How Parents Invite Trouble

How Parents Invite Trouble

Note: I am indebted to Thomas Gordon, MD, for so clearly identifying in his wonderful book Parent Effectiveness Training the following (and other) forms of parental communication that cause problems with children. He calls them “the typical twelve.” I have modified a few of them, left some out, and added some below.

How Parents Invite Anger and Defensiveness in Children Without Even Knowing It.

The following common methods that parents instinctively use to confront unacceptable child behaviors are exactly what the parent should NOT do. These are invitations to trouble. They are likely to be felt as an assault by the child, which then compounds the frustration and anger the child might already be feeling.

These everyday forms of parental communication are “power and control tactics” aimed at making a child do something. They are almost always experienced as attacks by children. (They are also felt as attacks by adults, too, when adults are spoken to in these ways.) They are disrespectful ways of talking. If the child is already upset or frustrated,

hearing one of the following communications just compounds his difficulty, and now he is upset with parent for being treated disrespectfully. He is then likely to make the situation worse by directing venom at the parent.

I consider these forms of parental communication to be disrespectful because they almost always convey an attitude of superiority on the part of the parent. It’s as if the parent is the one in charge of the child’s behavior and has the right to tell the child off, or put the child in his place. If the child were to talk to the parent in these ways, the parent would almost certainly not tolerate it. So the litmus test of whether some parental behavior or communication is disrespectful is whether the parent would feel disrespected by the child if the child spoke or acted in these ways toward the parent.

1. Yelling, shouting, screaming. Loudly and angrily attempting to impose your will and your ideas on the child, like a drill sargent would. These might be the most common parental faults. They convey an attitude of “I have the right and ability to control your behavior,” but they also convey the parent’s frustration and inability figure out a more respectful way of communicating with the child. They are clear examples of stooping to the child’s level of immaturity.
“Stop jumping on the furniture!”
“Don’t talk to me like that!”
“Shut up and do what you’re told!”

2. Ordering, directing, commanding. Telling the child to do something. Giving an order or a command and expecting that the child will do it simply because you told her to. Even when spoken in a calm tone of voice, these communications convey the attitude of superiority that a parent would simply not tolerate coming from the child.
“I don’t care what other parents do. You have to do the yard work.”
“Now you go back up there and play with Ginny and Joyce!”
“Stop complaining!”

3. Warning, admonishing, threatening. Telling the child what consequence will occur if she does or fails to do something.
“If you do that, you’ll be sorry.”
“One more statement like that and you’ll leave the room!”
“You’d better not do that if you know what’s good for you.”

4. Moralizing, preaching, exhorting. Telling the child what she should or ought to do, and giving a little sermon about why. These tend to be habitual little speeches that parents have given in one form or another many, many times. For that reason alone they are not necessary. The child knows these things already because she has heard them so often, and they are likely to be heard as “the same old thing.” Furthermore, they invite an “in one ear and out the other” type of response from the child.
“You shouldn’t act like that because people who do that are almost always……blah, blah, blah.”
“You ought to do this……because if you don’t then this is what will happen….blah, blah, blah.”
“You must always respect your elders….because we went through the depression, we’re older, etc.”

5. Advising, giving solutions or suggestions. Telling the child how to solve a problem, giving him advice or suggestions, or providing answers/solutions. If the child asks for advice, that’s one thing. By all means give it. When your advice is unsolicited, it carries the unspoken message that “You can’t do it right on your own. You’re inadequate, and therefore you need me to tell you how to solve this problem.”
“Why don’t you ask both Ginny and Joyce to play down here?”
“Put that thought out of your mind. You have to wait a couple of years before deciding on college.”
“I suggest you talk to your teachers about that.”

6. Lecturing, teaching, giving logical arguments. Trying to influence the child with facts, arguments, opinions.
“Children must learn how to get along with each other because if they don’t…..blah, blah, bah..”
“If kids learn to take responsibility around the house, they’ll grow up to be responsible adults.”
“Look at it this way–your mother needs help around the house because…..blah, blah, bah.”
“When I was your age, I had twice as much to do as you., and I used to…..blah, blah, bah.”

7. Ridiculing, name-calling, insulting, shaming. Making the child feel foolish. This might be the worst form of intimidation. It’s not complaining about behavior, it’s denigrating the child as a person. This kind of communication from a parent can, over time, seriously damage a child’s self-esteem.
“You’re nothing but a spoiled brat!”
“Look here, Mr. Smarty Pants.”
“Okay, you little baby.”

8. Judging, criticizing, blaming. Making a negative judgment or evaluation of the child. These, too, are clearly damaging to self-esteem.
“That’s a stupid, immature thing to say.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You never manage to do anything right.”

9. Interrupting, butting in, shutting the child down. Stopping the child from talking or doing what he is doing. This is usually experienced by adults as disrespectful and egotistical when they experience it from another adult, and certainly from a child.
“Stop what you’re doing.”
“Wait, wait, wait. Stop talking and listen to me.”
“Hey! We don’t talk that way around here!”.

Old School Invitations to Trouble

Using these disrespectful Old School parenting techniques are clearly “invitations to trouble” because by using them parents often stimulate feelings of hurt, shame, and resentment in a child. The unintended consequence, of course, is that it not only invites an angry or disrespectful response from the child (perhaps expressed later in a different situation), but it also teaches the child how you (parent) think people should be talked to. You can bet that your child will use the same methods not only with you, but with other people too, especially peers, siblings and teachers.

A Better Way

There are much better (I call them New School) ways than using these “invitations to trouble” in responding to a child, such as: listening first and talking second, reflecting the child’s feelings back to him (listening skill #3), using I-messages (illustrating skill #2), and taking a time-out to formulate what you want to say.

If you can catch yourself in time, before the first word has escaped, or even in mid-sentence, your child will notice and appreciate your effort at “cleaning up your act” by speaking more respectfully. She will learn from your effort at self-control. She may not express any appreciation at the moment, but you can bet that with repeated efforts on your part, you will start to see similar efforts on your child’s part.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

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