When Kids Take Charge


She terrorises us!” was how Steve Richardson* described to the Sydney Morning Herald the way in which his 17-year-old daughter, Olivia, treats him and his wife. Olivia has dropped out of school, goes missing for days, experiments with drugs and has been arrested for shoplifting.

When she lost her phone, she insisted that her parents buy her the latest and most expensive replacement. When her dad responded that her phone was her responsibility and not theirs, she screamed at the family and trashed her bedroom. When she threatened to destroy the rest of their home and even to kill herself, Steve called the police. He blames himself for the situation, now that he sees the long-term results of giving her everything she ever wanted.

Steve and his wife aren’t alone. They attend a confidential parenting group called Toughlove, where they meet other parents in similar situations. But it’s harder to turn around their parenting now that Olivia is old enough to leave home.

Rising parental abuse

Increasingly children are terrorising their parents in attempts to get what they want. In New South Wales, police have reported an increased incidence of domestic violence where children are attacking their parents.

Over the past five years, the rate of domestic violence call-outs has increased from 5.7 per cent to 8.3 per cent.

The majority of incidents involve teenage boys and the victim is usually their mother. Studies estimate that violence among adolescents peaks at 15 to 17 years of age. However, a 2001 Canadian study suggests that the ages are actually more like 12 to 14 years old. It also estimated that approximately one in every 15 households in Canada had experienced a child abusing one of his or her parents. Today that number is likely to be higher.

There are all kinds of reasons why children try to control their parents. It’s easier for parents who don’t want to be harsh and strict with their children to become too kind and indulgent. We don’t like seeing our children upset and distressed, so we do what they want and think we’re making them happy. When we keep giving in to their requests, they expect us to buy them whatever they want whenever they ask for it. When that doesn’t happen, they learn to pump up the pressure until we do.

Today there are enormous pressures for children and teenagers to have the latest clothes, phones, computers, games and beauty products. Critical comments on Facebook and Twitter can be bullying and powerful. When children experience intense pressure to have certain things, they often pass on that pressure to their parents and expect them to provide whatever they need to help them feel socially acceptable. Twelve-year-old Sophie threatened her mother with a knife for not buying her the expensive brand of makeup she demanded. She wanted to go to school feeling attractive and confident so that she wouldn’t be bullied. Ironically, she was bullying her mother!

Parenting is busy and stressful, and when we’re overloaded, it’s easier to give in to our children’s demands than to face another struggle, especially if we’re in a restaurant or shopping centre. In some families, both parents are working multiple jobs each in order to pay for everything their children want. Other parents have so much money they feel guilty if they “deprive” their children when they can easily pay for whatever they want.

If your children’s behaviour puts them in the driver’s seat of your family, stop and ask yourself how they wriggled their way into that position. What will happen if they stay in your seat? How can you take back control of the steering wheel? When we don’t hand over the car keys to a child, it’s because we know it isn’t safe for them to drive. It isn’t because we want to deprive them of having fun. It’s because we’re the grown-ups, we’re responsible for their safety and we know what’s best for them.

Unhealthy thinking

When children get everything they ask for, and whenever they yell for something, a self-centred thought pattern begins to develop:

  • My (perceived) needs are more important than anyone else’s in the family.
  • If I want something, I should have it met as soon as possible.
  • If my desires aren’t met immediately, I’ll become angry and challenging until I get what I want.
  • If I don’t get what I want when I want it, I’ll yell and scream until I do.
  • It’s OK to threaten people, hurt people and break things.

When we’re focused on the every-day challenges of parenting, it’s so easy to give in and do whatever our child wants. But what kind of parents, partners and citizens are we creating for the future if we don’t help our children develop positive and happiness-enhancing values when they’re young? How might they treat people who won’t be as willing to give in to them as we are? Are we creating children who’ll become demanding, bargaining, selfish, coercive, violent and controlling adults?

As parents, it’s easy to believe that our children are happiest when we give them everything they want. But when we give in to their immediate demands, we could easily be investing in their long-term dissatisfaction.

When sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson researched the effects of generosity on people’s happiness, they discovered that the people who gave away their time, money and support were much happier than those who selfishly kept everything for themselves.

Children are generally happier when they know that their parents and caregivers are lovingly in charge, and they develop character strengths, such as self-control, empathy, perseverance, kindness, unselfishness and the ability to manage their conflicts calmly and wisely.

These important character strengths are vital for our happiness. They help us to develop resilience when life is tough; they protect our emotional wellbeing and our mental health; and they help us to become responsible adults. When we have these characteristics, we’re much more likely to have positive, caring relationships and to be genuinely happy.

Entering the real world

Life can be tough and disappointing. It doesn’t always go our way and most of us have to work very hard to reach our goals. We won’t pass every exam or get every job we apply for or the particular partner we want. We need to learn how to work hard, save hard and put others first if we’re going to survive and thrive as adults in today’s society. And the best place to learn these tough lessons is in a safe and caring family, where the parents are firmly and lovingly in control.

Taking back the steering wheel

So what can parents do when they’ve allowed children to have too much control over the family?

  • Evaluate the problem. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is very severe, how entitled are your children?
  • Think about your role as a parent, training your children for the challenges of adult life, and write a mission statement for yourself. Use your mission statement as a compass when you don’t know which way to go.
  • What kind of role model do you want to be for your children? How do you model patience; delayed gratification; saving up for what you want; working hard to reach your goals; and being unselfish, generous and thankful for what you have?
  • Think about the rights and responsibilities in your home. Ask your children what they think each person’s rights and responsibilities are, and discuss them together.
  • Swap roles for an hour and take on the role of a demanding child. Invite your child to wonder how they would respond as a parent.
  • When your child is being demanding, what can you say that will help you to stay calm and strong? Try telling yourself, “I’m sitting in the driver’s seat” and saying to your child, “I love you too much to let you do that or have that right now.”
  • Help your children to manage their frustrations and other challenging emotions by finding ways to listen to their feelings and calm them down. The “Emotional Balance” section in HandsOnScotland (www.handsonscotland.co.uk) contains some helpful ideas.
  • List the values and positive character traits you want to nurture in your children. Find proactive and fun ways to help them develop values such as patience, generosity and perseverance. Read the “Character Strengths” section in HandsOnScotland.
  • Find a family project you can do where you can all contribute to your community or help others.
  • If you feel threatened by your children, download the free booklet Non-Violent Resistance at http://bit.ly/NonViolentResistance or look for a nonviolent resistance course for parents and caregivers. These techniques can help you stay calm, strong and supported.

As the Bible says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise—‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’ Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1–4).

* Names throughout this article have been changed to protect privacy.

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