For a long time if one of my kids looked at me with disdain, snapped at me, or rolled his eyes, my blood would boil. How could they? I would wonder. I do everything for these kids and this is how they treat me?!?
It wasn’t until recently that I realized most of the time their bad attitude has nothing to do with me; I’m just a safe target for my boys’ frustrations. Is it fair? No way. But at least it’s not because they don’t love me or appreciate me it’s because they trust me that they lash out.
Seems like a raw deal, I know.
This phenomenon – of lashing out at one person because you are mad at someone or something else – isn’t something that only happens between parents and kids. Often when we feel powerless or stressed or overwhelmed by something, we lash out at someone we know won’t fight back, like a parent or a spouse. Psychologists call this phenomenon, “displaced aggression.” I admit I have often displaced my aggression on someone else. Like my husband. Thankfully he ignores me or, when I’m really being a b*tch, he calls me out on my bad behavior and I can take a step back to figure out what is actually going on.
I gotta say, though, I am not as good as my husband is at ignoring crappy behavior.
Especially from my kids.
It’s really hard not to take it personally.
For instance, just yesterday, as my 17-year-old sat at the kitchen counter enjoying a breakfast of eggs and bacon that I made for him, I asked him if he was cold. Before the words, “Do you need your sweatshirt?” were even out of my mouth, he snapped, “I don’t need anything.”
I’d like to tell you that my first thought was, maybe he misunderstood? Maybe he thought I said, “I am going to dump every single item that you treasure in a big pile on the front lawn and set it all on fire.” I mean, why else would he snap at something as innocuous as an offer to bring him a sweatshirt?
But, in reality, my first thought was actually: F*ck this. Let him freeze.
Thankfully those words did not escape from my lips.
See, I’m a grown up (sort of), with a filter (sometimes), and many years of learning how to bear the brunt of my children’s displaced aggression (this part is 100% accurate). There was a time when I would automatically assume that my children were reacting to me – personally – and I would be upset. I remember when my oldest was two or three years old and refused to take a nap. I was POSITIVE he was doing it to spite me. Seriously. I finally figured out that he was just being a two-year-old (besides, he didn’t do things to spite me until he was at least 5).
Now I know there are definitely times when my kids’ anger and stress are absolutely, and properly, directed at me. The difference between those disagreements and displaced aggression, however, is that one situation has context and one comes out of the frickin’ blue. For example, if I say to my son, “No, you can’t sleep at a friend’s house tonight,” I expect an argument and the possibility of a slammed bedroom door. But when I say, “Do you want a sweatshirt?” I don’t expect a normally reasonable and respectful 17-year-old to be so salty.
Which is how I know it had nothing to do with me.
The sweatshirt fiasco took place about 90 minutes before my son’s AP Calc final. Was he stressed? Tired? A little bit of both? Probably. Does that make it ok? Ah, no.
Normally I would have said, “Let’s try that again with a different tone, please,” and possibly thrown in a short lecture on displaced aggression because I can’t help myself. This time I decided to let the bad attitude go, for that moment at least. (Finals, stress, yada, yada…)
I waited until he came back home – when he was all happy and relaxed – and said, “Hey, remember when I asked if you were cold earlier and you acted like I asked if you wanted me to pour boiling water on you to warm you up? Well, your response was snippy and disrespectful.”
I pressed on because, you know, it’s my job to teach my kids to be better people. “If something else is bugging you,” I explained. “Please don’t take it out on the wrong person.”
“Sorry. I don’t remember saying anything snippy.” he responded, genuinely perplexed. “I was really tired…and cold.”
Originally published on www.isuckasaparent.com.
Connie Lissner is a writer, lawyer, wife and more importantly, the mother of two teenage boys. She navigates the slippery slope of motherhood one day at a time. Connie’s parenting failures have been featured on The Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, Scary Mommy, Club Mid, BlogHer and in the books, Not Your Mother’s Book…on Parenting and The BlogHer Voices of the Year: 2012. You can find her at isuckasaparent.com, Facebook, and on Twitter