Yes, it's that time of the summer again, when parents are finding it a challenge to be the adoring, understanding "good parents” they want to be. Why? Their kids are driving them nuts. Gauzy Hallmark hopes for summer days of family bliss are shredded by sibling strife and foul moods. It seems that kids' sole mission is to live to annoy. Their inability to tolerate boredom prompts them to find innovative ways to create conflict and disorder. Parents find themselves wishing their kids would “go back from whence they came,” (wherever the heck THAT is), or get a job already, (sure they’re 6 and 8 years old, but there must be some construction company that could use human wrecking balls). At the very least, couldn’t the education reform initiative to extend the length of the school day and school year begin TOMORROW, perhaps at 5:30 a.m.? (The kids are, after all, UP already and ready to start THEIR day…)
Borne of shame for the hostility toward their kids they’re not proud of, parents instinctually try to ignore these feelings, and “white knuckle it.” Simply put, parents try to hide their annoyance from their kids and from themselves. As with any troubling issue, denial only empowers it, while examination and acceptance releases it. It’s like the Chinese woven bamboo finger trap; the more you pull each finger away from the other, the more ensnared your fingers become, while counter-intuitively pushing each finger toward the other loosens the trap's grip and permits release. What does that mean in this context?
1) With compassion for yourself, acknowledge and accept that your kids are driving you nuts. Parenting bibles like What to Expect When You're Expecting fail to note that you can expect your kid will disappoint you, annoy you, offend you, appall you, horrify you, terrorize you, and generally drive you wild. These feelings are normal, predictable and even, frankly, positive. Why? Because they indicate:
a) You are honest enough with yourself to confront your negative feelings so that you can adaptively manage them. In contrast, denied feelings are like the “whack-a-mole” carnival game, in which the pesky mole pops up out of other holes no matter how fast and hard you try to whack it out of sight with your mallet. Like the mole, your negative feelings will find their way out, either as a toxic leak or a spewing geyser, both ways far more damaging to all involved than a forthright approach.
b) You have strivings of your own you’d like to pursue, beyond dancing attendance upon your kids. These need to be honored and cultivated (see 3a below).
2) Reflect on what’s underlying your child’s irascible behavior:
a) Begin with an approach so obvious it eludes us: ask them. Wonder with your child what to make of how s/he seems “out of sorts” of late. Is s/he bored or lonely or upset or overextended or not sleeping enough or feeling sick or needing more quiet time? Is your child stewing about a big upcoming transition, such as entering middle or high school or starting the college application sweepstakes? Would talking about the particular concerns help?
b) Is your child at sea without structure? Is your child over-stimulated, over-dosing on screen-time such that you need to set limits? Can you superimpose an explicit schedule to lend order and predictability? Can you make a list together of kinds of creative, active and quiet activities to resort to when s/he can’t think of what to do next?
c) Conversely, does your child need to learn how to manage unstructured alone-time, such that you’re best stepping away and granting your child the space and time, within which to call up inner resources to learn how to be one's own companion?
3) Reflect on your OWN state of irritability.
a) Are you over-functioning for your kids and neglecting yourself? Are you dedicating some of your energies and time to growing your own joy, just as you do with your children? Do you need to re-assign house chore allotment or set aside more slices of uninterruptible “me” time? Do you need to instate a household “quiet time” for an hour to read or rest each afternoon? Do you need to forge a buddy-system child-swap for child-care-relief with a friend? Or say yes to that invitation to attend a silent retreat...in Nepal?
b) Are you passively sabotaging yourself by permitting your kids to treat you shabbily? To do so is a gross disservice not just to yourself, but to your children as well, because it cultivates their capacity for disdainful disrespect of others, and teaches them to expect being ill-treated by their own children. Perhaps it's a good time for a family “pow-wow” to realign how everyone relates to each other?
c) Are you forgetting to play with your kids? Time to play hooky from summer commitments and spend a day in a spontaneous senseless carefree way. If your kids are killjoy slugs, give them control; “You get to choose; we can clean out the sweltering attic closets or go tubing on the Delaware River: it’s up to you…” (You might add the option of spending the day locked in those sweltering attic closets...just kidding folks…sort of…)
d) Are you losing sight of the big picture? –that your kids are growing up and away, inexorably, day by day? That ten, twenty thirty years from now, you would treasure as an inexpressibly precious gift, one single day from this summer, with your children at the age they are today?
Irritation with your children is a signal to be deciphered and be guided by, not overlooked and endured. Compassionate self-acceptance and inquiry into the causes of parental irritation can yield growth-promoting insights and short-circuit brewing problems. In contrast, ignoring the signal of annoyance enables it to take up more real estate in your psyche, thereby crowding out loving equanimity, perpetuating discord, and depriving you of optimally understanding your child, yourself and your family.