“Daddy! You didn’t melt the cheese!”
Our family of four just sat down for a lovely Mexican meal that I cooked, but already my teenage daughter is scolding me. Let’s call her “Blaze.”
“Hey, honey…” My voice is steady, but the arteries in my face are steadily engorging. “Why can’t you say, ‘Thanks for providing me with food?’ Where’s your gratitude?”
“I hate tacos with cold cheese,” she fumes. “Why can’t Mom cook?”
She continues to talk about the indignities of cold cheese, but I’m not listening. This is not the first time I’ve heard this inane first-world diatribe, but suddenly I’m determined it’s going to be my last.
“You are SO RUDE!” I thunder. “EVERY ******* NIGHT! I CAN’T STAND IT ANY LONGER. GO TO YOUR ROOM!”
I march her toward the stairs leading down to her bedroom. I slam the door behind her. My pounding heart smacks my ribs. My head floods with rage, hurt, insanity, and the urge to deliver punishment.
“I CAN’T EAT NOW,” I proclaim to my wife and younger daughter. “I – I – I’m going out for a walk…”
I stomp into the night. Alone with my wrath, throbbing in my skull like an infected pustule.
I text Paul, my Brit mate with gallows humor who I whinge with regularly over pints of Guinness. We’re afflicted with similar familial humiliations. “Blaze makes me mad as a hatter,” I thumb-type. “I get no RESPECT.”
“r wretched lives,” he replies. “death is a holiday.”
I’ve emphatically explained to Blaze that I need respect, dozens of times, but she doesn’t comprehend me. No one in my house does, because I’m the only male. “Respect,” the way I mean it, is a guy thing. My father returned from the Korean War to a growing brood of toddlers, a farm of 400 cows, and a clear sense of hierarchy. He expected respect — and got it. Now I do, too. The difference between us is that I never would have dared to speak to my father the way my daughter regularly speaks to me.
When I was a kid, getting insulted meant a fistfight. Taking crap from a smaller creature? Unacceptable. The only suitable response to getting dissed is to react like a male gorilla: chest-thump, growl, grimace, threaten violence, and establish dominance. I wasn’t one of the kids who got in fistfights, but those were the rules everyone played by.
Now that I’m a dad with a sassy-mouthed teenage daughter, my once amiable personality has mutated. I’m volatile around her, transformed by the stress-triggered cortisol running through my brain. Just the expectation of her insolence makes me tense.
My wife’s advice is 100 percent useless. At best, she offers jargon like, “It’s not about you, it’s about her,” or, “You have to be the adult.” At worst, she insinuates that I’m the problem, that I need anger management.
Harrumph. I know I have a temper. As a theater director, I learned how to hold my own with temperamental actors shriek for shriek. As a business owner, my “constructive” criticism reduced two employees to tears. Twelve years ago, I exploded at a close relative; our relationship has been icy ever since. But I’m also the guy who instituted Buddhist-inspired civil communication rules for a website whose community forum had gone to the trolls. And I’m the dad who steered clear of the numerous conflicts among the other parents in elementary school.
Seventeen years ago, before we had children, right after I wrote my Master’s thesis on haiku poetry in the Buddhist tradition, I went to an anger management workshop. I was interested in the concept of Ahimsa (nonviolence). I wanted to root out all the anger inside me; I wanted to be a vessel of peace.
The anger management class was held in a nondescript church basement in San Francisco. “Hello,” said the soft-spoken facilitator. “Please sit in a circle. Each of us can tell the group why we’re here.”
As the introductions unfolded, I grew increasingly nervous. I was surrounded by… wife beaters, road ragers, bar fighters, hair-trigger hoodlums. Everybody but me had been sent to anger management by a judge or parole officer. I was the lightweight poetry scholar who raised his voice once in a while, then felt guilty about it. I dropped out of the class.
“Blaze, I’m sorry,” I apologize when I get home from my nighttime walk. “I shouldn’t yell like that, I lost my temper.” I sit next to her on the couch. We watch an old episode of Parks and Recreation and laugh. She says, “It’s okay, Dad” and snuggles against me.
But the next day — incredibly — it happens again. She’s stressed about her homework, she’s crabby, and everything is ticking her off. When I pick her up after school, she explodes at her adoring little sister who makes the mistake of cheerfully asking how her day was. “Just shut up!” Blaze yells at her. “I don’t want to talk to you!” The muscles in my back contract. I can barely drive. I hate it when she’s mean to her sister.
When we get home, Blaze stomps downstairs, then pauses at the threshold to her room. “Who opened my door?” she bellows. “Nobody goes in my room!”
“I had to let the cat out,” I explain, patiently reiterating what she already knows. “The only way to get to the yard is through your room.”
“Then close the door behind you!” she shouts. “I’ve told you a million times, stay out of my room! Or close the door! I hate coming home and seeing my door open! Why can’t you listen?!?!?!”
“DON’T YELL AT ME!” I yell back, twice as loud, vibrating the walls. “You have to stop! It’s ABUSIVE! I’m sick and tired of your entitled little brat act.”
“That’s not nice,” hisses my wife.
“It’s true,” I retort. Then I’m off on another walk.
The following day, I interview Diana Divecha, a developmental psychologist who writes about parenting, children, and emotional intelligence on her blog, DevelopmentalScience.com. She’s currently writing a book about teens and their emotional development. She’s exactly the expert I need.
I cut to the point. “How can I stop exploding at my daughter?”
In neurological terms, she explains what my wife’s been saying all along, (“It’s not about you, it’s about her,” and “You have to be the adult.”) Blaze’s 15-year-old prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, says Divecha, and it “won’t be consolidated until age 25.” This transitional period is a time of great confusion for her. Meanwhile, I should be patient, kind, and “adult” because I am the only one of us, theoretically at least, that has a fully formed prefrontal cortex. But what if my prefrontal cortex still seems to be… evolving?
Divecha prescribes a cure from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, where she’s a researcher. The “Meta-Moment” is “a tool for managing strong feelings.”
“It asks you to pause between being triggered and responding,” explains Divecha. “This allows you to choose from a number of strategies, by engaging your own prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for regulating behavior) rather than your limbic system (home to our “fight or flight” response). When you engage your rational mind, you can behave in a manner that is conscious, purposeful, and effective.”
Translation: use the rational part of your brain to control your emotional, impulsive brain.
“‘A number of strategies?’” I probe. “You mean, different ways I can behave? Besides screaming?”
She mentions common strategies I’ve heard before, like taking a few breaths or a time out. Then she adds: “Or you could think about a way that you could support the reputation that you want for yourself.”
“The reputation I want for myself?” I parrot.
“Invoke the image of your best parenting self,” says Divecha.
“Oh my… wow…” I’m embarrassed by this revelation into better parenting consciousness. “I’ve never ever thought like that,” I confess. “I just wander about, randomly reacting.” The idea is so foreign, I need concrete examples.
“What is your own personal image of your own ‘best parenting self’?” I ask her.
“I see an image of myself as warm, loving, and educating.”
“And what would your husband say?”
“He would say warm, fun, and supportive.”
I contemplate the Meta-Moment notion for a while and the entirely wild concept of me becoming a better parent and a better human, but then I get distracted by the whole prefrontal cortex explanation. I have trouble with that, due to my own upbringing. Intellectually, I understand the idea behind teenage neurology, but part of me doesn’t buy it. It feels like too easy an excuse for rude, disrespectful behavior.
As an authoritarian parent, my father kept his seven children in a well-behaved line. I didn’t try the excuse with him that my “prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed,” but I’m 100 percent sure he’d have scoffed at that — and given me two extra swats with his belt. Respect was learned quickly since the consequences were painful welts.
But I’m not my father. I don’t believe in corporal punishment. What are the present consequences for my daughter’s disrespectful behavior? There aren’t any, unless you define punishment as being told to go to your room until groveling Dad brings a cookie and a remorseful apology.
I need a “bro” with a testosterone-based POV to talk to, and I find one in Joe Kelly, the author of Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter When She’s Growing Up So Fast, The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Being a New Dad, The Dads & Daughters Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship, and several other books I should have already memorized. Joe’s website defines him as “The Dad Man.”
Right off, Kelly groks my demand for “respect,” but his prognosis is grim.
“For most men,” he agrees, “the need for respect is very high.” However common it may be, Kelly notes, it’s also a risk factor for destructive behavior. “Men who have been violent often say that their victim ‘dissed me’,” he says.
My concern with getting respect, coupled with my daughter’s budding teenage mind, makes for a volatile cocktail.
“There’s a natural tension between parents and children at that age about independence,” Kelly explains. “Teenagers often times build up friction, they create conflict to make it emotionally okay for them to leave, to shoot away into the world. They are experimenting with creating distance to see how it feels. Sometimes their drama is conscious and intentional; sometimes it’s unconscious and instinctive. To create conflict… teenagers, like your daughter, they know what their parents’ weak points are, and they go for those weak points. She’s testing you. Your daughter knows that your need for respect is a button that can be pushed.”
“So it’s hopeless?” I ask. “Her rudeness is developmentally… valuable?”
“The problem,” explains Kelly, “is less about what she’s doing, and more about how you’re reacting to it. This is not about you. It’s about her. She feels confused and upset; she hasn’t fully developed her impulse control and rationality, and she’s dealing with insecurities and complex girl relationships. What she needs from you is for you to be a rock, Hank, that she can push off against. Your job is to demonstrate your loyalty to her, support her and not go away. You’re the f*****ng grownup, Hank.”
Oh no. Once again. I’m supposed to be mature. And, obvious to everyone: I am not.
“Joe,” I ask feebly. “When she’s really out of line with her disrespect, is it all right… to punish her?”
“The best consequence,” he explains, “is never imposed in the heat of anger. And, in my opinion, the most effective way to influence your children is to be the person they want to emulate. Behave so they want to follow your example. Always remember the powerful, positive influence you can have as the first man in your daughter’s life.”
“Be the change” isn’t the advice I am looking for, so I press for more words of wisdom. Instead, he delivers insult to injury.
“Because you have daughters,” he offers, “it’s valuable to talk to women, like your wife, and get her perspective. Women remember what they were feeling as girls, so their perspective is valuable for you.”
Despite my exposure as an idiot dad, the interviews with Diana Divecha and Joe Kelly fill me with hope. That night, I start a dialogue with my daughter about my newfound understanding.
“Blaze,” I begin stupidly, “Today I learned one of the reasons you act the way you do is because your prefrontal cortex is only partially developed.”
“Hank,” my wife whispers a warning.
“But it’s true,” I weakly reply.
My daughter’s good mood makes her happily derisive. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” snorts Blaze. She gets A’s in science. Long ago, I foolishly confessed that I got C’s.
I wanted to discuss all the fantastic information that could rescue our relationship, but my initial step was so awkward, I slunk to my room and ordered an Amazon-recommended book called Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
I read the entire ebook immediately, staying up late into the night. Nhat Hanh recommends “mindfulness” as the cure, the elixir to deal with one’s anger. I don’t quite understand yet what “mindfulness” means, but apparently it can be attained just by walking and breathing. How hard can that be?
The 2,500-year-old insights of Siddhartha still carry therapeutic value, albeit clothed in modern psychology’s garb. For example, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s Meta-Moment tool tightly resembles Nhat Hanh’s “breathing-in, breathing-out” Zen advice. The word “Meta” even mirrors “Metta,” the Pali word for the meditation designed to develop compassion.
The first line in Nhat Hanh’s book is “To be happy, to me, is to suffer less.” I love this opening. When I was young, I disdained Buddhism’s central emphasis on suffering; I regarded it as negative, pessimistic. But that was “BC” — before children. Now, I totally understand. I suffer, you suffer, we all suffer together. Especially families.
Nhat Hanh asserts that people filled with rage are suffering, and we should feel compassion for them. The next night, I try to instigate a new discussion with my daughter, following his advice.
“Blaze,” I say quietly, with all the sincerity I am capable of, “I hear anger in your voice when I pick you up from BART a few moments late. You are frequently filled with rage when my brushing my teeth awakens you. I know this anger inside you hurts; it’s causing great suffering. I’m sorry that I’m part of the cause. I have immense compassion in my heart for your deep and constant suffering.”
“Daddy,” says Blaze. “If you keep talking like that, I Will Kill You.” She walks to her room and locks the door.
Oops. She’s correct that I’m not totally enlightened yet in my approach. I am too full of myself, preening with newfound wisdom.
I decide to set aside my condescending rhetoric for a while, and focus on attaining mindfulness instead. I text Paul; he’s been suggesting, for months, that we both take a workshop in “TM” — transcendental meditation. He’s worried about his high blood pressure and stratospheric cholesterol. Meditation it turns out, is excellent at controlling that, too. New research also indicates it alleviates stress, drug addition, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, hypertension, PTSD, insomnia, migraines, fatigue, neuroticism, hopelessness, and numerous other mental and physical ailments.
Scanning multiple studies on pubmed.gov, I’m surprised to discover how behind the times I am. I thought meditation was a 70s-era, woo-woo, New Age, semi-fraudulent Maharishi gimmick. It’s not. Meditation has been scientifically tested for decades now, with substantial results from studies all over the globe. A German study reports “less anger and inclination for vengeance.” Just 5-10 minutes of meditation daily reduces anger, claims a Japanese study. Meditation produces benefits in developmentally disabled Indians, in angry Scandinavians, in Cambodian refugees in Massachusetts, in Thai youth, in Argentine students, in U.S. prisons, in Chinese students, and cancer survivors.
“Gotta meditate” I text Paul. “ASAP.”
“Do or Die,” he replies.
Perusing online, I discover multiple paths: classes, workshops, sanghas, books, audiotapes, and videos. Even my healthcare provider, Kaiser, offers a mindfulness class for stress reduction.
I settle on two choices.
First, I’ll take an online, proceed-at-your-own-pace course through UCLA’s Mindsight Institute, founded and directed by Dr. Dan J. Siegel, M.D., whose specialty is child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry. Cost is $165. One of my instructors is Gael Belden, who was lay-ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Next, I’ll join a neighborhood group that meets on Sunday mornings less than two miles away, while Blaze is at her piano class.
Paul won’t join me because he insists on TM, which is a mantra-repeating form of meditation. “if TM is enuf 4 Russell Brand,” he texts, “it’s enuf 4 me.”
I know meditation won’t extinguish my rage immediately. I’ve been stockpiling bile since my own father exploded at me decades ago. It’ll require massive discipline to transform it. Nhat Hanh says, “In order to be free from anger, we have to practice. … Practice can liberate you from your anger and turn you into a loving person.”
Mindfulness … what is it really? What am I embarking on? Turns out, a large part of mindfulness is what Joe Kelly, Diane Divecha, and even my wife have already suggested. Deeply understanding the other person — Blaze, in this case — so that my attitude, words, and actions toward her can be bursting with compassion.
Can I become a great being who has so much happiness and compassion I am able to rescue people from their suffering, much less my own?
Maybe not, but I’m betting that just striving toward this lofty goal improves my chances of becoming a better father.
“Daddy, don’t make that crunching sound when you chew,” says Blaze. “It grosses me out. And don’t touch your nose when you talk to me, it’s really disgusting.”
I pause. “I’ll bet you can figure out how to say that in a more polite way.”
“Why aren’t you mad at me? I was rude.”
“Then we agree. You can probably find a more polite way to talk to me.”
“Just stop it! Why are you being so … so nice? It’s creepy, Dad!” She’s still fuming — fuming is one of her favorite things to do, I now realize — it really doesn’t matter what I say.
I just look at her. Eventually, she runs out of words and then starts to laugh, this giddy laugh of self-recognition. “Sorry, Dad,” she says and reaches for her fifth taco. I eat quieter. She really is a wonderful girl.