"These kids are impossible!" If you've found yourself uttering this particular phrase at increasingly frequent intervals, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that things at your house have probably been more stressful than usual. The question is, why?
According to forgiveness counselor Dr. Jim Dincalci, the answer might surprise you. It's possible that you're harboring resentment toward your own kids because times are tough -and they're acting like nothing's changed.
"We've all felt the pinch of the current economic environment, and for many people, circumstances are close to desperate," said Dincalci, author of the new book, "How to Forgive When You Can't: The Breakthrough Guide to Free Your Heart & Mind" "However, no matter how often you explain things to your kids, they just don't seem to get it."
Your teenage daughter is still in the shower at the 20-minute mark, your middle son is whining that he wants to go out because he's tired of eating meals at home, and your youngest is complaining that he's lost his iPod -and he insists that he just has to get another one. Meanwhile, you're trying to perform a checking-account miracle, hoping that you can last till payday without having to dip into your dwindling savings. And all the while, you're seething internally because you feel like you're the only one who understands that changes need to be made.
These days, it's a pretty common scenario, Dincalci says.
"Several things need to happen in this situation. As a parent, you can -and should - take steps to ensure that your kids adjust their behavior. However, you also need to look inside yourself and make sure that you're not harboring buried resentment toward your children because they seem unappreciative of the hard work you've been putting in to keep the family finances afloat."
Dincalci speaks from experience. In addition to being a parent, he has spent 41 years working in healing therapies and nine years teaching forgiveness therapy in venues ranging from universities to hospitals. He earned a master's degree in counseling psychology, as well as doctorates in religious studies and divinity. In addition to years of private practice, his counseling experience includes facilitating domestic violence groups and working for the Hawaii Departments of Health and Education as a clinical therapist in the state's school system.
Here's what parents can do to ensure bitterness doesn't eat away at their family's well-being, according to Dincalci.
1. Track down the stress culprit. "Because parents do delight in their children, they often don't process resentment when it bubbles up, and it's difficult for them to figure out why they're quick-fused," Dincalci said. "However, chances are you haven't forgiven little Johnny for his cavalier financial attitude if you tend to flare up most hotly when he treats his belongings carelessly."
2. Make sure your kid-centric expectations are realistic. You can't expect a 3-year-old to understand that she shouldn't slam her toys around because replacing them costs money. But you can expect a 10-year-old to know better than to leave his expensive bike out in the rain -especially if you have explained to him the importance of taking care of what he has. (And, yes, you do have the right to be frustrated if he's said again and again, "I get it" and yet, his bike is rusting in front of your very eyes.)
3. Identify who (or what) you're upset with. Depending on the conclusions you've come to regarding your kids' abilities to do their money-saving parts, it's time to decide where to direct your forgiveness. After all, you can't let go of resentment until you know exactly where it's coming from.
"In the case of the 10-year-old and his neglected bike, your anger -and thus your eventual forgiveness - are directed at him, individually, since he should have known better," Dincalci said. "However, you can't, and don't, expect similar comprehension from your 3-year-old. Chances are, rather than being directed specifically at her occasionally destructive exuberance, your frustration stems from your financial situation as a whole."
4. Figure out the root of irresponsibility. Don't forget that kids are sponges and that they learn a vast majority of their attitudes and behaviors from others. Even though it's hard for parents to admit, in many instances they've created their children's unappreciative and materialistic mindsets themselves, either through direct example or by allowing their kids to have too much.
"Of course, kids also pick up various mindsets from their friends, from their schools, and from other adults. Don't beat yourself up too badly if your kids have an easy-come-easy-go attitude -but do take responsibility for your part, and realize that they aren't acting this way just to tick you off. Also, remember that because mindsets are learned and developed, change won't happen overnight."
5. Apply judicious and consistent consequences. Many people mistakenly believe that forgiveness is about turning the other cheek to be hurt again, condoning what's wrong, or letting yourself be walked over. That, Dincalci said, is not the case. In fact, mature forgiveness is characterized by setting reasonable limits that make everyone safer and happier. As a parent, you've got to apply judicious consequences if you want to move behavior.
"Make sure your kids know that everyone in the family is making sacrifices," Dincalci suggested. "And make sure that there is no doubt as to what the consequences will be if the rules are broken.
"In my time as a school psychotherapist, I often encountered parents who were reluctant to carry out punishments because they didn't want to lose their kids' love and approval. Well, this isn't the time to be Mr. or Mrs. Nice Guy. If you aren't consistent with taking away privileges or making your teen pay cell phone overages, for example, lessons will never be learned -and the cycle of resentment will be perpetuated."
6. Tap into the power of positive reinforcement. Research shows that positive reinforcement, not punishment, is the most effective way to change behaviors in humans. So whenever you catch your child pitching in, compliment her! "I saw you go back to turn that light out - great!" Or, "Thanks for being so careful not to rip your clothes while you were out on the playground!"
"Sometimes positive reinforcement can be challenging because it requires more mindfulness and effort on your part, but it's also far more effective. Sure, punishment and anger might get compliance, but at what cost?"