I hear it from parents all the time. They’ll come to my office and say, their voices full of frustration, “He’s capable of handling himself well. He does it at school and usually at home. But then there are times he just acts so immature and freaks out.”
Sound familiar? Does to me, too. In fact, it sounds just like my kids.
And like these parents, I’ll sometimes assume that because a child often makes good choices and handles herself, that means she can always do so.
A father in my office last week described his daughter like this: “She wants things her way. And if things don’t go her way, she might lose it. And she could clearly make a better choice. I know she can deal with stuff well; she just chooses not to.”
Again, this can seem like a logical conclusion. But is it? In other words, if a child often, or even usually, handles herself well, does that mean that any time she makes a bad decision she’s being manipulative or somehow choosing to make things hard on her parents so she can get her way?
Let’s apply it to ourselves. Could someone say something similar about you as a parent? “She’s capable of parenting well. She does it lots of places, and usually she handles herself great at home. But then there are times when she just acts so immature and freaks out.” I don’t know about you, but if someone said that about me, my only response would be, “Guilty as charged.”
But obviously, you and I don’t have bad parenting moments because we’re intentionally acting belligerent so we can get our way. Manipulation implies that we are calculating. When we mess up with our kids, it’s because the emotions get the best of us and we temporarily don’t act like the kind of parents we want to be.
You see the point I’m making. Just because we parent well lots of times doesn’t mean we can parent well all the time. The way we handle ourselves really depends so much on the circumstances of both our environment and our internal state. If we haven’t had enough sleep, if we’re hungry, if our buttons have been pushed all day, if we’re running late, if someone is asking us to do stuff we don’t want to do that they can do for themselves, if we need some quiet downtime, if, if, if, if...
It’s the same for our kids. They have their own list of ifs. The way they handle themselves has everything to do with their own external and internal environment.
Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, explains that when a child’s capacity is bigger than the demands of the situation, he does well. But when the demands of the situation exceed his capacity, he doesn't do well.
This makes so much sense to me, because I know it’s true for all human beings. What we forget is that people’s capacities are not fixed—they fluctuate. This is why something little might set your child off, whereas he might beautifully handle something really challenging.
No wonder it’s so tough to parent. We usually don’t know what will overwhelm our child’s capacity at any given moment.
What we can do, though, is reframe the way we look at these “not handling things well” moments. We can recognize them as moments when our children are overwhelmed. We can understand that it may be a situation where they can’t control themselves well, rather than that they won’t. As a result, we’ll be much more able to respond with the comfort our children need during times of high stress.
I’m not saying that there aren’t times children will manipulate. I’m simply saying that frequent good behavior doesn’t mean that misbehavior is somehow manipulative. Very often, acting out is the result of a child being overwhelmed by his own emotions.
Children need us to offer comfort, understanding and patience, especially when they’re upset and irrational. When we can offer that kind of nurturing, we help calm our kids in the short term, and in the long term we build the connections in their brain that allow them to be more resilient in the face of challenges, both now and down the road.