As I go around the country teaching parenting seminars and trying to help parents make healthy changes in their family relationships, I notice there are two things which get asked the most.
1. What do you do for attitude problems?
2. How do you stop tantrums?
I am not going to expound on tantrums today, but I will say that attitude problems are just tantrums at a different level. The difference between the two are that tantrums usually happen when a person is small and they often include uncontrolled body movements and crying, and attitude problems are usually mostly verbal with abrasive body language. Attitude problems are usually more controlled than tantrums. Both tantrums and attitude problems are signs of frustration, anxiety and lack of healthy communication skills.
I am pretty confident talking about attitude problems, because I was the attitude problem queen of my house when I was in my teen years. I think my poor parents earned all their gray hairs during my attitude problem years. Luckily, I had a very insightful young women's leader who saw my problem and wasn't afraid to tell me how to change.
One day I was at her home telling her daughter that my parents wouldn't let me go to a youth party because they never let me do anything anymore. I went on to explain how me and my parents spent a lot of time fighting and that I didn't like being around them anymore. I said all this in front of my friend's mother. I think I was secretly hoping someone would help me.
At this point my friend's mother said, "Have you ever thought that if you do just what they say, then they will let you do what you want?"
Of course I didn't think my relationship with my parents had anything to do with me, so I told her I didn't think this idea would work at all. However, in the end she got me to commit to trying the obedience thing for two weeks to see if the relationship would improve. When I think back to it now, it amazes me that I didn't know being obedient would make a difference in my relationship. I obviously didn't understand what respect meant at my young age.
After just two days, not two weeks, of saying, "Okay" to everything my parents asked me to do or said no to, my family was happy again. My parents felt my respect, and I got more respect in return. After this amazingly simple suggestion from my young women's leader, my relationship with my parents improved and we have been best friends ever since.
Too Much Control
One of my daughters is eleven years old. She is starting to have hormonal changes occur and has a tendency to take things personally. She also wants a lot of control over her environment. Usually Paije is the sweetest, most helpful mommy understudy there is, but occasionally she turns into a frustrated pre-teen by choosing to have an attitude problem.
The other day, Paije offered to make the family night treat for her sister since it was sister's treat night. Paije is a good cook and started right away. After a few minutes of cooking, her younger sister came into the kitchen and started helping her. Paije said she didn't want help, but the younger sister persisted that she wanted to help because it was actually her treat night. (I know you are thinking this is a really silly scenario. But, aren't most arguments silly?)
In no time Paije, who had been planning on a solo cooking project to earn the praise of all those eating the family night treat was grumpy, frustrated and behaving rudely to her sister. It is amazing that wanting a certain kind of praise can make people do isn't it?
The Attitude Problem
At this point, I realized what was happening and told Paije that I needed to talk to her. Before I will ever talk to anyone I have a rule that both parties must be calm. Paije wasn't calm. She wanted someone to understand her and give her what she wanted, but before we could talk about her frustrations she had to calm down.
I told her she needed to calm down, and she said, "I don't want to calm down."
I said, "Paije, it seems like you might be out of instructional control..." This is what I always say when my children are obviously choosing disrespect. What the statement means is, "It seems like you don't respect me at all right now; not even enough to follow a simple instruction." Following this statement I help my child calm down by doing what I call, "The Rule of Three."
Usually just saying the statement above is enough to encourage my children to choose to be in control of their emotions and calm down and get ready to talk. However, on this day Paije was feeling especially wronged so she choose to purse her lips tightly together and glare instead. I ended up going through the first two steps of the rule of three before Paije realized that the structure of our home wasn't going to change because of her attitude problem. Paije chose to be calm.
A Pre-Teen Speaks About Her Attitude Problem Thoughts
My favorite part of correcting my children's behaviors is when we get to talk about what happened and how the situation could be handled differently in the future. Paije and I had a great talk about what she feels like when she is having an attitude problem. She said:
"When I have an attitude problem I feel like I have power. I see now it isn't real power, but it feels powerful. When I start acting up, my mind starts telling me things like, 'I'm Cinderella, or no one cares what I think'...things like that. The emotions make me feel like I hate people; especially my parents. My brain thinks I am strong and have power over my parents but it never actually works. But, the whole time in my mind I know that bursting out and shouting won't really do me any good, because my opinions won't be heard until I am calm.
"It's funny, because during my attitude, I absolutely hate the word 'calm' but that's what I need the most. In the end I choose not to keep going with my attitude problem because it doesn't work, and I feel unhappy being frustrated. I don't like feeling unhappy. And if I keep choosing unhappiness then I will lose privileges to do the happy things I want to do like play with my siblings. Attitudes are not really strength, they are a sign of not knowing how to control yourself."
I appreciate Paije being willing to share these comments with me and you. Her honest remarks help us see how out of control a person with an attitude problem feels. Her comments also show us that attitude problems produce destroying voices in the head of the person having the problem. It is almost as if a person chooses to become a different person completely when choosing to rage. Well, actually they do become a different person. Their perspective is completely altered.
Because of this alteration of perspective it is important that parents don't involve themselves in conversation about what ever situation started the attitude or about the topics being brought up by the youth. The best subject is getting calm. If a person with an attitude isn't calm, don't talk back to their remarks. Productive discussion can only happen when people are calm. For some teens who are used to raging a lot, calming down could even take longer than a day.
Paije said that she hates the word calm when she is having an attitude. She hates the word because the word is truth. An out of control person hates truth. She knows that is what she needs, but she doesn't want to give up her feeling of power.
What I Say
When I have children who are "out of instructional control" I respond to their shouting with, "It sounds like you really want to tell me something important. I want to talk to you about everything on your mind, but we can't talk until you choose to calm down." This is all I ever say until they are calm.
In the end calmness is inevitable, because the person can't be heard without it and happiness can't return either.
Don't under-estimate the power of a hug when someone is out of control too. In my BBC show it showed how I just perceived that James needed a hug to feel loved and choose to be calm. It is hard for two opposite feelings to exist in the same person at the same time; such as love and frustration. If you show love, it will conquer.