Parents often wonder how to deal with anger (yours or your child’s anger) when you ask them to do something reasonable and you get back a real attitude. You know, the rolling of the eyes, the sign of contempt. Should you address the your child’s attitude and risk of scene, or should you let the attitude go (for now) and focus on the child’s behavior?
It sounds like a contradiction to pay attention to emotions, but don’t waste time on them. However, understanding why this is not a contradiction can save you a lot of grief and frustration as a parent. It also makes for happier kids. Some parenting classes can overlook a very basic fact about human emotions: you just can’t change them directly by making a choice. Some believe that happiness is a choice, but I would say that thinking true, positive thoughts about what’s real is a choice. The feelings usually follow our thoughts.
So, you wonder how to deal with anger when you dealing with a younger child. For a younger child you may want to emphasize doing the behavior that you desire without worrying about whether or not your child feels good about the task. It’s Saturday morning and you tell your son or daughter that you want them to clean up their room. Your child then responds with a sour face and a groan. At that point you could get into an argument about his or her attitude and the room may never get cleaned. This is what I mean by wasting time on emotions.
A better way involves focusing on the child’s behavior. “I know this is not what you want to do right now, but it needs to be done. As soon as you finish (i.e., when I say it’s done) your room, then you can go back to playing video games.” If the sour feelings are not too intense, your school-age son or daughter’s emotions will probably level out during or after the task. This is because feelings don’t often change by trying to make them change. Emotions change when we change something other than emotions: our thoughts or our behaviors. Give your child a time to mature and find a better attitude while they are doing the right thing. Often, this is how to deal with anger when your child gives you attitude.
A Two Minute Experiment
To see how this works for yourself try a simple 2-minute experiment. The next time your are waiting in line or stopped at a long traffic signal, say to yourself, “I will now make myself sad.” Then, try to make yourself sad. See if you notice a change. Next, just start thinking about something that is sad. You might picture something from a sad time in your life or think about a very sad movie. After about a minute of doing that you will probably notice a change in your feelings. Why? Because your thoughts are accessible to your efforts in a way that your feelings are not. If you found that you were able to make yourself sad by simply deciding to do so, look again. You did not make the change simply by making a decision to be sad. You probably thought about something sad.
In a similar way, your child will not likely improve in attitude simply because you tell them that you want the change. This is not how to deal with anger and attitude.
Rather their changed behavior will lead to changed thoughts and then changed feelings. However, I must add that it is very important to communicate goodwill to your child. Delivering orders in a punitive tone is not how to deal with anger…unless, of course, you like anger and want more of it. In enforcing their change in behavior your attitude should be “I’m your parent, I love you, and my job is to make sure you learn this.” When your attitude is one of punishment the lesson in behavior is learned at the cost of your relationship.