What to do when your kid provokes you into an inhuman rage.

What to do when your kid provokes you into an inhuman rage.

What to do when your kid provokes you into an inhuman rage.

Snapshots of life at home.
Feb. 5 2009 1:23 PM

No, You Shut Up!

What to do when your kid provokes you into an inhuman rage.

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The Mona Lisa: Say nothing, show no emotional reaction, and deploy a slightly amused, faintly dismissive expression that says, in effect, "Pretty good for a novice, but nowhere near good enough to get to me." You have to practice this one in front of a mirror before you use it in action. This response will be relatively effective, but it requires great self-control to carry it off without being drawn into a confrontation or taking it too far into contempt or sarcasm.

Immediate: The Mona Lisa will de-escalate the child's behavior. The child may finish the current diatribe but will probably not go on beyond that.


Long term: Decreases slightly the likelihood of future battles. The Mona Lisa shows the child—more effectively than simple ignoring would—that provocative misbehavior will not get a satisfying rise out of you.

Side: You're asking a lot of yourself, in terms of restraint, because you will feel that you have not taught the child a lesson and that you permitted yourself to be abused, but you will have modeled restraint, the very behavior you wish to teach here.

The Parking Ticket: On balance, the most effective option. Take away a privilege according to a scheme that you have already discussed with the child and walk away. He already knows, because you went over it in a calm moment, that if he speaks disrespectfully to you, for instance, then he will lose a specific privilege that matters to him: a weekend event, a TV show, or computer time. The penalty should take place as close to immediately as possible—within 24 hours—and be brief in duration (no TV tonight, rather than no TV for a week). It should be significant but not harsh; accept in advance that it won't fully satisfy your ticked-off desire to throw the book at him with a prodigious, long-lasting, delayed penalty ("You can't go out for the football team next fall! Happy now?"). When he commits the offense, you say, "You lose X because of the way you are talking to me," and then go to another room, without turning your departure into a dramatic event. The tone is relaxed, almost bureaucratic, not hot or cold fury. When you cue up a reasonable consequence in advance, you're much more likely to end up with one you can stick to. When you improvise a punishment in a towering rage, on the other hand, you often have to renounce it later—when you're calm enough to realize that, for instance, taking away the cell phone for six months just isn't practicable.

Immediate: This option de-escalates by not fostering continuation. Your behavior does not invite a response, and the preordained character of the consequence discourages argument.

Long term: Likely to decrease slightly the occurrence of future provocations and battles.

Side: Although you may still pine to administer a stiffer punishment that more fully meets the severity of the crime, you will feel you have provided a consequence and not tolerated the misbehavior. Bear in mind that a more severe punishment would almost certainly have side effects that would make it harder for you to help improve your child's behavior. Also, you will have modeled a calm, controlled reaction rather than an impulsive, uncontrolled one.

None of these results offers a perfectly satisfactory response (because, in fact, there is none), but the Parking Ticket speaks most practically to the full range of a parent's mixed motives when provoked by a child's misbehavior.

And, of course, if you really want to change your child's behavior and not just endure it, you have to combine crisis-handling techniques with teaching better behavior to replace the problem behavior. Wait until a time when both you and your child are calm and then work with her on how to act when she is angry and in the mood to provoke you. You can decrease the likelihood, over both the short- and long term, that an undesirable behavior—such as flagrant disrespect—will occur. Try some of these.

Alan E. Kazdin, who was president of the American Psychological Association in 2008, is John M. Musser professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic. Carlo Rotella is director of American studies  at Boston College. They are the authors of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child