Tyler stands before me mimicking and mouthing the words I say as I ask him to take a time-out for ignoring me for the third time. His face is contorted and completely disrespectful as he pretends to be me. He looks young and silly as he badly copies me, yet my blood boils on the inside. I feel my body tightened. He got me.
The blatant pediatric middle finger to my relatively neutral request after plenty of chances to just f’n sit down. That’s it. Sit in his seat during dinner. Nothing else. I die to give him the double middle finger and tell him to f*ck off, and say “you are being a complete dick.” But, I don’t.
I fight every urge to stay the course and count to 3, letting him know his rollerblades (his prize possession) will go away for the night if I get to 3. He slowly meanders away from the table up to his room, and I make sure my feet are firmly planted on the floor, so they don’t pop up and give him a little boot to help him pick up the pace. I am at constant war with what I want to do and say as a parent, and what I know to be the healthiest and most helpful as a clinical psychologist. The truth of it is: this is normal. Ty is finally breaking out from his older brother’s shadow, away from his parents, working to find his place in our family and his independent place in the world.
If this child were to come into my office, what would I think? What questions would I ask? I always first ask myself – what is the developmental stage of the kid. Obviously, each kid is on his own path but what is his life like at 7 years old and what would the field generally expect.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a developmental hallmark for children between the ages of 6-8 years is a wrestling with increasing independence. In layman’s terms, kids at this age are both getting older and independent while being young and needing supervision. When I step back from the emotion and think from my psychologist mind, it makes perfect sense.
This year has been a year of great independence – Tyler began first grade, joined the French Immersion Program that requires him to complete his homework independently, speaks a language that neither of his parents understand, runs around the neighborhood alone calling for friends, plays independently at home with his sibling and peers, and generally has a whole life at school and on the playing field that feels mostly separate from his father and me.
I get the confusion. He wants to be both completely autonomous and needs us greatly. Ty’s new-found sassiness is a concrete representation of pushing that boundary between independence and dependence. He wonders what he can get away with and how to negotiate being self-reliant and a kind, respectful boy. My job is to help him find his way. To hold that line for him. To teach. Seeing his pure, loving heart underneath the edge. Giving him a double middle finger or a kick in the butt, only demonstrates that anger and frustration is managed physically and angrily, sending the message that I cannot tolerate his difficult emotion, his confusion, and boundary testing.
So, for all the parents at home with feisty 6-8-year-olds, remember this:
– Your kids aren’t bad kids. Like all phases, this will pass.
– Responding with anger doesn’t help and adds confusion and generally makes the behavior worse in the long run.
– Hold the line. And, expect them to bump against it often. Counting 1-2-3, very slowly helps in our house. Let your child know that there will be a consequence if they don’t respond appropriately by three and hold the REALISTIC limit (be cautious not to be too extreme because you are angry).
– Name the top three most important things to you as a parent. State your expectation around these three things to your child. Hold them accountable. And let the rest go. Parenting is a compromise, not a dictatorship.
– Talk with your child. Ask about their experience. Validate that their emotions. “You are doing so much more on your own, and it makes me proud. But, kids often feel confused as they do more on their own and aren’t quite sure how to also be a nice guy. What has it been like for you? You are such a good guy. I love when you can use your words and are respectful, although I know it is difficult sometimes. You can be independent and a nice person just like (someone your child looks up to). Remember when they (name a kind gesture the did)?”
At the end of the day, remind yourself you are doing a good job. Times like these can challenge parents and bring up feelings of frustration because they feel their kids’ behavior reflects how well they are parenting. This can be true, but often it is not. Kids must work out their own emotional kinks and that is part of this developmental process. Buckle up, be kind and loving, and take the time to understand what is driving the behavior.