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Controlling Your Emotions and Behavior When Your Child Is Disrespectful

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By John W. Maag, Ph.D.

Combating Irrational Thinking

The irrational beliefs you use to interpret situations have become unconscious through repeated use. Consequently, it takes a tremendous amount of conscious effort to combat them effectively. Doing so requires that you understand the two most important factors in making a fundamental change in your own behavior. You must be able to:

  • Force yourself to behave differently from how you're feeling
  • Generate the power within yourself to turn your intention to change, into actual change

Gaining greater emotional and behavioral control first requires you to take a close look at how you experience events. Think about any experience you encounter as having the following four parts:

  • Event. Any situation of which we are a part, and/or our interactions with others.
  • Belief. The interpretation or the meaning we attach to the event or situation.
  • Emotion. The feelings we experience as a result of our interpretation about an event: happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, guilt, joy, etc.
  • Behavior. Our actions - how we respond both verbally and nonverbally when confronted with a situation, based on our beliefs and feelings about it.

Although it may not be obvious when you're angry or frustrated, you always have a choice about how you respond to another person's disagreeable behavior. You can either:

  • Use a rational interpretation of the person's actions to control your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in an effective way, or
  • Allow others to control your behavior by interpreting in an irrational way what they say or do.

Demandingness - How We Get Drawn in

Demandingness is the most difficult irrational thinking style to combat because the strategies for doing so go against social convention. But it's worth rethinking these automatic reactions. Every time you allow yourself to become overly upset, you are, in effect, demanding something of others or of yourself. For example, you may respond to a child who tells you to "shut up" by saying to yourself in an indignant way, "He should not have told me to 'shut up'." or "He needs to be more respectful." But, if you think about the facts of the event, these statements demand that the child change an action that has already happened, and over which neither of you has any real control. (Further approaches to dealing with children's non-compliant behavior are presented in my article on strategies for managing resistance.)

However much you might wish to, you cannot turn back time so that the child was respectful and did not tell you to "shut up." When you place these kinds of demands on others, you fail to acknowledge the reality of a situation. It is a futile attempt to change reality to the way you wanted it to be.

It's often very difficult for parents to use demanding words such as "must," "have to," or "should" in a factual way to describe the reality of a child's behavior. The reason is because, when people evaluate behavior, there's a tendency to lump together the idea of whether we accept the behavior with the idea of whether we approve of the behavior. However, these two notions are actually separate from each other.

People tend to not accept a behavior if they don't approve of it. However, it is possible to accept the fact that a behavior has occurred, without having to approve of it. For example, you may come home from work to discover that your child has spilled a glass of milk on the floor and hasn't cleaned it up. The milk "should be" on the floor because it is. No amount of saying "It shouldn't be there" or "He should have cleaned it up" is going to magically reverse time and put the milk back in the glass. To continue to do so simply wastes time, emotional energy, and the ability to respond effectively. You do not have to approve of it being on the floor to accept the reality of the situation. Once you accept that the milk "should be" on the floor, you can then figure out how to respond to it.