Hey there! I just wanted to give you a hand here on how to make things easier for you as a parent. I bet you’ve tried a lot of different things to make sure you’re the best mom or dad possible for your kids. Of course, you love your children so much and would do anything to help them be the best people they can be in life. You want them to succeed so badly that you feel your main job with them is to insist that they behave decently, make wise decisions, and treat others with kindness and respect. These are all noble goals, however, it’s one thing to want to achieve them and another to confront the reality that you’re living right now. Let’s admit it, kids can really get to you and drive you crazy! They throw fits, talk back, ignore or disobey you to the point that I bet you sometimes you wish you could just shut the door and pretend they weren’t yours.
Of course you’ve tried to reason with them so they’d understand why you want them to do what you tell them to do. And when they don’t listen, you’ve surely tried giving them all kinds of warnings and consequences. Sometimes you put them in time out or take away a privilege, hoping that it’ll get them to do, or not do, whatever it was that you wanted. This sometimes works, sometimes not. In the long run, you end up spending a lot of time thinking of ways to get your kids to obey and to act decently to other people.
One thing that rewards and punishment doesn’t do is to give kids an internal reason to want to be good. Yes, everyone likes to get rewards, but eventually the rewards get less and less effective. Your kid may love the first hour of video games you let him play, but by the time he gets to the second or third hour, it’s all the same. He just wants more and more, yet still hasn’t figured out how to motivate himself to do his school work or the chores around the house. Maybe your daughter wins the privilege of having a later bedtime or more hours with her smart phone. That doesn’t help her learn to speak kindly to her brother or sister, nor does it make her stop rolling her eyes at any “advice” you’ve given her. You can’t bribe a child into being a good person.
In fact, the only way you’re going to succeed in teaching “good” behavior to your kids is by practicing that behavior yourself. And by practicing, I mean consistently and consciously staying aware of your own moods and being able to stop yourself when you’re having a knee-jerk reaction. Whenever you see yourself becoming angry or frustrated with your child’s horrific behavior, whenever you notice yourself becoming scared that you’ll never be able to raise kids who will be respectful, kind, and responsible, then it’s time to slow down. Take a few slow, deep breaths. I mean really slow. Allow that exhale to last way longer than your inhale, because that’s what slows down the fight-or-flight reaction that makes your face hot, your heart beat quickly, and your fists clench. Once you’ve settled yourself and feel calm, you’ll see that you can think more clearly. This is when you ask yourself, what exactly do I want to accomplish with my child at this moment? Try to tease away the fears and the “shoulds” and the “shouldn’ts.” Your priority is to figure out what’s going on with your child, what emotions or ideas are possessing her that have her behaving like this right now.
Let’s look at a situation that happened with a 13-year-old girl who would not pay attention in class, usually pulled a glum face when her teachers tried to get her to do the work, and complained constantly about the other kids. When this girl, who we’ll call Laeticia, would come home with notes from the teachers, her mom would get mad and take away computer or phone privileges. Without fail, Laeticia would have harsh words with her mom and then would go to her room and sulk. Of course, this solved nothing, because Laeticia was so angry she couldn’t focus on anything other than her grievances. Oh, grievances, you say? Nobody ever bothered to try and understand what was going on in Laeticia’s head while she sat in school all day, defying her teachers and being grumpy.
If someone had so much approached this troubled girl and made it perfectly safe for her to express herself, without being corrected or reproached, without having her feelings denied or minimized, or without having her thoughts discounted as illogical or inappropriate, then she might have opened up. If an adult could have taken the time to actually listen to her without judging her words or behaviors, they might have seen something else. Perhaps she would have told them how hard it’s been for her since her father left them a few years back. Maybe she would have said that she’s lonely when she comes home to an empty house after school or when her mom doesn’t have time to sit patiently with her, because her single mom is working full time and doing all the housework each evening. Or that the lunchroom is so noisy and chaotic that she loses her appetite and then ends up irritable the rest of the day. And, if she really thought that it was okay for her to open up, perhaps Laeticia would have told her mom how much it hurt her when her friend has been ignoring her for days and sitting with other girls at lunch. Instead, Laeticia keeps all this bottled up until she gets home. And when her very first encounter with her mom is a reproach, she explodes.
Think of how it might have been if Laeticia’s mom, upon seeing the note from school, had taken the opportunity to sit quietly with her daughter and told her, “I’m here for you, honey. Seems like you had a tough day today.” Perhaps Mom could have placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder, or simply stood quietly, calm and composed, just waiting and listening to her child’s story, whenever she might have been ready to tell it. Laeticia would be more likely to open up when she felt “safe” enough to let it all out. By safe, I mean that Laeticia would know that her mom wouldn’t scold her or tell her what she should have or could have done, that her feelings wouldn’t be dismissed as unjustified or petty. Whatever Laeticia was experiencing was valid and true for her at this moment in her life. What she most needed was for someone to step up and let her know that it was okay to feel her feelings and think her thoughts. With reassurance and peaceful acceptance, her mom could have help the child be okay with sad or angry feelings and not let them overwhelm her to the boiling point. When a child can see and feel their emotions, and then put a name to them, they become more manageable. Daniel Siegel, an renowned author and expert on children’s minds, put it this way, you’ve got to “name it to tame it.” Helping a child put a label on their big feelings, and doing this tentatively without having to be right, contributes to the child feeling understood and validated. Being there quietly and unconditionally, gives the child the warmth of her parent’s emotional presence. Your relationship and your empathy communicate emotional safety that allows the child to quiet her fears and reactivity.
This moment of being in relationship with your child is an example of how your right brain––the one that sees the whole picture, the part that’s guided by intuition, that’s motivated by deep feelings of connection and love––activates and connects with your child’s right brain. It’s as if a circuit lights up and you and your child are both comforted. You finally get what your child is trying to tell you. You get it so well that you can reflect back the gist of what she’s really communicating. And, at this point, she’s calm enough to settle back into her balanced, more mature self. Her left brain––the part that can use higher level thinking to understand reason and solve problems––comes back into play. This is the moment where you can ask yourself why she may have behaved the way she did and then figure out what exactly you’d like to teach her and what’s the best way of doing this?
But first, you have to make sure your child is ready. And you need to be ready too! Your approach must be consistent with your family’s values, however you’ll do best to avoid being rigid, preachy, or judgmental. By being with your child, you signal that it’s okay to be upset. Then you help the child come to an understanding of her own feelings. That way she can eventually figure out why she acts the way she does when certain things happen to her. You then can help her with the next step, which is to try to understand how what she says or does could have an impact on others. The final step of this process would be to hold your child accountable for the ways she has hurt or disregarded the feelings or property of another person. This would be done with neutral language that is respectful and has no trace of anger, criticism, blaming, or shaming. You would gently inquire and help her to articulate her own ideas about how she might make things right with the person who was harmed by her words or actions.
Although it may seem complex and tiresome to go through this process with your child, you will be saving time and energy in the long run. Being with your child in this warm, yet firm and connected, way will help you build a strong relationship that actually encourages the child to want to behave appropriately. The warmth of this bond is what soothes the reactive part of your child’s brain and helps her make decisions that are respectful and kind to others. Eventually, this kind of listening and bonding will come naturally to you. All in all, you both grow stronger and more considerate. Call it a win–win solution.
To your peaceful parenting!