“On the way home from work every day, I start getting stressed out because I know that my 15-year-old son will be there waiting, ready to start a fight with me. There are times when I just want to turn the car around and not deal with him anymore, but I know that’s wrong. I’m so tired of the screaming matches and power struggles. What can I do?”
I’ve had many parents tell me how much they dread coming home to their kids after work, or how they feel overwhelmed by the fights and chaos in their house when the kids come home from school. Why is this time of the day often so stressful—and a prime time for acting out? One of the reasons may be because it’s a “transition time.” Transition events are moments when kids stop one activity and start another, or move from one environment to another. It’s also a time when anxiety is high and inappropriate behavior easily gets triggered—you’ll see acting out on the part of kids, and often, arguing and conflict on the part of adults. It’s been my observation that a lot of people react to that in ways that don’t help solve the problem.
Many parents have a fight with their child before they even get in the house, because they’re imagining that fight on the way home. Here’s the truth: if you’re imagining a fight, you’re probably going to get one.
As a parent, it’s important to know that kids are very vulnerable to the anxiety of heightened expectations, and the stress to get things done. This is true especially if they have self-control problems. So when kids come home from school, that’s a time to have some structure for them. Remember this: structure is the key to helping kids manage transitions.
Don’t Go Home Ready for a Fight
Many parents have a fight with their child before they even get in the house, because they’re imagining that fight on the way home; if you’re imagining a fight, you’re probably going to get one. Or they’re waiting at the house, already in their corner, prepared to go head-to-head. Here’s the truth: that will just provoke you and upset you more. If you’ve been doing this, know that you’re not helping the situation, and you’re probably unknowingly making things worse.
One way to handle this situation is through soothing self-talk. This is when we speak positively and soothingly to ourselves when we’re anxious—and it’s a very important tool during transition times. So for example, on the way home from work, start to prepare mentally by saying things like, “I can deal with whatever is there. The kids need me right now, and if there’s a problem, I know how to deal with it.” Another thing that I tell people is that once they learn strategies to deal with their kids’ behavior, they should remind themselves of those strategies when they start to get tense. You can say, “OK, if he does this, then I’ll just do that; I can manage it, I’ll be in control.” This helps calm you down and focuses you on what you need to do next.
Train Your Kids to Give You Time to Transition
Adults as well as children need structure to manage transitions. One of the recommendations that I make in The Total Transformation is for parents to have a few procedures set up when they get home. No matter what’s going on, unless it’s a crisis, you should go upstairs, wash your face, put on your comfortable clothes and get settled in. If your kids start bickering or calling to you, tell them you’ll be down in a minute. So the first part of the new after-school, after-work structure becomes, “When I get home, I have to go change and then I’m going to come down and deal with you.” That way, you train your kids to give you time to transition.
Explain this new procedure to your child ahead of time. When things are calm, perhaps after dinner, get together and have a talk. You can say, “I’m tired of fighting every day when you get home from school or when I get home from work, and I want things to be better for all of us. From now on, this is what I’m going to do when I get home. I’ll be able to help you a lot more if I have a few minutes to relax and wash up first.”
If your child ignores the new procedure, follows you and tries to draw you into an argument, I recommend you do the following: say what you have to say to your child and then turn around and continue to your room. This conversation shouldn’t turn into a fight. Remember, the way to defuse fights is to avoid them. If you’re fighting with a child, you’re feeding their sense of power and you’re treating them like they’re your equal. Instead say, “I told you that you have to wait till I come down,” and then go upstairs. Don’t ask them anything or prolong the discussion. If they act out while you’re upstairs or curse you behind your back, then you should have a consequence ready and give it to them.
If your children start bickering, keep walking. Don’t give that behavior power. If they know they can bicker to get you to turn around, they will. Don’t get sucked into, “Mom said this; no, mom said that.” Just keep walking and let them bicker. In reality, squabbling is a way for them to download any anxiety they’re feeling. Bickering never killed anybody. (Unless you’re an adult and have to listen to it—then it’s murder.)
Use Structure to Manage After-school Chaos
Let me be clear: when kids come home from school, there should also be a structure in place. They may have snack time and unwind for 15 to 20 minutes. (I’d say half-an-hour should be the max.) Let them do whatever they want to do, and then the structure should kick in.
In my view, all time should be structured. That does not mean you should be rigid and inflexible but it does mean that morning and after-school time should be planned out. So for example, 7 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. is when we wash up and put on clothes, 7:30 a.m. is breakfast time, and so on. In the evenings, there should be dinner time structure, homework structure, and chore time structure, which should be defined by timelines and activities. Free time should also be structured. After homework time, your child should have free time to do what he would like. He can IM, play video games, watch TV. That way, kids learn that there are responsibilities they have to take care of — not when they feel like it, but during the structured time. It also gives them the idea that the adults have control over how much “free time” they have. And it gives you a better supervisory method to figure out what your kids should be doing.
By the way, when you impose a structure on after-school time, don’t forget that free time should be built into it. If your child wants to do something, you can always say, “That’s fine, right after you do your homework and your chores.” Keep things structured, and with chores and homework first, then allow your kids an hour of free time to watch TV or play video games.
It’s very important that your child knows what this schedule is going to be. I recommend that parents post it prominently, like on the refrigerator. So that way, instead of yelling or getting into a fight, your child knows that when it’s 6:30, he’s supposed to be in his room doing his homework. In other words, the structure helps manage the kids more than your personality does.
“What should you be doing right now?”
Once you have your structure in place, it’s much easier to redirect your child back to the task at hand. You’ll often hear teachers asking their students the question, “Where are you supposed to be right now?” I think this is a brilliant tactic for parents as well. You don’t get into a lot of “Why’s” or excuse-making with your child this way.
So, let’s say you have imposed a new structure in the evening, but your child is texting instead of doing homework. Here’s how you can use this technique:
You: “What are you supposed to be doing right now?”
Your child: “My homework.”
You: “Then go to the table and do it.”
Not, “Why aren’t you doing it,” or “How come you’re not doing what I asked you?” Avoid those kinds of questions, because you’re just asking for excuses. As a parent, your position is, “You’re supposed to be doing homework—go there; You’re supposed to be doing the dishes—go there.” Starting a question with the word “why” in these kinds of situations just raises anxiety. When anybody is asked “why,” their first thought is that they’ve done something wrong. Let’s face it, nobody ever says, “Why did you do something right?” Once they’re asked a “why” question, kids start getting defensive and manufacturing excuses in their heads. Instead, ask them, “What are you supposed to be doing right now?”
My Child Pounces When I Come in the Door
If you have a child who’s ready to argue with you or complain about his siblings as soon as you walk in the door, you have to address this behavior with him in a frank, private conversation when things are calm. Sit down with that child and say, “Listen, when I come home, I have to go upstairs and change. I’m going to say ‘hi’ to you, but then after a minute, I’ll go wash up and then I’ll be ready to talk.” If you have one child who needs some attention, you can assure him by saying, “When I come downstairs, I’ll talk to you first.”
This way, instead of feeling like he has to compete with his siblings or fight with you, you’re letting him know that he’ll get your attention first, as soon as you are ready to talk.
Kids Who Act Out Severely
Some children are verbally or physically abusive, and literally start ripping the house apart once they get home. Let me be clear: they need a much more aggressive behavioral management system than we can can talk about in this article. That child cannot be left alone, and if they are, you’re probably going to suffer damage to your home and property. There’s not a lot of middle ground. You can teach him how to manage that behavior, but again, that takes a much more rigorous program. I would suggest that parents in this situation seek out resources to help them with this kind of destructive behavior.
Acknowledge That You Can’t Control Your Child When You’re Not There
Let me begin by saying that it’s never safe to leave a child unsupervised because children are by nature impulsive, unpredictable and prone to risk-taking behavior. I understand the reality in many families is that older children and adolescents are left unsupervised because of the parents’ work schedule. I recommend in those cases that the child should have a written emergency plan. This plan should include neighbors they can go to for help if needed, emergency phone numbers, police and fire department, practice exits from the house should there be a fire, and a safe place for everyone to meet if there is a fire. The adults should review this plan with their kids regularly.
If your child spends part of his or her day alone, it’s important to understand this simple rule: you cannot control your child when you’re not there. But what you can do is enhance their ability to make certain choices.
Here’s how that works: let’s say your kids get home at four o’clock and you get home at 5:30, which means they have an hour and a half of unsupervised time on weekdays. When you structure up the night, you tell them that the schedule includes homework time, chore time, dinner time, free time, and bed time.
Because there are only so many hours in the night, your child will have to learn how to use time more effectively. So you can say to your kids, “Look, if you choose to watch TV or play video games before I get home, that’s up to you. Keep in mind that you have two hours of homework a night. If you choose to use your free time before I get home to goof around, that’s fine. But then homework is going to start as soon as I get home.”
You follow up by saying, “If you do an hour of homework at that time and you can show me that your assignments are done, then you’ll have more free time later. So, it’s up to you how you’re going to use the non-chore, non-homework time after school. You can use some now, or you can use some later. But if you want to watch a certain TV show tonight, get your homework started early.”
This way, you are training your kids to schedule things and structure things. With this method, problem-solving skills are learned by your child, as well, because they’re learning what to do with their time and how to make good choices.
Remember, if your child doesn’t have an internal structure to manage his behavior, he needs to have it imposed upon him externally. Part of maturing—for everyone—is taking that external structure that’s been imposed upon you from birth and internalizing it by the time you’re in adolescence. So instead of arguing and getting into power struggles with your child when you come home, you’ll be able to lean on the structure you’ve set up to manage your child’s behaviors. You’ll be able to point to your schedule instead of getting into a screaming match with your child—and that’s the name of the game.
By James Lehman, MSW