One of the best strategies for working with teenagers is to move in the opposite spirit, which means doing the opposite of what seems natural. Basically, this is a technique that disarms the stubborn or strong-willed person by agreeing with them. Sometimes it is as simple as saying, "Oh, yes, I see what you mean," after the teen delivers a criticism or harsh remark. This switches up the dynamic in the relationship and gives both parties a chance to restart from a more positive position.
What does this look like in real life?
One of my teenagers was very angry at me because there was a Friday night event his friends were going to and he wasn't allowed to go. (It was more than a decade ago. So I don't remember why he wasn't allowed to go exactly but it was probably a type of event my husband and I didn't approve of.) It was Saturday afternoon and I was returning home from my office. My then-15-year-old son was ready for a fight. He came rushing in to yell at me about how outrageous it was that he missed the night out. I took a deep breath…I had never seen him so willing to express his anger at me. I pulled out a chair and sat down and just listened. It seriously disarmed him. He didn't expect that reaction from me.
Most likely, my son expected me either to yell back, warn him not to be disrespectful, or go somewhere until he composed himself…all realistic expectations. But this day somehow the Holy Spirit had prepared me to move in the opposite spirit.
The result of moving in the opposite spirit
My son totally changed his approach when he saw he had my full attention. He then told me how he felt about being deprived of something he really wanted to do. Yes, he was mad, but mostly he was disappointed and felt powerless that we would withhold that opportunity from him. He assumed we knew how much it meant to him. Of course, that's my summary of his thoughts and feelings that day. It was a pretty emotional exchange.
My son’s anger was diffused and he had a chance to talk about important feelings while still feeling them. Things didn't always go so smoothly at our house for sure. But I learned a valuable lesson: We need to make a distinction between anger and disrespect. As parents we shouldn't allow disrespect, but we can permit and even encourage expression of feelings. What's the difference? Anger is expressed in "I" statements and disrespect is more character assassination, bullying, name-calling, and the like. A young person may start off in disrespect and be able to switch to respect because his/her feelings are being validated.
Sometimes kids, strong-willed or otherwise, just need a chance to be who they are without reprisal or parental injunctions like: "Don't you raise your voice to me" or " You know what's going to happen if you continue talk to me like that!" Moving in the opposite spirit is doing the unexpected. If someone is being superior or prideful, take the one-down position of humility. If someone is being cranky or cantankerous you could be unabashedly kind or understanding. If someone is being critical, join with them, "Hey, I resemble that remark."
A picture of moving in the opposite spirit
Think about it this way. Imagine you're at a department store and feeling very angry and entitled because the clerk is taking way too long and you're not remembering your early morning moments with The Lord. Someone notices you and offers to let you go in front of them, saying something very kind and understanding and NOT judging you. It's totally disarming. It helps you own your "stuff." Your anger fades and you may even have a complete emotional reversal. Why? Is it because someone noticed your plight and saw things from your perspective and empathized with you?
Unless you're inherently very entitled, you know you don't deserve the "go to the head of the line" treatment. It exposes your character flaw to yourself. This is the side of God's learning curve we all so enjoy. What has happened here? Someone has shown me acceptance during a time I least deserve it. I'm caught in the act of being myself. Yet, at the same time, I'm not being disapproved of but rather I'm being shown grace and favor. This is the part of God's training camp where our growth and maturation are expedited. Ah, yes, much more fruitful than lecturing and sermonizing.
We need to remember this application when our kids are getting on our last nerve. It has been said that our kids need our love the most when they least deserve it! That's also true of us and our relationships with The Lord and our friends and spouses, too.
The Irresistible Force paradox
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Parenting strong-willed or angry kids can feel like that age-old physics paradox. Moving in the opposite spirit sidesteps that dilemma by deferring to the immovable force coming at me and being in control of myself. As a parent, I know that having control over my emotions is the only way to ensure a good outcome. We're supposed to be in control but not controlling! What's the difference? When we're controlling, we don't permit scary feelings such as anger, hostility, disappointment from our kids, and we don't permit them to be separate from us. (“We'll tell you how to feel, act, etc.”)
As parents we have many opportunities to provide experiences that mature our kids. I was a no-nonsense kind of parent when it came to homework, chores, routines, and the like, but I tried to permit a lot of dialogue about other things.
Next time one of your kids is indignant about a boundary or structure your family has set up, step aside! Pull up a chair and listen. Don't argue. Restate what they say; it's very validating. See what happens. Obviously, every scenario in family life doesn't offer an opportunity for moving in the opposite spirit. But maybe, just maybe, when you do move in the opposite spirit, you might find a lightening of tensions and more joy and understanding being generated around the dinner table or on long car rides. You truly have nothing to lose. “If we always do what we've always done, we're always going to get what we've always gotten.” (Henry Ford)
Is there a Biblical foundation for this?
The Holy Spirit is always moving in the opposite spirit. Isaiah 61 shows us that He gives us beauty for ashes, joy for our sadness, and the garments of praise for depression. The prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is another example of moving in the opposite spirit. The Kingdom of Heaven is truly opposite from the world we're living in. So why not operate from the kingdom in which we have true citizenship. (Eph. 4:20-22).
Moving in the opposite spirit can find a place in many of our relationship dynamics. (It is the crux of good customer relations.) Be creative! Seek the Lord for ways to apply the principle of moving in the opposite spirit with your kids, your colleagues, neighbors, and family. You may be very surprised to see how THE opposite spirit, the Holy Spirit, might intervene in one of the aspects of your daily grind and bring about an outcome that could only be from above!
Susanne Ciancio, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Christian Counselor. She has been serving the Christian community as a professional Christian counselor in Essex county and the surrounding area since 1986. Beyond her private practice in West Orange, NJ she is involved in teaching, consulting, and pastoral supervision in various churches in the area. Click here for Susanne's website.
EDITORS NOTE: While Susanne can’t answer specific counseling-related questions, she welcomes your thoughts, comments, and suggestions about what kinds of topics you’d like to see addressed here at Circles of Faith. Click here to contact us.