JACKSON HOLE NEWS AND GUIDE:
Have you ever gotten into an argument with your child that might have started with a simple request but escalated into a back and forth exchange of disrespectful comments leaving you feeling hurt and disappointed?
It might look like this, as recounted by Vicki Hoelfe in her book “The Straight Talk on Parenting”, from a parent or caregiver’s point of view:
‘Our kids’ attitudes have become so bad it’s unbearable. We feel like they treat us as second-class citizens. They roll their eyes at us, walk away from us when we are talking to them, say ‘whatever’, don’t listen and don’t tell us a thing about their lives. They are rude and distant. They act like they deserve everything they get and act resentful when we ask for the smallest of help around the house. The sass, disrespect and hurtful comments have become so persistent that we don’t know what to do.’
If this sounds familiar your child might be working from the mistaken goal of revenge as introduced in my April 14, 2021 column. Children and teens who seek revenge often feel hurt and think that their only recourse is to hurt back – and this is exactly how parents with a revenge seeking child feel – incredibly hurt, angry and even attacked. “What have I done wrong?”; “Why doesn’t my child like me?”; “What have I done to be treated like this?”; “How did things get so bad?” we ask ourselves after these types of exchanges.
Kids who use revenge seeking behaviors are kids who desperately want to feel that they count, or matter, one of the Crucial C’s discussed in my Feb 24, 2021 column. As human beings we have a strong need to feel significant; that we make a difference and matter to those around us; that we count.
As psychologists Amy Lew, Ph.D. and Betty Lou Bettner, Ph.D say, “If a child becomes so discouraged that she feels that she is not needed, cannot be liked or cannot get her way, she may move to the goal of revenge”, and thus motivated comes “to believe that her only chance to prove that she counts is by hurting others as she has felt hurt”. This behavior can also result from children who have been frequently overpowered or overly pampered, and in the extreme abused or neglected.
A child or teen who seeks revenge may believe that others are against them and that no one really likes them. They are saying, “I’ll show you how it feels” and they do what it takes to get back or get even.
Often, not knowing what else to do, our response to a child who hurts us this deeply is to get angry and use punishment which only further escalates the child’s feelings of being unliked. On the other hand when we try to give positive attention, that backfires too. This child is only trying to protect himself, always on alert to preempt you before you can hurt him.
What we need to understand is that these children and teens feel so hurt that they lash out trying to prove that the world is unfair. They want to punish those around them for the injustices they feel. Behind all this, what they are really trying to tell you is, “I want to count. Find something to like about me. I’m hurting”.
What we need to do is slowly and persistently rebuild the relationship while also maintaining boundaries of expectations of mutual respect. And here’s the key: we can’t demand respect by escalating a disrespectful exchange or through punishment. Rather let our actions maintain the boundary by taking some deep breaths, keeping our cool, and saying, “this isn’t a productive conversation right now. I’m going to walk away and come back when we’re both in a better place”. And then follow through. Walk away and get involved in something else (or go cry in your closet if you need to). Remember that making your child feel bad only reaffirms what they already feel about themselves.
Rebuilding a relationship with a child who tries to thwart your every attempt can be hard. Continue to notice the positive and eliminate criticism. Appreciate this child for what she does. Give them positions of responsibility and jobs that are meaningful. Invite them to give input, have a say in the matter and create rules together.
Kids who don’t feel like they count need to be given opportunities to see that their contributions make a difference to those around them. They may see their parent’s pleas to cooperate or help out as a means of control. Thus make sure to give them meaningful jobs and comment on the importance of their work.
Begin to shift your mindset about how you think about this child. It can be easy to label these kids as rude, disrespectful, mean and ungrateful. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and only reinforces those labels for the child, diminishing how they think about themselves. Rather begin thinking about these kids in ways that they can grow into: kind, cooperative, courageous, resilient or supportive for example. You need to believe in your child before he believes in himself or before she gives you any reason for this belief. Don’t respond to sass with sass, and as mentioned above, don’t remain in the room if sass is being thrown your way. Giving up and throwing your hands up in the air in exacerbation also sends them the message that you don’t care. The key, and this is hard, is to not take what they throw your way personally.
As always, try to get into your child’s shoes. If you can tell they are hurting, empathetically notice that, offer your support and don’t give up if they don't take it the first 10 times. With time, if you continue to disengage from the revenge seeking behavior, notice and engage in the positive behavior, understand what is going on for them in their world, give them meaningful ways to contribute in the family and the home and continue to work on the relationship, over time you will see you and your child move toward a more cooperative and harmonious relationship.
Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is excited to explore the world of raising children with you!