My boys rushed outside so fast that the slam of the garage door echoed through the house and reverberated in my ears. I smiled as the resulting silence settled in around me. Quiet, peaceful moments unaccompanied by digital-babysitter-guilt were rare and blissful. I stood at my sink scrubbing a pot, listening to their basketball bounce outside, and watched a hawk soar above the forest behind our house. I felt my mind slip comfortably into an unhurried place where it wandered without shame or remorse.
Then the door slammed again.
“I HATE YOU! I am NEVER playing with you AGAIN!” My younger son shouted while storming up the stairs to his room.
Another door slammed. My blissful moment was gone.
My older son put his hands up, as if to surrender. “I didn’t do anything,” he insisted.
“Of course not,” I thought to myself. “No one ever does anything wrong around here, but we still manage to fight, constantly.”
I trudged upstairs and asked my younger son what happened. He refused to look at me, and growled more than he spoke, but he managed to make it clear that my older son had been teasing him. Anger surged, uninvited, through my chest, probably because I hate being teased myself.
I walked back downstairs, a bit faster this time, and glared at my older son. “Were you teasing him?”
“I wasn’t being mean…”
“When you’re teasing someone smaller than you, that’s bullying, Son.”
“But I wasn’t being mean! I didn’t do anything wrong!” Now it was his turn to stomp upstairs and slam the door.
The quiet returned for the moment, but the peace did not. I clenched my teeth and sat on the couch to think. I was angry. This was not the first time we’d spoken about teasing, and I wanted to hand out a hefty punishment. Instead, I paused because a part of me believed my older son. His pleas of innocence seemed sincere.
With nowhere left to turn, I decided to try an exercise with my sons that I learned from a book by Dr. David Burns. I use it myself whenever I can’t figure out why I over-reacted to something.
Here’s how it works:
Draw a picture of an angry stick figure. Ask yourself why this stick figure is so angry. Make something up. It doesn’t really matter what it is, just write something down in a thought bubble over the stick figure’s head. What you write down will usually be a hint about what’s bothering you.
I got two pieces of paper out and drew two stick figures for each of them. There was a bigger stick figure with a ball and a little stick figure. I drew a thought bubble over the bigger one’s head and asked each of my sons to write what the bigger one was thinking.
My younger son wrote, “My little brother is such a loser.”
My younger son clearly felt like his older brother didn’t respect him. That wasn’t surprising.
What did surprise me was seeing what my older son wrote, “It’s no big deal, we all miss sometimes.”
Was it possible that my older son was actually trying to try to help his younger brother—by teasing him?
I looked up and asked my older son if he likes to be teased when he’s playing basketball at school. He nodded, “When my friends tease me, I know we’re good. It means they’re not worried about how I’m playing.”
Talk about an “ah-ha” parenting moment.
Not only did I get to the bottom of the fight, but I learned something valuable about my older son. It’s not as helpful to him when I empathize and reflect his emotional content when he’s upset. He’d much prefer me to make a joke and help lighten the mood. He was trying to do the same thing for his little brother.
Imagine if I’d gone with my instincts and punished him! This experience was a real reminder of how unique children are, how different from each other, and how important it can be to think outside the box.
I suspect if I used this exercise with every fight, it would lose its potency, but for those occasions when I have no idea what to do, it’s a game changer.