Parents know all too well that kids are experts at pushing our buttons – talking back, refusing to mind, picking fights with their siblings – at precisely those moments when we’re at our most stressed.
But when the backtalk, arguing, and downright defiance become the norm, rather than the exception, it may be time to seek help. That’s especially true if the acting out includes hitting, kicking, or other behaviors that could harm others.
The University of Kentucky’s Family Center offers family therapy services to the general public on a sliding-scale basis, based on families’ ability to pay, and no one is turned away. Counseling services are provided by graduate students in UK’s Master’s in Family Sciences program who plan to pursue their licensure in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT), and all services are overseen by faculty supervisors who are licensed MFTs.
Tracey Werner-Wilson, MSW, LMFT, director of the UK Family Center, said that while parents may initially feel embarrassed about asking for help, it’s actually “the healthiest thing they can do for their families.”
When parents do finally make the call for counseling, they often feel so exhausted and frustrated by their kids’ ongoing bad behavior that their reflex impulse is to find someone who can “fix” their child, Werner-Wilson said. But she and the other counselors at the Family Center have found that in most cases, it’s the parent-child relationship dynamic that actually is in need of repair.
“I don’t believe that children want to disobey. I believe there’s more satisfaction in a child behaving than in misbehaving,” Werner-Wilson said. “And when they have their acting out behaviors, I think that it’s because something is wrong. Something is amiss in the [parent-child] relationship. And it can be small – it doesn’t mean that the whole relationship is on the rocks. But something’s missing. Something is going on that’s being overlooked. So we help to try to get at that root cause of the acting out,” she said.
Werner-Wilson said that at times, children’s defiance or back-talk could be a symptom that they’re feeling unheard or overlooked. Or, perhaps they’re dealing with a problem at school or elsewhere that they don’t have the means to verbalize.
In counseling parents, Werner-Wilson advocates a method outlined in Daniel Hughes’ book on attachment-focused parenting, which uses the acronym PACE (Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy) as a model framework that parents can use in order to help their children feel accepted and heard – and thereby, hopefully, eliminate kids’ need to be disrespectful or act out inappropriately.
Playfulness might include making a game out of a requested task or chore (maybe set a timer to see how fast they can clean up the playroom, for example). Acceptance involves understanding your child’s personality and triggers, Werner-Wilson said. For her own children, hunger meant meltdowns, so she planned small snacks throughout the day in order to help stave off tantrums. Curiosity means asking yourself questions about what might really be going on with your child – Why are they refusing to mind? Did something happen at school? – Werner-Wilson advised. And Empathy reminds parents to remember that we all have bad behavior days.
If for example, your teen refuses to take out the trash, you can opt to dig in your heels and yell, feeling your blood boil at their refusal to mind. Or – and this is admittedly difficult in the heat of the moment – you can try to take a step back, take a deep breath, and attempt to recall the PACE steps in order to get at the root cause of the disobedience.
“Taking out the trash is a pretty simple thing. Most people will just take it out and be done with it. We don’t have to like doing it, but most people will still take it out. So parents should ask themselves, ‘What’s going on with Susie that she’s not able to do that?’” Werner-Wilson said.
Instead of getting angry, Werner-Wilson encourages parents to try to examine the situation objectively: “So, you notice the trash isn’t out, and you think, ‘That’s not like her. I wonder what’s going on? Did she have a lot of homework that she had to start on right away? Is there something else on her mind? Or maybe she got involved in a really good TV show during her screen time and just forgot. Or, something could have happened at school with her friends, and she just came home feeling really horrible about herself and didn’t think about taking the trash out.’ You try to ask those types of questions in order to find out what’s really going on,” Werner-Wilson said.
While, admittedly, the approach takes patience and practice – and might even feel weird at first for those whose parenting styles are typically more authoritative – Werner-Wilson feels it’s worth the effort. When a child feels safe and heard, the belligerent activity tends to subside. “They realize, there’s no more reason for it,” she said.
For more information about counseling services at the University of Kentucky Family Center, call (859) 257-7755 or go to http://www2.ca.uky.edu/hes/familycenter