My stuff and theirs

I had an aha moment recently, which came from a variety of sources, and I thought I ought to share it with you in case I’m not the only nutcase  going quietly crazy at times over adoption issues.   (Cryptic, much?  Please forgive me;  I’m sitting here in the coffee shop at 6:18 am waiting for my coffee to kick in.)

Anyway, I’ve had various moments with teenagers where they’ve seriously disrespected me and I’ve just totally lost my cool.  I can  feel the steam leaking out of my ears, and the crisp angry words hissing out of my mouth, and I know the kid totally deserves every consequence I’m dishing out because, RUDENESS, hello!  You don’t treat your momma that way.

But in the back of my mind I also know I’m being triggered somehow in a way that I don’t quite understand.  I’ve hashed it out with my momma a few times.  (She’s my free therapist, and believe me, she’s as good as any paid ones out there.)  But all I could come up with is that I cannot tolerate disrespect from kids.  So they better get the sass outa their mouths.  Or else.

Problem is, they’ve experiences plenty of  ‘or else’– usually chores or loss of a favorite activity or early bedtime or early rising to weed flowerbeds, etc– and still they choose sass.  And still I fume.

Of course they’re wrong to be disrespecting me.  And since not all of our teens have been in our family since babyhood, it makes relationships much more complicated than average. (Folks who say discipline is discipline– do it right and you’ll get good results— well, most likely they don’t have a full grasp of the challenges of adoption issues, especially with kids adopted at older ages. There’s extra challenge, that’s all there is to it.)

Basically, what worked with some of our kids wasn’t working with others.  And the resulting relationship discord wasn’t blessing any of us.  Since I’m one of those stubborn problem-solver types of people, I wanted to figure out what I’m missing about these difficult interactions, and why rudeness so sets me off.

The first bit of revelation came a few months ago from The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.  It’s an excellent quick-to-read book that does a fabulous job explaining brain function in a really understandable way. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, whether you’re parenting adopted kids or kids born to you or just dealing with humans on a daily basis.  It’s good stuff that we’d all do well to understand better.

My main takeaway from this book:  we have lower-brain (dumb-brain) and upper-brain (smart-brain) function. When we’re overly stressed and feeling threatened, we all go into that lower-brain (flight-or-flight) functioning, where typically we make lots of illogical choices. In fact, one of the signs of dumb-brain thinking is rigidity and lack of creative problem-solving. The better regulated we are –this has to do with oxytocin flow and the development of our middle brain– the more able we are to calm ourselves and use our upper brain to make wise and thoughtful choices.  We all have moments of disregulation, and kids who’ve experienced trauma often struggle extra with self-regulation.  But we can help our kids (and ourselves) get better at it.

Basically what was happening in a lot of these conflicts with my teens is that they’d get mad and start thinking with their lower brains, making bad choices illogically, not caring about the consequences I was tossing out.  Because their disrespect was making me feel threatened, half the time I also ended up reverting to dumb-brain functioning.  Definitely not optimal.  But why was rudeness such a trigger for me?

The next little snippet of insight came from this little video series about disrespectful kids by Dr. Bryan Post.  He explained that disrespect can actually be a coping tool, something that helps folks blow off steam, regulate their emotions, and gradually come back to a homeostasis.  The example he gave was the way a typical person responds to their alarm clock.  Usually there’s grumbling and sighing, but a few minutes later we’re up and resigned to getting on with our day. He said that when parents try to shut down what is eventually going to help our kids get regulated, we may actually be pushing them to act out in bigger, less safe ways.  A more effective approach may be to hear and validate kids’ gripes instead of shutting them down.  (Here, even though I was hearing his point, I was thinking, I still need kids to be respectful even while sharing feelings.  Respect is just huge in my mind.)

But then came the real light bulb for me.  He asked the parents to think back to their own childhoods to figure out WHY disrespect is such a trigger for them;  our parents never would have allowed half the stuff kids do today, right? I know my dad never would have.  There would’ve been World War Three right there in the living room.  And in fact, the few times I tried it as a kid, there was.  Much misery.  Much relationship rupture.  My dad was a good dad and I still love him to bits.  But he lost his cool majorly when we were disrespectful.

And therein lies the reason that my kids’ disrespect triggers me.  It sends me back to the most unhappy memories of my childhood.  Moments of extreme relational unhappiness.  Moments that I wished never happened.  And so when my kids disrespect me, all I’m thinking is, ‘This has got to stop-NOW.’

The feeling is irrational in its intensity.  Because, looking at it logically, my kid rolling her eyes and muttering sass under her breath isn’t at that moment causing true danger.  Yeah, it’s wrong.  No, it won’t bless her to do that to a boss when she has a job some day.  And I do need to address it and encourage my kid toward right. But AT THAT MOMENT it’s not truly risking anybody’s life.

So when my blood starts boiling at the disrespect, instead of losing it, I can remind myself why this moment is hard for me.  I’m being triggered, taken back to a stressful time in my own past. With that logical self-talk from my smart brain, my dumb brain can chill, NOT go into overdrive.  I can keep my perspective on the size of the issue,  keep on thinking with my smart brain.  I can give my kid a calm reminder and a few minutes to turn off her dumb brain and turn ON her smart brain.  And then we’re all happier.

Will it extinguish the rudeness eventually?  Maybe, maybe not.  But me being in control of my junk is a huge step towards helping them eventually control theirs.

For more info on wise self-reflection, I also highly recommend the book Parenting From the Inside Out, also by Daniel Siegel.  Good stuff.  I’d love to hear from other mommas struggling with frustration.  How do you handle those moments when your kids are getting on your last nerve?


  1. Oh thank you for this post. Disrespect is a huge trigger for me. Thanks for the insight. I will now dig deeper.

  2. This is excellent food for thought, Mary. Only in recent years, I’ve realized that my reaction to feeling disrespected is directly related to my growing-up years. For me, feeling disrespected = feeling invalidated as a person. When I allow my mind to go there, I lose my objectivity and confidence, and instead respond in a sort of self-defense. Identifying that unhealthy path my brain takes has been so helpful.

    What has also helped me as a parent is to intentionally repeat a phrase in my mind when disrespect or disobedience occurs: “This dishonors the Lord.” When I put their behavior in the context of it dishonoring God (because I am the authority figure He chose to place in their life), it’s easier for me to be objective (sometimes!) and address it rationally, rather than becoming personally offended.

    Thank you for sharing your personal struggles. It’s so encouraging for me to hear from a wiser mom who has more experience than I do.

  3. I feel your pain. I have a soon to be 16 year old that often operates in the “lower-brain” mode. He goes to a therapist once a month and she was just asking him the other day (with me present) why he felt he had to “win” the argument. He honestly did not know. He said that he just really wants me to agree with him even if it means completely going against what I want. Basically he wants my affirmation that he is right (even when he is blatently wrong). I got to really thinking about that….he wants my affirmation. He is a young man and like all men, he wants repect and affirmation. However, his brain is still too immature to know that, so he argues and acts disrespectfully….never getting what he really needs. This is a really hard place to be as a parent. He needs to learn that he can repectfully disagree with our requests but still repectfully abide by them. That is how he will best be respected and affirmed. Now….how to get him to realize this without going into debt with therapy, LOL.

    • Perhaps giving him affirmation on lots of things he does correctly, not necessarily even in conversation but just daily activities and good choices, and especially when he is not actively seeking the respect, might help? I’m thinking maybe if he is getting lots of positive input on a regular basis, then the corrective input might be easier to accept since it would be a smaller percentage of the feedback? I don’t know you, your child, or your parenting style so perhaps you already do this, but it was just a thought.

      • Exactly! We were so good about it when he was younger but it seems like when we realized that he had his own mind, we were less inclined to do so (music styles, hair styles, study habits, school performance….it is easy to not even realize how critical we sound) My husband and have started working on this and we are seeing some results. We also implemented a new form of time out….a “chill ride” with Dad. It is amazing how much a large soda from McDonald’s (a treat at my house and one that he won’t refuse) and some “man-time” changes the attitude.

        • P.S. My son has a mild form of OCD (that is why we see a therapist)….another reason why he finds it hard to “shift gears”.

  4. So true! I have to constantly re-read “Good and Angry” — I’m not on the opposing team, I’m the coach. Looking forward to The Whole Brain Child. . .

  5. Another book about learning to ‘work’ our brain is “Ten Mindful Minutes” by Goldie Hawn. Was reading this book when 13 year old daughter picked it up and would not give back. She was reading during study hall when a teacher took note (not a book about vampires or dragons!) and they had an in depth discussion about it. Well, the school since bought copies for the library and I received a call from the school telling me how excited they were that a student will read such a book for pleasure.
    This is my daughter’s favorite book next to “Stargirl”. After finally being able to read “Ten Mindful Minutes” myself, I fully understand what the appeal is. My daughter describes this book as ‘an easy stress reliever for all ages if applied to everyday life’.
    Please don’t let who the author is keep you away from reading this remarkable little book. Worth the time and will awaken you to a side of Goldie we have never heard about. She is really quite a writer and even more so quite an intelligent woman.

  6. Thanks! I have both of these on request at the library right now.

    After some reflection, I realized that I don’t like disrespect for two reasons–one good (it doesn’t help the situation or the person dishing it out) and one bad (I don’t want to be the parent with the “bad” kid).

    Looking forward to reading both of these and learning from them. Let us know how the journey with the teens goes!

  7. Stephanie B says:

    Oh I need this!

    I now see how certain things that my children do go back to my childhood and that is why I am so offended/hurt/disappointed when they happen.

    Thank you for your transparency!

  8. Kate in NY says:

    Mary, I am so impressed with your ability to look within this way, to recognize why respect is such a hot-button issue for you. That takes a great deal of insight and humility, I think. I am beginning to realize that a lot of what I interpret as disrespect on the part of my (older, adopted) challenging teen is actually more about disregulation and impulsivity than it is about out-and-out disrespect. And how do I often meet this perceived disrespect? Just as you say – with my own dumb-brain response. SUCH a vicious cycle – we all end up feeling so threatened, out-of-control, and tired. So very tired.

    Just recently, my son’s eighth grade teachers have started nudging me, ever so gently, to get him evaluated for ADHD. They feel he has such a hard time with focusing, attending, controlling his impulses (to interrupt, shout out answers), etc. I have noticed these traits before, of course, but I have always attributed everything to the adoption and his attachment (or possibly lack thereof). The more I read about ADHD, the more I recognize my boy. It makes me feel sad, though – for all the times I’ve interpreted behaviors as purposely antagonistic and provocative. It is a new turn in this adoption journey of ours . . . perhaps it will provide some much needed answers.

  9. I don’t suppose that the correct answer is to go hide in the bathroom. Although I employ that sometimes. My daughter is just entering the tween years, the ones following her are all doing each stage their own way and I am kept constantly feeling like I don’t know what I am doing. Thanks for your always encouraging ideas and ways to think outside of the box.

  10. Wow…we’ve just spent almost 2 years in therapy with our adopted daughter figuring out this very thing. Of course, knowing it doesn’t necessarily mean we always know how to handle it! The approach that seems to work for us the best is to simply refuse to fight because we realized she was using disharmony in our family as a way to exert her control. When we refused to argue back or let the situation escalate (I’m a big extra chore/early bed time person too, but then the situation just get bigger). We try very hard to let time be the only consequence for this child…if she is rude she needs a few minutes alone to calm herself down and come out and try again. If she refuses to do a chore now we just let her keep working at it and if that means that she’s very late for a meal, so be it. This way she is in total control of what happens and she has no one to blame for what’s happening to her but herself. And it allows me to not be angry. I get to practice a LOT of patience, but I think that’s part of what God wants from this anyway. As we’ve responded to her this way it’s become obvious that she actively tries to keep herself in situations where she’s uncomfortable and in trouble…she WANTS to stay in ‘dumb brain!’ Logic and justice have really had to go out the window with this child, but we’re finally starting to get somewhere. And a very timely Sunday school lesson reminded me that the only anger that God ever seems to condone results from God being disrespected. Reading through the story of Isaac reminded me that anger from a human being disrespected was never blessed by God. THAT was convicting for me!

    • I know, God is teaching me lots about patience too! (I’m such a slow student some days though.) And I am SO familiar with the way some kids seem almost more comfortable with actively seeking trouble…such a tough dynamic to handle with love.

  11. This is common with step parents and step children. I heard more than once “you are not my mother” from the child that I was raising because her mother flat out walked out and didn’t come back. I always came back with that’s correct, I am the one here that you have to deal with, now what do you suggest?” Got a lot of “have you lost your mind” looks when I kept asking them for suggestions to solve the issues.

  12. This is such an issue for me. Mine is when my daughter ignores me. Simply won’t answer when I speak to her. “Trigger” is a mild word for what it does to me. I feel my blood pressure instantly rise and a feeling of panic wells up in me. I know, without question, the exact source; why it does this to me. I am still figuring out how to deal with it and not put my baggage on her, but still correct her behavior. It certainly helped once I knew why it triggered me. I take a deep breath and remind myself that this is not the past. Sometimes I remember to pray.

  13. Very interesting! What a blessing to have people be honest with how things work with their children, rather than just giving us the ‘Hallmark moment’ version. I could very much relate to what you were saying, Mary, but in my case a huge trigger for me is obstinance or refusal to comply with a request (often silently or passive aggressively). I suppose our children consciously or unconsciously figure out what pushes our buttons. In a sense, I guess that is how they gain some control in their lives when, so often, they have had little control over rather major issues in their lives (for those kids who have experienced neglect or trauma in their past).

  14. Disrespect is a huge trigger for me as well. It makes me feel like such a horrible parent. Thanks for this post, it makes a lot of sense.

  15. Very powerful and timely for me. These issues have been a huge struggle for me in our house the last couple of months. Apparently I need this book… : /

  16. This was EXACTLY what I needed to read today. Disrespect is HUGE with me because I have the same feelings I think as you I think. I need to be calm and deal with it better. I almost always get very angry and just the other day I made one child do ALL of the chores for the other kids because she just wouldn’t stop but I bet if I had been more calm she wouldn’t have gone that far.
    Thanks so much! I am linking to this on my facebook.

  17. I find that more often than not, that if I can deal with my own “stuff”, I am about 100% better at helping them deal with their stuff. However, it is HARD!!! Then I think, “well, I’m the adult here and why would I expect them to have to own and deal with their own stuff if I’m not willing to set the example and deal with mine. All of this in the context of GRACE, though. God loves us all right where we’re at and He is so patient as we all muddle along on the journey. Thankful for good friends along the way who understand, sympathize, and cheer us on. YOU are one of those friends. Love you!

  18. Beth in the City says:

    Thanks so much for sharing – I was able to pass this on to a mamma with a similar brood to yours, and at exactly the right moment. That’s God for you!

  19. Jess Guest says:

    I am having issues with my – wait for it – two year old.

    I know where it is coming from. Huge trauma in the past year in our house. His baby sister is medically fragile and has had 2 open heart surgeries and a major stomach surgery, he has gone from having me 24 hours on call to me disappearing for anything up to 2 months at a time. He has every reason to scream “no” at me, get violent with his siblings when he is frustrated etc. And it pushes my buttons Every. Time. Let me count the ways it triggers me. A toddler being rude – I was out to dinner with my Mum and she commented (loudly and often) on the loud squealing and “misbehaviour” of a toddler eating at the same place – a children’s hospital where the little girl was an inpatient and in my humble opinion, could happy-squeal as much as she darned well pleased! But it probably says something about how I was raised. Guilt – guilt that he has gone through trauma and will probably to some degree continue to go through trauma for the rest of his life where his sister (who he adores) is concerned, guilt that I am not there all the time to gently guide and direct, generalised ovarian guilt that the world is a messed up place and I can’t fix it. Feeling guilty usually leads to me feeling frustrated and angry which I am then tempted to take out on my poor kid which generates more guilt and sends us into a big spiralling mess of ickyness. Tiredness – self care is something that carers of disabled kids are lectured on at length, but few of the people who tell me to get enough sleep and take care of myself offer to babysit, bring over a meal, help with the laundry or clean my house. I am getting creative and things are getting easier but I am still physically running on fumes much of the time which makes it hard to be objective when my two year old screams at me and throws stuff at me when I refuse to turn on the TV.

    Knowing enough to realise that I am too tired for that particular battle and turn on the TV with a pre-planned 1 program limit, even if it irks me to compromise with a 2 year old, is either self-preservation or looking at the bigger picture. I can’t decide which, but I have decided that right now I am best to just let it go.

    Knowing the self triggers, it seems, is a key thing with kids of all ages!

    • Hi Jess,
      I bet that is frustrating, with everything going on with your baby too– you must be feeling stretched very thin. Sounds like he is needing extra reassurance but not asking for it in a way that makes it easy to oblige. Hang in there and give him some extra hugs and snuggles. When my 8yo gets quarrelsome, that’s usually what she needs….

      • Yes, with his older siblings this type of behaviour would have meant being my shadow and “special helper” (this being where toddlers are infinitely easier than teens, they still think being Mummy’s little helper is the bee’s knees)but it is harder now when a chunk of my day is administering tube feeds and physio and he can be of limited help. When the dear boy is productively engaged he positively glows. I love to sit and cuddle and read with my kids and I consciously carve out time to do this with him each day so I don’t go to bed and realise our only interactions have been clashes. I learned that with my third child when he was a challenging toddler and I would have days where I loved him, but simply did not LIKE him. I had to sit and read with him, not because he deserved it, but because our relationship did. Most of our “bonding” is happening when he is helping me with tasks like setting the table and cleaning up toys where he gets the constant validation. Unfortunately, he does have four older siblings that need a slice of Mum too. But I have an amazing husband who is an amazing Dad and I am growing through this. Recognising when we are getting on that guilt spiral or my buttons are being pushed and choosing to let go of whatever immediate issue we are going toe to toe over and change direction or step away and ask hubby to take over (because let’s face it, nobody wins when you go toe to toe with a two year old, if it has gotten to that point I am probably acting like a two year old myself). I have days when I panic about having a house full of teens (one day I will have 7 aged 12-20 with one of those being a girl dealing with hormones, severe intellectual disability and health issues needing major surgeries including another heart surgery – not a great combo) and I have to remind myself, do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. I am pre-arming myself with whatever wisdom is on offer though!

        • Yes, one day at a time is the advice my very wise momma always gives me. This parenting gig is hard, isn’t it? SO grateful that God loves our children even more than we do, and HE is a perfect parent!

  20. I am really happy to run into this current blog of yours. Our home has been a bit tense lately. I have a daughter whom is 8 and has been home with us for 4 years now. In the past year and a half we are struggling to get along. I have read so many books and watched dvds and listened to dvds. I understand what Karen Purvis and Bryan Post and others are saying but it is so hard if you have come from a hard past. I see myself as a child in her eyes, body language and anger! I can only hope with a lot of help from therapists for myself and my daughter that one day we will get along and love each other unconditionally! Some days are great and others are so trying! I know that I take things to personally but its hard not to. Thank goodness I have the most loving and understanding husband who has been able be the best Dad he can be. He is trying to support me and our daughter and does well most every day. I will pick up those books and perhaps they will shed some more light on our relationship. We also have 5 other children whom we love just like our 8 year old but she seems to have a disconnect and is holding back her love for us. Trust is something we haven’t earned from her! I am going to keep on trying!! Thanks for listening.

  21. Oh Mary! I SO hear what you are saying. I find myself right there too. As I read this post I was thinking, “Oh, thankyou Lord, someone else who is right where I am!”

    Recently we had a couple of instances with our teenagers where I really really wanted to yell and give them the “what for” – and they were being extremely rude and sassy to the correction we were bringing – BUT, praise be to God, I had been praying that the Holy Spirit would just invade the conversation. It was amazing as I continued to point out the truth in love and without harshness, while communicating the amazing grace God has for a repentant heart, that His Holy Spirit went to work in their heart and accomplished so much more than my anger and “discipline.”

    I’m so thankful that God is in the process of refining me through parenting older adopted children. It is really really hard and also very good. I can’t wait to read and watch these resources you have posted.

    Have you heard about the Embracing Orphan’s Retreat in April? It would be wonderful if you could make it! I would love to have some time to chat with you in person again so we could mutually encourage one another!

  22. I just read this week a couple of days ago and loved it. I feel like I need to re-read each section and work on them one at a time. There is a lot to process!

  23. This is the second post of yours that I have read and I’m already blessed by your information. I was searching attachment and adoption. We’re adopting our third and looking to adopt teenagers next. I’m looking forward to reading through your blog!

  24. Thank you! Same issue here. I’ve been concentrating on learning better self-regulating and shifting into higher brain myself. I keep reminding myself that my kids will learn from what I do much more than they will learn from what I say. Apparently, it depends a lot on how well I care for myself with food, water, sleep, and exercise. Go figure! (I’ve been telling my kids about taking care of themselves for years!)

    I would use caution in the use of the terms smart-brain and dumb-brain. The lower brain does have a function, and it is sometimes smart to listen to it. For example, our kids have learned to ignore their own fight-or-flight signals, but when they encounter danger, I want them to listen to that survival brain and run! I have one teen who often concludes that he is dumb when he is triggered and is using his lower brain. Talk about a vicious cycle! When we talk to our kids about the different brains, we call them cognitive brain and survival brain. You could also call them Great Big Brain and Little Brain or Mammal Brain and Reptile Brain, if you want some images that might work better for younger kids. The concept is a very useful bit of info for kids (and adults) to understand when dealing with their own reactions.

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  1. […] Adopted children constantly live in the tension between the happiness of the adoptive-parent side of the story and the sadness that led them to be relinquished in the first place.  We as adoptive parents need to be aware of the tension that causes the child.  They’re carrying a lot.  The human body can’t hold it all.  It will be expressed somehow.  (My post here touches on this.) […]

  2. […] the heat of frustration, sometimes good sense goes out the window.   My growing understanding of brain function has made me realize that kids who’ve experienced trauma sometimes need extra help navigating […]

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