Have you ever taken your children somewhere, let’s say to a restaurant, a park or a friend’s house, you think all is well and then suddenly, you are blindsided by rambunctious, “out-of-control” and/or uncooperative behavior? The kind of behavior that seems to come out of nowhere? The behavior that leaves you feeling at a total loss for what to do and how to handle it, especially when all eyes are on YOU? The kind that makes you want to run away and hide?
Yep, I’ve been there too!
When I reflect on the times I’ve been in situations like these, I realize there’s typically a missing link – either an unmet need within my child such as hunger, exhaustion, boredom, overstimulation, or an unmet need within myself – I’m hungry, overtired, rushing around taking care of everyone but myself! With all this going on and without a mindful thought, I end up reacting to my child and my child then reacts to me. I get upset at his reaction, the behavior escalates and, next thing I know, we’re in a downward spiral of what feels like the point of no return. Ugh!
Aside from these overlooked, unmet needs, I realize there’s often another piece of the puzzle I forgot to include – establishing expectations for behavior.
Now, I know some of you may be thinking, “But my kids should know by now what I expect.” I get it, I really do, I often think the very same thing! Yet, what’s important to remember is that our children’s brains are still developing the ability to regulate emotions, manage impulses, plan and problem-solve. We also have to remember that our agenda of what we want/need to happen, rarely matches our child’s agenda of what they want/need.
What’s a parent to do??
Because children thrive on structure, routine and repetition and because they have a hardwired need to feel a sense of belonging (connection) and significance (that they matter/have something meaningful to contribute), I’ve found one simple question, which I always ask when we are going out in public or doing something new, that has helped us achieve better, more cooperative behavior from our kids. This question is…
“What do we need to remember before/when we _________?”
When used consistently in the way described below, it works like a charm.
Let me give you an example of what this looks and sounds like in action.
Recently, we took our 2 kids to Legoland to celebrate the last few days of summer before school begins. We knew the kids were excited as our car ride was full of singing, laughter, jokes, obnoxious noises etc. As we were getting closer, their restlessness was in full force and we started to hear things like, “Stop it!” “MOOOOOM, she’s singing too loudly!” “Daaaad, he won’t stop looking at me!” “ARE WE THERE YET?”
I felt myself becoming irritated, frustrated and worried that this day we all looked forward to wasn’t heading in the direction I had anticipated. Feeling this avalanche of negativity, I took some deep breaths and reminded myself I had a choice. I could choose to act on these negative thoughts and feelings by threatening to turn the car around, yelling, getting impatient, telling them how lucky they are to go to such a fabulous place OR I could mindfully choose to put myself in their shoes, see it from their perspective and tell myself something more realistic. Essentially, they were excited and simply having trouble containing their emotions and impulses. They weren’t “spoiled,” “bratty,” or “bad” and they weren’t trying to ruin our family day. They were just kids ecstatic about where we were going, tired of being in the car, wanting to be there NOW!
“Deep breaths,” I reminded myself.
With all this in mind, here’s what came next:
Me (in upbeat tone): “Hey guys, I can hear how excited you are for Legoland today!”
Kids: “Yes, are we there yet? We can’t wait anymore!”
With the intention of validating their feelings and engaging their interests, I responded…
Me: “I know, it’s sooo hard to wait when you’re really excited to be going to one of your favorite places. I totally get it! What are you looking forward to the most?”
Daughter: “I want to see the Lego 4-D movie. Madeline saw it and said it was so good! And, I want to drive those fun cars and get my drivers license!”
Son: “I want to do the new Ninjago ride…you get to shoot stuff…And I want to go on that twisty roller coaster!”
Me: “That sounds super fun! I’m excited to do all those things too! You know what? Daddy and I could really use your help. We all want to have a fun day, right? (Both kids agreed). To make our day extra fun, where everyone gets along, what do we need to remember about how we behave at Legoland?
Son: “We have to be good listeners.”
Me (laughing, as he knows me well :)): “Yes, and what does that mean? What does being a good listener look like?”
Son: “It means that when you ask us to do something or stop doing something we do what’s being asked the first time and that we have respectful behavior.” (Respect is something we talk about often).
Me: “Yes, thank you. What else will make our day fun and super easy?”
Daughter: “That we take turns with rides and are kind to each other.”
Me: “Yes, love it, anything else?”
Son: “Keeping our hands to ourselves.”
Me: “These are some awesome ideas guys, thank you for helping us come up with them. What happens if we start to get a little tired or hot or bored and we forget some of these ideas? Should we come up with a special code (a word or signal) that can remind us to get back on track?”
Daughter: “Yes, FBN!”
Me: “Mmmm, I haven’t heard that one. What does it stand for?”
Daughter: “Friends Be Nice.”
Son: “Or K and R for Kindness and Respect.” (This is a phrase we commonly refer to when behavior gets wild :)).
Me: “I love these! Ok, you guys said that to have a fun, easy day, we all need to remember to listen to what’s being asked and follow directions the first time, be respectful of each other, take turns with rides, keep our hands to ourselves and be kind to each other. Did I forget anything? (Both said no). If Daddy or I see you’re getting off track or if one of us gets off track, we can say “FBN!” or “K and R!” to remind us about our agreement. How does that sound?”
Both kids: “Great!”
The beauty of this lies in the ‘asking versus telling’ and discussing it all ahead of time. And, guess what? It only took a few minutes! You may be wondering, “Why not just tell them what you expect?” Whenever I’ve done that in the past, I’ve found it falls on deaf ears and only creates a disconnect between me and the kids (not to mention some resentment.) Plus, who likes being told what to do all the time?
So, instead, I choose to express faith in my kids ability to make good choices by coming up with “rules,” or more respectfully, “agreements,” that will benefit all of us. Engaging them in this way meets their need for belonging and significance, while fostering the essential life skills of decision-making and problem-solving. This simple question also allows them to feel part of the solution, rather than the problem. It’s a true “win-win.”
Give it a try and let me know how it works for you. Expect a little push back the first few times. It’s a new skill, which, like everything else, takes time, patience and lots of practice!
All the best,
A successful day at Legoland!