It was bound to happen. My sweet, nearly angelic son, who had promised to “always love me always” and had pronounced me “best mommy in the world,” had uttered those words that make every parent wince—“I hate you!” And to add insult to injury, he timed those words so his siblings and some Target employees were in earshot. He was angry that I wouldn’t let him watch TV on a school night. My other children have also said similar sentiments, each slamming my parental brick wall with the force of a tsunami, their emotions raw and words hastily chosen so as to express their anger and maybe wound me in the process. How do parent’s deal with verbal disrespect when we are blindsided?
When our kids sass off, act cheeky, or (as my Italian grandmother would say) “talk fresh,” our response critically steers in the direction of our future interactions. We can escalate or deescalate the intensity of the situation, simply by how we react. And, even though their choice of words may have been ugly, our children are trying to express their frustration or anger and we need to validate their emotions, even if they are misguided. As with so many parenting strategies, “de-sass-ifying” your children requires time spent proactively – before the offending behavior takes place.
Child behavioral therapist James Lehman, MSW, of Empoweringparents.com, says children talk to adults in disrespectful ways because “they don’t know how to express emotions appropriately.”
Helping children to identify and label emotions will benefit them in those moments when they spew out a verbal barb. Teach them that there is a difference between anger and irritation, frustration and annoyance. And let them know it’s OK to feel their feelings. When we block their goals (even if they unreasonably want to eat gummy bears for lunch or play video games for three hours straight), they are feeling genuine and real emotions, and it is our job to give them the language to express them.
Lehman also advises parents to work toward the “extinction” of sassy behavior. He says, “If you respond to mildly annoying behavior in a strong way repeatedly, you give it power and strength. Remember, the less power you give it, the more it’s going to die its natural death.”
Your children will learn that wounding with their words will not press your buttons. This takes practice and having a plan, because children have the ability to sense when we are around people who constitute an “audience,” and when better to watch Mom explode than when she’s surrounded by people?
Lehman also recommends consistency.
“Let’s say you let it slide and then sometimes you confront your child. When you do that, those behaviors become entrenched.”
I, personally, want to have a loving relationship with my children—I don’t want to be the volcano they paddle around, unsure when it will erupt.
Rachel Macy Stafford, author of the blog Handsfreemama.com, reminds us that we are our response to our children. Choosing calm and allowing ourselves a “three second pause” gives us the power to “save a morning, spare some pain and prevent regret from being a lifelong companion.”