When You and Your Child Are Stuck in a Bad Pattern

Here's how to move toward less drama and more love.

Posted May 26, 2016

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change." 
-Carl Rogers 

"Our wounds can heal and become our source of power." 
-Gail Larsen 

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

Sages say that raising children is one of the best paths to enlightenment because it stretches the heart and teaches us to love. And indeed, every one of us raising children has daily opportunities to grow, by digging deep in search of patience and compassion! Luckily, we're strongly motivated by our love for our children, so we stretch.

Sometimes, of course, we get stuck. We find ourselves fighting the same battle over and over. 

Of course, it's natural that we will have to remind our children repeatedly to do things they aren't motivated to do. That normal childish behavior is best handled with a sense of humor. They do learn, with time and repetition, as long as they feel connected to us and therefore WANT to follow our lead.

But what about those times when the cycle escalates? When we're stuck in resentment, or the assumption that it's all our child's fault, and he should be different? It's only human to think we should be able to make our child to change. But children (and adults!) naturally rebel against force, so you can't actually control anyone except yourself. That's why change needs to start with us. We're the adult, so it's our job to start the peace process. Here's how to move toward less drama and more love.

1. Take responsibility for your own feelings. 

Sure, her behavior is annoying you. But that’s YOUR annoyance. Another parent in the same situation might be able to just dissolve the tension with laughter or empathy, because they don’t have a hot button about this issue. (And yes, that parent has other triggers, which may not bother you at all. The point isn't to compare ourselves, but to acknowledge that what bothers us is at least partly about our own issues.) 

Next time your child pushes your buttons, consider this: No one can make you feel upset. If you're getting triggered, that's your responsibility.

Take this as a cue to do some work on yourself, by noticing your own issue that's coming up. For instance, are you being over-controlling to make yourself feel better about the chaos of living with children? Are you so upset by your child's rudeness that you aren't acknowledging her anger? Are you so depleted that you resent your child's age-appropriate neediness? The amazing thing is that once we notice and love ourselves through that stuck place, we loosen up that tight knot in ourselves -- and that stuck place with our child begins to dissolve, too.

2. Remember that taking responsibility for your feelings doesn't mean blaming yourself.

Parents, being human, are never perfect. And children have an unerring ability to trigger us, expose our wounded places, draw out our unreasonable fears and anger. So accept your feelings, including your frustration and anger at your child. Those are normal feelings, and having them doesn't mean you act on them. Before we can change, we first need to accept the whole glorious mess of ourselves, as tenderly as we would our child when they're hurting. Almost magically, once we bless our own wounds with compassion, we find that these hurt places make us more compassionate, tender parents. And we don't get triggered by our child's behavior in the same way.

3. Reframe your child's behavior. 

Whatever your child is doing, he's doing his best to meet his needs.

  • If he's being "impossible" and nothing you do makes him happy, he may be asking for your help with some big feelings. (Set a calm, kind, limit and hold him while he cries.) 
  • If she's continually challenging your limits, she may be showing you that she feels controlled. Kids always rebel against force. (Remember that you don't have to attend every power struggle to which you're invited.)
  • If he's being aggressive, that's a red flag that he's got some big fear locked inside. (Melt that hardened heart to let the fears and tears out by staying compassionate in the face of his anger.)
  • If she's defiant, she's showing you that she feels disconnected from you. (Parenting is 80% connection; otherwise kids can't accept our guidance. How's your ratio?)

If you can see the situation from your child's perspective, you're more than half way to the solution. Once you find another way to meet her needs, your child has no reason to keep acting out.

4. Look for win/win solutions. 

You're stuck because you're assuming that you're right and your child is wrong. You can't simultaneously blame and find a solution. Once you stop trying to make your child "learn a lesson," there's always a solution that works for everyone. (What a great lesson to teach your child!)

5. Keep calm. 

You're the parent. Your child is taking her cues from you. If you can keep your own emotions regulated, your child will learn how from you. Once she can regulate her feelings, she can regulate her behavior. 

6. Keep connecting. 

Children are biologically programmed to accept guidance from their parents, but only if they're convinced that their parents are on their side. (Mother Nature knows that increases their chance of survival.) So if your child experiences you as always opposing him, or feels hurt by you, he'll resist you at every turn. The best way to turn around a bad pattern is connecting more. How? Empathy (even as you set limits), laughter, roughhousing, and lots of hugs.

Hard work? Very. Children give us the perfect opportunity to grow past our stuck places. Isn't it great to have your very own live-in zen master?