I remember this moment because it made a huge impact on my understanding of child development. I had taken all of the classes in college. I didn’t have children until my 30s, but I’d been a teacher and had worked with kids of all ages. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of how children grow from stage to stage. But, at that moment, I realized that no one had ever thoroughly explained that children repeat their developmental stages.
I knew that kids go through independency cycles where they wanted to do things on their own. Over the years, I had witnessed toddlers insisting that a toy was “Mine!” I had seen teen meltdowns that were classic in form. I had witnessed temper tantrums of all sorts.
But, it was this day in particular, when I was watching a toddler tantrum simultaneously with a teen tantrum that I realized that there was absolutely no fundamental difference. Of course, the teenager had much more creative language to use. As with many of them, her anger meant she could use every four letter word in her vocabulary. The toddler didn’t know those words, so he resorted to the ones that he knew. “Mommy is bad,” was a particular favorite. Other than that, there was no discernable difference.
Each of them wanted what they wanted. I don’t remember the particulars. She probably wanted to go out on a school night without doing her homework. He probably wanted a cookie before dinner. I’m just guessing. And both believed that throwing a fit was going to get the desired result. It didn’t.
One of the hardest things we parents face is having to deal with a temperamental child. Some of us were raised in a time when children were taught to obey adults without question. If my parents told me to jump, I knew only to ask how high. I was talking to a young father the other day and he was expressing his frustration with a stepchild. She is a hormonal teenager and for a few days every month, she is difficult to be around in many ways. She doesn’t feel well, wants to sleep all the time, and is crabby about everything.
His attitude was that she needed to listen to him and obey him. She expressed that she felt that her opinions were being ignored. So, the more he insisted she jump to his orders, the more she resisted – loudly. The stepdad was at his wit’s end. The stepdaughter was an emotional wreck.
I suggested that they both take a step back and look at the situation from each other’s perspective. The girl was being very disrespectful, calling names and making threats. The stepdad wasn’t a whole lot better. He didn’t call names, but he made some rough statements about her behavior and threatened to call in his partner to enforce the rules. (We won’t even talk about the problems this caused with the partner. That’s material for a different type of column.)
When broken down to the most basic parts, it was obvious that the girl simply wanted someone to hear what she had to say but, she wasn’t able to say it in a way that made people want to listen. After some conversation, she realized that she needs to consciously soften her tone when she is aggravated. She has agreed to work on her reactions.
As for the stepdad, he has come to realize that not every command needs to be obeyed. It can be a healthy thing for a child to learn to say no. We want them to say no to drugs and inappropriate behavior, so why can’t they say no to parents once in a while? Using respectful words to disagree is the key. Most of the time, we parents respond to the attitude more than the words. He has agreed to stop making demands and trying to win the day. Instead he will speak politely to his step-daughter, thereby modeling effective adult behaviors.
If we start in the earliest of years, we can teach our children to be respectful teens and adults. Demanding they do what we say doesn’t always teach that. Helping them learn to make healthy choices, does. We can choose to yell at our kids or we can choose to speak politely and require that they do the same. We can provide consequences for their actions and make sure those consequences come about in a timely manner.
Overall, our best plan is to give our kids a roadmap to success because in the long run, it doesn’t really matter if we win each fight. What matters is that they learn to win at life.