When parents don’t take charge

“Parenting is a balance of taking charge and being kind.”

This gem comes from the Circle of Security parenting group. It reminds us that we don’t need to be mean to parent effectively but there are times when we do need to take charge, and the rest of the time we can be kind. Sometimes we have to set boundaries and limits for our children to keep them safe and well. It’s an important part of parenting, and an important part of a child’s development. Children feel safer when we put reasonable limits on them, and they expect it of us.

Some of the angriest children I have worked with are those whose behaviour is an attempt to get Mum or Dad involved in managing their behaviour. His “out-of-control” behaviour is his way of trying to get Mum or Dad to take more control. And what does “out-of-control” look like? A child hitting you, being angry with you, screaming at you, telling you that she hates you, running away from you. Anger is fear expressed in a loud manner.

When a child perceives a parent as ‘weak’, unable to take charge, the child feels unsafe, so she ramps up her behaviour to try to force the parent to take responsibility for setting the limits.  However some parents have a really difficult time doing this. The parent may have grown up with a parent who was harsh, punitive, and mean, and does not want to be like that person, so she flounders when it comes to setting boundaries and limits and guiding and educating her child. When the parent flounders, the child flounders.

The child has a limited experience of life, so out of frustration and anger he resorts to yelling and hitting you to get you to take notice. Children do this because they love their parent more than anything else, the relationship is more important than life itself, but they are not getting what they need from their parent. When a child says “I hate you” he is really saying “love me”. If negative attention is all the child gets, then she will  seek more of it through her behaviour.

“It can be so tempting to punish a child for “bad” behavior and insist that they are manipulating us to get what they want. But the reality is, children are using every skill they have in their attempt to be loved and accepted. They need our help – not to fix them, but to scaffold them in understanding how to help themselves.” Hand in Hand Parenting

As the child works harder to get the parent to take charge, the parent interprets the behaviour as controlling and manipulative. The parent says the child reminds him or her of the harsh, punitive, and mean parent of his/her childhood. The parent feels helpless. The other parent may overcompensate for the ‘weak’ parent by being mean. Other, well-meaning parents advise the parent that he just needs a firm hand – discipline and punishment. The parent feels inadequate because he doesn’t want to be mean. And the cycle continues.

Sometimes the parent lets the child’s negative behaviours slide over a long period of time in an attempt to be kind and avoid being mean, and then explodes at the child when the behaviour wears thin or the parent loses patience. Then, the parent experiences guilt or shame which fuels another round of feeling helpless, or of diminishing hope. The child and parent continue to miscue and misunderstand each other.

A parent needs to establish rules for the behaviour that she expects in the home and when out. You need to communicate your expectations to your child, and you need to follow through in a timely, consistent, and predictable manner when your child needs guidance on what is acceptable behaviour. You don’t have be mean. When you are mean, children only see and hear the rage and fury, they don’t hear the message you are trying to convey. When was the last time you learnt something from someone screaming at you, putting you down, and threatening you? Consequences delivered in a calm, non-emotive way, are much more effective.

Consequences for a child’s mistaken behaviour (Triple P) should:

  • be carried out immediately;
  • be realistic;
  • be used consistently;
  • be appropriate to the child’s age and stage of development;
  • relate to the mistaken behaviour;
  • encourage the child to behave well; and
  • not threaten a child’s self-esteem and confidence.

At my place, with three rambunctious boys, we have five house rules:

  1. our home is a be-kind zone;
  2. we walk in the house;
  3. rumbling, tumbling, jumping, running, world championship wrestling, and scootering are outside activities;
  4. we play ball outside; and
  5. we sit on the lounge.

The rules at your place will look different because your kids are different to mine and because you have different values. I have had these same rules since my boys were tiny. They are still in place even though the eldest is 12 now. Why? Because they are healthy, active, growing (don’t forget ‘rambunctious’) boys. How many times a day do I have to remind them of the rules? Sometimes it feels like a lot, sometimes it’s a little. They’ll get there eventually. When the adrenalin is flowing, their brains are not thinking of the rules, all logic and reasoning is out the window. You may need to change your rules to reflect your children’s growing maturity – I look forward to that day.

As soon as there is an infringement of the rules, there is a consequence. I don’t let them play ball inside for half an hour before pulling them up for it. The consequence for teasing or giving someone a put-down is the expectation that you will give the other person three “pull-ups“. The consequence for treating the lounge rough is to sit on the floor for five minutes. The consequence for running in the house is to show me how they walk in the house. The consequence for playing ball inside is to give them a warning then remove the ball for five minutes (taking charge). If the boys have an excess of energy I see that as my cue to get them out to the park to kick a ball around as soon as possible (being kind). Every single time.  Because I have these rules and the consequence is immediate, consistent, and predictable, I don’t need to get angry or out-of-control. When a parent gets out-of-control she is doing the opposite of what she wants her children to achieve – control. How ‘mean’ are these strategies, really?

Some highly respected and qualified parent educators say if your child is jumping on the lounge, you can make a game of it, and by making them laugh they get all of their pent-up energy out. I understand that negative behaviour can be a need for connection, but I’m not going to make a game out of such a long-standing and reasonable rule. It’s not going to hurt the child to sit on the floor for five minutes. We get the consequence out of the way without the need for anger, recriminations, or lectures, so we can get on with the job of connecting (being kind).

Hitting or vicious behaviour is what I call a “crime against humanity” and that incurs an immediate Time-Out. My kids know it, and not many Time-Outs go down at my place. For me, it’s the strategy of last resort but I’m not afraid to use it. Ideally, I should be monitoring my boys interactions and when things are getting scratchy I move in closer (what I call ‘proximity and presence’) to help them problem solve or give them Quiet Time, thus eliminating the need for Time-Out. As parents we need to model how to be proactive rather than reactive.

Some parents tell me that they don’t have time to be so ‘hands-on’ with their kids. They have too much to do. To which I reply, “the washing-up police are not going to knock on your door any time soon”. Raising little humans is a very time-consuming job and I hope that no-one told you that it was going to be easy. It actually requires effort from you. Children who grow themselves up learn things the hard way and are at greater risk of mental health problems. Taking charge requires time and effort, and so does being kind – it’s a balancing act.

“Either we spend time meeting children’s emotional needs or we will spend time dealing with behaviours caused by their unmet needs. Either way we spend the time. ” Pam Leo


Narelle Smith




Categories: Managing Mistaken Behaviour


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