Thinking About Parent Leadership
When working with children or teens who are struggling with anxiety or stress (often expressed in young children in tantrums or meltdowns), I often find myself talking to parents about leadership. This is because when kids become peers in their relationship with their parents, they can begin to feel insecure in a way that they don’t when parents are firmly in charge. It leaves parents frustrated, often without a clear understanding about what is happening and what to do about it. Once we begin to identify the ways in which to redevelop their leadership, parents quickly catch on.
I say “redevelop” because when families start, the leadership is pretty clear. No one questions who is in charge when kids are little, especially before kids can talk. Along the way, as children develop the necessary ability to think for themselves and to express their own opinions, parent leadership can become eroded as families grow and become more stressed by their children’s needs, academic and sport schedules, and demanding jobs.
So I have compiled a short list of signs for when parent leadership might need some “redevelopment”:
Sign #1. Lots of explaining. This happens in almost every family I see to one degree or another and usually for good reason. Except that it doesn’t work. I find that parents endlessly explain the same things over and over. For example, parents seem to spend a lot of time explaining to their kids why they should pick up after themselves. They point out the need to be responsible, organized, respectful of their home, etc. It often seems to me that they are trying to appeal to a maturity that just hasn’t shown up yet. In fact, it often shows up at the last minute so to speak. Depending on the child and family, this is about around age 17 (16 if you’re lucky). However, in their anxiety about their kids being irresponsible (or unappreciative, disrespectful, lazy, etc.), they miss the mountain of evidence that the lecture is not working and they are being tuned out.
What to do: Strong leaders recognize that their resources (time and energy) are finite and are to be expended only when it will yield good results. If you are using lots of words (more than 2 to 3 sentences) check for two things: You are stating new information and that your words are receiving attention in a respectful manner. Kids who are not listening or are being dismissive or disrespectful do not have a right to an explanation. If you feel you must address an issue wait until a time when both you and your child are calm.
Let’s take the example of homework whining: A child complains about doing homework and often the parent responds with some sort of lecture about how important homework is for school, and school is important for the future, etc. Most likely this is done in the hope that the student will share the same insight and see why homework is important. But that rarely happens and most likely the parent has lost the child’s attention at the second or third word, if not before. In reality, most kids will have to be well along in their high school career (sometimes college career) before they develop the maturity and the insight to see that sadly, their parents were right about homework.
Put another way, I did not do homework as a kid because it was good for my future. But I clearly understood that it was very good for my immediate present. I, like my siblings and most of my friends, made a calculated decision that doing homework was better than what happened if I didn’t. &pagebreaking&
What to do: I encourage parents to set clear consequences regarding the completion of homework or the earning of grades. After that, I actually encourage parents to complain along with their kid. Kids know that homework is really required by school, not their parents, and sympathizing with their kids puts parents on the same page. Didn’t they hate homework when they were kids? Most of the time parents can afford to wait for their child to learn to value it.
Sign #2. Explaining for the bazillionth time why you have to yell at your kids because you can’t get them to listen to you/do what you ask any other way. Think about it: Not only are parents being forced into yelling and nagging, they’re the ones taking the blame for it. Enough said about this one.
What to do: For young kids, set the expectation that they will be a first time dude (dudette) and do things when they are asked. If not, there is no yelling or nagging, simply a consequence. (Writing consequences seem particularly effective in this case.) Better yet for kids of all ages, switch to a nonverbal communication around chores and other expectations. Here is a link to a blog I wrote about the system that I recommend "Kids's Chores & a New Way to Get Your Kids to Do Them." Whatever system you use, keep it simple and easy for everyone to use, especially you.
Sign #3. Making more than one meal at dinner. Rather than have a fight at the dinner table after a long day of work (or at home parenting), mom or dad breaks out the chicken nuggets and fries for one child. And soon they are making peanut butter and jelly for another. They were just trying to keep the peace but suddenly, their children are dictating what they will accept for dinner and parents are making three meals at once.
What to do: Strong leaders will once again recognize that their resources are finite and are to be expended only when it will yield good results. Therefore, everyone has to learn to eat what is in front of them. To allow for dislikes, each kid gets one dinner per week that is decided upon ahead of time and that they may make for themselves (and clean up). Younger kids may politely ask if they can’t make it for themselves. Making insulting comments about someone else’s efforts at making dinner warrant consequences. This makes sense when we think about manners. If a child tells a parent that the spaghetti is gross, consider how he or she might handle similar feelings about a meal he or she is served as a guest. What would you want your child to say as a guest? How should your child treat you? Would you expect them to thank the host/hostess? Then get them in the habit of thanking you before they are excused. Manners required at the beginning and end of the meal set a respectful tone for the rest of that all-important dinner conversation.
I find that once parents begin to think about this issue, they can go on to redefine their leadership in ways that they think are important for their family. It is not easy at first but I find that kids fall in line pretty quickly as they relax back into their child/teen role. After all, the fighting and limit pushing is work for them too.
Elizabeth Handley, LMHC, CCMHC, is the author of Blue Brain Training: A Simple, Organized, and Effective Way to Reduce Anxiety and Stress in Children, Teens, and Their Families. Currently she is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Ashland, in which she specializes in the treatment of anxiety and stress in children and their families. For more information visit bluebraintraining.com.