Lessons for Everyday Parenting
The Connective Parenting Newsletter, January 2014
If you’re making New Year’s resolutions this year, remember less is more. The key to becoming a better parent in the new year is NOT to add on any expectations of yourself that you can’t be successful meeting. Who wants to feel worse about themselves? That does no one any good.
There are some parents who need to spend more time with their kids and actually do a lot more at home so their kids can have a childhood and not have to hold the family together. But my guess is that most parents reading this newsletter would do better to subtract from what they are presently doing, let go of many of their assumed obligations, and let their children fight or play more on their own with less parental involvement or supervision.
So I’m going to list a few things I bet you could stop doing.
- Coming up with the answers. In many difficult situations, not only do you not have to have the answers, you shouldn’t. When you have all the answers, you pressure your children and undermine their ability to problem solve. You also create a dependency on you as the fixer or decider. Instead, ask questions like, “What can you think to do about it?” or “This doesn’t work for me. What can we decide that will work for both of us.” Or simply leave it alone for a bit.
- Taking responsibility for your child’s feelings. When you try to cheer up or deny children’s feelings, you rob them of experiencing difficult feelings in a supportive atmosphere. The parent who feels responsible has to make sure negative emotions don’t happen or go away quickly. Otherwise the parent thinks she is not doing her job—exhausting.
- Teaching 24/7. Teach less, be more. Simply be with your child—listen, watch, observe, do less so you are calmer. A calm parent presents a positive mirror for children to see themselves in. Try at least 51% of the time to be in a state that reflects their competence and wonder.
- Thinking you are the only one. Get babysitters, go out with your spouse or friends, have plenty of adult time so you will be a happier parent. Children learn from many, and no one person can fulfill all their needs—ever.
- Jumping in. When your child falls, wait to see how he is before swooping in with the assumption that he is hurt. Hold back when your kids are fighting to give them the chance to work it out their way. After unacceptable behavior, stop what needs to be stopped, but wait until you are calm to talk about what went wrong or needs to be done. In the meantime, breathe and think.
- Controlling things. Let go, choose your battles, lighten up, allow a bit of naughtiness, and trust your children’s developmental process. The greatest lesson in life is to understand that we cannot control another person, all we can control is ourselves.
- Nagging. You don’t like it, your kids don’t like it, so why not stop doing it. It requires trusting more. See how many situations where you usually nag you could instead ask yourself, So what? Can I let this one go? What harm will be done in the long run? Homework, eating, bathing—so many areas will improve with less nagging. Remember, whenever you nag, you are taking responsibility. Your child does not have to take responsibility if you take it for him.
- Expecting your children’s appreciation. It’s not your children’s job to thank you for all you do. They haven’t had another family they can compare you to—certainly not the one you came from. They should actually take you for granted. That means don’t give and do more than you are willing to do without feeling resentful. Everything you do for your children is your choice. You don’t HAVE to do anything.
- Doing so much laundry and house cleaning. Your children are not going to remember you for how clean and organized you are. Cut down on your daily to-do lists and replace those minutes with just being with your kids or putting your feet up.
- Having to be the perfect parent. Let it be okay to be good enough. If you set expectations too high for yourself you will keep coming up short. In order to feel better about yourself, you need to adjust your expectations to be appropriate for you and your circumstances, stop comparing yourself to others, and accept yourself. It is only through acceptance that you will feel motivated to move ahead.
Letting go of what we think we have to do and letting our children find their way through some tough times and simply being their safety net is the hardest thing for many parents to do. But that is how children learn best. Their favorite memories of childhood will be times when you are laughing or crying together, sharing experiences, and having fun—not when you are teaching lessons.
Check out my blog to learn why New Years resolutions don’t work.
Questions and Answers
I want your questions. Here’s how it works: You email me a question to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I answer pretty quickly. I put it in a newsletter at a later date. Please try to keep them brief without leaving out critical details.
Calming a Toddler
Q. I am interested in how to help my 3.5 year old son ‘cool off’. I feel there are times when he is getting really wound up and furious with a toy/game, or when we as parents have made some decision he is not pleased with. I am trying to express to him that it’s ok to be angry, but not destructive or rude, but am having difficulty with finding good alternatives for him. I think it would be helpful for him to go away to some quiet place to cool off, but he is not keen (I think he associates this with punishment, as we use time-out for serious things like hitting, the same at his playgroup). My own anger management technique involves going away to a quiet place to count to 10, breathe etc. What are your thoughts on this Bonnie, or are his strong emotions just something he needs to release? But what are the healthiest ways for his age?
A. If you use time out for anything, he will of course associate going off by himself as a punishment. I highly recommend letting that go altogether. If you use it for some things, it means you are in the mindset that punishment is necessary at times. So therefore the principles of connection are not the priority. He has strong emotions that need releasing—and you can supervise and redirect that releasing. When you see him frustrated or upset, acknowledge it – “You really hate it when those pieces don’t go together. I don’t blame you. It can be so frustrating.” “You get very angry at me when I say something you don’t like and wish you could make me say something different.” By doing this you normalize his emotions since you are naming them, so he knows he’s okay no matter how he feels. Then you can redirect those emotions instead of trying to stop them. He’s unlikely to be ready for cooling down at this point. Have a big punching pillow on hand always. Bring it out and encourage him to punch it hard. He can use his finger to draw what or who he’s mad at. Or give him markers and tell him to draw how angry he is and then tell him to rip it up in as many pieces as he can. Or bang on a pot with a wooden spoon – anything to engage those emotions actively and in a way that is acceptable. When he knows you are his ally in that, he will learn that he can express how he feels and will come to you for guidance. Going off by yourself to cool down is quite a mature way of handling yourself.
Talking about Death
Q. I am currently struggling with a BIG issue with my 5 yr old daughter. A friend recently started talking about the death of a celebrity in front of my daughter. I explained that everyone dies (when they get very old), that our bodies die but our spirit continues to live forever. She has since started talking about dying and is clearly very sad, scared, and distressed about not wanting to die. A couple of times since, she has been difficult during the day with a tantrum at bedtime. After that she will tell me that she does not want to die, she doesn’t want me to die, she wants the 3 of us to stay together forever. I just listen to her and try to comfort her but am really not sure of the best way to approach this subject as she is only 5. When I see her distress, I now wonder whether I should not have brushed the subject to one side until she is older.
A. I know just what you are struggling with. My daughter learned about death before she turned 3. I tried my hardest to avoid the hard truth but did not lie to her and often asked myself if I should have. But lying is never a good policy even when you think you are protecting them. Imagine if you said you would never die and soon after, you did. Imagine the betrayal for the child on top of everything else. I doubt if she would have let you brush the subject aside. Once an idea gets in their heads, they will not let it go if it is one that strikes a deep cord, like this. If they want to understand, it doesn’t matter how old they are or how much they are emotionally ready. Often when kids think we are keeping things from them, their behavior flares up. Take that as a clue that she is confused, and be sure and take time with her to find out what questions she may have. Reassure her of course but I think she will know and act accordingly if she senses you are not telling her the truth. I would suggest getting some books on death. There are some really nice ones showing the life cycle of things in nature – leaves and bugs, etc. Also ones of an old relative dying. I think she would appreciate them. Good luck. Just know it may be hard for her for a good long time but if she had not been ready to learn about death, she would not have paid attention to what your friend was saying. Just stay with her every step of the way and allow her to have her pain about it.
Name-calling from a Teen
Q. My 13 yr. old daughter consistently calls me names and tells me to shut up. It is about all I can take. I know she is trying to tell me something. My frustrations overwhelm me, and I just let her verbally abuse me … and at times her brother . If I say anything in the moment it turns out horribly. Later on she tells me she is sorry. It is when it is going on and immediately after that is so very tough. It is almost daily again now. Today she called me an idiot and told me to shut up and that I was stupid because I am on a field trip tomorrow and cannot pick her up after school. I told her unfortunately she will need to take the bus or ride home with a neighbor and then I hung up because I could not take the berating. Is this normal teenage angst? Old train of thought is disrespectful teen acting out her unresolved anger toward Mom about the divorce? Hurt and angry kiddo either way. Breaks my heart. I would love any advice. I feel overwhelmed… Embarrassed and humiliated.
A. Yes, it is heartbreaking when you know the behavior is a result of a hurting internal emotional state. That is what brings compassion to the situation, which is needed in order to connect with your daughter. Unfortunately too many parents don’t see it that way but choose to react with blame and punishment, sending their kids further away in a direction they least want. No, it is not normal teen behavior but unfortunately it is common. I wonder if hormones are at work here. I can tell your perception is in the right direction but it’s hard to hold it there—understandable. No one wants to be treated this way. When she is in an apologetic mood, that is the time to work with her. Begin by telling her that you know she doesn’t mean it and that her emotions and impulses get the better of her. Be very clear that you and she need to figure out a way for her to tell you what she is angry about without the abusive language. Don’t harp on how it makes you feel because at those times when she’s really angry, you have given her a weapon. Instead tell her that she needs the ability to curtail her outbursts so that she gains control of her emotions—make it about her. Do not let her blow it off and say she won’t do it again. Tell her you need a plan to figure out HOW it will not happen again. This is the consequence of her behavior rather than a punishment. Ask her what she thinks you could say to her in the moment that she could hear—a one word reminder to stop and breathe. Ask her if she can identify what she is thinking and/or feeling at the moment she is provoked to yell at you. Ask her if she can put in words what it is that she wants from you. Then go over in that particular situation what she can say that you are able to hear and respond to. Tell her you will not respond to her when she is yelling and putting you down and that you will likely not be inclined to do the next thing she wants of you like drive her where she wants to go. Explain that your relationship has to be reciprocal and cooperative.
A response to last month’s Lesson:
Thank you for your recent Facebook posting about evaluative and non-evaluative praise. I’ve heard this before, but it has less relevance for a very small child where conversation and feedback is limited to shorter, simpler statements. It is a wonderful reminder to keep this at the top of my awareness just as my child reaches a stage where, I think, he is developing the capacity to self-evaluate. So it is an ideal time for me to work on transforming my habit of saying how great I think what he’s done is – which I genuinely do! and I always tried to comment on the reasons I like it, it was never empty praise – BUT wonderful to begin to transform that into a pattern of asking him what HE thinks of what he’s done. I think used over the next 10 years (6 to 16) that pattern will really build a self-awareness and ‘Internal Locus of Evaluation’ (technical term from Person-Centered Therapy, Carl Rogers). What a great gift to give a young person.
Secondly, I am just so thankful for the Connective Parenting approach as my child enters a stage of protesting more ‘verbally’ and deliberately (rather than just instinctively and reflexively) to some of my decisions on limits. Instead of getting cross with his response, as I would have done before CP, because I felt guilty about his unhappiness, I now stop – think – and connect, saying “You’re pretty cross about it” or “You are disappointed”. It is wonderful Bonnie. In that moment there is so much transparency, so much permission for him to feel his own feelings and be aware of them, while also permission for me to do my job as a Mum and not always have to make my child ‘happy’ (in an immediate way). Again, what a wonderful lesson to give a child – that it’s possible to respect another person’s feelings, without becoming a ‘people-pleaser’ who says yes when they want to say no. How many adults I know, who could have done with that lesson…