Susanne called me and described how angry her two teenage boys were. They fought her constantly, used abusive language toward her, and turned every meal into a brawl. She, her husband, and her sons were all quite miserable.
When she asked me what I thought the problem was, I said, "You're afraid of your children."
"Ridiculous," she said. "I'm not afraid of them."
"When they get angry at you, what do you do?"
"Usually I yell back at them."
"So you get angry at them."
"We only get angry when we're defending ourselves, and there's no need to defend yourself unless you're afraid. Get it?"
"I never thought of that."
"And sometimes when they get angry, you give in and let them have their way."
"Well . . . sometimes."
"A lot of times, right?"
"Yes, I guess I do."
"And you often give in and let them have their way even when you don't think it's the right thing to do."
"Then there's only one reason you'd give in like that—because you're afraid."
Susanne paused. "You've got me. I am afraid of them."
"And darlin', I promise you that they know that. They know you're afraid, and they use that against you. In fact, you've thoroughly trained them to be angry, which is the very thing you don't like them to be."
"I don't see how I've trained them."
"Everybody naturally tends to want things to go their way. It's a natural selfishness that isn't necessarily wrong. We'd rather have more good things than less, we'd rather rest than work, we'd rather not be in pain than to hurt, and so on. We like having our way."
"Nothing wrong with that, but where we go wrong is insisting on getting our way, even when it's not productive for us and for others. Then it's a pathologic selfishness, not innocent."
"Give me an example."
"You told me that the kids fight over having to do the dishes after dinner."
"When they were much younger, and you told them to do the dishes, did they get angry?"
"And they probably helped you without much coaxing."
"And then they began to get irritated."
"And the more irritated they became, the more you argued and got angry, yes?"
"And sometimes you just gave in and did the dishes yourself."
"Yes, I got tired of the fighting."
"And now they get very angry, and you respond with even more anger, often ending with your giving in."
"They've trained you, and you've trained them. You taught them that in order to get what they wanted, all they had to do was get more and more angry, and they taught you to argue and give in. They've learned from you that if they get angry at a level of two, for example—out of ten—you don't do much. But if they raise their anger to a seven, they're much more likely to get what they want. Even your emotional discomfort is a huge reward to them—they like making you angry, because they feel in control, even powerful. So you've trained them to ramp up their anger quickly to higher levels, and they've trained you to respond to them. It's a pretty horrible cycle."
"This is disgusting to see."
"Yes, it really is. You're unhappy. Your husband hates it. Your children don't feel loved, and imagine how this pattern is going to work for them with their bosses and their wives. Their misery is just beginning, and you're teaching them this pattern."
"So what can I do?"
"You have to eliminate your fear. You have to be an island of calm and peace, no matter what the storm."
"How can I do that?"
"You have to get loved, and there are many ways you can find that."
"When you feel more loved," I continued, "you won't need your children to love you, and you won't become afraid when they withdraw their love—which is what you feel when they get angry." I told her how she could calmly describe to her children their responsibilities and teach them to be loving, along with the occasional application of consequences, as described throughout the book, Real Love in Parenting.
Susanne called me two weeks later and said, "I can't believe the difference. When I remembered that I'm loved, and that it's not the responsibility of my children to love me, I became much less afraid as I talked to them. When the boys attacked me with my mistakes, I freely admitted them, and the arguments usually ended. I simply described the consequences of their not doing their jobs, and the grumbling decreased a lot. Now it's almost disappeared. I would not have believed this much change could happen this quickly."
Almost without exception, our children behave badly because we have trained them to do so. The change must begin with us.
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