Responding to explosions and dealing with hurtful provocations. What do you do when someone goes too far?
In the words of the immortal Vinnie Jones, at the end of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, this half term ‘has been emotional’. Many of us have been pushed to our limits with the pressures of work, home-schooling, lockdown, catering, being the substitute playmate, classroom assistant, counsellor, and sometimes teacher for our children. It’s no surprise that in the US a new helpline for parents has been set up, the Primal Scream Line, (001 212-556-3800 if you fancy a go!).
And many of us would say that our kids have been pushed to their limits too – the isolation from peers, the lack of variety, the constancy of annoying siblings, unfavourable parental comparisons can be too much to bear. It’s a pressure cooker situation. AND it can bring out the worst, the very worst, in us and in our children.
I was minded of this when asked a question by a parent during a recent webinar on relationships, ‘What should we do when our teen goes too far? Should we chase after them when they storm off?’ As parents, we can be on the receiving end of behaviour that is at best explosive, hurtful, at worst, toxic and cruelly painful. Few people know us like our nearest and dearest. And that powerful information can be wielded in incredibly painful ways. What can be even worse, is seeing that behaviour between siblings, where the aggression, the sheer cruelty can be seen as bullying and abusive. These situations push all our buttons into horrified, offended and sometimes fearful reactions. WE can be so blindsided by the sheer nastiness of the encounter that we get pushed into a fight we never chose. Drawn in to an unproductive – and often undignified stand off where we say or do things we later regret.
I know from my work as a trainer and pastoral consultant for schools, as well as in my work with families as a coach, that you are not alone. It feels very isolating and parents can feel very helpless in these circumstances – feeling that somehow if we have produced a child capable of such things that we must somehow have gone horribly wrong. It is not an easy conversation to have with people outside the family, and it is sickening to feel that you are living with a situation that is out of control. Much depends on the context, whether the event has been a one-off, or part of a pattern you start to see emerging, or whether despite your best efforts, your child or teen is not responsive to your appeals and is quite literally dismissive and reckless of your values. This article is about how to reframe things if you’re seeing the early / mid stages of this behavioural pattern. Aspects may give you ideas if this has been a truly in-grained pattern. If you feel your child is locked in a pattern of explosive, bullying and abusive behaviour, and remains unreachable, defiant, angry, and disconnected, it is important that you think about getting help with resetting the relationship and setting limits in the home. Sources of help include your child’s school – the designated safeguard lead, your local children’s services, and potentially the police – especially if you feel there are safety concerns.
Foundational principle of positive parenting: All behaviour is a communication: of a skill not yet learned, or a need, not yet met. (Marshall Rosenberg – Non-Violent Communication). The levels of challenge in family life are so tough right now. The pressures on our kids are huge too. It’s more helpful – and empowering – to go to compassion, rather than cuckoo narratives – that you’ve somehow ended up with a wrong’un who poisons your nest.
Bullying and abusive behaviour is an exchange of energy. It’s a projective way of expelling terrible dreaded feelings within. ‘I feel like crap, so I’m going to make you feel like crap, now you feel like crap, so I don’t have to’. What we feel – but suppress – what we push down, unacknowledged and unaddressed, we, and our kids, push out into the world. Anger, rage, contempt are nasty feelings, but they are the most pleasant unpleasant feelings. There’s the rush of energy, there’s the catharsis. Much better than shame, guilt, abandonment, feeling uncertain -in your core- that you truly belong. There’s a couple of relevant Buddhist sayings about anger – it’s barbed but has a honeyed tip – sweet in the moment but damaging, and that it’s like throwing hot coals at someone with your bare hands. Kids in disconnection and misery will look for a reaction, they will get an adrenaline hit from the conflict. In the moment of the anger they will feel powerful and expel an inner helplessness or hopelessness. Angry, challenging children are cornered in destructive, and self-destructive patterns of behaviour. Rather like the character portrayed by Michael Douglas in the 80s film, Falling Down. It’s a terrifying power and it can exert such a misery in the home. ‘I’m not getting my way – but at least I can take Mum / Dad down with me, this is going to be ugly.’
The skill that’s missing is learning how to deal with difficult feelings and overwhelm without going into disrespect. And their primary source for learning this is us as their parents, so the challenge for us is that we have to provide something back that is not what they are expecting in the hostile transaction. They will fight you and be fierce and in the escalation of the pattern they will push you away and hurt you before you hurt them – in their cornered, unlovable inner selves. So you need to dig a lot deeper. You need to stay calm and gentle as you navigate the dangerous icy path of disconnection. In starting to work on this with them you need to suspend your agenda, slow things down, show ruthless compassion so that there is space for them to feel a little less fear. The need is almost always to do with reconnecting. Feeling safe, being seen, being soothed again over time so that they can once again find security. They need to reconnect with you, and the more vulnerable parts of their lived experiences that lie beneath the anger they are expressing. But they have to feel that they are contained and that it is safe enough to do so. In the first place to turn the supertanker of disconnection and hurt around, you need to be all about understanding – not agreeing. Working collaboratively towards better strategies and better ways of relating can come later. And where in and around the disconnection and hurt- there are small moments of connection, lean into them. Help savour them for a breath or two longer. HEAL ( – adapted from Dr Rick Hanson’s book, Resilient)Have the good moment, Extend it or enrich it Ask questions that help acknowledge, absorb it Link it to aspects of the goodness you know is there in their life story to help them internalise it. Link to their strength – the person you know that they are.
This process is important because it is not just them who need to internalize the good stud – so do you. Good relationships are built on good interactions. So do what you can to lay the foundations with the small moments of appreciation. Don’t miss those chances because you are ruminating on the hurt and the sense of threat. Oxytocin and serotonin from close contact, laughter, sharing the good stuff, feeds neuroplasticity. Compassion and love in the early years and throughout life are the building blocks for the human brain. Oxytocin and serotonin block cortisol. Being able to marinade the mind in more of that helps build greater emotional resilience and organisation / integration. Think carefully about your purpose. Allow the red mist to clear within you so that you can stop the energy exchange around anger. I hope that this has helped you put some of the stresses and strains that may be coming in to your family life into some kind of framework / perspective that might enable you to work on things with a little more hope and some different strategy. Half term is nearly here. How can you use the change of tempo to reflect, re-align your strategy, and lead your family through the storm. With love and gratitude, Emma.
P.S. Please feel free to share with friends or relatives who you know are going through a particularly tough time. And if you identify with this article and the situations / ideas within it but don’t know where to start, please get in touch.