I sometimes see such hostility, hate and resentment in families that I can do little to help. Often a difficult, defiant child clashes with confronting, forceful parents and this starts a war where there are no winners.
Parents are strong, clever people and there is no doubt that we sail in a battleship with bigger guns than those of our children. If we choose to use all our fire power, we can blast them out of the water, but this settles nothing.
Parents are under pressure to be tough. When they have a difficult child they may feel they are being criticized due to the common attitude that firmer parenting is the only solution. In the street, people mumble under their breath, ‘That child needs nothing more than a good boot up the backside.’ Many families have given that boot, only to find themselves in a conflict of immense proportion.
The history of the world consists of wars, power struggles, wars and more wars. Someone fires a bullet, a hundred come back. They shoot off a shell and a thousand are returned. They drop a bomb and bigger bombs come back. Now you are standing in Bosnia and it will take generations before families can relate closely again. Parents do have the fire power, but for the sake of relationships I urge you to sidestep rather than to confront.
When locked in a nose-to-nose confrontation our instinct is to increase: he force. This produces a battle of wills, two angry parties, opposition, resentment and damage to relationships. All parents, particularly those with a defiant child, need to learn how to sidestep a stand-off. There are eight well-tried techniques:
1. keep calm
2. state the rule
3. count to three
4. active ignoring
5. time out
6. give a choice
7. use ‘I’ statements
8. use humor or diversion.
It is difficult to stay cool when a defiant school-ager is daring you to discipline. But if you increase the heat, things will escalate out of control.
One of the best methods to prevent a boil-over is called ‘the broken gramophone record’ approach. You tell the ten-year-old to get in their bath.
‘No way.’ Normally you would respond with all guns blazing, but today you stay cool and be a calm, persistent gramophone record. ‘It’s bath time . . . Bath time now… It must be almost bath time… Time for a bath.’
Politicians, talk-show hosts and parents must all appear to be in control. We cease to have credibility when we lose control.
State the rule
Quoting a rule helps to depersonalize an argument. My local council’ “. places a large pole just outside my window. I am fuming with anger as I meet the chief surveyor. ‘This is ridiculous,’ I say.
‘But Dr Green, under council by-law 21, subsection D …’
I explode, but all I hear is, ‘Sorry, Dr Green, under council by-law 21, subsection D …’
With children rules must be fair and fully understood before the event. ‘John, it’s 8pm and 8pm is bath time.’ ‘But Mum!’
‘Bath and bed are 8pm. You know the rule!’ Count to three
When you were a six-year-old your granny would ask you once, ask you again, then count slowly to three. Usually by two there was instant obedience. Counting may be an old technique, but it’s a wonderful way to defuse a situation and allow time to back off. ‘John, it’s time for your bath.’
‘It’s eight o’clock. You know the rule.’
‘One,’ wait five seconds, ‘Two,’ wait five seconds, etc.
Counting can be used from about three years to twelve years. At eighteen it might look a bit out of place: ‘John, bring in the keys of the Volvo … One, two, three!’
This is one of the simplest ways to sidestep in a standoff. John still refuses to go to his bath. Mum has counted and stayed cool but he stands firm and dares her to make the next move. Active ignoring will stop you being beaten by deliberate defiance and challenge. Calmly disengage, go to the kitchen, pour yourself a drink, take some deep breaths and return as if nothing had happened.
‘Now where are we – yes, it’s time for your bath.’
This gives a moment for reflection and space. John sees that Mum is in the driving seat, able to steer, accelerate and brake as she wishes. It gives an opportunity to save face, start again and compromise.
Time out: separating the warring parties
You can be calm, have your rules and your counting techniques, but there comes a time when things are heading seriously out of control. Once behavior gets past a certain point, there is no place for reason. This is where we need to back off and get some space. Now we use time out.
Time out allows a deteriorating situation to be defused by briefly removing the child from all audience. You can use a quiet corner, a timeout chair, sitting on a step or a period of isolation in the bedroom.
‘Don’t annoy your sister when she is doing her homework.’ ‘I’m not annoying her.’ ‘You know the rule.’ ‘One,’ wait five seconds. ‘Two,’ wait five seconds. ‘Three,’ wait five seconds. ‘John, go to time out now!’
Some parents don’t put the child in time out; they take themselves to the back yard, or even lock themselves in their bedroom. Once time has been served, even though they are not openly repentant, the child restarts with a completely clean slate.
Give a choice
In theory calmness, rules, counting and time out give sure-fire success, but you may still be stuck in a stand-off. Remember that forcing is not the answer. You’ve aimed for calm, you’ve got space, it’s now time to give a choice.
I want you to go to time out.’ ‘No!’
‘John, if you go now, you can come out and we will watch “The Simpsons” together. If you choose not to go, there is no television tonight.’
A choice allows some room to maneuver and lessens the risk of reflex refusal. Humans don’t like being pushed into a corner. Choices will side-l step confrontation.
When you can take no more, make a statement and move away. ‘It makes me unhappy when we are at each other like this.’ Then go.