28 Feb

You Can Be Angry and I’ll Listen to You: The Elephant in the Room is Emotional Self Management

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Yesterday, a potential act of violence was nipped in the bud by a high school student who had the courage to report a classmate’s threat. That high school, Staples HS, is in the lovely, affluent town of Westport, CT, where my older brother and his then future wife attended school. The Newtown shootings were in the same county where I grew up. For the past twenty plus years, I’ve been living one county north of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas HS. I can’t get away from these horrific events.

While we debate whether and how automatic and semi-automatic guns are regulated, who should be armed, and what security measures must be taken in schools, the national discourse is missing a key point. Anger management is not being taught in schools, nor in many families. Our children need to learn how to manage strong feelings without resorting to violence. School shootings––as well as other instances of violence in households and in the streets––can be prevented if children can be educated to bridge their differences while respecting one another.

There are many programs out there that teach children about anger management and conflict resolution, however, in many cases, schools are giving priority to academic subjects, because that’s what gives them the high test scores that bring in better ratings for the school. Too often, school administrators show woeful ignorance of the fact that children who are socially and emotionally well-balanced have the greatest chance of succeeding academically. To be successful in life, and in school, it’s critical that children learn to express their feelings in a way that others can understand. Appropriate self-expression opens the gateway to good communication and the ability to understand and cooperate with others. The ability to handle stress and strong emotions is an essential life skill that parents, caregivers, and school personnel should actively encourage and cultivate in children.

When young people are given the opportunity to discuss issues that truly matter to them without being ridiculed or dismissed, they build resilience. They learn to trust others to listen and have more confidence that their needs will be met. Giving children the privilege of growing up in a climate of kindness and respect will go a long way to solving the problem of kids wanting to kill off their teachers and classmates. And, in the case that someone is left out, at least that person’s classmate will be more inclined to report him to school administrators, who will listen and will take appropriate measure to prevent an act of violence.

Peace begins at home. Let’s work to hear what all of our children are saying. Let’s practice kindness and acceptance, beginning with each other and each child. We can arm our children with the skills of emotional competence so we don’t need to build an arsenal in our schools and our homes.

To your joyful parenting!
Kim

17 Aug

Why Punishing Kids Doesn’t Work & 3 Steps to Finding Solutions to Problem Behaviors

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Many adults complain that parents ignore or excuse kids’ rude behaviors and don’t punish them enough. “Today’s children are entitled” “They tyrannize their parents.” Parents should teach them a lesson, they say, by giving them tough consequences––a good slap, scolding, or time-out.

I disagree. Punishing isn’t the most effective way of delivering a message of respect or responsibility. Here are some reasons:

  1. Criticism, shaming, and blaming do nothing to teach children how to cooperate and be accountable. Not that a parent should condone the unruly or disrespectful child’s behavior. Far from it. You should be firm about what is acceptable and what’s not. Help your kids be open to learning by approaching them from a place of kindness and respect, not anger and retribution. When you hit or yell at a child for being disrespectful, you’re relying on physical or emotional pain to be the teaching mechanism. True, your kids will remember the pain, but it won’t teach them the long-term life lesson you’d like it to.
  2. Slap your kids and they’ll focus on how unfair and hypocritical you are, not on what you’re trying to teach them. They see their parent lose control and do something––hit or scream––that they know you don’t want them to do. Or, if they’re smart and sneaky, they may strategize how to get away with the behavior that you’re punishing them for by hiding it better next time. Some will hold onto their resentments and plot how to get back at you. Others do this unconsciously by underperforming at school, picking on their siblings, or finding passive-aggressive ways of disappointing or undermining you.
  3. As much as you might like to, you can’t control your kids’ thoughts. If you put kids in time-out and try to get them to “think” about what they did wrong, they quite possibly might sit there and stew in their anger at you for putting them there. They’re not saying in their heads, “Oh, I’m so lucky to have parents who care so much about me that they’ve given me this opportunity to think about how to improve my behavior. I’ll use this time wisely to contemplate why I behaved so poorly, and then I’ll surely figure out how to become a nicer human being!” No, that’s not how it works.
  4. Your kids may take the blame and shame to heart and begin thinking of themselves as “bad” or “unworthy.” You don’t want to diminish your child’s self-respect while trying to encourage respect for others. Doing this teaches them to submit to others, even if it means losing dignity, or gives them carte blanche to wield power over others by trying to force them to submit.

Three Steps to Finding Solutions for Problem Behaviors

In the heat of the moment, neither of you is capable of logical thought. Upset adults react to their children’s upset. This means that they, too, have lost control. And when adults’ judgment is clouded by raging emotions, they’re not able to respond skillfully to their children’s misbehavior. So, Step One is:

  1. To get to the bottom of misbehavior, first you and your kid need a cooling off period so you can get back to your senses. This might mean a positive time-out where each of you finds a calm, safe place to relax and pull yourself together. In your peaceful place, you might listen to soothing music, read a funny or inspirational book, or look at pictures or objects that are calming to you. Your children’s positive places may be equipped with pillows, fun books, stuffed animals or other toys that make them feel relaxed and peaceful. Once you and your child are calm, proceed to Step Two:
  2. Figure out what’s really going on. Take time to connect emotionally and show empathy for your child. What emotions are motivating the misbehavior? When a child acts up, they’re in an upset state. Research shows that people who are upset are in their “reptilian” or limbic brains and their logical, reasoning brains are off-line. To get them into a more balanced, rational state, you need to calm them, or allow them time to calm themselves, and then show empathy. Without condoning the poor behavior, you begin by connecting to your kids emotionally so your kids can access the higher level cognitive skills needed to work on solutions. Use your intuition and be sure to act from your heart. An emotional connection can involve a hand on the shoulder, a kind expression, or a statement showing empathy for the feelings they’re expressing. Only after you’ve connected can you re-direct.
  3. After you’ve established connection, it’s helpful for you to ask “curiosity questions.” Gently inquire with open-ended questions. Encourage kids to figure things out for themselves, instead of telling them what to think. When kids find the solutions themselves, they’re more likely to act on them.

Here are some questions you might ask (from Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline: the classic guide to helping children develop self-discipline, responsibility, cooperation, and problem-solving skills):

“What happened?” or “What’s wrong?”

“What do you think caused it to happen?”

“What were you trying to accomplish?”

“How do you think this affected _______ (the other person or people)?” or “What do you think _______ (someone) felt when this happened?”

“What did you learn from this?”

“How, in the future, can you use what you learned?”

“What ideas do you have for solutions?”

You’ll get a better understanding of your child’s world if you listen carefully, and show empathy and acceptance. Try to avoid asking “why” questions, which invite defensiveness.

For some adults, showing empathy sounds like a “reward” for poor behavior. They believe that kids should “pay” for their misbehavior. However, research has shown that punishment, punitive time-outs, scolding, taking away privileges, and other forms of parental retribution only serve to further activate the child’s limbic system, where dysregulated emotions run the show. Punishment triggers the limbic-based fight-flight-or-freeze reaction, setting the child up to resist and react. At best, the child learns nothing in the process––except perhaps to suppress anger or resentment, better hide the undesirable behavior, or turn the anger inward as low self-esteem or unworthiness.

You have a choice as a parent. You can go down the path of imposing consequences when your kids misbehave, or you can make an effort to connect to your kids with empathy, kindness, and firmness. One strategy for doing this is asking the right questions and allowing children to work on the solutions themselves, and with your help when needed. This opens the door for you to teach them life-long skills in cooperation and problem-solving––a win-win for everyone.

To your joyful and wise parenting!

Kim

10 Feb

Taming the Monsters: Your Words Can Work Magic

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It’s been too silent and you know there’s gotta be something wrong. Your household is never this peaceful unless everyone is fast asleep. As soon as you enter the kids’ room, your 3-yr.-old lets loose with a flood of tears that brightens his cherub-like face and a wail that assails your senses. Your 5-yr.-old son, Jordan, is sprawled on the rug, his arms encircling a wide array of toys. He’s imploring you to take his side, “Randy is trying to take them. Their mine! I had them first!” And then, there’s Randy, who manages to whine through his tearful fit, “he hit me!”

Normally, your first instinct is to blame Jordan, because you think he should know better than to hit. He’s been told repeatedly to “use his words.” As the older brother, he knows that’s what he’s supposed to do. Why is it that, as soon as you turn your back, he reverts to this aggressive behavior? Fortunately, you remember to take a deep breathe. You stop and get clear about the whole situation. Then you remember. You were not in the room. You realize that you actually don’t know what happened. It’s all conjecture! You then try to imagine how your older son might have perceived it. You think about what he knows about behaving himself when faced with an irrational, grabby 3-year-old. What exactly are the limits of his self-control in face of his presumed knowledge of “correct” behavior? You tell yourself, quite logically, that 5-year-old Jordan does not really get why his little brother is always into his toys. It’s quite possible that he’s frustrated. Maybe he’s trying to set them up in a way that, to him, looks awesome. Who knows what story he’s telling about those toys in his head? And then, suddenly, the Little Monster is swooping in to demolish everything. You bet he’s mad! And frustrated.

One of the most basic strategies to help a child get control over their feelings is for the adult to name that feeling. Even if you’re not entirely spot on, you can do your best to approximate what you think your child might be experiencing internally. To Randy, the one who got hit, you might say, “oh, that hurt when you got hit and you were sad you couldn’t play. You really want to play with Jordan and he didn’t let you. Those toys are not for grabbing. You can ask for them when he’s done playing with them.”

Then, you might continue with your older child: “Jordan, I see how mad you must be at Randy. He messed up what you were trying to do. It’s so frustrating. He’s not for hitting. You can tell him how mad your are and you can let him know that right now you’re playing with those toys and you don’t want him to take them.”

Of course, Randy will insist, “but I want them,” and he’ll try to grab as many as he can in his little hands. Jordan will then be all over him again. You’re the referee here. Wanting to prevent bloodshed, you go into the “ring” to physically separate them. Again, you let Jordan know that you totally get it––he’s mad at his brother for ruining what he did, but he may not hit his brother. You also tell Jordan he can say he’s mad to Randy and he can tell Randy that he didn’t want him messing up his set up. You can give Jordan another strategy to deal with the situation: perhaps he can ask his brother to wait a few minutes and play with them another time. Jordan simply isn’t mature enough to problem solve this on his own, especially in the heat of the moment when his upper-level thinking skills are off line. Literally, he’s in his lower brain, the emotional limbic part, that has no connection to the part that can reason and “work things out.”

When you name the emotions, or at least attempt to approximate what you think your kids might be feeling, it has the effect of connecting to your child and this will calm them down. Author and neuropsychiatrist, Daniel J. Siegel,  describes this fundamental parenting strategy as “name it to tame it.” (The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Siegel, D. J., and Bryson, T. P., Bantam Books, 2011). By helping your children in this way, you are giving them the tools to learn to become aware of their emotions, and eventually, have self control.

When you acknowledge Randy’s sadness at not getting to play with what his big brother is playing with, you are helping him to understand what’s going on emotionally. This can calm him enough to tame those big, out-of-control emotions, and it can help him reframe the experience so that he could eventually negotiate to have a turn with the toys. And, when you let Jordan know that you understand how mad he is at his brother, you’re giving him a chance to cool down and get out of his lower brain, which operates on the basis of fight or flight. You’re helping him soothe the limbic area of his brain so he can use his “higher” brain or cerebral cortex––the part that uses logical thinking. With the “name it to tame it” approach, your son will eventually learn how to use this part of his brain to think about how his actions could affect other people.

So you haven’t yelled at either of your kids, yet. You haven’t taken one side or another. You’ve simply helped each of them connect with the emotional turmoil they’re feeling, and helped them to slow down enough to calm the storm. As a parent, you need to deconstruct what’s going on in your children’s minds so you can respond appropriately to each situation and each child. That way you can teach them the skills they need to become more aware of their emotions and how to express them appropriately so others can understand. You’ll be giving them access to social skills they need to become happy and successful adults. Welcome to the mindset of Parenting Made Ridiculously Simple!

–– To Your Joyful and Effective Parenting!
Kim

07 Sep

How to Tame Tantrums: One Strategy That Really Works!

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Three-year old Jake was desperate to play with his older sister and her friend, who were setting up an family camping outing with their Playmobile toys. He had played alone since lunchtime and wanted to be part of the fun. The girls had just gotten the campsite set up, having placed the toy family at the campfire, when Jake asked to bring in his favorite toys, a gang of dinosaurs. But the girls saw no place for the dinosaurs in their story and told Jake, “no, leave us alone!” Jake turned bright red in the face, did all he could to contain his tears, and then lashed out. With repeated kicks left and right, he proceeded to destroy the entire, elaborate scene that they’d spent hours putting together. Pieces of the girls’ camping haven were now scattered in every corner of the room. Jake stood there fuming, glaring angrily at the girls, and looking helpless and defeated.

As a parent, how would you deal with Jake? Would you punish him by putting him in time out? Or yell at him to stop bothering his sister? Perhaps you’d tell him, or the girls, to be “nice,” or else…? What other choices do you have?

With the understanding of why your child has tantrums, you could take a more proactive stance. In most cases, the child having a tantrum is totally out of control and needs your guidance. In full-blown tantrum mode, the child’s upper level thought processes are entirely off line. He has lost the use of his cerebral cortex, the part that gives him the ability to think, be flexible, and express his feelings. Utterly dysregulated, he doesn’t know how to deal with the big emotions he’s feeling, nor does he have the tools to ask for what he needs. He needs your help to soothe his distress.

“When your child is at his worst, that’s when he needs you the most,”
– Daniel Siegel, No Drama Discipline

Try to remember this the next time your kid drives you crazy. Your connection with your child comes first, and, besides protecting him and others from harm, and keeping property intact, this is more important than anything else. The upset child is in a reactive state: his “reptilian brain”––the part that’s wired for fight, flight, freeze or faint––is on alert. He can’t listen to reason or logic. By approaching with an empathic and nurturing attitude, you can help soothe out-of-control emotions and lead him to a calmer state where he can experience self-control.

Through your gestures, body language, and facial expressions, you can show him that you really understand and feel his distress. This might mean quieting your voice to a warm, friendly tone, giving a gentle touch or a hug, sitting down on the his level, and softening your facial expression. You might gently pick him up, rub his back, and soothe him, letting him know that you get how much it hurts. All of these gestures signal to your child that he is safe and he is not alone. You are setting limits of physical safety by preventing him from harming himself or others, or from damaging property. This helps re-integrate the brain, which means he’ll have moved from being reactive to being receptive, and will be able to use some higher level thinking.

When he’s calm enough to look you in the eyes, you could use a few quiet, empathic words to show you get it (i.e., “you really wanted them to let you play” or “you felt left out”) and go on to redirect him about asking for what he wants by telling him something like, “you can say, ‘I want to play, too.’” By connecting in a soothing way, you’re training his brain to self-regulate, to cope with anger and frustration. You’re helping him regain self-control. As a result, he’ll be able to listen to the limits you’ve communicated to him and absorb the message (i.e., “kicking your sister’s toys is not respectful. You can tell her you’re sad she’s not letting you play”).

By being there for him emotionally, you give him a foundation for learning upper level skills such as sound decision-making, emotional regulation, personal insight, flexibility, empathy, and morality. These skills, which he’ll need to enjoy a balanced and meaningful life and healthy relationships, are governed by a part of his brain that won’t fully mature until he’s in his mid-twenties!

So, the next time your child throws a big, messy tantrum, keep in mind that you are a co-builder of your child’s brain. Jump in and connect with him emotionally. You’ll not only be teaching your child to self-calm and make positive choices, you’ll also be deepening and strengthening your relationship with him.

To your joyful parenting!

Kim