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What Do You Do When Your Kid is “Acting Up”?

By Mark Brandenburg

There were probably good reasons why men were the ones who were out hunting big game for dinner while their wives stayed at home, many centuries ago. One reason is that men probably threw spears with a little better velocity. Another is that women seem a bit more comfortable in the midst of the emotional turmoil that constitutes family life.

Things would be easier for fathers if they could just leave or push a button when things got emotionally messy. The truth is that most men don't want to deal with a lot of maintenance when it comes to their families. If the family's been doing well in the past, they feel it should continue to do well. They enjoy being with their families when things are going smoothly, but they struggle when there's emotional turmoil.

And when there's emotional turmoil, men have a tendency to "leave" emotionally.

Why “checking out” is a bad idea
While staying away from the emotional episodes in the family would make it easier on fathers, it also tends to keep your kids from really feeling accepted by you. The message you give to your child is clear: “I accept you — but only if you act or behave in a certain way. If you don't behave in a way that I approve of, I don't accept you.” (Remember that this is the interpretation made by a child.)

Fathers have all sorts of escapes that they can use when they're uncomfortable with life at home, including excessive working, TV watching, golfing or just puttering around the house. While these activities can give fathers temporary relief, they don't do anything about the major issue — their own ability to handle the difficult times with their children.

How you deal with these situations and whether you become more nurturing in general as a father are issues that will determine whether you have close relationships with your children. Since a high percentage of fathers say their own fathers were emotionally absent for them when they grew up, this is a difficult issue for many. When you haven't been nurtured by your father, it's more difficult to be nurturing to your children. Many fathers simply haven't learned the skills.

Take the good with the bad
While it's easy for fathers to show their love for their kids when they're acting "good," problems can occur if they don't show them they care when their behavior is below par. This is often under the mistaken assumption that if they nurture their children or show they care while their kids are struggling or crying, they'll encourage more of this behavior in the future.

The problems can happen when your kids respond by suppressing their "bad" feelings and lose an important part of themselves. Emotionally well rounded kids have access to all of their feelings, not just the "good" ones.

Nurturing fathers have learned to allow and accept all of these feelings. This doesn't mean that you're encouraging your kids to whine or cry. It's entirely appropriate for you to kindly ask your child if they can talk in a different voice when they're whining. This is quite different from leaving whenever they whine or harshly asking them to stop. The difference is in how your child perceives your acceptance of them while they're struggling, and this perception is often quite accurate.

Accepting the “whole” child
So how do you learn to be more nurturing and to be more accepting of your "entire" child? Here are some ideas.

• Figure out the pattern that now exists in which you're falling short as a nurturing father. What are your triggers? How do you react? Having enhanced awareness is always a good place to start.

• When your kids are struggling, think in terms of what your child needs. Notice how easily you can become critical of your child. Consider a hug or positive attention.

• Get to know the intimate details of your child's life: who her friends are, what she does in recess at school, her favorite toys, etc. The more you know about her, the more likely she'll be to share feelings with you.

• Find ways to nurture yourself. If you don't know how, start to experiment. What is it that relaxes you and has you feeling rejuvenated? Reading a book, time with friends or getting a massage might work. If you don't know how to nurture yourself, it can be difficult to know how to nurture someone else.

• Make a concrete plan for yourself. If you normally avoid your daughter when she's whiny or crying, look for opportunities to jump in and "be there" with her during those times when she's not at her best. Remember it's crucial that she knows you accept her in both good times and bad.

• Don't be surprised at the depth of the feelings that are produced when you start to nurture. It can produce shame, anger and sadness in fathers who haven't had much nurturing themselves. Consistent attention to this will improve your skills and possibly have your children wondering what happened to Dad!

Fathers who continue to avoid their children when they're not "behaving well" are missing out on a chance to experience real closeness with their kids. This is a learning opportunity that's simply disguised as a pain in the rear.

© Mark Brandenburg.

NFO regular contributor Mark Brandenburg, MA, CPCC, is the author of 25 Secrets of Emotionally Intelligent Fathers. Sign up for his free bi-weekly newsletter, Dads, Don't Fix Your Kids, at

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