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Carolyn Hax: Child’s button-pushing tests a parent’s resolve to stay calm

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: I have a 9-year-old daughter whom I adore (I’m 45). She is wonderful, smart, kind and funny. When we get along and have fun together, it’s perfection.

I, however, partly because of a very traumatic relationship with my mother, have a bad temper; I am prone to impatience and yelling (no hitting or anything like that). It’s not that I don’t know that you need to exercise patience with your kids, and that I don’t have conversations with myself about it, but it keeps happening.

I have gotten therapy for this and started seeing a psychologist again recently. The thing is, though, my daughter nags all the time and says “no” 100 times a day — about the healthy food I cook, about how much homework she has, taking showers, weekend plans, anything and everything. I feel like she’s pushing my buttons all the time. I’m not blaming her; I’m the adult here and she’s the kid. But how can I help her understand without making her think it’s her fault when I yell?

— L.

L.: I’m glad you’re back in therapy. Your yelling replicates the trauma of your childhood in your daughter’s — even without any hitting — yet when you say it “keeps happening,” you’re detaching yourself from the cause. You keep doing it. That’s why it keeps happening.

But you’ve also set yourself up for this failure unwittingly, and that’s not your fault. You’re absolutely right that “I’m the adult here and she’s the kid” requires you to be patient — but you’re asking/forcing yourself to do this under almost impossible conditions.

Imagine you're cutting back on processed sugar in your diet. How well is that going to go if you have a dozen fresh cupcakes on your kitchen counter every day?

The problem you describe in your home isn’t your “bad temper,” it’s the cupcakes — the power-struggle behaviors and tactics that draw you into the very reactions you’re trying to stop, and that you (presumably) were raised to regard as normal.

Reactivity to a child’s natural resistance and budding sense of autonomy is more about having: 1. unrealistic expectations of how a 9-year-old behaves, and 2. unproductive responses when she doesn’t behave as you expect.

You expect compliance, and you were (again, presumably) subconsciously trained by your mom to erupt when you don’t get it. Those are the impossible conditions, forcing you to try to remain calm as you’re increasing the pressure.

So the intervention I recommend is not (just) therapy, but parenting classes — so you can prepare and problem-solve your way around or through conflicts with your daughter before they get emotional. Evidence-based, age-appropriate expectations of your daughter at each developmental stage, plus strategies for anticipating and responding to these very-normally-child-like behaviors, are a combination that preempts most power struggles well before they reach a yelly frustration point.

For example: If she doesn’t like what you cook, then she can prepare her own simple dinner — from a pantry full of healthy foods (because an adult controls what’s in there). If she doesn’t do her homework, then she can take that up with her teachers. If she doesn’t shower, then she won’t smell so good — which motivates more showering than parental pressure ever could. And so on. Letting her own her smaller choices gives her ample room to develop her sense of self — meaning she won’t feel she has to push against you to do it.

Bonus, you stop squandering your precious parental capital over green beans.

The Parent Encouragement Program (pepparent.org) offers online instruction if there are no in-person resources nearby (your pediatrician will know if there are). “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk” (Faber/Mazlish) is an eye-opener on treating your child as a fully realized human vs. creature who either obeys or disobeys. Paradoxically, the child who feels seen, heard and human is more inclined to return that respect by living within the rules.

Please also consider some sessions for your daughter with a therapist trained to work with children. Yelling isn’t just the effect of parent-child power struggles, but also a cause — so some part of your daughter’s “no, no, no” phase may be her reaction to being yelled at.

I add this not to pile on, but because the right help comes from exploring what’s wrong. You obviously love your daughter, want to be good parent, admit your mistakes and have the guts to seek help, which is a lot to build on. Now get help with a structure that supports you and your goals instead of pitting you against yourself and your wonderful kid.

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