Parents routinely tell me that they are just sick of struggling with their kids, fighting with their kids, pushing their kids to do a given thing, warning them not to do a given thing, punishing their kids over what they've done (or not done) and on and on and on. The sense I get during these conversations is that parenting has turned into an endless, draining battle. (And -- having been awarded the children I deserve -- I'm no stranger to that feeling myself!)
When I hear this story, I know that part of what's keeping this particular dance going is a process that's happening inside of the parents. (Our kids have their own part to play in this situation, but I can talk about that another time. This moment is for us, not for them.)
In essence, we get into this situation when we fall into a habit of escalating conflicts with our kids when we don't need to -- and we almost never really need to. We do this because our brains and bodies are screaming at us to do something, you have to do something NOW! -- and we are taking that advice, even though it's bad advice. Even though "doing something" hasn't worked in a long time. Even though it's not working right now. Even though the only outcomes are (a) damage to our relationship with our kids and (b) deepening the habit of escalation -- both for our kids and for us.
So my advice to parents who tell me this story is: Slow down. Don't "do something." Do nothing.
Now, I know this advice is going to sound completely nuts to most parents and I also know it's going to sound like I'm advising them to give up on parenting, discipline, etc., entirely. It's not nuts, and that's not what I'm advising, but that's almost always where the conversation goes. I'm not talking with you in person right now, but I'm playing the odds, so this next bit is where I show you how this is not insane and how I'm definitely not asking you to just give up.
Here is the deal. Escalation -- getting bigger, faster, and louder in a conflict -- is an evolved response to perceived danger. It's what I call "monkey dominance behavior." It's an animal threat display in an attempt to evoke animal submission behavior. It only works when your target monkey sees you as a bigger threat than they are. Where it doesn't work, the result is physical combat, where painful experience will teach the participants which monkey is, in fact, the bigger threat.
This is a pretty solid response to situations that really do involve immediate danger to life and limb, and where there's no other help, solution, or social structure available. But these situations won't crop up for most of my readers, most of the time. What we have instead is situations where physical dominance simply won't be necessary.
Plus, as a society, we've increasingly gotten rid of physical combat as a means of settling conflict. Most recently, and most specifically to this discussion, we've pretty much quit backing up threats to children with violence and pain on the back end. And while I think this is a great idea, it's also true that children typically don't experience their parents as bigger physical threats than they themselves are, these days. We've dropped the monkey follow-through, so I don't see any reason we should expect monkey threats to work well.
So what then? I imagine you asking. What the hell does this leave me with? I need to get my kid under control!
Ah. It turns out I can help you there. Slow down. Do nothing.
Slowing down means you notice that anger and frustration rising inside of you, you notice your mind yammering at you to move faster and get louder, and then you choose to do the opposite. You sit down instead of standing up. Or you stay where you are instead of moving in close. You move slower. You speak more slowly and quietly.
Doing nothing means you don't do anything big or important right now. You're willing to wait rather than dominate. You're willing to allow your child to keep up their end of the fight, and find out that's not working, and get tired and stop. You don't need to prevent them from experiencing this. All you need to do is stay there with them and be there at the end of it all, to provide the right consequences for whatever choices they make. To help them fix whatever they break, to help them cultivate whatever skill they need to grow.
In slowing down and doing nothing, you demonstrate self-mastery and you demonstrate that your child is not able to knock you out of self-mastery. You remain in charge. (You may not be getting everything you want right now, but your child isn't getting anything they want. The balance of power remains with you.)
In slowing down and doing nothing, you refuse to participate in the dance your child wants to lead. Instead, you begin to lead a different dance. One you are better at than your child is.
In slowing down and doing nothing, you don't get sucked completely into your own head. You don't get tunnel vision on the perceived threat THAT HAS TO BE DEALT WITH RIGHT NOW! Instead, you're able to stay in the room, widen your vision, and see what's going on for what it really is: a child having big, painful emotions, and using unskillful behavior to try to make those emotions go away. That's okay. First, you're going to make sure that doesn't work for them; later, you'll give them a chance to try more skillful behavior and see that it works much, much better.
That's my advice. And I don't want you to believe me blindly! Try it out for yourself. Doesn't even have to be a conflict with your kids, either. Any conflict you find yourself in (where actual physical danger isn't present) is worth trying it out in. Open up. Stay present. Slow down. Do nothing. See how that changes your perceptions of these conflicts. See how it changes others' perceptions of you. See how it changes the outcomes.
Good luck out there.