Watching our kids experience anger, sadness, fear, disappointment or any challenging emotion isn’t easy. It’s so natural to want to shut it all down or fix the issue at hand. It’s uncomfortable. It’s “messy.” It pushes our buttons.
Ever felt this way? You’re not alone!
While there aren’t easy answers, there are some helpful suggestions…
When in these moments, frequent as they may be and as hard as it is, the most valuable thing you can “do” is PAUSE and s-l-o-w things down. Take a breath. Several actually. Walk away if you need to. Imagine pressing an actual pause button. Mindfully and compassionately, tune into what you’re feeling. Become aware of what buttons are being pushed by the emotions your child is experiencing. Whether or not we like to admit it, these buttons are very often about our past and/or they’re related to current life stressors we are facing, such as work, health issues, financial concerns or relationship difficulties. It is in these mindful moments that we can choose to remind ourselves, “These are my buttons, they have nothing to do with my child!”
The biggest gift we can give our children is our presence. Our non-judgmental, non-evaluative, non-critical presence. The time for learning isn’t when we and our children are in an emotional state – the time for learning is when everyone is calm.
The path to that calm begins with us. It begins with a mindful awareness and compassionate acknowledgement that the intensity of our reaction often has more to do with our own histories and circumstances than it does with the child in front of us. It begins with an understanding that the only way our child will learn to “calm down” and regulate his emotions is when we can model what that calming down looks and feels like. In this way, we help our child learn to calm himself and accept the full range of his emotions – messy as they may be.
So, the next time you’re face-to-face with challenging emotions, PAUSE. Take care of yourself. Resist the urge to fix, dismiss or punish and instead, recognize whether you’re being triggered. Breathe. Focus on staying present and connected to your child. Become curious. Listen for the feelings beneath any behavior you see. Understand that what your child is feeling isn’t good or bad; right or wrong. It’s her experience. Set limits on hurtful actions. Allow feelings. Model respect while reminding yourself that your child is still learning how to “be” in this big, complicated world. She is doing the very best she can with the skills she currently has and needs your peaceful guidance.
Our ability to stay calm, present and aware of when our own “stuff” is getting in the way, is what builds the trust, openness and connection needed to raise confident, emotionally healthy children who thrive.
“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.”
All the best,
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!
With summer coming to a close and the new school year just around the corner, parents everywhere often struggle with making the big transition from long, relaxing summer days to hectic, rushed school days.
Many of the parents I work with say that either getting out the door in the morning or putting the kids to bed at night is their most stressful time. Whether it’s due to dawdling or outward defiance, it’s no wonder parents feel at a loss for what to do!
One of the best tools for managing those morning and evening struggles is establishing a ROUTINE. Although we may think that our kids “just know” what to do, it’s important we refrain from assuming. Making agreements ahead of time, in the form of a formalized routine chart, is key!
Getting started is simpler than you may think. Here are 5 steps to help your mornings/evenings move from chaotic to calm:
1.) Respectfully define the “problem”– The key to a smooth morning or evening is having everyone involved in the plan. So, as a first step, bring everyone together and define the “problem.”
For example, “Hey guys, thank you for taking the time to chat. We have a problem that I/we could really use your help with. Mornings (or evenings) have been really hectic. I find that I’m yelling a lot and I’m sure that’s not fun for you. It’s definitely not fun for me. I/we could really use your cooperation in coming up with a solution to this problem.”
(If you haven’t been yelling, but just want to introduce the idea of a routine: “Hey guys, I have an idea of something that will help make our mornings/evenings super easy and could really use your help.”)
2.) Establish what tasks need to be completed and in what order – After defining the problem (or introducing the idea), involve the kids in brainstorming a list of all the things that need to get done in order to get out the door in the morning or to bed in the evening.
For example, “Let’s make a list of all the things that we need to do in order to get out the door in the morning and on time. What are your ideas?” Write (or have your child write) down all ideas; even those that seem silly. Remember, it’s about brainstorming and allowing everyone to feel involved in the process. Every idea is welcomed.
(Examples include: get dressed, make bed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, use restroom etc)
For younger kids, try taking pictures of your child doing each of their tasks – the visual is extremely helpful for them! (Be sure to get the pictures developed so they can be put on a poster board, hung on a clothesline, ribbon etc :)).
Consider coming up with specific, fun job titles. For example, if your kids are old enough to write, you may choose to invite one to be the “writing assistant” and the other(s) to decide where the list will be displayed (“list hanger”), how it will be decorated (“list decorator”) etc.
Next, invite ideas for the order of the tasks. For example, “Ok, great, thank you for all of these helpful ideas! Now, what order would be most helpful? For example, do you want to get dressed first or eat breakfast first?” Or, for evening routines, “Would you like to brush teeth first or put PJ’s on first?”
With younger kids, invite them to help you put the pictures in a useful order.
Asking kids for their ideas gives them a sense of control and significance, which increases the likelihood they will follow through and cooperate.
3.) Establish time frames – Kids are natural pleasers and do best when they know what’s expected of them. Along with outlining all that needs to be done, it can also be helpful to let the kids know by what time each “activity” should be completed.
For example, “We will need to leave the house by 7:30am in order to get to school by 7:50am. That gives you a few minutes to play on the playground before school begins at 8am. Let’s see if we can figure out how long each activity will take so that we’re sure to get everything on the list done and also be on time.” (Examples: 6:30 wake up; 6:40-6:50 get dressed etc.)
For some families this extra detailed step is helpful. For others, the list of tasks (or pictures) alone works fine. Do what works best for your family.
4.) Choose where the new routine will be displayed – Once the list (and timeframes) have been established, write it up on poster board or another paper of choice and decide where in the house it will be displayed. Some families use dry erase boards so they can make changes easily.
There can be one family schedule or each child can be in charge of his/her own individual routine (this depends on age of kids, # of kids in household, preference etc.)
5.) Expect some testing and Encourage, encourage, encourage! – If mornings or evenings have been extra hectic, expect some testing behavior. It’s normal for kids to test the boundaries and limits to see if you really plan on following through with the new plan. Change takes time…stick with it!
Now, with the schedule in place, you can allow the routine chart to be the “boss.” Aim to ask more often than you tell using encouraging statements. For example, “I see you got yourself all dressed, thank you. What’s next in your routine?” Be sure to also acknowledge their cooperation once they complete their tasks. “I really appreciate the way you used your chart to get everything done this morning. We’re on time now! Way to go! Thank you!”
Allowing our kids to be involved in family decisions, while expressing faith in their capability, is how we foster the essential traits of self-discipline, responsibility and confidence.
It starts with us! 🙂
Wishing you all the best,
One of the chief complaints I hear from parents in my practice is that their kids “don’t listen.” Parents often report feeling “disrespected” and are “tired of yelling.” Why is it that kids don’t listen? How can parents end the cycle of yelling, threats, bribes and other punishment?
The thing is, listening is not a skill we’re born with, it’s one that must be taught. Like any other skill, it takes practice and patience. What we know is that kids listen after they feel listened to and, ultimately, children learn what we model. When we, as parents, take the time to really “tune in” and pay close attention to our child, we demonstrate what listening looks like and, more importantly, what it FEELS like.
Think about a time you felt upset. Perhaps you had a bad day at work or were feeling stressed after your child’s third meltdown of the day. Now let’s say you went to a friend for support. Which response would you rather hear?:
A.) “Oh, get over it. It’s not that big of a deal. You should hear what happened to me today!”
B.) “Wow, sounds like you had quite a day. I’m so sorry. Tell me more about it.”
Consider what each of these responses elicits in you. For many, response A minimizes and dismisses feelings, whereas response B shows empathy and validation, with an invitation to elaborate on the experience. When your child is experiencing strong emotions (in the form of tantrums, talking back, yelling etc.), be aware that is his way of sending you a message that he needs help understanding and managing his immense feelings. When we understand this, we are in a much better position to choose a response that invites connection and cooperation.
All misbehavior is a communication. Because the rational part of a child’s brain is not yet fully developed (it won’t be fully developed until early adulthood!), it’s unrealistic to expect her to process and manage such overwhelming emotions if we haven’t taught her how to do so. Children need our guidance, not punishment. Punishment derails the trust and connection we have with our child. While it may work in the short term as far as stopping a particular behavior, the long-term effects can be detrimental to a child’s sense of security and emotional well-being.
If you’re wondering how else you can foster more positive, cooperative behavior in your child, consider these 6 gentle tips:
1. Take care of yourself – emotionally and physically. It begins with us. Get plenty of rest. Exercise. Meditate. Journal. Find something that brings you joy (or just a moment to yourself!). Build a supportive tribe of friends and family you can rely on.
2. Connect before you “correct.” Make sure you are in a calm state, and then get down on your child’s level (below eye level is best). Gently put your hand on his/her back. Speak softly and slowly. This is one way in which to model respect.
3. Use empathy and validate your child’s emotions. Unmet needs and underlying emotions are what drive misbehavior. Your child is not out to get you. As discussed above, he needs help with his overwhelming emotions. When our child feels our understanding and acceptance of his feelings, he is in a better position to engage the more logical, rational part of his brain and becomes more receptive to problem solving and guidance.
4. Establish 1:1 time with your child/ren (aka “Special Time”). Set aside time each week (daily, if possible) with each child where they get 100% of your undivided, focused attention (eliminate distractions such as TV’s, cell phones, siblings). This is your time to bond with the message being, “I’m all yours!” Kids who feel connected to their parents have much less need to misbehave!
5. Ask, don’t tell. When we make commands, we put our child on the defensive and invite resistance. Instead, try phrasing your request in the form of a question. Not only does this invite cooperation, but it also helps build critical thinking, decision-making and problem-solving skills. For example, “What do you need to put on your feet so we can leave?” vs. “Put on your shoes!” “What is your plan for getting your homework done?” vs. “Go do your homework.” “Where do the toys go when we are finished playing with them?” vs. “Pick up these toys!”
6. Be playful, silly and have fun! Our children want more than anything to please us and connect. They long to feel a sense of belonging (connection) and significance (that they matter/have something meaningful to contribute). Join your child in what they love most of all – to play and have fun. Isn’t this what childhood (and life) is all about!?
Listening is a skill. It takes time, patience and practice to develop. When we take the time to listen to our kids, not just with our ears, but also with our hearts, amazing things can happen. It starts with us!
All the best,
Many of us dreamed of being a mommy one day. We spent hours as a child taking care of our dolls, bathing them, dressing them and telling them everything would be ok. We watched and copied everything our moms did or what we hoped they would do to take care of us.
Or maybe being a mom wasn’t something that came naturally to you. Maybe you had a challenging childhood and questioned what kind of parent you would be?
Regardless, parenthood isn’t easy and to our dismay, babies don’t come with instruction manuals. So what’s a parent to do? How do we best navigate the often troubling and exhausting waters to reach the shores of balance and harmony within our families and ourselves?
As a psychotherapist and parent coach, I have spent years researching these very questions. I have found that there are no easy answers, but there are answers. The key to parental enjoyment begins with us and our willingness to look within. “Us?” You say. Yes, it begins with our willingness to pause before reacting to notice what is happening within our bodies and minds. It involves learning that we are bigger than our thoughts and that our thoughts are not always truth. This process certainly isn’t easy, yet in this space of pausing, we realize we have choices and more importantly, opportunities. Namely, the opportunity to nurture and guide, rather than punish and control.
When I was a brand new parent (and sometimes even now – 10 years later!) I felt completely overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated and baffled by many of the behaviors I was seeing and challenging moments I was having with my kids. It took me a while to realize that I was playing a big role in the “problem.” Trust me, it wasn’t easy to admit! My expectations of how I thought my kids “should be” behaving simply weren’t realistic and my reactions weren’t helping any of us. Things had to change. For me, it began with taking responsibility for my own behavior in order to begin building the connection I knew I truly wanted for my family.
There are times we react to our children in a negative way. For example, we may be in a hurry, becoming impatient and easily annoyed. Or, we may find ourselves easily triggered by something our child says or does, so either lash back or worry their “misbehavior” will persist! Or perhaps even both! When in these states, how often have you said to yourself, “I sound (or am acting) just like my mom/dad!?”
We’ve all been there!
On the other hand, when we allow ourselves time to slow down, reflect and become aware of these patterns, a beautiful thing happens. We invite the potential to become more present, focused and compassionate. Recall the child who lovingly took care of her doll…was she in any hurry?
To fully enjoy parenting, it’s useful to give yourself and your child the most important gift of all – PRESENCE. What does this mean? What does it look like? To be fully present means setting aside your “to do” list. It means tuning into your child and paying attention to all that he/she is experiencing in that moment. It also means making sure YOU are at the top of that list!
Being present is more than simply listening with your ears, it’s listening with your heart. It means appreciating the amazing being in front of you with all his hopes, dreams, fears and ideally, without judgment.
As a first step in this process, it is crucial to begin accepting your own imperfections and treat yourself with the same loving kindness you give or hope to give to your child. Your child doesn’t want (or need) you to be perfect…she wants you to accept yourself so that you can then accept her and all of her imperfections. When we accept ourselves and are willing to make mistakes, we teach our children that mistakes are how we learn, grow and evolve.
Our children are little sponges picking up on every detail of our communication, both verbal and nonverbal. Think about what message you want to send your child about self-confidence, self-acceptance and resiliency. Model the very behaviors you hope to instill in your child. Become aware of your own negative self-talk and the toll it takes on your mind and body. Think about what you would say to a friend…if you wouldn’t say it to a friend, I suggest you stop saying it to yourself.
When children misbehave, as they all do, they are doing so to get their needs met and because they’re dealing with strong emotions they are not yet able to rationally process. They are also working hard to figure out their world and just how far they can go. It’s their job to push the limits and test the boundaries and it’s our job to have those limits and boundaries in place – set with both kindness and firmness and an empathic understanding of their developmental needs.
Every human has fundamental needs, physical and emotional. These include the need to feel respected, loved, valued, understood, a sense of belonging and a sense of security. What we know is that all misbehavior is a communication and a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. When a child acts out, he’s telling us he needs our help in the only way he knows how.
If parenting has become taxing for you because you have a misbehaving or challenging child, you are certainly not alone! Here are 7 suggestions to help restore your sanity, increase the connection to your child and begin to more fully enjoy parenting:
- Pause before parenting.Take a break, walk away, BREATHE and center yourself before responding to your child. Figure out what you need to do to take care of you in those stressful moments. Then, consider the needs of your child and what need she is attempting to have met (is she feeling disconnected? in need of more attention from you? feeling powerless? hungry? tired?). Be curious and try asking questions, rather than lecturing. You may be surprised at the answers.
- Become your child’s “Emotion Coach.”Use empathy to help your child understand what he is feeling. This meets your child’s need to feel understood and valued. When you address the underlying reasons for the behavior, rather than the behavior itself, you’ll see a change in your child. For example, when faced with back talk, “You must feel really angry to be speaking to me that way. What’s going on? Let’s talk about it.” Later, when you’re both calm, you can review with your child your expectation for respectful communication and how he can better handle the situation next time.
- Ask for the behavior you want.Children receive thousands of negative commands every day. “Don’t jump on the bed.” “No hitting.” “Don’t do that.” It helps to give a child directions they can successfully follow. A child feels loved and capable when she can do what you’re asking her to do. Tell your child the behavior you want to see vs. the behavior you want her to stop. For example, “The couch is for sitting.” “Keep your feet on the floor/hands to yourself.“ “Food is for eating, not throwing.” etc.
- Offer appropriate (and limited) choices.Children have a need to feel a sense of power and control. By offering choices, you meet this need and reduce the likelihood of a power struggle. For example, “Would you like the red cup or the blue cup?” “Would you like to put out the napkins or the silverware?” “Would you like to start your homework now or after a snack?” “Would you like to brush your teeth first or put on your pj’s first?”
- Create “Special Time.”When your child is misbehaving, he’s sending the message that he feels disconnected from you. Carving out time in your day where your child can have 100% of your attention and he directs the play or how you spend the time can work wonders for your relationship. When your child acts out, it’s as though he’s saying, “my tank is empty.” Quality, uninterrupted time with your child (even 10 minutes a day) helps to refuel your child and your connection.
- Teach your child about mindful breathing and how to ask for what he/she wants.For young children, you can have them hold up both hands. Have them pretend there is a flower in one hand and a candle in the other. Show them how to “smell the flower and blow out the candle.” Older kids will enjoy the multitude of mindfulness meditation apps such as “Smiling Mind” and “Stop, Breathe and Think.” Helping a child to manage her emotions by first learning how to “calm down” is an invaluable life skill. Once a child is calm, she can then be taught how to ask for what she wants and/or needs in an appropriate way. You can also teach your child to ask for attention versus acting out for attention. Be sure to offer hugs and teach your child she can ask for a hug whenever she needs one.
- Bring in PLAYFULNESS. With our endless lists of what needs to get done and our constant rushing from one activity to another, we often forget the value of simply being in the moment, appreciating the moment and not taking it all so seriously. The beautiful thing about young children is that they are almost always in the “here and now.” Unlike adults, they are not overly concerned with what happened yesterday or what will happen in the future. Take a lesson from your kids – bring in the silliness and playfulness. Throw on music when it’s time to clean up, have dance parties, make your requests in goofy voices, give a piggyback ride up the stairs or crawl like tigers when it’s teeth brushing time. Play is the language children know best!
To truly feel the joy of being a parent, we must begin to appreciate our imperfect selves in order accept the imperfections in our children. None of us are perfect. We’re not meant to be perfect. It’s our imperfections that make us so colorful and interesting! We must also realize that parenting isn’t always blissful and that’s ok! We’ll have good days and not so good days because it’s all part of the journey. Find your tribe of support and put yourself back on your list of “to do’s.” As they say, “You can’t pour from an empty cup!” YOU matter!
All the best,
Our days are made up of a series of moments – some joyful, some painful. These moments typically include a range of thoughts and emotions (often unconscious) about what is happening, many of which are based on our earlier conditioning.
What’s so powerful (and what we often don’t realize or forget), is that within these moments, are choices; choices that include what we’re willing to accept, what we’ll respond or react to or what we’ll let go. This opportunity is ever present in parenting and within our relationships.
So when the more challenging moments arise, the question becomes, what do we choose? Is it…
Or, is it…
The thing is, each moment is a gift. The choices, while not always easy, are ours to make. Let’s aim to choose wisely, skillfully and compassionately, knowing that *this* moment is where its at.
Picture the scene: Your child comes home from school, dumps his backpack on the ground and starts rummaging through it looking for the new Pokémon eraser his friend had given him in a trade. Books, papers, pencils go flying around as he looks for his beloved item. When he’s unable to find it, tempers go flying.
Child: “MOM, where is my eraser????!!!! Did you take it? I can’t find it anywhere! I NEED it!”
You (feeling a bit surprised and maybe a little annoyed that he’s so upset over such a little thing): “I’m sure it’s here somewhere. Now come pick up this mess!”
Child: “No! I have to find it! You don’t understand!!!” (As he storms off in a fit.)
This is an example of a common scene I play out when I teach my workshop on power struggles. I ask the parents how they would typically respond to such behavior. After a “Oh, yes, I know that behavior well” chuckle from the group, they invariably say they would follow their child upstairs and insist they clean up the mess they made; that the behavior is “irresponsible” and/or “unacceptable.”
Upon further discussion, we get to the crux of the issue. Namely, these well-meaning, well-intentioned parents worry (and fear), among other things, that if they don’t “nip (the behavior) in the bud,” it will only get worse.
When I ask parents what they really want from their kids, the vast majority says, “I just want my kids to LISTEN!”
Can you relate?
In order to increase listening and cooperation, it first helps to understand what motivates our kids’ behavior in the first place. So much of what we know about childhood behavior and Positive Discipline, comes from the work of two prominent psychiatrists, Dr. Alfred Adler (father of Adlerian psychology) and Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs, author of the 1950’s seminal book, Children the Challenge.
Both believed that human behavior is driven by two fundamental needs: belonging (feeling connected) and significance (feeling valuable). We also know that kids have a need for attention as well as to feel a sense of control over their world. These are core, hardwired needs we ALL possess.
Kids are always looking for ways to get these needs met and will seek out attention in either appropriate ways or inappropriate ways, whatever works and in the manner in which we’ve trained them. Kids learn quickly and do what works for them. In addition, as far as our kids are concerned, attention is attention, whether it’s positive or negative. And, when we’re engaged in a power struggle, guess what? They have our full attention!
In addition to these core needs, our kids also have big, intense feelings that underlie their behavior. What’s important to know is that they don’t yet have the cognitive development or experience to understand and process these emotions (that part of their brain is still developing). Therefore, they can become easily overwhelmed and what we see, as a result, is this “crazy-making” behavior!
So often, we focus solely on the behavior itself because, well, we just want it to stop! Yet, in doing so, we’re not getting to the root cause and it’s no wonder the behaviors and battles continue.
What’s important to know is that all behavior is a communication and misbehavior is the symptom of a deeper issue. A child who isn’t listening or who is acting “defiantly” is simply telling us he needs our help in the only way he knows how!
As Drs. Adler and Dreikurs said, “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.”
As a parent of two very strong-willed kids, I understand, first hand, what it feels like to be constantly negotiating and simply wishing my kids would just listen the first time I make a request! This constant frustration over what my kids weren’t doing and how triggered I was becoming, led me to Positive Discipline as well as to the study and practice of mindfulness and mindful parenting.
According to Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., author of Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family, mindful parenting is about “making a choice to focus our attention on the present moment, with kindness and curiosity, so we can make a thoughtful choice about how to proceed rather than react out of frustration or confusion.”
In studying mindfulness, I came to understand how often we are worrying about the future or ruminating over the past. When thinking about the past or the future, we are simply not in the present moment. That worry, fear, anger, sadness and stress over past and future greatly impact our thoughts and behavior. When under stress, we lose the ability to think clearly and rationally; to see our child’s behavior as a cry for help versus manipulation. On top of that, we have our own histories of how we were raised or treated as children, which greatly influences our reactions as well! Oh my!
Becoming aware of this process (without judgment) is key – with awareness, comes choice and opportunity. Namely, the ability to choose an appropriate response and the opportunity to model the very behavior we want to instill in our kids as they grow. Almost 95% of what kids learn is modeled behavior. Those little eyes are always watching. As they say, let’s “be it to teach it.”
Taking all of this into account leads us to the million-dollar question…”So what do I DO the next time I’m faced with a power struggle??”
With the above in mind, here are 5 ways to more mindfully approach and manage power struggles:
1.) Stop, drop and roll – When you feel annoyance or anger arise, STOP what you are doing, even if you are mid-sentence. With compassion, recognize that you are lost in thoughts and emotions that are not constructive and that the only thing you have control over is yourself and your reactions. Take 3 deep, calming breaths.
Next, DROP into your body and the present moment – notice sensations in your body (tightness, shortness of breath, tension); notice and name the emotions you are feeling (“anger,” “annoyance,” “frustration”), continue breathing.
Lastly, using this intentional, compassionate awareness, ROLL out a more calm and connected response. Understand that what you’re feeling may also be what your child is experiencing.
2.) Acknowledge and validate feelings while limiting behavior (a.k.a. “Connect before you Correct/Redirect”) – Our kids are not out to get us, they are simply still learning appropriate ways in which to get their needs met and need our calm presence to guide them. What they are feeling is not good or bad, right or wrong. It just is! Without judgment, acknowledge what your child is feeling, limiting any inappropriate behaviors. For example, “I can see you’re having a really hard time right now. I love you and it’s not ok to hit me. Hitting hurts. It’s ok to feel angry, it’s never ok to hit. I’m here to help. What words can you use to tell me what you need?”
3.) Give in fantasy what your child wants in reality while offering limited choices – So often, power struggles occur when there’s a mismatch in parent-child agendas; we want one thing, they want another. We want them to take a bath; they want “5 more minutes” of playtime. And so the “struggle” develops when we put our agenda ahead of theirs. Instead, realize that our child’s agenda is just as important to them as ours is to us. Drop the desire to “win.” Focus on maintaining the connection to your child. For example, “I can see you are having SO much fun building your Legos. You would probably build your Legos all night if you could, huh? I see how much fun you’re having AND it’s bath time. Would you like to bring some Legos up to the bath with us or keep them here for when we’re done. It’s up to you, you decide.”
4.) Search for “win/win” solutions – When in the midst of a power struggle, take a step back. Check in. Realize that your child is most likely feeling powerless in the moment. Look for ways to join together to come up with a solution that can meet both of your needs. “Seems we have a dilemma here. I would like help setting the table for dinner and you really want to keep playing your game. Mmm, I’m wondering how we can make this work for both of us? What are your ideas?”
Keep in mind that involving your child in this process meets his/her need for belonging and significance, while also models respectful communication. This is also one of the best ways to build problem-solving and decision-making skills.
5.) Take care of YOU – Self-care is imperative to cultivating open, connected and loving relationships (with yourself as well as others) and is a crucial component when it comes to mindful parenting. Despite knowing this, many parents continue to put themselves at the very bottom of their “to do” list. They say, “yes” to everyone but themselves. The airline analogy is an important one, “Secure your own mask before that of your child.” The reality is, we can’t pour from an empty cup. Be mindful of how you’re feeling and what your own needs are. Make sure you are doing something kind, compassionate and soothing for yourself as often as possible, no matter how little it may seem.
There is no doubt that parenting is hard work and there is simply no such thing as a perfect parent. Be kind to yourself. You are learning right alongside your child. Just know that you’re not alone – we’re all on this miraculous journey together!
With warmth and gratitude,
“Emotional Intelligence” or EQ refers to the ability to know one’s own emotions as well as the emotions of others. It is the quality most employers look for in a potential candidate. Having EQ has also been shown to be a better predictor of “happiness and success” than IQ.
If you’re wondering how to cultivate this essential trait, while raising kids who feel a strong sense of identity, contentment and connection, consider these 10 vital suggestions…
1.) Focus on the relationship you have with your child above all else – Connected kids are happier kids.
2.) See situations from your child’s perspective and help him learn about his emotional world – It’s important to know that kids are always making decisions and forming beliefs based on what they perceive happening around them. This is part of what drives their behavior. However, we need to keep in mind that because they still lack the cognitive development and experience, their perceptions are not always accurate and therefore their behavior will not always make sense. Our ability to empathize with how they experience various situations helps them make sense of their world. Helping them label the emotions they are likely feeling, provides comfort and security, while building emotional intelligence.
3.) Acknowledge and validate your child’s experience and emotions – Feelings are not good or bad; right or wrong. They are simply what make us human. When kids feel acknowledged, accepted and understood, for the full range of their feelings, they develop self-awareness, self-confidence and a sense that they are capable of managing their emotions. In addition, they become less reactive and more receptive to any guidance and suggestions we have to offer.
4.) Consider brain development and have realistic expectations – The logical, rational part of a child’s brain is still developing (up until the age of 26!), so understand that they don’t always have “control” over their emotions and impulses in the way we would hope or expect. Furthermore, kids learn how to regulate their emotions by how we regulate ours. Have patience. Learn about each of their developmental stages.
5.) MODEL the very behavior that you want to see – So often, it’s not what we say, but what we DO that guides children’s actions. Pause before parenting. Those little eyes are always watching. Be it to teach it.
6.) Set limits with both kindness AND firmness – Kids need limits and boundaries. A too kind approach is permissive and a too firm approach is authoritarian. Being kind and firm AT THE SAME TIME is respectful to both child and parent.
7.) Focus on what IS going well – It can be so easy to focus on the negative (tantrums, back talk, defiance etc), yet, there’s actually a lot of “good stuff” happening, when we take the time to really look for it. Kids are natural pleasers.
8.) Be present – Tune in. Listen to your child with genuine interest. Drop any agenda you may have.
9.) Be playful – Play is the language of childhood. Get silly, have fun – life is too short to be taken so seriously!
10.) Love your kids (and yourself!) unconditionally! – Life is messy, imperfect and full of ups and downs. We all make mistakes – it’s how we learn, grow and evolve. Show compassion for yourself and your kids – we’re learning “life lessons” right alongside each other.
All the best,
At the crux of nearly every power struggle lies an AGENDA – our agenda and our child’s agenda.
We want them to take a bath; they want to continue building legos.
We want them to finish homework; they want to prolong snack time.
We want them to go to sleep, they need one more of EVERYTHING!
While these “battles” are frustrating and even annoying at times, it’s so important that we honor (yes honor!) and respect (yes respect!) that our children have needs, feelings and agendas of their very own. Whether we like it or not, their agendas are just as important to them as ours are to us.
Strive to let go of the need to “win/gain the upper hand/show them who’s boss” – this mindset only invites the very resistance and defiance we’re wanting to avoid.
Instead, understand that there are deeper feelings and needs that underlie our child’s behavior (i.e. “defiance”) – feelings of powerlessness, disconnection, vulnerability and/or a need to be seen, heard and listened to.
Meet the needs and acknowledge the feelings and you’ll notice you’ll be battling less and enjoying each other more.
Wishing you all the best.
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