I’ve gone to seminars, listened to tapes and read books on how to be an effective parent. Most of the time I do a great job. But when I lose it and start dumping on the kids, I feel like all of the good I’ve accomplished has been undone. It’s so discouraging.
Read through the following statements:
“How many times have I told you not to interrupt when I’m on the phone?”
“Christopher, I’m sick and tired of you leaving a mess all over the house. This may be hard for you to believe but I’m not your personal maid.”
“If the kids don't stop fighting, I'm going to commit myself.”
“You are in real trouble now. Just wait until your Dad gets home.”
“If I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times. Don’t take things out of this drawer without asking.”
“I've had enough. If this happens again you're in serious trouble. I’m not kidding. I really mean it this time.”
It’s true that children can be one of our greatest sources of joy in life. It’s also true that our children can be one of the greatest sources of pain, frustration, discouragement, and feelings of failure. At times, it seems as if the problem is our children. In reality, the problem is not as much our children as the emotions our children can bring out of us.
When we allow our emotions to get out of control, we always end up doing more harm than good. Unhealthy expressions of emotions undermine the very principles we’re trying to teach them. Not only do we end up becoming poor role models, we also end up feeling guilty, discouraged, and defeated.
Our ability to help our children develop healthy emotional patterns is directly related to our ability to model healthy emotional patterns. To put it more simply: Emotionally unhealthy parents rarely produce emotionally healthy children. Immature parents rarely produce mature children.
Step #1 Acknowledge, Own, And Define the Problem
Someone once said, that a problem defined is a problem half-solved. Acknowledging the problem to ourselves brings our concerns out of the shadows and into the light. It gives the problem clarity and makes it easier to deal with it. As we acknowledge the problem before God, we can admit that this is something we can’t handle on our own. We can claim promises such as Romans 8:28, Philippians 4:13 and 4:19. You might be surprised how encouraging and energizing it can be to look at your concerns in light of who God is and what He has promised to His children.
Step #2 Identify the Triggers
The next step involves identifying the kinds of behaviors or responses that tend to “trigger” your unhealthy emotional response. What do I mean by a “trigger”? Webster defines a “trigger” as “a stimulus that initiates a physiological or pathological process.” Most children have things they can do or say that can “trigger” or serve as stimulus to a negative emotional response in their parents.
The easiest way to do this is to make a list of your children’s behaviors that have led up to your unhealthy emotional response. Different situations can “trigger” different responses in different parents. Over the years, I’ve found that these tend to be some of the most common “triggers.”
- whining, complaining
- talking, yelling, interrupting when on the phone
- not doing something they said they’d do
- name calling
- borrowing things without asking
- not putting things away after they’ve borrowed them
- being late
- talking back, showing disrespect
Step #3 What Makes Me More Vulnerable?
Step three involves exploring the factors in your own life that make it more likely for you to respond in negative kinds of ways. The easiest way to do this is to recall three or four of the most recent times you’ve responded negatively and then look at those situations in light of the following questions.
- In the previous 24 to 48 hours, what was going on in your life? Were you busier than usual? Were there any crises that took place? Were there any great successes or failures? Did you have less sleep or exercise than usual?
- Did these events take place at a certain time of the week? I’ve worked with people who discovered that they were much more vulnerable to “losing it” in the middle of the week when they felt overwhelmed. Others have identified the weekend as being their most difficult time.
- Are you more vulnerable at a certain time of the day? Many parents find they are at greatest risk during the hours preceding the evening meal or right before bedtime. When is your “danger zone?”
- Were you preoccupied with other problems? The anxiety that comes from dealing with problems in other areas of our lives can spill over into our relationships with our children. We have less energy and thus a lower tolerance for frustrating situations.
The vast majority of people we have worked with have been able to identify certain patterns to their unhealthy responses. Example: by identifying times of increased vulnerability, Bill was able to ask his friends to pray more specifically for him. His increased awareness also made it easier for him to begin to catch his anger at an early stage.
Step #4 How Have I Responded In the Past? What Hasn’t Worked?
As Bill worked through Step 4, he realized there were several things that didn’t work. One of the first things that didn’t work was to allow himself to immediately react to the situation. “Whenever I take even a little bit of time to think and pray about my response, which I rarely do, it seems as if my response is healthier and more constructive.”
Some of Bill's behaviors that didn’t work included yelling, threatening, over generalizing, labeling, and being sarcastic. They had not produced any positive change. Yet those behaviors comprised 90% of his responses to Jordan. Step 4 helped him become clear about what not to do.
What’s been your pattern? What hasn’t worked for you? What kinds of responses have tended to make the problem worse rather than better?
Step #5 What Might Be More Effective Ways To Respond?
In Step 4, you were able to identify what hasn’t worked. Step 5 involves putting together a list of different options. What haven’t you tried? What haven’t you tried with consistency? What have some other parents you’ve talked to done in this situation? What kinds of responses are more consistent with what you want to model for your children?
Bill read several books on parenting and talked with some of his friends as well as his children’s school teachers. He was able to develop a two-page list of suggestions. He prayed about them and prioritized them. He was ready to put them into action.
Step #6 Develop a Realistic Plan
The act of going through the first five steps had significantly increased his awareness, given him more hope, and helped him to clarify his prayer life. On a weekly basis his friends encouraged him by asking how he was doing, what he was learning, and if there were any specific ways in which they could pray for him.
One of the first parts of Bill’s plan was to work on developing realistic expectations for himself and for his children. Bill made a commitment to exchanging his pursuit of perfection for a pursuit of growth. Whereas perfection is not an achievable state, at least this side of heaven, growth is a very realistic process. Bill also decided to clarify what kinds of expectations were realistic for his children.
One of the most important insights Bill made was to see that he needed to retrain himself to pause before “dumping” on Jordan. Proverbs 14:29 says that the person who is “slow to anger has great understanding.” Proverbs 16:32 tells us that the person who is “slow to anger is better than the mighty.” In Proverbs 19:11, we are told how this works. It says that “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger.” Discretion involves being cautious or reserved in speech and increases our ability to make responsible decisions.
Step #7 Assess Your Results, Set New Goals
Many people want to be different, but few people want to go thru the process of change. Change takes time. Change can be frustrating and discouraging. The process of change involves failure. Yet it is only as we allow God to help us change that we can become the men and women, the moms and dads that we want to be.
The change process rarely occurs overnight. When you assess your results, it’s important to look for the small signs of growth. Three simple ways to measure growth is to look for a decrease in the frequency, intensity, and/or the duration of the unhealthy response.
But keep in mind that you will rarely, if ever, see changes in all three of these areas at the same time. In Bill’s situation, he first noticed a decrease in the intensity of his negative responses. Then he noticed that when he did respond in a negative way, they were of shorter duration. Finally he noticed a clear decrease in the frequency of his unhealthy responses.
Bill’s realistic plan worked. His next step was to set a new goal and develop a realistic plan for it. It was still hard work, but Bill found that his initial victory produced a new sense of confidence and hope. He had become empowered to, with God’s help, continue the process of change and growth in becoming a healthier and more effective father.