29 January 2014

How to avoid getting sucked into your kid's drama? Talk amongst yourselves.

Tween drama!

If your kid has a flair for the dramatic, read on. Tempting as it is to roll your eyes and dismiss your kid's colorful style of expression, in the long run you're better served to find a way to work with it. (Can you tell I've had experience with drama?) 

Kristi says (bravely, I think):

M is 9 years old now, and full of drama. One of the most difficult times for us is bedtime, when she should be following a routine but is instead trying to engage me by wailing and flailing and moaning and complaining about everything under the sun --- 99% of it irrelevant to anything she should be doing. I try to give a calm, brief reply, often re-directing to what she is supposed to be doing, but somehow as often as not I wind up engaged in the drama.

I'm prone to drama, myself, so I know she has learned much of this from me (kids are amazingly good students at the things we'd rather they didn't learn, aren't they?) She's got a knack for engaging me in ways that I don't recognize as going down the rabbit hole until we're nearing the bottom.

I'd love to hear from other Parenthackers what they do to disengage from the drama and help their older kids take responsibility for themselves.

I've got two kids. To grossly (and possibly unfairly) simplify: one has the wisdom and calm of a Buddhist monk, and the other sounds the alarm at the first hint of discomfort or inconvenience.

I will be discussing the second child in this post. I will try to keep this brief. Big inhale.

9 is a tricky age. So part of this really is developmental. But, as Kristi noticed, a bigger part is temperamental. I don't believe that drama is simply a strategy kids use to manipulate their parents. Partially, sure. But some people are just vociferous, sensitive and prone to upset when things don't go as expected. It's hard to accept, but that's just the bottom line.

In my experience, toning down the drama requires two complimentary strategies:

  1. Not getting sucked in yourself (I know, but HOW? I'm getting to that.)
  2. Teaching your kid different (more effective) ways to communicate

1. Not getting sucked into your kid's drama

I used to try to fight fire with fire and I ALWAYS got burned; my kid is simply more logical, more persistent, and has a better memory that I do. Plus, he knew that as soon as I was yelling, I was no longer paying attention to the original issue (in Kristi's example, going to bed). It was very effective to amp up the drama.

After much practice (and much failure and trying again and deep breathing), the magic combo for us was:

  1. Stay calm and neutral. It's hard, and it takes practice. You're a massive boulder on the shore. Waves crash over you but don't move or crack you. You're calm and stable, like that boulder. You can weather any storm. (I swear this image helped me.)
  2. Listen to and acknowledge your kid's frustration.
  3. Calmly issue your request.
  4. Remind your kid that you're the decider because you're the parent. (You must get comfortable with your authority no matter how diplomatic and egalitarian you are.)
  5. Repeat 2-4 once or twice. If the drama continues, say "I see you're still mad about this, but the decision is already made, sweetie. I love you and I'll see you in the morning." And then walk out. Calm and neutral. No door slamming or grimmacing. No smug last word (even though you want to). Calm and neutral. Breathe.
  6. Silently call your kid whatever names you want to. Excuse yourself to the bathroom, close the door and flip off the toilet. Internal primal scream, whatever you need. You probably want to blow right now. Keep breathing.
  7. Repeat as necessary. Hand off to your spouse if that's an option, assuming you've both agreed ahead of time you'll use the same strategy.

Let me be painfully clear: this didn't "work" right away. The magic is in the consistency. If every time your kid gets dramatic he or she is met with empathy and calm resolve, he or she will learn drama is ineffective. That won't change her personality or temperament but it will help with the arguments.

(Age helps, too. My son and I hardly ever argue now.)

2. Teaching your kid different ways to communicate

This strategy only works when everyone is calm (ie, not in the heat of the moment). When you find your kid is amping up about something minor but is not yet at Defcon 1, try to interject with an alternative. Something like, "Whoa! Let's just talk about this." And then repeat back to your kid what you're hearing from him, but in a calm way.

Sometimes it would help when I'd respond to drama with something like "Here's another way you could have asked me." And then rephrase the request in a more neutral way. (I only used this when I was actually willing to consider my kid's request.)

The trick was always to keep the conversation light, not preachy or patronizing. The tone said "I hear you and I'm trying to help," not "I AM YOUR OVERLORD AND YOU WILL OBEY ME." Pride plays a role here, so I would always try to give my kid a way to save face. I would sometimes tell my son that I wasn't trying to give him a hard time -- I was trying to teach him ways to communicate so other people would listen to him in the future.

Of course, this also means you have to get honest about your own dramatic tendencies. This does NOT mean you have to feel guilty or become a robot. But it does mean you have to practice staying calm, and apologize when you don't. Hard, hard, hard to do. All of this is hard. But it will get easier.

This also does NOT mean you shouldn't feel angry. Who wouldn't feel angry?! Please don't feel guilty about your own natural, reasonable feelings of frustration. Just try to express those feelings calmly, as best you can. It WILL get easier with practice.

Bonus: the skills your practicing will help you better communicate with your partner, too.

Recommended reading

I've recommended The Explosive Child a million times, but that book made all the difference in my family.

The other tremendous resource I'd recommend is How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen & Listen So Your Kids Will Talk. It's amazing how acknowledgement diffuses drama -- this book taught me that.

Your turn!

How do you keep out of drama's clutches? Book recommendations? Helpful links? Please share in the comments.

Your comments

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That is all really great advice in the post. I also really love Love and Logic. http://www.loveandlogic.com/ It has helped us a lot with not engaging in their defiant behavior and has helped us to keep our relationships with our kids healthy. They are learning to solve their own problems and we are enjoying parenting!

Anthony Wolf's books really helped me with this. The one for parenting this age is "Jeremy Spencer's Parents Let Him Stay Up All Night." (I've now graduated to "Get Out of My Life! But First, Can You Take Cheryl and Me to the Mall?" but they're all basically the same message.) As Asha wisely says in the post, keeping calm and neutral is the key. Wolf calls it "not feeding the baby self" - the part of your child (of all of us) that wants attention, and that sees even negative attention as better than just being ignored. So not feeding the flames, just answering as calmly and evenly as you can, over and over and over again. It does take time, but once they really get the message that drama doesn't work, things change.

Thanks so much, Asha! This has been SO much frustration for us in recent weeks, and I'm getting worn down and fed up, which only makes things worse, of course. I appreciate all of your thoughts and will definitely be practicing stepping back, keeping calm, and trying to model good behavior.

Lori, I've been a big fan of Love and Logic for years, and I've been thinking I need to review some of the materials, and, also catch up on some of the things that are appropriate to her age now that I skipped when I first started learning from them about 5 years ago.

Louise, thanks for the Anthony Wolf recommendation, I've heard of those titles but haven't actually read the books yet.

I'm putting in library requests now! Thanks again! I'll continue to follow the conversation!

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