Have you ever found yourself “listening” to your child while actually thinking, “are you kidding me, this again?!” Children are persistent and incredible at showing us over and over again exactly what they need, until we finally get it. Sometimes the simple act of recognizing their desperate pleas to be watched without our gaze moving away from them removes their need to persist in a tantrum. When we slow down, get down on their level and remember the intensity with which our children experience the world around them, so many barriers can be broken down and replaced with connection and growth. Sometimes by simply saying, “This is really hard for you,” or “You are showing me just how mad you are right now,” we can help relieve a child’s stress response.
Child development and years of research show us that children are incredibly sophisticated at adjusting to the needs and expectations of their parents. Meaning, when children comprehend that their needs truly cannot be met, they begin to stop asking, expecting or even wanting that connection. In other words, their nervous systems begin to “shut down.” This shift can look very different during infancy, young childhood, adolescence and adulthood. What would it be like, instead, to flip our own thinking when a child in need approaches us? What if we adjust our needs for the moment, regulating our own emotions and becoming present to what the child desperately needs for healthy development? Simply put, what if we respect our children as individuals separate from us with their own ways of thinking and being in the world?
Rarely can a child listen all of the time, be agreeable all of the time or reach full potential under the strict pressure of being in line perfectly with their parents’ thinking all of the time. In fact, it is detrimental to the development of the brain to block a child’s path to creative thinking and problem solving through their feelings. As adults we often give our children all of the answers, choosing a quick solution out of convenience to fit our need, whether it is resolving our own embarrassment, shock, anger, disappointment, time management, etc.
“I’m not going to let my child tell me what to do,” or “Aren’t I just enabling a tantrum if I let my child act like that?” are concerns and statements parents sometimes pose. It is important to differentiate between listening/respecting our children and just being in charge. As a parent, it is our job to help our children navigate their complex emotional states and help them organize and regulate their feelings. If we shift our perspective to the true meaning of “discipline” (from the Latin word for “teach, pupil”) and truly instruct our children in the moment through relationship and connection, we will find that as the adult caregiver we ultimately are in charge, choosing to guide the moment and the child patiently towards growth. We are in essence asking, “What do I want my child to learn in this moment?”
“They are just doing it for attention.”
Often an automatic response from parents, teachers and caregivers, often with a negative tone/connotation as if it is wrong for a child to desire our attention. These adults are correct in a sense – the children are doing “it” for exactly that – attention. Dr. Stephen Porges and Dr. Sue Carter have demonstrated through their enlightening research on the neurobiology of the brain that we are hardwired for connection to others, and it is imperative to our survival. When a child makes his voice louder, movement bigger, protest stronger, they are signaling clearly that they WANT, even NEED, to be in connection with us. Children never want to be alone in their big feelings. Children may need space, and can show us this through words and behaviors; however, needing space does not require that they go through their big feelings alone.
It is important to recognize our limits as parents and human beings.
Times when children may cause us to reach a breaking point of anger or frustration. If you are feeling as though you want to hurt your child, make them feel guilt or shame, then THIS is a good time to take your own space. It is okay to need space as a parent. If you are choosing this route, please reassure your child by announcing that you are taking space and give them a reasonable duration to expect. “I really need space right now; I will come speak with you in five minutes.” When we desert our children in a fragile moment without any recognition of this intended action, we run the risk of our child feeling rejected and alone to experience their feelings. If in the end it is safer to walk away without any verbalization, please understand that a small “rupture” in the relationship has just been committed. Nevertheless, “repair” is always around the corner. You and your child can make it right again, together. When ready to return to your child, you might say something like, “You know, I really did not like how that went earlier. Here are my thoughts. What do you think?” You affect the process of “repair” by problem-solving through your feelings together.
REMEMBER: In moments when you feel most like walking away from your child, THAT is when he/she may need you the MOST.
Here are some tips for grounding, refocusing and connecting with your child during these difficult, shared experiences:
- Be with your child, fully. Describe, name and confirm the
“You are showing me just how angry you are – is that right?”
- Let your child know you are there, period.
“This is really hard for you; how can I help?” And then wait with your child.
- Give your child options, and do not threaten abandonment.
“We need to leave now. Either you can choose your shoes or I can help you.”
- Encourage your child, and give him time to problem solve in the
moment. Rarely does a child feel motivated to change his behavior
when the parent expresses feeling defeated before even beginning a
task with their child.
“You are having a hard time listening. I know you can make a good choice.” And then wait with your child.
- Practice. Practice. Practice. When our children are not behaving,
give them a chance to “show you” the desired or appropriate
“I see that you threw your toy down; let’s practice sharing. Try again to hand that toy to your sister. Show me.” Offer to help if your child still persists in avoiding direction. “We will pick up the toy together. Let’s practice.” Then praise. Praise. Praise. When your child does practice and is successful in completing a desired task, give him lots of positive reinforcement through affection, attention and praise.
- Pay attention to negative language. Replace “No’s” with “Yes’s.”
For example, rather than saying, “No, you cannot have candy” try “Yes, another day.”
Or rather than saying, “No, you cannot watch TV tonight” try “Yes, during the weekend.”
- Let children practice empathy and create their own solutions.
“Bobby, look at Mommy’s face – how do you think I am feeling?” Bobby might say, “mad.” And you offer, “Do you have any ideas why?” Much to your amazement Bobby likely will have his own idea for fixing the problem that he helped create. Perhaps Bobby will say, “I could say sorry.” In that case, how much more meaningful will it be to your relationship when Bobby’s apology comes from him, rather than being prescriptive? Try to move away from statements like, “You need to say you’re sorry, right now.” Children can come to such a constructive resolution on their own.
- Crying is communicative. If your child is crying, he is showing you how hard the moment is. The challenge is to put down your desire to accomplish a task in the moment, resist your irritation over the crying, let go of your fully-developed inner voice telling you that you are enabling a negative response and respond to your child’s need for connection. Your child is SHOWING you what is needed – comfort. Comfort may look different for every family, whether it is a hug, pat on the back, verbal recognition or rocking your child in silence. When we ignore the NEED for comfort, your child inevitably will create even more distress in order to seek out this comfort. Rather than a fifteen-minute battle of telling a child to “suck it up” or “stop crying,” you can offer possibly less than a minute of comfort and move on together, well-regulated.
- Be consistent. You can help teach your child to be accountable, while maintaining rules and boundaries in the household. Be consistent and be kind.
- Keep it simple. When you find yourself talking “at” your children or notice that they are no longer hearing you, remember to come back to the body. Notice what they are showing you with their face, body, proximity, tone, etc. Then go back to Tip #1. Fewer words can go further for children.
Some of these approaches might seem daunting or indulging in the short term; however, in the long term, you are communicating that you will take the time to meet your child’s needs in the moment, in pursuit of healthy development. And when you as a parent practice this perspective over and over, your child will gently and surely learn that they can become thoughtfully responsive, rather than overly reactive, in difficult moments. Sharing in these difficult experiences, parent and child learn to “co-regulate.” Together, they learn that they do not need to be as BIG, as LOUD, as STRONG in communicating one another’s needs. With fewer moments of power struggles, combative tantrums and frustration, we find ourselves open to opportunities of more shared moments of positivity, confidence building and authentic attunement.
Remember that parent and child relationships go through cycles of connection, disconnection and reconnection. If you are feeling disconnected with your child, understand that it is part of the journey of relating to another person, and that there will be an opportunity for reconnecting again. In the end, children want to be connected to us – it is that simple.
Be Present. Be Consistent. Be Kind.
A child with severe emotional, sensory or behavioral dysregulation issues, or a parent who is more limited in the capacity to be self-reflective, may need professional assistance beyond these tips.
Recommended Books for Parents:
- “No Drama Discipline” by Daniel Siegel
- “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” by Daniel Siegel
- “Growing an In-Sync Child” by Carol Kranowitz & Joye Newman
Siegel, D.J., Bryson, T.P. (2014). “No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm The Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.” Mind Your Brain, Inc. New York.
Cooper, G., Hoffman, K., Powell, B. (2009). Circle of Security International: Early Intervention Program for Parents and Children. Retrieved from circleofsecurity.org