Why Doesn’t My Child Like the New Me: Why Our Children Might Resist Our New Parenting Skills

Are you a parent (or carer) who has just read a new parenting book, or completed a parenting course such as Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T)? You may be full of ideas on implementing the new skills you’ve just learned. You’re hopeful that things will change immediately: that the household will become calmer; that you’ll yell less; that the kids will respond positively to your I-Messages; and you have a new way to encourage self-discipline. What you don’t expect is any resistance from your child when you apply these skills. And you definitely did not predict your own resistance to using the skills.

Change can be a bumpy road – the ‘change back!’ reaction

When you begin practicing these unfamiliar ideas with your child, you are introducing change into the relationship – something your child may not immediately appreciate. Harriet Lerner, in her bestselling book The Dance of Anger (1997), wrote of a phenomenon that she called the ‘Change Back!’ reaction. When you decide to change some of the relationship ‘rules’, the other person in that relationship may resist. After all – was your child consulted about these changes? One person in the relationship (the parent) is making a change that will affect both people.

When we, as parents, decide we’d like to implement a new way of communicating with our children, we are, suddenly, deciding to sing a different family tune – one that may change the relationship harmony. Previously, our duet had been balanced in a way that was understood (but not necessarily melodious) for the family. Now, we want to change the equilibrium – and expect that our child (or partner) will just accept and like the new song.

If you complete a P.E.T. course, you may begin encouraging your children to solve their own problem. You might try to help your child develop ‘inner discipline’. These changes can be challenging for a child, and they want their parent to ‘change back!’

A Five-Year-Old’s ‘change back’ story – Part I

The ‘change back’ plea may come even in the face of what you believe are huge improvements to your interactions with the family. After attending a P.E.T. course, the parents of one young boy (age 5) decided to change the way they disciplined their child. They stopped using rewards and punishment to control their son’s behavior. They sat down with their son, and explained what they were doing and why. Their son had been up and down in his response to other P.E.T skills. At times, he loved being heard (even disclosing extreme bullying at school). At other times he was a ball of anger, hitting, kicking and spitting at his parents. After rewards and punishment ceased, this little boy became worse. He ran around, he lost his temper more often, he became more physically and verbally aggressive. The parents were lost – why had he responded so negatively to what, they would consider, was a positive for him?

father daughter parenting discipline skills kidsThis was not about boundaries being removed, as the parents had been quite explicit in outlining their expectations of their son. I think this was a ‘change back!’ reaction. Things had been changing at home over the past couple of months, and now, even though he hated time-outs, he was never going to have to go to time-out again. This wasn’t the way his world normally worked; this wasn’t the way his parents normally reacted to him. I can see him shouting, subconsciously “Change back! I don’t feel comfortable with the new rules! Why are my parents treating me differently? Do they still love me? I want my old parents back!” (the situation was resolved in Part II, below).

What to do when the other person wants you to ‘change back!’

As a parent, or a partner, we have unilaterally made a decision to improve our relationship, by employing new skills. We need to continue to use those skills, even in the face of (sometimes) fierce opposition. We can only change the way we respond – we can’t control the way the other person will react. We can’t make them like the new methods.

So, to help you respond to a ‘change back!’ reaction, you can:

  1. Be aware that there may be some resistance to the implementation of your brand new skills.
  2. Know that you can only change yourself, not the other person.
  3. Recognize that the other person ‘owns the problem’ when they react.
  4. Employ the skills of empathy and understanding – Active Listen. Listen to both their feelings, and the facts of their story.
  5. Try to understand their underlying need – see things from their point of view.
  6. Persist. Continue to implement your newly acquired skills of respectful communication. This may include reasserting your needs; or explaining why you are making changes and what it will sound like in the future; or doing some problem solving with the other person.

What to do when you find yourself being reluctant to try the new skills

Sometimes, when we attend a parenting course, we find we are reluctant to implement the actual skills. We may be experiencing our own internal ‘change back!’ reaction. After all, we have been parenting the ‘old’ way for a number of years. And we were the children of parents and grandparents – generations of parents who probably parented the ‘old’ way. We may not have been comfortable with their method of communication (hence our attendance at a P.E.T. course!), but they were our parents. We may feel guilty that we are, in a way, rebelling against our own upbringing.

If you find yourself in this situation, try:

  • Acknowledging your awareness of your reluctance
  • Listening empathically to yourself
  • Persisting in trying the skills. After all, if you are a native English speaker, you wouldn’t expect yourself to be fluent in French after just a couple of lessons!
  • Setting achievable goals for yourself. Try implementing one skill (such as Active Listening) at a time
  • Being kind to yourself. Acknowledge when you have tried to use a skill – even if hasn’t ‘worked’. Our mistakes are our learning points!
  • Seeking support from others
  • Seeking professional support when needed.

A Five-Year-Old’s ‘change back’ story – Part II

The parents of the 5 year-year-old in our story persisted (with some difficulty) in applying their new communication and discipline skills. They did a lot of empathic listening. They problem solved. And all of a sudden, after months of physical and verbal aggression – there was peace. Lasting peace. In this family, the dissonance of the changes made by the parents, became a new symphony of family harmony.

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