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"Just a Sec": Maintaining Relationships through Tough Moments

“Just a sec!”

Even just writing those words stirs in me the need for a deep inhale and a lengthy exhale as I feel my heart rate increase. How many times have I heard this in response to, “hey kiddo can you come help with…?” When juggling too many things in life, turning to the kids for some age-appropriate help seems so reasonable and I know that the response really means, “let me see how long I can postpone doing what I don’t want to do.”

The story of this simple response can wear on both parent and child. Rest assured, we have some tips that can help you to more gracefully manage the reality that the “just a sec” isn’t going anywhere. With the goal of maintaining relationships through the passing tough moments, the underlying goal is to stay calm so as to not allow this common situation to turn into a battle.

  1. Shift the storyline: The concept of the storyline is to identify the story that you create, which becomes the background for the in-the-moment situation. The ending of my storyline above, for example, focuses on “what the response really means is...” This of course is my interpretation that then triggers my emotional, “here we go again” reaction.

    This is the first piece over which to take control. So, we need to get to know the storyline and then turn it around. The goal of this process is to change the emotions that the parent experiences, which can then lead to a more balanced interaction. So, here is one way I have tried to change the story.

    My husband has a standing desk in our family room area. As such, he is the victim of many impulsive interactions, both from the kids and myself. Similar to an office manager who has a desk in the common room, with whom co-workers interact as though he has nothing else to do but answer whatever question goes walking by. If my husband, or that office manager, was to say, “just a sec,” I would not assume it was a way to avoid and procrastinate.

    So why assume it with my son?

    Well, because the storyline develops from the long history of experience when the “sec” turns into 20 minutes or some time later when I remember that he still has not come out to help.

    But here is what I know about my son: It is his job to try to avoid pain and seek is a basic human underlying need for all of us. So, he will work to keep reading a comic book and not help with the dishes. I also know that he is just starting, at 12, to understand the need for and to develop the skill of time management and shifting focus; his brain is doing all it can to keep up. Does he get up immediately if I say, “time for a movie?” Of course...seeking pleasure, avoiding pain. Going from one pleasure to another is easy (and frankly, even then he wants to finish the page he is reading).

    So often “just a sec” really means “just a sec”. But his brain will get caught up in the words of the comic in front of him and he will have no idea how much time has passed.

  2. Be clear and consistent: The more your child knows that you will forget that you need help and allow for 10 minutes to pass, the more likely he or she is to continue the pattern of waiting until you come back with a more demanding tone. So, during that initial interaction you can say, “OK, kiddo, finish that page and then come out please. If you get wrapped up and forget to come out then you will lose your “let me just finish this page” privileges for the week because it suggests that stopping yourself is still tough for you.” This identifies the pattern and predicts it (which most kids will push against in a classic reverse psychology way), outlines cause and effect behavior and outlines what the potential consequence will be.

    Oftentimes, parents can over-consequence for smaller infractions like this, such as by taking a video game away for a week. This can cause too much of a break in the relationship, be seen by the child as an over reaction and as such, the child can see the parent’s guidance as less stable or trustworthy, which in turn might cause him to listen even less often when it really matters. It is important to put discipline in place, or to outline the consequences of different choices, that really relates to the situation and can help the child build the skill of setting things down that they enjoy to take time for responsibilities. An example might be that the child can earn “play before work” privileges back after showing for a couple of days the willingness to get work done first.

    One creative consequence that seemed to work with us in a different situation was “over-nagging.” For the 10th morning in a row our 10 year old “forgot” to feed one of our 4 dogs. The brief history here is that this is a very old dog who requires some special hospice-esque attention. So, for the kids, it is a real “chore”, while the other 3 dogs are pretty typical. So, I said to my 10 year old, who really hates being told what to do, does not like being wrong, does not like having to be taught, that it was clear that he needed some side by side coaching for a while so that he could “remember” all of the steps of his job. So, for several mornings, I walked around with him outlining every step of the job while he did it. I worked to use funny and not condescending voices because it did not have to be more painful for him than it already was. Now, this was vastly annoying to him, though he also likes having someone around him all the time as such a snuggle bug, so, after only 3 mornings, he was up first thing and sprinted to get the job done before I was awake.

  3. Be proactive: Start the interaction by sitting down next to your reading child and say, “hey, will you stop for a sec.” This encourages the ability to tune in, or be attuned to your child, and the practice of shifting focus while having the side by side interaction. This is different from focusing on a parent who is standing above you in the doorway telling you to stop what you are doing. Once he pauses, say: “I need your help but see you are reading. Where are you on the page? Well, when you get here (pointing somewhere on the page), will you stop and come help me?”

    You can also lie down next to your child and look at the book with him, offering to read the rest of the page out loud.

    These examples change the feel of the interaction from the start.

    With older kids, it might be interrupting a video game, a phone call or something of the like. You can have the same side by side interaction and it can be helpful to offer your older child a choice: “do you want to come now and if not, would you rather I set a timer or come back in a couple minutes to get you?” The more often you can give your older child choice within boundaries, the more they feel “in power” in healthy ways. Growing up is often laden with feeling like you have no power and so often “power struggles” are a hot topic with family dynamics.

    If your child is in the middle of their allotted hour of video game time, ask yourself if you really cannot wait until that time is over. Why do you need her help right then at that moment? If you can wait until video game time is over, great. If for some reason you cannot, sit down for a minute and just watch the video game in silence, which shows some alignment and thoughtfulness about what is important to him. Then, ask him if he is at a place where he can pause for 3 minutes to come help you out.

    If he says no, offering a reason about not being able to pause the game because of how it will damage him or his team, it is ok to say that you really need him to prioritize helping you over the game right now and, if he cannot, then it might be time to change the boundaries around video games in the home. You don’t need to say this latter half in the moment but it might be a topic for another time. Some parents will also offer choice here, “well, if you come now then you and I will be doing this together. If you cannot stop your game then I am going to ask you to do this job on your own once you are done with your game time.” This might not be appropriate to the situation but if it is it could be helpful.

    Again, if every time your child puts up a fight, you walk away exasperated and do the job yourself, then you are teaching your child that the more she fights, the more she gets her way.

  4. Be the change: It is also important to ask myself how often my kids ask for something and I say, “just a second,” or “not right now.” At this moment I consider what I am doing to be more of a priority than what my child needs because “I’m working”. But their priorities are important to them. So, since this whole parenting thing is more about role modeling the person I hope they grow to become and less about changing my child’s behavior, it is important to focus on what I have control; whether it is controlling my reaction through the above practices or making sure that I set my priorities down every now and then to listen to their needs.

    To this end, it can also be helpful to let your child know when the better times are to interrupt you. If you work from home and have office space, let him or her know that when the door is closed, you won’t be able to give him the time that he deserves. When the door is open, you are more easily able to shift what you are doing to focus on him. In this way, you are helping him to learn to “read the room”, be thoughtful of others and advocate for himself within a set of boundaries.

    You are also being clear and proactive with communication. Does this mean that your daughter won’t come knocking on the door just because it is closed? No. She is not functioning at the same level as we are when it comes to impulses. So again, expect it (which can help calm the emotion of “oh my goodness don’t you remember the rule!”), and stick to your boundaries. Your child does need to know that she can come to you no matter what, if there is something serious going on, and even when it is not serious.

    Have a script ready for these situations such as: “Is what you need something that really cannot wait until 2:30, which is 15 minutes from now? Let’s set a timer so you remember to come back then.” Or, “This is a closed door time for me honey and if you let me have this time then I am more likely to be able to spend good time with you later.” Of course, if this is your script, make sure that you carve that time out and not make promises with which you cannot follow through.

  5. Repair: Staying calm in the little moments and the big moments can be difficult and exhausting. As parents, as people, we will not always do it with grace. So, the final piece to learn is the art of the repair. Simply, soon after the emotions have calmed, it is important to come face to face with your child to reconnect. This can be, “Thanks for working with me through these moments. They are tough sometimes but we will get through it all and I will keep working on staying calm when you are having a hard time.” Claim what you can do without pointing the finger at what your child needs to do. It does not have to be a long talk, just a quick passing moment. It can even be as gentle as a nudge and a “thanks for helping.”

“Just a sec” is representative of the many moments as a hard working parent when the little things can get in the way of the important things. Whether you are parenting a 10 year old or a 20 year old, the key is to focus on being the adult you hope she can become and on prioritizing your relationship over the list of things to do while still guiding your child with learning to be responsible.

NOTE: My kids are now 19 and 16 and, while they still "just a sec" the tasks they don't want to do, I have continued to work on breathing through my initial reaction. I would say, in general, I can feel proud of my reactions, my consistency and the relationships we have developed.

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