5 Questions That Can Turn Challenges Into an Opportunity for Growth
It was just like any other Monday night. Derin had just gotten home from work, sopping wet from a rainy bike commute. I was tending to a giant pot of chili on the stove while simultaneously cleaning out the refrigerator. And Asher was plopped on the couch, furiously working away on his current obsession—trying to get his favorite graphics mods to work in Kerbal Space Program.
I gave Asher a heads up. “We’re eating in thirty minutes!” He acknowledged me with an “Okay, mom!” and we both got on with our respective duties.
But a half-hour later when I called Asher to the dinner table, I got no response. Not a word, not a groan, not even a wee nod.
(Have I mentioned how much I dislike being ignored?)
I decided to give him a few minutes and then tried again. Still, nothing. Zip. Nada. A few minutes later, audibly annoyed, I pressed him another time. He finally replied, but with anger because, surprise, I was disrupting him. And so there he continued to sit. Typing away, ignoring me, and breaking our shared agreement about family meals.
Sensing I was on the edge of losing it, Derin stepped in, but he had no more luck than I had. I knew Derin was preparing to escalate by raising his voice, counting down in a threatening manner, or some other such tactic that would only result in Asher rising to the challenge and begin yelling himself. So I asked Derin to let it go and ignore Ash. I put our plates on the table and Derin and I ate our chili alone while Asher toiled away on his tech problem. (Impromptu stay-at-home dinner date!)
Another thirty or so minutes later, Asher did eventually did come to the table. Derin and I had already finished eating, and Asher’s bowl of chili, one of his favorite meals, was cold. He apologized and ate it without complaint, obviously frustrated with himself and feeling bad about the whole thing.
I accepted his apology on the spot, but could tell I was still annoyed and needed some time to cool off, so I headed upstairs to my office to finish editing the podcast I was working on. An hour later, as Ash was lying on his bedroom floor in his PJs reading a book, I was ready to talk.
As I laid down next to him on the floor, I asked him if he knew why I’d gotten upset earlier, to which he responded, “Because I was late to dinner?”
“Well, that was disappointing for sure, but the real thing I was upset about was that you were not communicating with me and instead you were ignoring me. If you had told me you were thick in problem-solving mode and asked if you could be late to dinner just this once in order to finish what you’d started, I would have been okay with that. I’m a reasonable person, don’t you think?”
“Yes, totally!” he said. “From now on I’m going to try really hard to remember to communicate with you about what’s going on. In fact, tomorrow I’m going to make that my intention!”
And boom. Just like that, a situation that in the past would have been a textbook power struggle had become a chance for him to learn how to respectfully communicate, advocate for himself, and take responsibility for his actions. We talked some more about what had happened, what he could have said, and why it’s so important to be responsible for our own actions, and that was that.
Now of course, the learning isn’t over.
We’re going to have to practice this exact scenario, complete with role-playing so he can work on forming the new habit, a bunch of times before it becomes his default. (A bunch = hundreds.) And I’ll have to be uber aware of times when he does choose to respectfully communicate so I can reinforce his good choice by acknowledging it out loud.
But it’s totally worth it.
Because rather than us both feeling bad, annoyed, and misunderstood, we ended the day with a cuddle on his Ikea shag rug and a strengthened sense of unity. Most importantly, Asher didn’t feel guilty or like a screw-up. He felt like a kid learning how to be in the world, which is exactly what he is.
5 Questions to Turn Any Challenge Into a Learning Opportunity
The next time you find yourself in a power struggle or conflict with your child, especially one where you’re stuck in a repetition loop, ask yourself these five questions and transform the conflict into growth:
1: What are you making this challenge or situation mean about you?
This is where we have to start, because if we are being triggered by our kid’s behavior, it is almost always because we’re making their choice mean something about us—who we are, how our child perceives us, how good (or bad) we are as a parent, etc. When we have a strong emotional reaction to something our kid is doing, we need to ask ourselves, what am I making this mean?
He doesn’t respect me. He shouldn’t be ignoring me. He doesn’t care about our shared agreement.
2: How does the challenge or situation highlight a gap in your child’s skills or abilities?
When we look at what our child isn’t able to do in this moment due to the way they are differently-wired, the situation stops being personal or emotional and instead becomes a chance to better see our child for who they are.
He struggles with predicting how much time certain tasks take. He resists others placing demands on him. He has a difficult time leaving a task half-finished.
3: What can your child learn from the challenge or situation?
Absolutely every conflict or challenge with our child presents an opportunity (or often times many opportunities) for learning or developing a skill in an area where he or she has deficits. It’s important that we give ourselves the time to figure out what the most relevant lesson is in that moment and consider the best way to tilt the challenge into growth.
He can learn that when he respectfully communicates his needs in any given situation, he can not only avoid conflict but he can very often collaboratively develop a solution that feels good for everyone involved.
4: What can you learn about yourself through this challenge or situation?
Yep. Our kiddo isn’t the only one who gets to learn and grow. Every time we lean in, reflect, and reframe, we’re learning more about our own personal triggers and response to conflict, and giving ourselves the opportunity to keep doing the important work of developing our own emotional intelligence.
Being ignored is still a tough one for me, but when I remember to not respond emotionally in the moment, we can have a meaningful conversation the benefits both of us after the fact.
5: How can your relationship with your child deepen as a result of the challenge or situation?
This is my favorite question. Because if we follow through on the first four questions, we are going to come out the other side of a conflict feeling more connected to our child than we did before. Empathy, respect, and being heard—for both child and parent—is the stuff that healthy relationships are made of.
We can remember that we are both experiencing this situation through our own lens, but our values of love and respect for each other is important to both of us. We’re on the same side. And when we work together, we feel more connected than ever.