Joel Toombs is shocked and alarmed by some of his interactions with his children, but explains how taking a mentoring approach moves the conversation on 


I have been considering how we can create guidelines for ourselves about how to respond to aggressive or argumentative behaviour? And how can we pre-empt these situations by forward thinking?

One thing I struggle with as a parent is trying to answer all my children’s incessant stream of questions and concerns… In actual fact it is not a struggle, it is a mistake!

Have you ever started answering one of these questions only for them to ask another or start doing something else while you are mid flow with your wise and insightful response?! That’s because sometimes, often (!) this question is not a question, it’s an exploration. It’s an internal dialogue that spills into an outward torrent of information processing and a whirring of cerebral mechanisms as they learn and grow and push against their current understanding in order to attain new understanding.

1. Don’t assume they want answers.

Sometimes don’t rush to answer the question; turn it around or facilitate it so they can discover what they are looking for themselves. Don’t feel you have to be an information vending machine. Mentoring in parenting is about assisting and nudging them onwards in their skill development, rather than providing endless factual information. Think back to the proverb about giving a hungry person a fishing net rather than a fish… Often answering a question with a (well phrased, open ended) question is more useful than a direct (closed) response.


2. Don’t assume they want answers when conflict and abrasiveness occurs.

Angry rhetorical questions still often elicit an automatic reply from us about why what they’ve said is illogical/naughty/rude …but what’s behind the aggression? It is the same exploratory desire to understand their own emotions and comprehend their place in this confusing changing world they are growing up into.

The other day my five-year-old shouted “I hate you” in a tantrum. I was shocked! We have a great relationship; where did that come from?! But when we talked about it after he had calmed down clearly it wasn’t something he meant in the slightest. Aggression and anger is a mask. The challenge is to hold back long enough to remember this in the heat of the moment.

Mentoring skill is about retaining your composure long enough to see past the immediate behaviour and words and allow them to find a learning path through the red mist. If we consistently react in the same way – especially with our own form of abrasive correction or resistance we are unconsciously creating a paradigm for them to follow again and again in future. Framing it this way means that conflict is often as much about our own learning as theirs. Can we, in that moment, form a new behavioural pathway, new ‘muscle-memory’ by doing something unexpected…? It might be that calmly listening to the entirety of their argument (or tirade) and acknowledging their viewpoint may be enough. Sometimes asking what emotions they are feeling right now, and even why they think they feel those feelings, might cut across their anger? The most startling and positive encounters I’ve had with my own children have come when mid full-on tantrum I’ve stopped (such as during the ‘I hate you’ moment…), dropped down to their level and just hugged them, telling them everything is OK, ‘you’re alright,’ ‘I’ve got you, ‘I love you.’

Aggression and conflict so often comes out of an overflow of emotions they are struggling to cope with and to understand or even recognise at that moment. Clearly in those moments the contentious ‘thing’ is not the real ‘thing’. What is the epicentre that caused the earthquake?

An overflowing sink

Anger is like an overflowing sink – can you see past the flooding water to pull out the plug? Can you stop mopping with towels for a second to gently turn off the tap?

Parenting traditionally feels like our job is to correct, instruct and inform… but mentoring in parenting is about acknowledging feelings and viewpoints and creating a space and an opportunity for encouraging self-awareness and facilitating self-exploration. It is about making this moment about their growth, not reinforcing how right we are. This is the long-game, where our relationship with our young charges is more important than being proved right or protecting our own feelings.

Think about this: can you forgive their rude comments and poor behaviour well in advance of them even doing or saying anything? This is like a pre-emptive force field. If you can eliminate your own insecurities and emotions before they get reeled into the situation, then when hurtful behaviour appears you are much more able to remain calm and unhurt and therefore in a better position to assist them wrestling with everything that is going on inside them. You will be better positioned to see past the immediate and spot where it is all coming from. Yes, it may sometimes be tiredness or hunger but an argument can become an opportunity for honesty to emerge about deeper issues such as insecurity or other sources of pain they may have that you may not yet even be aware of. A fight could result in anger, disciplinary action (naughty step/banning screen time?) and then hopefully making up… but what if it led to both of you realising it came from previous hurt or fear or similar and being able to then talk through these deeper things and address deeper issues together?

This takes nothing away from you having clear boundaries and proper parenting responsibility for standards of behaviour and so on, but next time all hell breaks loose see if you can pause for a second and try something different. Use facilitative, open questions. Listen attentively to even the most outrageous assertions before undermining what their anger expects by trying to recognise and guide their energy rather than dismissing and stopping their emotions dead.

Questions you could use:

What five actions could you do when you feel angry that might help slow your anger down?

What have you tried already to calm down when you’ve gotten angry?

What thoughts go through your mind when you are angry?

What do you think you could do differently next time you are angry?

What other reasons might there be for someone getting angry – for example feeling hurt or embarrassed or ashamed?

What are the things that triggers your anger the most?

Can you think of anyone that controls their anger well and how do you think they do it?

How does your body feel when you get angry?

Diffusing conflict:

Can you describe what happened?

What would you like to see happen?

What does that look like for you?

What would it take for us to be able to move forward?

What ideas do you have that would meet both our needs?

If you were giving advice to a friend in this situation what would you suggest to them?

If you were the parent in this situation what would you want your child to do?