Screaming Like A Banshee, How Not To

Once upon a time, self-mastery/self-control was a highly valued trait for a Christian to have. Unfortunately, what passed for self-mastery was too often little more than repression and denial. Of course, neither repression or denial are held in very high esteem these days (and for good reason!). But the downfall of repression and denial has in turn lead to the virtue of self-mastery being downgraded from a highly sought after virtue to barely an after-thought in the Christian life.

The reason that self-mastery has traditionally been held in such high regard among Christians, is because it is held in high regard by scripture. 2 Peter 1 connects self-control with partaking of God’s divine nature, for example. Self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:232 Timothy 1:7 lists self-control alongside power and love as the result of God’s spirit. Proverbs 25:28 says that a person without self-control is like a city whose walls have been breached. When Paul was imprisoned by Felix, he taught “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” when asked to preach on faith in Jesus. I could go on, but the point is that even though we’ve rightly tossed out the practice of repression and denial, we ought to cling to and work to develop self-mastery as part of our Christian faith.

So . . . the question becomes how to cultivate self-control once repression and denial are no longer desirable tools. It just so happens that self-control is something I have spent a lot of time helping my children to develop over the years. Unfortunately for me (and everyone’s eardrums), self-control didn’t come naturally to any of my children. In fact, it often felt like trying to teach a fish to walk. At the moment, it’s my middle daughter who is receiving intensive tutoring on the subject. She’s the one, if you recall, would rather miss a meal than compromise on where to sit at dinner and who responds to a light swat on the rear with shrieks of “help, I need immediate medical attention!” So we’ve got our work cut out for us. But progress is being made.

What I do have going for me is 18 years of experience teaching decidedly uninterested, unreasonable and hysterical children the fine art of self-control. And so I figured I would share this week’s lesson with y’all as well. Just in case it might help someone.

The first step I’m teaching Miss-screams-a-lot is to start by simply identifying how she is feeling. Like all of us, this child has a feeling, comes up with reasons to justify that feeling and then believes that those reasons are the cause of her misery. Thus we are treated to a barrage of “she did this and he did that and they’re being mean to me and everyone’s always mean to me and I’m sick of it” several times a day which no amount of reasoning can do anything to stop. We’ve talked about this before – we like to think that we react for perfectly good reasons, but the reality is that we react and then come up with perfectly good reasons to justify it. By starting with the feeling, rather than the provocation, we addressing the actual cause for the lack of self-control.

banshee2By starting with the feeling we keep the locus of control where it belongs – with the person who is experiencing a loss of control rather than with everyone around them. You see, many people believe that their loss of self-control is an understandable, if not inevitable, result of the behavior of others. If they didn’t make fun of my swimming, I wouldn’t be standing here screaming like a banshee. (The “adult” version of that is, if my kid showed me proper respect and didn’t backtalk me, I wouldn’t be standing here screaming like a banshee. Just for reference.) If we are in distress and out-of-control because of what someone else did, then we will naturally attempt to exert other-control as a remedy. If we are distressed and out-of-control because of something going on inside of ourselves, then self-control is the answer.

So, we start with, “what are you feeling?” To which the answer might be, “I feel sad/angry/frustrated/hurt/disrespected/confused/scared.” There is no right or wrong answer to how you are feeling. Once we know what we are feeling, the next question becomes, “since I’m feeling like this, what can I do to take care of myself?”  For example, this morning my daughter felt that she was being treated unfairly – disrespected – by her sisters. I asked her what she could do to take care of herself while she was feeling that way. “I dunno” was her profound, 7 year old response. So I pointed out that she had already removed herself from the situation. That’s a good way to take care of yourself when you feel like you are being treated unfairly. Although it usually works best when you do it before you’re hysterical. She agreed and decided that she’d try to leave a situation where she felt she was being treated unfairly more quickly next time. I then pointed out that she had gotten a drink of water to help calm herself down. That’s a good way to take care of yourself when you’re upset. By this point, she was starting to smile – it turns out that she knows how to take care of herself better than she had thought. And that’s empowering. Which is crucial because empowered people are self-controlled people. Finally she asked if she could go play a video game – something she rarely gets to do without her sister leaning over her shoulder begging for a turn. I said yes, which of course, her sister will see as terribly unfair – “why does she get to play a video game and not me?” The all-important-fairness-scales were coming back into alignment.

In the grown up world, figuring out how to take care of yourself when you are losing control is often a little more complex. Generally we’ve learned not to freak out over off-handed critiques of our swimming in a kiddie pool skills. But a lot of adults still blame everyone around them for their own feelings and reactions. They want to exert other-control in response to their internal distress and, being more sophisticated than my 7 year old, can be quite clever about coming up with justifications for why they not only can, but should exert other-control to deal with their own internal reactions. Now it may well be that someone else is in fact doing something which needs to be addressed. But that’s an entirely separate problem from losing control over one’s self. If you haven’t mastered yourself, you may be able to abuse and intimidate someone else into changing their behavior. But they won’t respect you. And neither will anyone else who sees you behaving that way. And the day may well come where the levels of abuse and intimidation you are willing to engage in aren’t enough to bring about the desired result. At which point, it will become clear that all of the power really resides with the other person – and you are the one who gave it to them. It’s much better to suck it up and deal with your own lack of self-control in the first place. Besides, I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but no where does the bible praise other-control. Not even for parents. Rather for Christians, the goal is always self-control.

So let’s go back to the original question: “what do I feel?” With my kids, I go straight from this to “how can I take care of myself?” As an adult, I first ask, “what IN ME is causing me to feel this way?”  There’s that old saying that no one can make you feel something without your permission. So why am I giving my permission to feeling this way? The answer can be as innocuous as that I’m tired, hungry or irritable. Or it could be that I’m nursing either a huge inferiority or god complex and take other people’s behaviors personally as a result. It could be that circumstances are heading in a direction which frightens me. Whatever the case is, figuring out the why will lead me to the answer to “how do I take care of myself?” I get a sandwich or get some therapy if need be. Sometimes I can find a solution to my problem. But whatever the particulars are, self-control is gained by focusing on myself and what I can do in any given situation.

So, it’s hardly comprehensive, but there ya have it – the upside down world’s down and dirty guide to developing self-control in the face of provocation. Use it well, y’all! 😉

6 thoughts on “Screaming Like A Banshee, How Not To

  1. This sounds like a relatively sane way of dealing with what’s called ‘implicit memory.’ As you say, far better than thinking up justifications for feeling such waves of infantile anguish, and for then feeling them even worse. [Such memories are features of most people’s minds these days, a product of these harsh, loveless, insecure times — and no fault of anyone doing their best for their kids under such conditions. They’re called ‘implicit’ memories because they’re laid down before a child can keep score on the details & contexts an adult might remember, recording only the all-out pain and rage of a baby too young to regulate her own emotions… but the pattern remains to be triggered by similar feelings in later life. When the feeling is out of proportion to the trigger, that’s probably what’s going on…] Feelings need no justification, nor do they need to be inflicted on bystanders.

    Finding a good distraction is far from the worst way to handle it; at least the person puts some distance between herself and the experience. But then we seem to spend a lot of time distracting ourselves, enjoying ‘comfort food’, etc. What happens when someone tells herself: “Ow! That feels awful! Terrible, dreadful, utterly yucky!” but tries to experience without actually wallowing, just seeking clarity…?

  2. You may not realize it, but what you are describing is Choice Theory. You’d probably enjoy the book by William Glasser. He says we are all driven to satisfy the basic needs of survival, love/belonging, freedom, power, and fun. We try to exert external control to accomplish this, but it only damages our relationships. And what is life but a series of relationships? You are a wise woman!!

  3. One of my goals for this year is to become a gentler parent. As a child who was raised in a very authoritarian style (in which I was told how and when to feel–with spankings a-plenty), I have my work cut out as well. I’m often at a loss with how to deal with my strong-willed son’s disobedience, not wanting to default to screaming, pleading or paddling. However, the efforts I have made in this area have been well worth it. I’m slowly learning how to redirect and refocus my child without stressing myself or dissolving into an all-out conflict. My son is responding in a better way to my self-control and becoming more self-controlled himself and more affectionate toward me. I hope I can continue to grow in this area and offer hope to other parents who are dealing with their own parenting-style challenges.

    1. One of my readers recently recommended the book Loving Our Kids on Purpose to me and I’d highly recommend it as well. I think some of the specific discipline techniques are a bit iffy – they’d be hard to do with a particularly defiant child or if you aren’t solidly middle class. And some of the theology is meh. But it does an excellent job of laying out the philosophical framework for understanding who our children are in relation to us and what our objectives as parents should be.

      I have two things which have been really helpful to me as a parent. The first is that I never take anything personally and refuse to see anything my child does as a challenge to my authority. Great powers don’t respond to petty belligerence – that’s something only insecure powers get sucked into. I’m in charge. I know it. My kids know it. I don’t have to prove it to them and I don’t require them to prove to me that they understand it all the time. So that cuts down a lot on the emotional triggering that a lot of parents get sucked into.

      The other thing is a discipline technique of sorts which is really easy and I’ve found to be very effective with my very strong willed children. When I’m at a loss for what to do with them, how to respond or just don’t want to deal with crap anymore, I just send them away. With little ones this is usually because they are throwing a fit or engaging in some obnoxious behavior they won’t stop (like spitting or coloring on the walls – again – or some such). I just tell them, “you can’t be around other people when you act like that. You need to go to your room until you are ready to act decently.” I’ll carry them up there if I need to. It’s like time-out, but I let them decide when they are ready to come out. If they come out and start right back up, I send them right back. Since I don’t do it as a punishment and they have control over what they do in their room and when they come out, they don’t tend to resist this the way they did when I tried using time-out spots. Once they’ve calmed down, if there’s a mess that needs to be cleaned up, I just pleasantly have them do it – or help me do it. Otherwise, the whole issue is dropped and we just go on with our day.

      With my older kids, the problem is usually that they are badgering me or won’t stop arguing. Then I just say, “go away. I don’t want to talk with you anymore.” I have a particularly persistent and obnoxious 14 year old who will try to keep arguing/badgering and I just get up and walk away. If he tries to follow I tell him something really obnoxious like, “my tampon’s about to start leaking – are you going to come listen to me change it through the door?” or “I’m going to go call your dad and talk about what I want him to do in bed with me tonight” or something that’s really repugnant to him to send the message that the conversation is over and I will take it there and make him really uncomfortable/wigged out if he doesn’t leave me alone. But that kid’s a really extreme case. With my other kids, I can usually just send them away. Anyways, I like the sending them away technique because it’s easy on me, it puts responsibility for the kid’s issues back on the kid and frankly, it’s worked well for me.

      1. “Great powers don’t respond to petty belligerence”…I need this on a t-shirt. Lol! Thanks for the advice. I have sent my child away a time or two, but I need to remember that it’s something I can do more often. I’m now working full-time and still responsible for so much around the house, including his care. When he’s being particularly obnoxious (when all I want is five minutes to sit down), it can make me really crazy. Sometimes I can be really tempted to let him have his way just to have a break. The nice thing about working on my self-control is that I’m learning to be more consistent and following through with what I say.

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