As a family psychotherapist, I’ve worked with many parents that tell me that no matter what they do or how hard they try, their kids never seem satisfied. Parents do their best to support their kids, but it’s as though the game is rigged, because they can never win and what they’re doing is never good enough. These parents are worn out and exhausted. There’s yelling and screaming in the house, the emotions always seem to be intense, people are walking on egg-shells, and the ups-and-downs never seem to stop. And over time, parents can start to check out, lose their patience, and they watch the relationships in their family start to sour (including the one with their partner). They’re often desperate for some sort of relief. In order to help those of you who are in a similar situation, I’m going to offer some important points to keep in mind and these have the potential to change things for everyone in your family. I’m also going to give you a simple formula that you can use to help guide you. Keep in mind that these are generalities and that everyone situation is unique. Ultimately, the best thing you can do for yourself after reading this is to seek out a family systems psychotherapist to get the customized support you need.
Kids Are Not Like Adults…
“Well of course they’re not,” you might say. Yet, many of us who interact with kids seem to forget this. Why do I say this? Because many of the parents that I work with will always engage their kid in a discussion when their kids complain or oppose something that they don’t like. When parents do engage their kids in these situations, they often end up worn out, the kids are pissed, and theres a good chance that the parents, you, have been manipulated. Some conversations are just not helpful to have, but we need to know how to identify helpful and unhelpful conversations and when it’s best to just listen and empathize with out kids.
Neurologically speaking, the adult brain is more developed and refined. Adults can openly consider more detail in various situations and entertain a variety of perspectives before coming to a conclusion or making a decision. We tend to approach kids, without sometimes realizing it, with the assumption that they’re interested in approaching each situation and discussion in the same way. But kids are not like adults! No, they have very little power and control over their lives, and so their default-position is different than our own. This means that the majority of discussions that involve rules and limits are rigged, but adults don’t remember this.
And now it’s time to piss off the younger people
…so long as your kids are limited in what they can do (which they should be so long as they live in your home), they’ll greedily fight for everything they want and whine about what they don’t want. They’re pros at doing this and that’s because they’ve figured you out and they’ve learned to how exploit your weaknesses.
So parents, it’s fair to expect your kids to be greedy and avoidant…but this does not, DOES NOT, mean that they’re bad! Nor does this give you a pass to be mean, belittle them, or use this to take jabs at their character. Kids are supposed to be like this and what’s more, WE were like this. Remember? It’s okay to acknowledge that your kids will manipulate and lie. In fact, we can find some humor in their attempts and love them for it. But it doesn’t mean that they’re bad kids or bad people.
Adults Can Learn A Lot From Younger People
“Ah the cliché,” you say, “we can always learn from everyone…blah blah blah.” Yes I know, but set this aside for a second and hear me out. Kids are amazing and the reason I adore working with them because they’re honest and they often don’t give a shit about being politically correct. Younger people tend to be more honest and authentic and they’ll show they’re junk to the world with less hesitation. Though, we may want them to restrain this a bit!
And now it’s time to piss off the adults…
…stop trying to pretend that everything is fine and hiding the fact that you may not know what to do or what you’re doing! Not knowing is okay and it’s also okay to be honest with yourselves (also your family systems psychotherapist) and to look at your own weaknesses and mistakes. Your kids can see through your façade and if you work to maintain it, they learn not to be honest…just like you.
“Why drop my guard,” you ask? Because being honest and more humble about your weaknesses and screw ups will get you to a better place than lying. It might suck to do in the moment but you’re playing the long-game. You need to understand your mistakes and weaknesses at a deeper level if you’re going to do anything about them. Trying to save face ensures that you’re going to screw up again and again because you’re unable to make the changes that you really need to make. Also, your example teaches your kids to lie and to avoid admitting the truth to themselves. When everyone is dishonest, conversations turn into debates and these turn into a heated battles. We get everything we don’t want by avoiding our own reality, even though it seems to make sense in the moment. It also makes sense why adults tend to emphasize how they look rather than being honest.
As adults, we’re trained by the “adult” world that we need to be political, diplomatic and as a result, liars. We’ve learned to suppress what we really think and feel and we don’t do what we truly want to do. This is how we forget what it was like to be a kid, but this is where your kids excel. In this way, our kids are our role models and guides…but this doesn’t mean that they’re always right or wise. It just means that they’re honest and more authentic than we tend to be. Often times we’re so practiced at telling ourselves our defensive and reactive lies that we forget how to be honest like our kids. They can help us remember the beauty of being more authentic and honest in our expressions. So what do we do? No, we don’t regress back to childhood and act like them. Rather, we need to combine our experience and knowledge with their courage to be honest and authentic.
Putting It Together: Parents Always Win…Unless They Give Their Power Away
Here’s the simple and straight-forward formula for parents: Focus on setting limits and expectations that are fewer in number but are very important. Be consistent with your kids, your limits, and your expectations at all times. Be sure to give them as much independence and as many choices as possible. Genuinely be willing to listen to their complaints or concerns, but remember that you always have the final decision. You can feel deeply confident about that. And they need you to be calm, confident and more stable than them. When you are, they feel safe and you model how a healthy adult handles difficult situations.
Sure, this sounds simple enough. “But what about all of the debates and all of the nuances in situations that confuse me!? I want my kids to have what they want and to be happy…but they’re suffering!” It can be hard to imagine your family dynamic changing to something positive with your kids. This formula is easier said than done. It takes time for change to happen and you’ll need the support of a psychotherapist trained to work with families and kids to get there. But this general formula works if it’s applied consistently. The following paragraphs will provide you with alternative ways of looking at your situation and some advice on how to change your approach to your kids. As you read through them, know that the truth of the situation is that you’re not responsible for how your kids feel, they are. Even when they’re very young. Your job is to support them, in a healthy way, as they learn how to deal with their own frustrations, difficult situations, and their emotional reactions. Your job is not to fix their emotions and when you try to do that for them, they learn that others are responsible for how they feel. This is a dangerous road to go down and I’ve seen the outcomes of this in many families.
Being a Parent and a Kid is Frustrating
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this is the way it’s supposed to be. Parents need to set limits in order to teach their kids about the world. We need to help them understand healthy boundaries and to help kids feel safe as they deal with the anxiety and confusion of growing up. Your kids won’t like you all of the time and they’ll hate the limits, but you need to remember that you’re playing the long-game rather than trying to be their friend or be liked. If you feel a desperate need to be like by them, then this is a signal that you need to get some support in order to determine why you want them to like you so much. Ultimately, you’re guiding their development by limiting their freedom and expecting things of them so that they can handle, later on, how the world really works. If you’re stuck in being liked, you won’t be able to do this for them. As adults, we know that we have to manage complex situations, deal with red tape, be civil with people we don’t like, and get through frustrating situations without screwing ourselves. By setting limits and expectations for your kids, you’re helping them navigate these situations and develop these skills early on. This means that the parent-child dynamic can be quite frustrating for everyone, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Consistency is Queen
By being consistent and communicating limits and expectations to your kids in advance, you’re providing them with a safe psychological container. Younger people are supposed to be all over the place and when they’re left to their own devices, they typically won’t impose limitations on themselves. (Heck, adults probably wouldn’t and that’s why shows like The Last Man on Earth is so funny!) When kids have too much influence and power, they remove their limitations and are in charge of raising themselves. This is the most terrifying thing for any kid to do because they’re biologically or psychologically equipped to do this. They’ll hate the limits and fight the expectations, but psychologically, they’ll feel more secure with them. They’ll never admit to this (though I’ve had some kids admit this), but they want to be contained, protected, and limited because growing up is scary. And it’s important to inform them of these limits and expectations in advance because it gives them time to prepare. When these are implemented, they know its coming and want to count on you following through or keeping your word.
As the parents and adults who care for these amazing kids, we need to be very consistent in creating and maintaining the container so they can feel safe. Our challenge is to also loosen their restrictions and expectations as they get older so they can grow independently. Sadly, there isn’t a rule book or blueprint for how to do this. As a result, parents always need to lightly monitor how their kids are growing. Your consistency provides them with a foundation that they can fall back on when they feel completely lost. When they know that they have a safety net, they can take risks with more confidence. Remember when they were little and they wanted to go off on their own? They’d start to leave you to go be with other kids but at some point, they would turn around to see if you were there. They wanted to know that you were watching them, that you were making sure they were safe, and they were still connected to you. As kids get older they still want to know that you’re there and that they can come back when they need to. Instead of calling you or looking back, your growing kids have internalized the memory of those moments and your stability. This brings brings them security to venture out into the scary world without looking back.
Don’t Get Lost in the Weeds
By all means, listen to the frustrations, concerns, and gripes of young people with sincerity and an open heart and mind. Give them the space to really be upset (this does not include flipping out and throwing things, including you!) and dislike something that you do. They want to be heard, understood, and to have their feelings validated. However, we need to remain calm, gentle, firm, and consistent with our limits and expectations of them. When we can maintain this disposition, we can serve as an emotional dampener for our kids. However, if you’re just as freaked out as them, then nobody will calm down for a long time. Now let’s say that your kid raises some legitimate points amidst their freak out or upset. You should feel free to consider their point of view, but I would suggest that you take some time on your own before responding or making a decision. Definitely discuss the points and your doubts with your partner because you need to be on the same team and on the same page.
In the end, we need to assume and use the power of our role as authority figures without abusing it. When your kid begins to oppose your decision, you can feel deeply confident that you have the power to make the final decision, though you may need some time to make it. In this way, you don’t need to get lost in the details or become overwhelmed by your own insecurities (easier said than done, of course). Listen to them, consider the situation, and communicate your decision when YOU are ready. If your decision is final, and they need to be, you can lovingly say to your kid, “I know this sucks and that I’m a pain in your ass right now, but this is what I/we have decided is best.” If you do this enough and remain gently firm, they’ll stop nagging you. Since your dynamic has not been like this, they’ll push you even harder in the beginning. This is because they’re used to how things have been, but stick with it. Again, work with a family systems psychotherapist to help this process along and get the support that you need.
Of course, there’s so much more that we could discuss, but this introduction is a good start. I can’t say it enough, get the support of a family systems psychotherapist because the road probably won’t be very easy. And I use the term, “family systems psychotherapist,” because not all therapists are trained in family therapy and the complexity of working with families and kids. Keep this in mind when you meet with a psychotherapist and there’s no harm in using one therapist for the family, and other therapists for individuals in the family. Though, start slow and consult your family psychotherapist on different ways to provide support for the family and each of its members. Also, remember that change takes time so don’t rush it, and make solid changes that you’re really committed to because these are the ones that will last. Quick and unplanned changes tend to create more problems, so be a little selfish and don’t create more work for yourself. If you’re in the habit of making quick, reactive, and impulsive changes, that’s when you’ll probably end up saying, “Nothing ever seems to work.”