Most parents have, on occasion, wondered why their kids act like jerks. Whether they slap a friend for seemingly no reason, yell an angry retort at a teacher in response to a request, or lie about pulling the cat’s tail, this rude behavior often shocks unsuspecting parents who make every attempt to raise considerate kids. But it’s important to remember that, when children act like jerks, they are usually trying to tell us that there is either something bothering them that they cannot verbalize;
something they aren’t comfortable saying directly; or something that has made them feel vulnerable and insecure (such as pain, fear or sadness). When they adopt bad behavior, they act out the unacceptable feelings that they aren’t yet equipped to handle.
So, what can we do when our kids act out their feelings in unproductive ways?
1. Respond—Don’t React.
The difference between a response and a reaction is simple: where we put the thinking. In reaction, we act and then think; in response, we think and then we act. In practical terms, it means that the first act we’ll want to commit to when our kid is acting like a jerk is to hit pause.
2. Don’t Take the Bait.
Many of us have learned that, when we attempt to confront or control another person’s bad behavior, we end up with two jerks. This is as true of parents and kids (especially teens) as it is of motorists. Our kids will, of course, try to reel us into their bad behavior. But if we take the bait, we allow our kids to avoid the embarrassment and risk of finding out what their bad behavior is really trying to communicate. Instead, the focus is drawn to our reaction, thereby avoiding any productive conversation about the real issue at hand.
3. Call a Time Out.
There is simply no way to address bad behavior when either person—kid or parent—is in emotional distress; so, a moratorium is often in order until the behavior can be discussed by both parties in a productive manner (this can be anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, usually best determined beforehand).
4. Really Listen.
We need to listen and respond as openly and generously as possible whenever our kids are willing to explain their bad behavior. Although it may be challenging, we need to resist retaliation and withdrawal in order to create a safe space for understanding.
Each one of us experienced vulnerable feelings when we were kids. And like our own kids, we likely acted in less-than-stellar ways to cover up these feelings of insecurity, fear, pain, and sadness. So, if we are willing to access these
memories and feelings, we just might be able to reach our kids in their more vulnerable emotional states as well. We might be able to relate and connect to them in ways that we wish we had been responded to when we were kids. And we might wind up feeling and being closer to our kids for having taken the risk to reach out to and relate to them, to connect to them through empathy, and to be more closely connected to what they are going through as they grow up.
The fact that we are seeing, hearing about, and being called to respond to whatever bad behavior our kids are perpetrating upon the world could, believe it or not, be a very good thing! The fact that they feel safe enough to let us “see” them in distress means that they trust that we are paying attention, that we will acknowledge and respond to their distress, and that they are not all alone in the world. And our measured response shows our kids that we hear—and care about—what is really going on.
Mark Borg, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst who has been in private practice in New York City since 1998 and the author of DON’T BE A DICK: Change Yourself, Change Your World (a Central Recovery Press Paperback, on sale Nov 19, 2019).