Sometimes our kids’ behavior triggers something deep inside of us that makes us react in a way that is neither helpful for our children or for ourselves. In those moments we don’t show ourselves from our most nurturing, supportive and compassionate side. We show the ‘other’ side. In other words, we snap, yell, shout, or even treat our child just a bit more harshly than we would ever want to. But we still do it. And afterwards, we feel bad. Your child feels bad. We are not proud of ourselves and we know it wasn’t great, for anyone.
- Why do we sometimes still lose it with our kids and snap? Even though we know better?
- And what can we do about it?
Besides the more obvious reasons for losing your calm—like stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, or having your period (that always does it for me!)—there are other factors that, while somewhat less obvious, can nonetheless have a profound effect on how you relate to your children, and how quickly you are likely to snap at them. Most of our behavior and what we do and say on a daily basis is driven by our “basic human needs”, and by how far those basic human needs are satisfied. These include needs such as safety and security, connection, contribution, creation, meaning and purpose. Today, I want to talk about one basic human need in particular that can play a big role in keeping our cool in tense situations with our kids: the need for Autonomy.
The need for ‘autonomy’ is the need to have a sense of control of one’s own life, a sense of freedom, and a sense that you are in charge. Autonomy is when you make the decisions about what happens in your own life—not your partner, your boss, your neighbor, your mother, your father, or your child. Research has shown that autonomy and having a sense of control over one’s own life is a crucial factor in how happy people feel and how hopeful they are for the future. When a person doesn’t have a sense of control over their own life they can start feeling anxious, frustrated, depressed, resentful, angry or aggressive. If it continues, especially combined with a dose of shame (blaming themselves for not being a good enough person, or believing they don’t deserve any better), then people are at high risk of developing mental health issues such as depression, addiction, eating disorders, or showing a range of criminal or destructive behavior such as violence, bullying, stealing etc.
So what does the need for Autonomy have to do with you losing it as a parent? Well, with our busy lives, we can often neglect the basic need for Autonomy—and not only our own need as parents, but our kids’ too! Most parents, myself included, want their kids to become independent, self-confident and authentic adults that can take care of themselves and make responsible decisions so they will live a happy, healthy and successful life. However, in raising their kids, parents sometimes give them little space to develop these skills. They decide what the kids wear, what they eat, when they eat, when they play, with whom they play, what time to go to bed, what school to go to, etc.
- What decisions are your kids allowed to make for themselves? In what areas of their lives are you encouraging their autonomy?
- How do they react when they get to choose for themselves (or are involved in making decisions concerning themselves)?
Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a healthy middle between giving your children all the freedom to decide when, what, where, how, with whom they do something (the permissive parenting style) and the “You obey ME!” parenting style (autocratic parenting style). I believe that healthy middle is created by setting clear boundaries and limits to keep them safe, combined with honoring the values you (and your partner) decided on by living by as a framework to create an encouraging, supportive environment for kids to grow up in a more cooperative way (the authoritative parenting style). How that healthy middle looks like exactly in your family, is totally up to you. Every family has the right to create a family environment they believe is best. The point is: have you consciously decided on the values you want to live by as a parent? What kind of environment do you want your children to grow up in? What is it you want them to learn from you? What is it you would like to pass on to them which you believe would help them best in developing their own lives and their own autonomy?
The need for autonomy is different for everybody and comes on a spectrum. Some people have a bigger need and score high on the spectrum, others have a smaller need and score lower, but everybody is on that spectrum. To take decisions for somebody else (or not making them part of the decision-making), can come across as telling them they are not able to do that for themselves. “You are not good enough, smart enough, old enough, responsible enough, whatever enough to make that decision. And I don’t trust you to do that the ‘right’ way.” This can prove very disempowering for the person and prevent them from finding their own way in doing things. It also takes the power out of their hands that they would need to grow and gain confidence in their own judgement, in their ability to evaluate their own needs, and ultimately their ability to fend for themselves. People, including our kids, need space to practice those skills in order to make their own decisions, carry their own mistakes, learn from them without shame or judgement, discover themselves, build independence and grow resilience. If they don’t, they can become frustrated with a feeling of helplessness, and without a sense of control, they can become angry, rebellious, trying to assert some sense of control, and ultimately it can interfere with their own wellbeing.
Try to remember how it was for yourself as a child:
- Do you remember when your parents first let you make your own decisions on what to do, how to do it, when to do it, etc.? Or when they first decided you could be part of the decision-making that concerned you?
- How did it make you feel when you were asked for the first time: ‘What do YOU want?’ or “What do YOU think?’
Now try to remember how it was to have your first child:
You might have just had figured some important things out, were living the life you wanted to, and you could decide when to do things, how to do them, with whom to do them, etc. Then you had a kid ….
…………..MAJOR AUTONOMY EARTHQUAKE………!!!! ….
Kid decided when you could sleep, eat, have a shower, go out the door, see friends, read a book. Gone was your old sense of autonomy, control and freedom. You entered a whole new universe. And there was no way back. You had to learn how to deal with your new life. Not only because you deeply wanted to, so that you were able to take care of this beautiful amazing creature the best way you could, but also because you just had to. With all the tremendous ups and downs. Redefining life, with you, your partner (if you had/have one), your child and everything else in it. How to meet your need for Autonomy in this new life was part of that too. In other words, how to keep a sense of self and take care of it. Even though you became a parent, you were still human—with basic human needs. You still had your own dreams for yourself and the future. It was just all different now.
And just as our child can get angry and snap when they don’t have enough sense of control in their own lives, we can get angry and snap when we don’t experience (on either a conscious or unconscious level) enough autonomy in our own lives.
As parents, we sometimes forget that we ourselves have a need for autonomy too. That besides helping our kids to grow into confident, resilient, compassionate and happy adults, we want to nurture that same confidence, resilience, compassion and happiness within ourselves. Besides being nice and considerate towards others and our children, we want to be nice and considerate towards ourselves! Heck, if we can’t give it to ourselves, how can we ever give it to them?!
What can you do?
- Grow your awareness:
- What emotion is coming out when you’re losing it? From that emotion, what is that emotion really expressing at that moment? What does it want for you (that could do with some TLC from you)?
- On a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being totally happy, 1 being totally not), how happy are you with the sense of control at the moment in your own life? Is there anything you would LOVE to do, but are not doing?
- Where in your life would you like more autonomy? Ideally, how do you wish that to look like? What do you have to do differently to change it? Pick the one action that you feel would make the biggest difference, and start doing that today (however small the step, as long as you take it).
- Explore where more autonomy could make a big difference for your kids. How is their sense of control at this moment? Where would you be happy to give them more choice or involve them more (so that they can develop skills you value as a family and they feel happier themselves: bed time, bath time, homework time, screen time, dinner time, what to wear, what to play etc.)?
- Give your child choices (or make them part of decisions that concern them):
It can be as simple and small as asking them:
– “what way are we going; left or right?” (driving in the car after school pick up and when going either way doesn’t make a big differenceJ).
– “What do you want to wear today?” (and be OK with them picking a combination you wouldn’t want to be found dead in).
-”What fruit do you want for lunch?” or (to make it easier keep the choices limited to 2): “Would you like to bring an apple or an orange today?’, “Do you want to eat cornflakes or toast for breakfast?” “Do you want to wear a dress or trousers?”, etc.
– “Do you want to have a bath now, or after dinner?” (and here they may not want a bath, but they need it, and at least you are promoting their autonomy in giving them a choice about when they can have it.
In case of a potential battle coming up (which might be a case of you asserting your control as a parent and your child trying to reassert their own control), when your child keeps resisting to something that you believe needs to be done offering 2 choices can move you out of that challenging situation towards result: “You’ve got two choices to get your hair clean; You can wash it yourself, or I was it for you. What do you chose to do?”
- Let go off your own need for control and be totally OK with their choice
It’s no use you asking them what they want and then reacting to their answer with: “Ach no, you don’t want to do that! Here, do this, that’s better.” You’ll be back to square one, giving them the impression they could have some control, but then taking it all out of their hands again, disempowering them all the same.
Treat them like any other friend or peer who you wouldn’t tell what to do all the time, instead of the person who’s too young to know how to do the ‘right’ thing yet.” So, even though they might be red-cheeked and clearly sweating, don’t assume they would want to take their jumper off and you subsequently taking it off for them without asking. Ask something along the lines of: “You look like you’re warm. Do you want to take your jumper off?” And when their answer, maybe surprisingly to you, might be ‘no’ for whatever reason that’s real to them, respect it (except of course, when you know that your child has some dangerous physical reaction to overheating! In that case, you can help them remind them and/or offer advice: “Remember what happens when you get really warm?….and wait for their “O yeah” so they will decide for themselves to take it off.)
It’s not a sign of weakness, handing over or sharing ‘your’ control in making certain daily decisions. You are actually showing you trust their judgment, you value and respect their point of view and you encourage them to cooperate with you and giving them a say in this family life too. And by showing that behavior yourself you are modelling it for them, enabling them to learn from you just by being around you at that moment.
- Be Kind to yourself
We are all imperfect parents. If anybody tries to show or tell you otherwise, it’s likely they’re trying to cover something they’re not comfortable with themselves, consciously or unconsciously. And that’s OK. But that’s for them to carry, not for you. So you can let that expectation of perfection go. You really can! And you can let go of the stress that comes with it too! Sometimes we have really good moments, sometimes we have really bad moments. But we are always doing our best. Forgive yourself when you do snap. Be kind to yourself as you would be if one your best friends would come to you with the story they just snapped. Nobody ever became more resourceful in dealing with challenging situations after they got kicked again when they’re already down. Explain to your child what just happened that made you lose it, that you didn’t mean to show that behavior, and show accountability for your own behavior by apologizing.
- Commit to taking regular ME-time J
This is why ME-time—time that is carved out of the weekly or daily schedule wherein you decide what to do—is of such vital importance, especially to parents. Whether you find this in work, a hobby, exercise, silence, having coffee with friends, that’s totally up to you. As long as you get some to help you reconnect with YOU. TAKE CARE OF YOUR OWN NEED FOR AUTONOMY. Take care of YOURSELF. Regularly! It is not only pivotal to keep nourishing that part deep down inside you that you know makes up the essence of who you are, but also very necessary to be the best parent you can be for your kids.
I’m very interested to hear how this article resonated with you. Please feel free to share any insights, reactions or questions that have come up for you by posting or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Next time, part 2: We’ll be having a look at the basic human need to feel loved and how it can drive us to losing our calm, both consciously and unconsciously.
- Podcast Janet Lansbury “Respectful parenting”, episode ‘Losing it – why we do it?’ This episode goes into how past trauma, and those old feelings you still carry today, can trigger parents to lose it with their kids.
- Book “The Thriving Child” by Dr William Stixrud & Ned Johnson (2018). The science behind reducing stress and nurturing independence. Would you like to receive some pointers and helpful insights how to enjoy helping your teens doing their homework and hobbies, and help them enjoy their lives more? Taking in your children’s brain development and need for autonomy, this book shows you how.