Rose is a woman in her mid thirties with three small children. She feels powerless to control them. They fight, run around, refuse to sit at the table, hit each other, and generally ‘run riot’ virtually all of the time they are with her. It is complete chaos.
Rose is not a bad woman but she does have a personality style that is not suited to parenting. Her personality could be defined as anxious-dependent – she is dependent on others people approval to take and sustain initiative an anxiously plagued with uncertainty and self doubt. Rose therefore has great difficulties in being a strong parent who sets clear limits and boundaries for her children. She also has difficulty in asserting herself and often seeks the approval of her children for things she does. This can be observed in the way she never makes direct demands of the children but rather makes requests by asking them if they would do something. This reverses the natural family hierarchy by giving the children the freedom to overrule her parental requests by just saying “no”.
Displaying healthy and natural authority with children is a parental responsibility that each person achieves in their own way. Few would argue against the need for such a competent authority that evokes the children’s willingness to comply as well as their respect. It is indeed a fine balance.
In parenting one can refer to the three A’s of autocracy, authority, and abuse to define different styles of parental control.
The autocratic parent gets their child to comply with them by the use of threats or coercion. The autocratic parent punishes readily, gives out a lot, and creates a climate of a fear more than respect for the parent. The autocratic parent has strict rules and responds harshly when rules are not complied with. The autocrat is a dictator in the house and is the absolute ruler. The autocratic parent is not always abusive in the conventional sense but seeks to rule the house with an iron fist. The weak autocratic parent is forever complaining, giving out, punishing, grounding, and harassing their children for their wrong doings. The strong autocrat gets compliance through power and fear and is not afraid to resort to severe punishments to maintain control.
The abusive parent is, in many ways, an extreme autocrat who wields control through punishment and negative consequences. The abusive parent can be an under-controlled parent or over-controlled parent. The under-controlled abusive parent is chaotic, dramatic, over-the-top, out-of-control, foul-mouthed, inconsistent, and driven by moods and irritations. This parent lashes out indiscriminately and may slap or curse at a child for the smallest of things.
The over-controlled abusive parent is more like the cold-blooded tyrant who is unafraid to verbally abuse or hit a child but does so with a detached ruthlessness. He or she lets nothing go and gains compliance by attacking the child’s self-esteem with criticism and put-downs.
Finally, we have the authoritative parent who is different in that he or she gains compliance or respect through natural strength, conviction, and confidence.
When you think back to when you were at school you can easily pick out the teachers who had a natural authority that demanded respect, and got it. You can also recall autocratic teachers who, while controlling the class effectively, were disliked for their mean-spiritedness and inflexibility. Finally, there may have been an abusive teacher that you recall. Thankfully, those teachers have now left the system but were a staple in many old schools from the 50’s through to the 70’s – i.e. the teacher that sadistically left you feeling afraid, diminished, and bad about yourself.
Authority comes easily to some more than others. It tends to be seen in people who are more independent than dependent. Independently minded people are less needy of others peoples approval than dependent people. As a parent this means that authoritative parents does not always need their children to like them and are well able to tolerate their/her children’s disapproval in order to get them to comply with essential rules. The dependent parent, on the other hand, often gets handcuffed by their need to have their children like them all the time. When this need is too strong they lose much of their independent authority. Parents like this are afraid to upset their children and invest a lot of energy in reassuring them. They may go over-the-top with unnecessary praise and understanding which, they do not realise, is not actually needed by the child. They may administer punishments or consequences only to withdraw them soon after because they feel sorry for their child.
"My 8-year-old child seems to suffer from anxiety or panic attacks. We are a relatively normal family. He has always been a somewhat anxious child but these anxiety attacks are more frequent in the morning before going to school or when my husband and myself have to go out at night. What might be going on?"
Very often people will say of a child “he or she is just looking for attention”. I have rarely found this to be the case. More often than not the child has no interest in attention, but rather is looking for control and influence. You will typically find that the child who is supposedly looking for attention is in fact getting an abundance of it.
A fascinating thing about anxiety and panic for children is that very often, though not always, they are really mechanisms to establish and assess control in certain relationships. The child is often assessing both his own self-control and his parents control over him. Many a parent will be flabbergasted to see their school-phobic child trot off happily to school when a grandmother or auntie is minding him! This is because that mechanism of assessing CONTROL is not established with the minder.
As I indicated above, a child may have too much control and influence or too little. Often a child is well able to manage his or her anxiety but provokes and tests the parent’s ability to recognise it. The over-anxious parent will find it hard to do this, and so the child displays even more anxiety. You will rarely find an anxious child with an under-involved parent because those children quickly learn to manage themselves because they are left to themselves. Invariably, the parent is on the side of being over-involved or over-concerned, which can create a merry-go-round of anxiety. Sometimes a child needs to be held and encouraged and loved. Other times he needs a tough-loving coach who kicks him onto the field, knowing he can do it.
What do parents do when a teenager blatantly rejects their authority and the essential ground-rules of family life?
In our post-modern age where many values, beliefs, and codes of conduct have been eroded and replaced by a variety of vague permissive ideas regarding teenage rights and freedoms, parents often feel undermined and peripheral to the decision-making processes of their teenagers.
It is a troubling fact that in some households teenage children are a law unto themselves. It is not unusual for me to work with parents where a teen intimidates them into surrendering their authority. It is often a terrifying and demoralising situation when a teenager essentially looks his/her parents in the eye and says “F…. you. I will do whatever I want.” And does.
There is a line that once crossed moves a teenager from being a troublesome one to being a dangerous one – to themselves as much as to others. That line is represented by the use of aggression, violence, and threats that affect not just the teen, but the climate of the entire family. The teenager therefore begins to control the mood of the family. When they come in the door at home the climate changes, people are on edge waiting for the first provocation. They start fighting or harassing others in the family in a way that is aggressive and disruptive. Siblings are picked on and parents are insulted. The teen becomes, in effect, a domestic bully.
In these families the parents often end up feeling relieved when the teenager goes out with his or her friends – even if he/she is hanging out with gangs or causing trouble elsewhere. Many parents have said “we feel a sense of relief when (s)he goes out. We know it’s not right, but the house is so much more peaceful when (s)he is not there!”.
The development of this problem has usually been progressive but typically escalates from a manageable behavioural problem at national school to an unmanageable personality problem at secondary school.
Once violence and aggressive abuse becomes the successful tactic of choice parents have a very serious problem on their hands that requires a substantive, coordinated, and serious response. When it gets to this stage the problem cannot be handled ‘on the run’ or piece meal but must be given the same serious attention as if it were a grave medical condition in need of unpleasant but essential treatment.
There are certain conditions that are essential to the healthy functioning of any family which, if removed or threatened, affect the viability of the family itself. The most important one is safety. A family home must be a safe place. Once it becomes unsafe through the aggression, abuse, or violence of any member then it ceases to be a family home in the true sense of the words.
The problem with some teenagers is that they want freedom and privilege without responsibility. They want the freedom to be able to run their own life, like a mini adult, but without assuming the responsibilities of such adulthood. They want the benefits and privileges of being a member of a family that they simultaneously revolt against. While this is the stance of many growing teenagers, when this involves domestic bullying and abuse it cannot be tolerated.
So what can a parent do? Two things. The first is to narrow their focus on a small problem behaviour and to bring all of their resources to bear on succeeding in eliminating this behaviour (for example eliminating the use of foul language in the home). Many parents are so frazzled and worn out by the guerrilla warfare tactics of their teen that they actually begin to give up, just for peace. However, this must be reversed, at least with one small issue. The parents must succeed in a small area first. I cannot overstate how symbolically important this is for parents in order to recover their confidence and self-belief and to show their teenager that they can manage them – which is what the defiant teenager is provoking for.
The real problem faced by parents is that their teens know that they can get away with what they are doing. What you have to remember about any abusive or bullying behaviour is that teenagers use these tactics because they work and because they get away with them. It is extremely difficult to counteract when the teen has no fear of the weak consequences that are employed.
The second thing the parents must do is to see the problem as the teenagers attempted rejection of the family and to see the choice that the teen is faced with is whether they want to be a member of the family or not. This does not mean that the parent tries to escalate the problem but rather to calmly realise that this is what is at issue. When the authority of the parent is persistently insulted and rejected in abusive ways the teen is rejecting the family. At this point its time to get help.
When faced with the genuine uncompromising choice between accepting the healthy non-abusive conditions of family life or the unappealing responsibilities and freedoms of adulthood, nine out of ten teens actually choose the former. But whatever you do, do not let yourself think you are a bad parent. Every good parent finds abusiveness to be the most difficult kind of behaviour to deal with because not only is it problematic, it is a distressing rejection of ones status and integrity. So hold tough.
A lot is written about male anger. While men perpetrate by far the preponderance of serious domestic abuse and violence, women and mothers can be abusive in the home. In recent weeks I have found myself working with a number of mother’s that struggle with controlling their anger. In some cases this is very distressing for the children. In most of the cases I am dealing with, it is also distressing for the mothers themselves who cover up their sense of inadequacy or helplessness with anger or rage. It got me thinking on the different kinds of anger experienced by mothers who have a problem with their own frustration and rage. Most mothers find ways of coping and managing. All mothers get angry. But some anger is a symptom of a deep inadequacy, of a sense of really being overwhelmed by the tasks of mothering. For some mothers, the maternal instinct is not natural and they are unable to identify with, and even resent, the easy earth-mothering they see in their friends.
Angry mothers often feel inadequate as parents. This creates an on-going tension and irritability at feeling unable to cope with the demands of small children who, as we know, can be a handful. Associated with this inadequacy is helplessness – an inner sense of feeling out of control and unable to soothe or resolve the daily distresses of their children. These kinds of women are often very needy, if not demanding themselves, and react more like siblings than parents to their children. The anger explodes from a resentment that they have to put their child’s needs before their own. For women who may, for example, be used to just doing their own thing or getting their own way, it can be a culture shock to suddenly be surrounded by the needy cries and demands of children.
The following kinds of maternal anger or rage may reveal some of the subtleties of maternal frustration:
All mothers feel overwhelmed at times. All mothers get angry. Some mothers know, however, that their anger borders on a resentment toward their children that bubbles up from feeling overwhelmed or inadequate. If you feel like this, do talk to someone. Seek some counselling or parenting support. You are not alone with these feelings. For many, the task of parenting is overwhelming – particularly if you have little or no support.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.