No, You Shut Up!
What to do when your kid provokes you into an inhuman rage.
Updated Thursday, Feb. 5, 2009, at 1:23 PM
If you're a parent, you are probably familiar with being provoked into a blood vessel-popping rage that instantly overwhelms any resolution you might have made to stay calm. That's because kids are amazingly good at refining behaviors that they can turn to when they're upset or angry, especially in public, to make their parents even angrier—in fact, insanely angry. Let's just stand back for a moment and appreciate the virtuosity of the 6-year-old who trails along behind you every morning on the way to school wailing that you're mean because you make him wear an uncomfortable backpack or wrinkly socks, or the 9-year-old who demonstrates her budding independence and wit by being rude to you in front of others, or the 12-year-old who during an argument over chores shouts, "You don't care about anybody but yourself! You just want me to do all this stupid stuff around your stupid house because you're so selfish and lazy!" It's as if they had commissioned a study of the most effective ways to set you off and then implemented the findings with great care and foresight.
And yet there you go, rising to the bait. What's your standard move? The hard come-along arm yank? The livid pinch-and-shake combo? The point-by-point counterargument? "What? I'm selfish? I'm lazy? I changed your diapers and picked your nose and sat up with you all night long when you were sick! I work hard all day to support this family, and then I get home and I clean and I cook. ..."
There's really no satisfying response, is there? Decreeing an extravagantly harsh punishment may immediately address your sense of justice, but it's unlikely to make the annoying behavior go away, and once you calm down, you're unlikely to stick with the punishment, anyway. Grabbing, shaking, hitting, or screaming at your kid may stop the behavior and be cathartic for you, but only for a moment (after which you may well begin to feel bad for losing control of yourself and overreacting), and over time such responses will likely lead to further behavioral problems. Ignoring the unwanted behavior and finding ways to encourage its positive opposite will be most effective in getting rid of the unwanted behavior in the long run, but this approach won't satisfy your overwhelming short-term urge to do something right now that addresses and fits the crime.
It's difficult to work out a satisfying response to flagrant disrespect because you're typically in the grip of at least four distinct, only partially overlapping, and often conflicting motives: an emotional urge to do something with the anger surging up inside you, a moralistic impulse to dispense justice in proportion to the offense, a social obligation to show yourself and your child and any others who might be watching that you don't tolerate such behavior, and a practical intent to get rid of the problem so you don't have to put up with such hassles in the future.
When your child stages a scene in front of witnesses, the mixed motives—and the anger, now supercharged by humiliation—grow all the more complex and difficult to handle. Yes, sure, a vast body of psychological research tells you that any attention you give to a bad behavior, even if it's in the form of screaming and hitting and grounding your child for the rest of her life, will only reinforce that behavior, so it's best not to react, but your kid just called you an a--hole in front of the neighbors—unless you're B.F. Skinner or the Buddha, ignoring it is not an option. And, anyway, ignoring it won't make it go away. You need to do something.
So, what do you do?
Let's consider the immediate, long-term, and side effects of some common and not-so-common responses to a disrespectful provocation by your child.
Shock and Awe: Respond swiftly with justified fury and indignation. This is one of the most common and least effective responses.
Immediate effect: A rage-out on your part could instantly stop the disrespect by interdicting it with your own yelling, screaming, etc., but it's very likely to escalate the confrontation by inviting the child to continue a negative back-and-forth with you, which will in turn inspire further escalation by you—stronger comments, grabbing, slapping—and so on.
Long-term effect: Will not achieve a long-term reduction of the behavior, and its side effects could increase the occurrence of disrespect in the future.
Side effects: You will feel that you have held the line by not tolerating misbehavior, but this momentary satisfaction comes at a huge delayed price. Since the tone and content of your response model how to respond to others, through observational learning you will be teaching your child to do the same, and the force of your reaction (a tsunami of attention to your child's worst behavior) will train the child to continue and even increase the provocation.
The Evil Eye: Stare down your child with a dire expression and say nothing.
Immediate: The stare-down is likely to escalate and continue the child's behavior, and the struggle goes on.
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.
Photograph of mother and child by Stockbyte.