Part 1 outlined five reasons why “arguing” with your children as a parent is a lose-lose proposition. Nobody wins, and you instead risk losing serious ground in terms of the effects on the relationship between you and your child. In human terms, it’s safe to say that, based on the latest findings on the brain, attachment and neuroscience, key relationships intimately impact every aspect of human health and ongoing development, to include other relationships (i.e., spouse, self, children that are siblings, etc.) in addition to the one between you and your child.
In this post, we look at two of five steps you can take to break old patterns of arguing, and replace them with healthy ones instead.
Step One: Develop self-awareness.
The first step in breaking a pattern of “arguing” is to get to know yourself, and that means to develop your self-awareness. In the same way that forming a healthy relationship involves getting to know (and value) “the other” as a unique individual separate from yourself, you must also get to know, and develop a relationship with yourself, and key aspects, such as your emotions, thoughts, wants, needs, dreams, past and present experiences, and so on. Your brain understands life in terms of relationships, even money, food, or objects, such as a house or car, are relationships you form in that, like social relationships, they can be healthy or out of balance dependeing on . In truth, self-awareness a prerequisite. To the extent you get to know and understand yourself, you more fully understand life and others around you, to more fully understanding the complexities of relationships and life around — and thus more likely to treat your child as an individual, and not an extension of you, an object or possession for your comfort and pleasure (a common legacy of parents, by the way, passed down from one generation to the next).
Self-awareness is also key in developing essential leadership skills at home not just at work, such as self-discipline and becoming an inspirational leader (versus a carrot and stick micro-manager…). It involves knowledge of yourself both:
- As a human being, with universally shared attributes.
The human brain and body, mind and emotions, for example, are designed to optimally work together, and our brain is a relational organ. These understandings are essential to making informed choices. They explain why, for example, the human body’s survival system activates not only when we perceive threats to our physical survival, but also to any threats to our relational connections with those closest to us. Our body-mind (or subconscious) handles any signs that we do not matter as individuals, automatically, the same way it handles a threat to physical harm. In both cases, it activates our survival defenses. Arguably, our greatest fears, such as fear of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, loss of personal agency, being smothered, etc., are intimacy fears. In our attempt to avoid extremes of either too much closeness or too much distance, we overcorrect, and get out of balance.
If arguing with your child has become a habit, it means your mind-body in unnecessarily activating your body’s survival system, and literally treating the situation as if your physical survival depends on your child doing what he is told. It also means your higher thinking brain is offline … just when you need it most. In survival-mode parents knee-jerk reactions typically fall in one of two categories, they either overreact by either “fighting” (confronting, compulsively micromanaging etc.) or “fleeing” (avoiding conflict or upsetting the child). Both extremes are desperate attempts to secure our connection with self or the other; both extremes put parents at risk of “exploding” with anger outbursts.
- As an individual, with unique aspirations and fears, weaknesses and strengths.
Understandably, as a parent, there are many stressors that can throw you off balance. The more informed you are about a situation, the better your chances in resolving an issue, right? In relationship contexts, the more important information is inside you, optimal options are an inside job. In order to prevent your body’s survival system from pushing you out of the way, literally, taking control of a situation with your child, your main job is to stay connected to your innermost resources, key information about you that you need to know, and understand, if you want to change old reactivity. You need to know what your triggers are, for example. What situations or responses activate your defenses? Reflecting on your family of origin, how did you learn your responses, and from whom (i.e., one or both parents)? What emotions do you feel? If anger, what emotions underlie anger? What gets you into patterns of arguing? Are your actions motivated by fear- (wounded-ego) or love-based emotions? For example, are your actions primarily seeking to enforce your “status” as a parent to dominate, prove superiority or teach blind obedience, etc.? If so, subconsciously, your survival-system’s in control, and wittingly or unwittingly, you’re sending signals to your child that you “fear” and perceive them as adversaries competing for status, and therefore that you perceive their sense of agency and personal power (healthy human drives, by the way!) as threats. By doing such, your brain automatically activates (or “mirrors”) the same response from the child. More and more, whether conscious or subconscious, they view you as a threat to their personal agency, someone they must remain vigilant, not trust, compete and engage in a power struggle. You also need to connect to what you most yearn for (need, not want) in certain situations and relational contexts (core emotion-drives). For example, when you get triggered, do you most need to matter by feeling heard, understood, supported, or do you most need to feel accepted for who you are, not criticized, appreciated for your efforts to keep everyone happy, and attempts to get along?
A self-aware parent seeks to become an inspiring leader who teaches a child self-discipline, and recognizes the difference between discipline and punishment. Punishment is based on a philosophy that idealizes the use of “pain” (physical and emotional) to teach a child what to “not do” to obey without question. It may “seem” to work, however, the “instant” results hide emotional undercurrents that, if parents had a glimpse of, would quickly see that punishment is a futile waste of energy, and at best an illusion of power and status. At worst, among other harmful effects, it teaches a child to punish others and, or themselves whenever they feel blocked from getting something they want or need; and unless they unlearn punitive tactics, they’ll take them into their adult relationships. In contrast, discipline teaches a child what social skills “to do” and, in the process, treats them like leaders-in-the-making, persons who are growing their inner capacity to think and resolve problems, to make choices, to own responsibility, to contribute, and so on.
Step Two: Stop, breathe and think (to consciously respond).
The first step of building self awareness provides a foundation for you to succeed in this next step of developing your capacity to consciously, thoughtfully respond to your child — versus automatically react. Next time your child erupts, stop and take a deep, long breath, and think — this assists you to self-activate your brain and body’s relaxation response, and thus to remain in the present moment. The main reason you want to do this? To disallow your brain’s “real” thinking capacity to be automatically switched to “off” position, an automatic occurrence when you’re triggered (thus in survival mode). You especially need your higher thinking brain to be engaged, and not offline, in these situations. The key is to train yourself to shift out of survival-love mode, so that you can be present in the moment to thoughtfully respond, first, by understanding the situation, and this includes your self and child.
Whenever you react out of fear, perhaps desperation, you will always produce the same results: more fear, more desperate action (yours and child’s). You want to remain present in the situation, mind and body, to make optimal choices and avoid default “choices” which are not real choices at all, rather automatic reactions that are activated whenever your body’s survival system takes the reins out of your hands!
So wherever possible, give yourself time to take a breath, pause and think before responding. What might the child be afraid of right now. If you were feeling this emotion, how would you want to be treated? What would you most need from your parent, that would be most helpful to you to get the most (learn) from the situation?
If you find yourself in an argument, pause and breathe to engage the abilities of your frontal cortex. Go beneath surface fears to core survival-love (existential) fears that all human beings experience, such as fear of inadequacy; fear of looking stupid; fear of not being right; fear of being scolded; fear of rejection; fear of being hurt, fear of loss of power to others; fear of being invisible to others; fear of loss of value or worth in relation to others, and so on. Existential fears are connected to core emotional striving for safety, esteem, acceptance, love, power, safety, contribution, purpose, among others.
Like it or not, relationships are your most precious possessions — or rather, gifts — and “the work” you put into making them healthy, literally, assists you to become an ever better version of your self, to grow your ability to give and receive, and to reach a transformed state of self-actualization in the process, that is, to become the personal happiness, fulfillment, meaning you’re hardwired to contribute — and create — step by step, one thoughtful response after another.