What to do when your kid gets under your skin

My fourth son, who is quite handsome standing here in his tuxedo after a recent holiday band concert, is about to turn thirteen.  I would describe Maddux as the strong, silent type who has always known exactly how to push my buttons.

Maddux was my first, and thank God, only experience with colic.  The funny part about it was when Tom and I decided on the name Maddux before he was born I'd said to Tom..."what will we do if he ends up being a really angry child?" (Get it, MADdux).

By God's grace we got through that colicky phase, but it wasn't much later when Maddux went through a couple of years of being what I'd call a real pistol.  He'd often hide random items from the house (including my wedding ring which, one time, was found during our moving day in a huge bin of Legos), he often tormented his baby sister with his "loving" bear hugs, he had a multi-year serious fascination with skeletons and graveyards, and when he felt compelled he was able to conjure up one hell of a tantrum.

No wonder I tattooed the word "patience" on my hip to represent his contribution to my life.

We recently found a writing piece from Allen-Michael's freshman year in high school which aptly describes Maddux's early years:

He is the most resistant and cunning child. If you haven’t seen or heard from him in fifteen minutes, he is probably doing something bad. Just recently he took a scissors and cut up a metal window blind. It is impossible to get him to do anything because he does not listen to ANYBODY. He is even so foolish as to taunt my dad.
— Read Around prompt by Allen-Michael Muench, 2008

Fortunately for me Maddux has come around in recent years, and has shown himself to be a kind, caring boy who gets along really well with his not-so-baby sister Mia.  He is smart, enjoys playing the trumpet, and is both determined and persistent with a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo.  

However, Maddux still knows how to push my buttons.

How you ask?

Lately he has taken to mimicking me by tapping his index finger aside his nose and saying things such as, "Hmmm...I wonder why she feels this way?" or  "Hmmm...now I wonder why he did that?" or "Don't feel sad she is handicapped, you don't know what kind of experience her soul was asking for in this lifetime..." (yes, it's true, these are things he hears from my mouth and then decides to use his best "mom impression" to mock me).

Maddux also likes to take digs at my (admittedly-less-than-stellar) cooking, and he's been known to comment about the fact that I stay home and write all day, heavily implying I don't actually work.

Most of the time this is all said in fun, and there are plenty of times when I can play right along without feeling assaulted, but there are also times when his jabs can be hurtful.  One such moment happened recently over breakfast, and was a classic example of his going too far.

However, I knew how to handle the situation because I had recently finished a terrific parenting book by Dr. Laurie Hollman entitled, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child's Behavior.

Dr. Hollman is an accomplished and experienced psychoanalyst who has worked for years with families in trouble.  Her five-step method to unlocking parental intelligence was just what I needed to work through this situation with my son.

First, and foremost, I needed to step back...to refrain from a knee-jerk reaction because doing so would only escalate the situation at hand.  Then, on the heels of pausing, my job was to self-reflect.  "Why did Maddux say that?  If I can figure out where he's actually coming from, and not take his comment personally, then we'll both win."  The third of the five-step process is to understand my child's mind.  

Now, you might be thinking to yourself...who has time for this?!  To which I would respond...anyone who wants to have a healthy, mutually respectful connection with their child.

Okay, so back to step three, I realize a couple of things...(a) because I have been inconsistent with my boundaries regarding his taunts he has no idea where the real line with me is, and (b) this behavior, while admittedly annoying at times, tells me he does in fact listen to what comes from my mouth and although he may not agree with me, he is using these jabs to connect with me.  Even though, in this moment, it is a negative, rather than positive, attempt to relate.  

At least that's my perception.

Right into step four (knowing your child's development) I recognize Maddux is almost a teenager, yet has years of brain development ahead of him so taking care to be clear with my boundaries from this point on, I calmly (and firmly, and lovingly, with eye contact) let him know that the comment he just shared was inappropriate, hurtful, and not appreciated by me.

The final of the five steps, according to Dr. Hollman, is problem solving.  Herein I decide that because I've been remiss in setting the boundaries and standards, because I myself hadn't spent enough time recognizing or understanding that until the moment he made the unkind comment, I decide this time my step four is exactly what the situation needs.  No punishment or discipline is required and would, in fact, be detrimental to our future connection and relationship.

Good parenting takes time and self-reflection.  It also means examining the way you were raised from the standpoint of whether or not you felt seen/heard/understood by your own parents, and what kind of experience you want to give the children in your life.  

One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the ability to trust us with their feelings.  The best way to understand your child's mind is through reflection of your own feelings and experiences, and what you currently bring to the table when you don't pause before reacting to a situation.

I found Dr. Hollman's book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence, to be very easy to read and insightful with lots of everyday examples I could relate to.  If you wonder about why your child does the things (s)he does, or if they are getting under your skin, I recommend you pick up a copy of her book!

Pause, reflect, discern your child's behavior and development, find a solution.