Excerpt from the “Ask an Expert” section of Orange County Parent Magazine
Question: I find myself all too often reacting to my child. Is there anything that I can do to not be so reactive?
There are three overall ways in which we can react as parents (and as people in general). I’ll use characters from the Wizard of Oz to make it memorable (although I use theoretical language and the primary colors to depict the three ways as well):
- The first, Lion is the most typical reaction. It is the angry reaction. We loose our temper; we yell at our child and maybe –in worst cases –physically strike them. We say things that are hurtful to the child’s precious and fragile self-esteem. We snarl at them like Lion did when he first meets Dorothy.
- The second reaction is represented by Tin Man. It is the adapting reaction. We give into the child. We cave in to their demands, we collude with their negative behavior and surrender our perspective adapting to their arguments. (A client of mine once reported having a dream where she hands her head–literally–over to her child. This dream is a great example of Tin Man reactivity to a child.) This reaction renders us frozen in the forest like when we first find Tin Man.
- The third way of reacting to a child I’ll call Scarecrow. Where Tin Man is still interpersonal, Scarecrow is non-relational. It is the avoidant reaction. In this reaction the parent avoids conflict, circumvents issues and holds his breath hoping that it will all go away. The Yellow reaction is passive and detached, like Scarecrow up on a pole in the cornfield.
So the first step in managing our own reactivity to our children is to identify first that we are reacting and how we are reacting: Angry Lion, Adapting Tin Man, or Avoidant Scarecrow. Once we do that we are half way there.
The second and third step is to identify what we are not doing that is positive and do it. Let me give you an example with a teenager (although it applies equally as well to younger children). Our daughter comes home past curfew … again. I am tempted to ignore it and go back to sleep, (don’t ask, don’t tell) avoiding the tension, the inevitable argument and endless excuses. This is a Avoidant Scarecrow reaction. What should I do? I should call on the positive aspects of the other companions. (Each of the three companions or modes of reacting has a corresponding positive mode of responding as well.) Therefore I should probably in this case exercise Courageous Lion confronting her about her behavior but with Caring Tin Man’s respect and concern. What if instead I am tempted to blow up and tear into her with anger and hurtful accusations? Then I will need to employ the other positive companions, most likely self-controlled Mindful Scarecrow along with Caring Tin Man empathy. And if I am tempted to “buy into” her excuses (Adapting Tin Man), I will need to step back and keep my brain (Mindful Scarecrow) and keep firm boundaries (Courageous Lion) with her.
I can tell you now that this is not easy to do but I also can tell you that if you practice this with your child–no matter their – you will not only gain control over your reactivity but also have productive and meaningful interactions with them.