In Nicola Skinner’s article in last Saturday’s Guardian, Why parents are getting angrier, she wrote about the popularity of Mike Fisher’s courses, Understanding Anger in Parents, offered by Ealing Council in London UK.
More and more parents are being referred to the council’s parent commissioner by social services, the NHS, police or solicitors on account of anger issues. It transpires the most common trigger for parental anger, as identified by the parents, is children not co-operating.
As I read this, it brought to mind a dog toy I once had. It was a little hessian sack on a string. When you squeezed the sack a cat miaowed. It used to drive my Jack Russell mad. She was convinced there must be a cat somewhere in the room and would get in a frenzy trying to find the cat. Each time, the little hessian bag miaowed, the dog would go nuts. Of course we laughed because we knew it was a trick. There was no cat. It’s easy to get tricked.
As Mara Gleason of One Thought illustrated at The One Solution Conference in Oslo earlier this year, correlations are very easy to draw and they are masters of misdirection. It is easy to see how the dog made the correlation; the sound of a cat must mean there is a cat in the room. Yet there was no cat because the sound came from an audio recording not a real live cat.
In the same way, you can understand the correlation parents draw between children being unco-operative and their feelings of anger, one seems to follow on from the other. Yet once you realise how our human experience is actually created, it is clearly impossible for the children’s lack of co-operation to be the cause of the angry feelings. How so?
Mostly we grow up believing that our experience of life comes from out there, outside of ourselves. The things that happen to us, the people we hang out with, the family we’re born into and the country of our birth. These things, so the thinking goes, shape us, our character and our destiny. Yes, there may be some influence from genetics, making us short tempered or patient types, but generally, the view is, it is our circumstances that shape our experience day to day.
What if this was completely and utterly untrue?
What if, in fact, our experience was coming entirely from within? What if everything we experience moment to moment was created by our thinking in that same moment?
Sounds far fetched? Just look at this a little more closely and see for yourself what is true.
Even for the angriest parents in Mike Fisher’s courses there will be times when their children’s lack of co-operation doesn’t provoke rage. Times when they simply sigh and are resigned to it, other times it may seem funny, times they deliberately ignore it and still other times when they don’t even notice their children being unco-operative.
So what is going on? How can this commonly cited trigger be so inconsistent?
Let’s take an example.
You ask your teenage daughter to clear up the dishes. She rolls her eyes and walks out the room.
So far we have the facts. What happens next depends entirely on the thinking that goes through your mind and your daughter’s mind in that moment. Any of the following thoughts might occur to you:-
Perhaps she didn’t hear me
I love that eye roll, it’s so teenage
She’s clearly not in a receptive mood
It will only take me 5 minutes to stack the dishwasher
How dare she be so insolent
Why won’t she help, even just a little bit?
She shouldn’t walk away from me when I’m talking to her
I’m running late and she’s being difficult again
I could go on. It’s like a pick and mix. Any or all of those thoughts could occur and we could take any or all of them seriously, believing they are telling us something useful about ourselves, our daughter and the state of the world (or the dishes). Which thoughts we listen to will then influence our next move. The same is going on for your daughter. She might have any of the following thoughts:-
Why does she always go on about the dishes
Can’t she see I’m busy?
Why doesn’t she go on at my brother to do dishes?
It’s so unfair
None of my friends have to put up with this from their parents
Why is she nagging all the time
This is so boring
Which thoughts you and your daughter believe and then act on, will determine the outcome of this exchange. If we believe the thoughts that tell us the other person is uncaring and out to get us, so our emotions will rise to reflect this perceived ‘threat’ to our wellbeing.
The simple solution to parental anger (and conflict in general) is to understand where our wellbeing actually comes from. It doesn’t come from anything outside of us. Innate wellbeing and wisdom is something we all have, all of the time. It’s just most of us don’t realise it.
Conflict is a natural result of mistakenly believing our wellbeing is under threat. We prepare to defend our wellbeing by going on the attack or defensive. An argument quickly escalates. During an argument we lose all sense of connection with the other person, fail to hear anything beyond the words and before we know it both parties feel horrible.
On the other hand, when we see that our wellbeing cannot be damaged by anyone or anything outside of ourselves, and we start to notice when our thoughts are sending us off track, then we can pause. When we pause, it’s like taking a breath to settle yourself, then you see past your own fears and past your children’s defiance. You realise too that your children are also innately well and that the grumpy, difficult behaviour is just that, some grumpy difficult behaviour. It’s not who they really are.
From this vantage point, it is easier to take some time out when thoughts are running away with us, to zoom out and see what really matters and not to get caught up in our own or our children’s momentary insecure thinking.
Like the oh so convincing sound of the cat in the sack which isn’t actually coming from a real cat, we can easily get tricked into thinking our feelings are coming from what is happening out there, when in reality they are only ever coming from our thinking in the moment.