek professional help immediately. These situations are emergencies. Contact your child’s pediatrician, your child’s school psychologist, or the psychiatry department of your local hospital.
It’s year end, the time when many of us make resolutions for the New Year. Here’s the one resolution that belongs at the top of every parent’s list.
Take time to care for yourself.
Being a parent in 2012 was stressful. In a down economy supporting a family can be difficult and work hours seem to be getting longer all the time. We’re busier than ever. As if that wasn’t enough, we expect more of ourselves as parents than ever before. We strive to help our children become successful, good people, who are socially and emotionally intelligent. It’s a lot of pressure!
In 2013 resolve first of all to make sure to take some time to care for yourself. I know, I know, you don’t have the time. But taking time everyday to care for yourself – even if it’s just 5 minutes to stop and catch your breath – will be a great gift to you in 2013 and an even greater gift to your child. A calmer, happier, less reactive you will be able to be a more present, attentive and patient parent.
Great stress busters include getting to the gym, yoga, walking, meditation, relaxation exercises. Even if you really don’t feel you can make time for yourself in 2013, at least decide practice Maitri 2013. Maitri, says Budist monk Pema Chödrön, is unconditional friendliness towards oneself. It’s easy to be hard on ourselves and feel we’re falling short as parents, partners and people. Make 2013 a year to be kinder, gentler and unconditionally friendly to yourself. You and your children will be better off for it!
Happy New Year!
I was driving past a church one evening and I noticed that the church sign read, “How do kids spell love? T‐I‐M‐E.” I was struck enough by this that I stopped to snap a photo of it. I thought “Yes, that is how kids spell love!” As I drove on, and reflected more about the sign, I thought, “Well, kids also spell love R‐E‐S‐P‐E‐C‐T, A‐F‐F‐I‐R‐M‐A‐T‐I‐O‐N, and probably countless other ways.” No matter how many ways kids spell love, time is definitely important.
Because life is so busy, it’s often difficult to find the time to spend with our kids. As fathers we can find it especially challenging to find ways to spend time with our sons where we really connect. In some cases we even find our sons initially resistant to spending time with us. As males, boys and dads usually aren’t inclined to connect by talking. We connect by doing, although sometimes we even talk a little as we are doing things together. I’ve listed a few activities below that can provide opportunities for fathers and sons to spend time together doing things which can help build their relationships. I’ve even included activities that can entice sons who are currently reluctant to spend time with their dads.
BUILDING AND REPAIR PROJECTS
Dads who have the skills can tune up a bicycle, do home repair projects, put up a garden shed, or build simple wood working projects with their sons (the Cub Scout’s Pinewood Derby is a great example of this type of project). For those dads who are less handy, plastic model car kits can be fun projects to tackle. If you are feeling unsure of where to start, there are YouTube tutorials describing how to do almost any type of project. Projects that last over several weeks have the added benefit of creating an ongoing sense of connectedness even when you are not actively working on the project.
SPORTS AND FANTASY LEAGUES
Not all boys love sports, but those who do provide dads with time‐honored opportunities to connect around shooting baskets, playing catch with a football or baseball, or kicking a soccer ball. The physical activity is healthy for both of you and the time together is priceless.
Fantasy football, baseball, basketball and hockey leagues provide another opportunity to connect around a shared interest in sports. Studying player stats, drafting a team, making personnel moves, and vying for a league championship are great ways for dads and sons to bond. As with extended building projects, the fantasy season creates an ongoing feeling of connectedness because the team is always there in the background as something that links the two of you and that you can refer to at any moment. Check out Yahoo! for fantasy sports rules and leagues.
Boys, even those not into sports, generally love the physical contact with their fathers that comes from rough and tumble play. The Art of Roughhousing by Anthony DeBenedet, M.D. and Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. is a wonderful introduction to roughhousing for those dads who feel they need some guidance regarding safe and fun roughhousing.
Playing poker is a good way to interest a reluctant kid to spend time with his dad. Poker is not only fun and exciting to play, but it encourages the development of many important skills in those who play. Poker teaches players lessons about math, money, and emotional self‐control. Poker also teaches players how to understand the minds and intentions of other people as players try to read what their opponents’ cards are.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE KID WHO DOESN’T WANT TO SPEND TIME WITH YOU ON THESE ACTIVITIES.
With a son who is reluctant to spend time with you, I would recommend starting with what he is interested in. If he loves playing video games, try watching the game while he plays. Ask questions about the game. Eventually ask if he’ll teach you to play. Even if you don’t like or approve of video games, it’s more important for your relationship with you son to meet him where his interests are, than it is to make your point about how video games are too violent or a waste of time. You can take a similar approach to connecting by listening to, and appreciating, the music that your son likes. Try to see what he likes about it. Listen to it enough so it has a chance to grow on you. You can also watch the TV shows he likes, or ask to see YouTube videos that he enjoys.
Good luck! Give your son your time and remember “if first you don’t succeed, try try again.”
Since my last post, Steve Jobs: Innovator, Entrepreneur, and Challenging Boy, we have all heard the sad news of Steve Jobs’s passing. Guy Kawasaki, who worked with Jobs at Apple, posted on his blog in memory of Steve: “What I Learned from Steve Jobs.” Here’s a post on what we can learn from Steve Jobs about life with a challenging boy.
Dealing with a Defiant Child: Lessons Learned from Steve Jobs
1. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward.” Steve Jobs’s 2005 Commencement address at Stanford.
You can’t connect the dots looking forward was Jobs’s way of saying you don’t know what the future holds. It’s natural when you have a challenging boy to be very worried about your child’s future. You wonder if the power-struggles with you, teachers and other authority figures will ever stop. You worry he won’t ever be happy. Maybe you fear he won’t be able to make a life for himself: he’ll drop out of school, or not be able to hold down a job, or not have a relationship, or live in your basement.
These fears, while natural, make life with a challenging child much harder. If we worry that every power-struggle or incident report from school takes our child closer to a terrible future, we feel under tremendous pressure to change things NOW! Trying to change things NOW inevitably makes them worse. Constructive, sustainable change takes time.
Steve Jobs really was a challenging boy. He was constantly testing limits. He was impatient, stubborn, rebellious, and uncontrollable. He had a quick temper and was determined to get his own way no matter what. He overwhelmed his parents and they did worry about him. However, Steve Jobs’s life story tells us that these very qualities played a major role in his success. His story shows us that challenging kids aren’t challenging because they are bad. They are challenging because they care deeply about how things are done. They have great conviction that their way is the right way to do things and they are driven to pursue their vision.
It’s easy for parents and teachers to mistakenly view the challenging boy’s determination to do things his way, according to his vision as self-centeredness, or oppositionality, or defiance, rather than for what it is – the need to follow the beat of a very loud and insistent internal drummer.
We need to remember that these kids have great potential as entrepreneurs, leaders, and agents of change. We need to teach them the skills of leadership and collaboration – not compliance.
Steve Jobs’s commencement address and life story teach us to worry less about our sons’ future and to have more faith in them and in ourselves.
2. “Experts are clueless.” Guy Kawasaki’s blog “What I learned from Steve Jobs.”
Families, friends, and even strangers seem to be always offering advice when you have a challenging boy. It can make you feel like a bad parent and that you are to blame for the struggles that you are having with your son. Well let me tell you, they don’t know what they are talking about, unless they’ve also had a challenging kid. Even if they have had a challenging child they might not know what they are talking about because they haven’t had your challenging child.
The same is true for experts. When it comes to your challenging boy, they don’t know what they are talking about either. On just about every issue in parenting you can find equally experienced, equally well-credentialed, equally well-intentioned experts who will offer you exactly opposite advice.
THERE IS NO ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL SOLUTION.
Kawasaki goes on to say, “hear what experts say, but don’t always listen to them.” Experts often have good ideas and suggestions that are worth “hearing, “ that is, considering, but you should never just defer to an expert.
An expert’s suggestion needs to feel right to you in your gut. If it doesn’t, don’t follow the suggestion. To implement a solution effectively, you have to believe in it, it has to fit your personality, and it has to fit your son.
It is actually good news that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution and that experts disagree. It means that there are many different ways to solve the problems that you are having with your challenging boy. Keep trying until you find the right one, which leads to the last of the lessons in this blog.
3. Never give up.
Steve Jobs pursued his vision of creating “insanely great” products and didn’t let anyone or anything get in his way. He didn’t go it alone, however. He wouldn’t stop until he found the people who could help him make his dream a reality.
Life with a challenging boy can be, well … very challenging, but it can be better, maybe even insanely great. Just don’t give up until you find the people and the methods that can help you achieve your dream of a healthy and happy relationship with your son.