Despite understanding rationally that their children need consistent boundaries, parents’ good intentions sometimes get “bottlenecked;” sometimes there is confusion about “wants” and “privileges”; and sometimes parents get caught in “The Vortex of Conflict Escalation” before they know what hit them. This chapter explores various scenarios that work against parents, preventing them from meeting the core emotional need for reasonable limits.
Frequently Seen Bottlenecks
Parents feel guilty – guilty they are not perfect, guilty they cannot buy everything for their family that they deserve, guilty they are not doing what their neighbors are doing with their kids, guilty they are not spending enough time with their kids. Whatever the reason, guilty parents often give in to their children’s complaints and excuses. They neither follow through with previous agreements nor enforce family rules.
Parents overreact to their own childhood – parents who grew up in a strict environment often hear a voice in their heads reminding them how painful it was to live under rigid and strict rules. This is also true when a parent was subjected to a harsh schoolteacher, leader or boss. In a noble effort to never emulate such treatment, parents go too far to the other extreme.
Parents don’t understand “grace and truth” – too much focus on grace alone and not on obedience, truth and character. A friend asked us why sometimes the brattiest children have the sweetest and kindest parents? How can that be? Because the parents love their kids so much that they cannot bear to say “No” to them! They are good and kind individuals who serve their children unceasingly, and wonder why the kids turn out entitled. They are sure that patient smiles alone are all they need to guide their children. These parents usually have compliant temperaments, are easy to get along with, and would never hurt a fly, so they do not see that their “differently-tempered” children occasionally need correction.
Parents think their kids will develop limits by themselves – but few will. Parents sometimes believe children will eventually grow up and learn when they are more mature. We have not found this to be the case. Children without limits become adults without limits. When they are not trained at a young age, it becomes harder and harder as they grow older. Adults with healthy limits were trained to respect and obey healthy boundaries as they were growing up.
Parents want to avoid conflict – they are not ready to go “toe to toe” with their child. In an effort to make the home atmosphere more pleasant, some parents avoid setting rules and talking about healthy limits. These parents usually make excuses to other parents, “well, kids will be kids”, Such short-term peace often comes with a huge price later on when the children have to face the consequences of their actions.
Parents want to be liked by their children – similar to the above but with an element of “need”. Most of us “hate being hated”; some parents absolutely cannot bear the thought. Emotionally deprived parents are vulnerable to making choices to help their children like rather than respect them. They do not wish their children to harbor any ill feelings towards them. Some parents, intentionally or not, use their children to meet their own emotional needs. In their desire to be friends, they compromise and do not train their children to honor healthy and reasonable limits.
Parents are just too busy – this is probably the saddest one, but all too common these days. The amount of time many parents set aside today to spend time talking with their children is shockingly low. Schedules become too busy and family time is not prioritized. These parents often wake up to a nightmare, surprised when they find out their own children don’t want to speak to them, or what their children have been doing behind closed doors. The irony is family crises take up far more time than simply nurturing good relationships and enforcing limits along the way.
Needs vs. Wants; Rights vs. Privileges
Something can be said to be “a need”, as defined by Merriam-Webster, if it is “a physiological or psychological requirement for the well-being of an organism”;1 in other words, without it, a person’s well-being will suffer. “A want” is something that is desired, which a person may get if circumstances go their way i.e., a person works hard and pays for it or receives it from another; alternatively, the “want” may remain elusive. Merriam-Webster defines “a right” as “something that a person is or should be morally or legally allowed to have, get, or do.”2 With “rights”, adults don’t need permission, and in some cases, kids don’t either, i.e., children have the right to education and to grow up in a safe home; however, the exercising of a right cannot deprive the equal rights of others. “A privilege” is a benefit given to some but not to all; it is something a person cannot do unless the person is given permission.
Parents do their children a disservice when they don’t help them to understand these differences, when they get confused and give their children “wants” but communicate they are giving “needs”; ditto for “rights” vs. “privileges”. This in turn confuses the kids, who begin to expect things as their “right”, or as “needs”, instead of understanding they are “privileges” and “wants”. Many a destructive conflict has arisen over a child thinking he needs a particular toy, a pre-teen thinking a cell phone is her right, or a teen not realizing that getting the car is a privilege. (We were amused by how many children we know said confidently that having access to Wi-Fi was a “need” and a “right”!) Go to www.gep.sg for an exercise that will help families get rid of confusion, as well as encourage teens to be responsiblewith all four categories.
Just as we admit that as parents none of us is perfect, we also acknowledge that our children do not always live up to our expectations—whether or not our expectations are healthy will be left for the chapter on Realistic Expectations. The fact remains that all humans who are connected with each other have certain expectation. Just as children have core emotional needs, parents have normal, healthy expectations. In saying this, we emphasize that this is not about the emotional needs of the parents, but about healthy expectations in a family. (Parents should have their own needs met in their marriage, and in their community, or with peer groups. It is not the children’s place to meet the emotional needs of the parents. Just as children can become exasperated when their core emotional needs are not met, parents will not be fulfilled or at peace when their core healthy expectations are not met.)
So, what reasonable and healthy expectations can and should parents have of their children? Here are some expectations that we think are normal, reasonable, and healthy. These sit well with our experiences, and are parallel with the core emotional needs of children:
• Connection: This involves children responding to the parents, in an age-appropriate manner, as the parents do their best to meet the core emotional need for connection and acceptance. Parents want an on-going, life-long connection with their children.
• Growth and Performance: This involves children learning and growing in age-appropriate ways (emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually). Parents want to see their children living up to their potential and utilizing their strengths and abilities as they respond to the parent meeting the core emotional needs for healthy autonomy and realistic expectations.
• Responsibility and Respect: This involves children adhering to rules and taking care of themselves in an age-appropriate manner, as parents do their best to meet their children’s core emotional need for Reasonable Limits. Most parents want to see their children develop character and be respectful; this is linked with children understanding that they need to be responsible when it comes to needs, wants, rights, and privileges.
These three areas define the core expectations of parenting; when children make progress in them, parents feel that their kids are maturing properly and that their parenting amounts to something worthwhile.
Bear in mind even if a child is not able to make much progress, it is still the responsibility of the parents to accept and love children unconditionally. Unconditional love is critical to parenting. Many parents get disappointed when expectations and limits are not to a certain mark. Parents need to take stock of each child’s potential and inclinations, and be grateful for the individuality and gifts of each child. (More on this in the section on Realistic Expectations.)
When parents (rightly or wrongly) feel that children are not meeting their expectations, or when children (rightly or wrongly) feel that parents are not meeting their core emotional needs, there will be conflict. If parents are able to practice the principles of Good Enough Parenting, hopefully the conflicts will be sorted out constructively. However, since the emotional part of our brains seems to work quicker than the rational part, this does not always happen! When conflict escalates, parent and child enter into what we call “The Vortex of Conflict Escalation” (see Figure 14.1). This vortex may involve the exchange of harsh words, throwing of tantrums, or stonewalls of silence and sulking, but either way, it will harm the connection, mar the feeling of acceptance, and damage the relationship. Let us consider how the vortex might occur when dealing with reasonable limits.
Figure 14.1: The Vortex of Conflict Escalation
Picture a case in which a 14-year-old boy is defiant about obeying rules. He tests his parents’ limits to see how far he can go. What may escape unnoticed is the role parents play in teaching limits. Let us suppose that in this case, when the father tries to teach his son reasonable limits by giving instructions, the boy refuses to cooperate, and the father becomes stern. The child debates with the father. The parent becomes frustrated and raises his voice. The teen also raises his voice and walks out. The parent keeps going, following his son out of the room, perhaps issuing threats. The boy retorts with an insult, then both get tired and retreat to their own corners. In the meantime, other family members may witness this scene. Typically, the other parent joins the fray, either against the child or against her spouse. Finally, someone gives in . . . But is the fault always with the child?
Typically in a situation like this, people will leave thinking the child has to learn a thing or two about limits. While this may be the case, it is also true that the parents may have been more focused on their own triggers in the vortex of conflict than on the needs of their child. It could be that one or more exasperation interactions were hindering the child from learning about limits. These further exacerbate the formation of a vortex between the child and the parent. It then escalates, causing emotional pain and damage. Unnecessary words are used. Verbal or physical abuse can take place. Some parents give up and then the child “wins”. Sometimes the parent “wins” and the child develops resentment. In both cases, the parent-child connection is damaged.
When our children were younger, we had rules for TV and computer usage (what, when and how long). We facilitated outdoor play, sports, and music; add in homework and friends, there wasn’t much time left for “screen time”. However, when David started high school, we found that he would try to sneak in extra computer games. While his grades were not plummeting, we were worried more about the deceit and addiction factor, and noticed that it was starting to have a negative effect. I (John) talked with him and made a written agreement about his limits. He agreed and for the first few days, it went well. Then one day I caught him red handed—he tried hard to exit the video game, but it was too late. I lost my patience, shouted at him and went off angrily to my office. David was hurt at my outburst. Later, after my wife’s intervention, we talked and I apologized. David also apologized for his lack of seriousness in sticking to the agreed limits, and for being secretive. Looking back, even though he blatantly disregarded a rule we had agreed on earlier, I should not have blown up. I allowed myself to walk straight into a vortex of conflict escalation, which potentially hurt our connection and was counterproductive. Most of the time, I managed to not cause exasperation; I expressed my disappointment in a firm voice and let him reflect, making time to talk later, showing acceptance to him but not accepting his behavior. Staying out of the vortex helps our kids to learn from their mistakes.
In addition to blocking our children’s core emotional needs, the exasperation interactions are major contributors to the development of the vortex. Subtly and unintentionally, a parent exasperates the child, which does not help the child to listen and obey. At the same time, if the child is defiant, his nature either diminishes the firmness of the parents in staying committed to their expectations, or causes them to blow up further. The interplay between meeting the core emotional needs of children and the expectations of parents has to be harmonized and balanced, failing which, parent and child will trigger each other, and the vortex of conflict escalation will emerge, leading to more exasperation. Please review Chapters Three and Four, and then read the two vignettes below, after which you can go to our website www.gep.sg for more vignettes and an exercise that will help parents become experts in navigating the vortex.
Alice (12) comes home from school frustrated—she has extra homework and several projects due soon. She goes to her room. Her brother, Sam (10), comes into her room without knocking. She yells, “Get out of my room!” He says “sorry” in a sarcastic tone. She shouts, “You’re insincere and have no boundaries!” He then brings out examples of how she is mean to him. Their parents hear the exchange and the father tells Alice to settle down, which is his normal response whenever the kids have a fight. Alice responds angrily, accusing her dad of taking Sam’s side. The two children continue to call each other names. The father goes into the room, raises his voice and says, “Why can’t you both just get along for once?! Even animals behave better than you both! Your arguments are so stupid. The house was a lot more peaceful before you two showed up!” As he blows up, they become quiet. The father then commands them both to apologize. They do so, but silently still resent each other and their dad. The dad then calls them names and issues threats as he storms out of the room. At dinner, they do not speak to each other and the atmosphere is uncomfortably quiet and unpleasant. Later in the evening the father blurts out the good news that he got an email from his boss to say he got a promotion at work. Sam congratulates him, but Alice does not say anything and walks up to her room. The father is disappointed but does not say anything back to her, leaving the issue unresolved.
Ben comes home from school and plays computer games, as he always does. His mother reminds him about his promise to be reliable at his new part-time job and to go to work on time, but he ignores her. She pleads with him and he agrees to go to work, but procrastinates and leaves the house late, as usual. Later that week, Ben gets fired. His mother works up the courage to ask, “Honey, would you like to talk about your resolutions?” Ben gets angry and says, “Why don’t you just give me a break? I’m old enough to choose what I like and if I don’t like something, why should I do it?” When Ben’s mother serves dinner, he hardly eats, preferring to eat the junk food he purchased when out with his friends. He plays computer games until the wee hours of the morning; he frequently does not get enough sleep and falls sick. His parents know what is going on, but are afraid to say anything. Ben’s mother, in particular, blames herself and becomes depressed.
In these examples (and the ones in our website), the interactions quickly escalated into the vortex. The children fell short of their parents’ expectations in some way, and their parents’ response was more about how the situation triggered them than about addressing the situation from the point of view of a parent mindful of meeting a child’s core needs. It does not matter which one came first, the child not cooperating or the parent exasperating the child. Either way, parents owe it to their children to learn to stay out of the vortex of conflict escalation. The next chapter contains Ten Tips on staying out of the Vortex all together!