(Scroll down for this month’s Q&A and story)
Ever promise yourself you’re going to stop yelling at your kids? How about threatening and punishing? You know you don’t want to do it, you know it doesn’t work. You’ve tried to stop before. This year you’re going to do it. Right? Wrong.
Then you tumble down that rabbit hole of despair when you don’t make the changes you wish you could–not all the time, just when you come up against your child doing or saying that thing you can’t stand. And you want to run away.
So why do we keep doing the things we want to change? It’s not a lack of desire or even motivation. Actually you can be very motivated which means you really get into the guilt when nothing changes. The answer to why change is so hard is in how your attempts at change or lack thereof make you feel.
Resistance to change may be better understood as maintaining the status quo. Remaining with the same old, same old feels easier–it’s the comfortable old shoe–while moving toward change brings up stress–the uncomfortable new shoe. The idea of stopping what I have been doing with my kids for years, brings up all kinds of fears: What if I don’t know how to do it any differently? What if I try something and it doesn’t work? What if I give up the old and fail at the new? What if the new isn’t the right thing to do?
What we want to change, let’s say yelling, is in fact the protective factor against risking change, not yelling. I get more anxious when I think about changing my habit. So I don’t change.
To work through the change in behavior, you first have to understand how the behavior serves you. That’s right. It is in fact keeping you in a less stressful place than if you move toward giving it up.
So how does yelling at my kids serve me? you might ask. For one thing, you probably think if I don’t yell, my kids will never listen to me; my partner will think I’m letting them get away with everything; my in-laws will disapprove because they think I should be punishing more than I am…. Do you get the drift? Not to mention your habit is part of who you are. You’ve done it for so long, or you’ve experienced it growing up, that it is your self-identity. You have lots of reasons why you yell at your kids and no good reasons to stop–other than an idea in your head that you wish you didn’t. So yelling at your kids makes more sense to you than not.
We are more committed to protecting ourselves (perhaps against the disapproval of what others will think–a big assumption) than we are to doing what would be in our best interest, what our goal is. And let’s face it, not yelling involves a lot more than just lowering your voice, as most goals do. It involves changing the way you approach your kids if you don’t intend to just let them do anything they want. It involves knowing what else to do. And you just don’t have time for all that, right?
So when you get down on yourself for not being able to change, look at how the behavior you want to change is indeed serving you, keeping you in a more comfortable place. Make a list. Then talk to yourself about each item on your list. Break it down and ask yourself, would this really be a terrible thing? How willing am I to risk this?
Our anxiety about making a change is usually exaggerated because we don’t break down our reasons against it. We just clump a whole lot of assumptions together in one big presumption and jump to conclusions we haven’t even thought out. How would you feel if you take the first step in making the change you want. Anxious, right? You have to be willing to go through that. But isn’t it worth it?
Questions and Answers and a Story
Transitions from Day Care
Q. I have a two year old who has started having meltdowns when my husband picks him up from daycare. (My husband has always picked him up, so this is not a new routine. I know he loves his daddy, and loves being at home. Any ideas why he may be melting down (running screaming…even hitting my husband)…the teachers try to help but that only upsets my son more. My husband’s heart breaks every time. What can we do?
A. It’s most likely about the transition for your son. Pay attention to how he handles transitions of all kinds. If he doesn’t generally have a problem, then it may be that he has been having a great time and doesn’t want to stop. Or that it’s been extremely stressful for him, and he finally feels safe enough and is letting down his coping ability. If it’s about the transition, your husband should anticipate the difficulty your son will have and give more time for the whole process. He should come in slower, keep a bit distant and watch until your son sees him. Allow the running around and don’t try to stop him. If he hits, hold him to try to prevent that but DO NOT tell him to calm down or to stop doing what he’s doing. For whatever reason, he needs to get it out. When the time comes, give him a choice: Do you want to play for 5 more minutes or shall we get in the car now? and acknowledge, “Sometimes it’s really hard to leave. What would be the one last thing you’d like to do to make it easier to go?”
Managing Shy Children
Q. I’d be interested to hear any suggestions you have for how to support shy children. Both my 6 yo son and 4 yo daughter struggle with shyness or confidence in social situations. I wouldn’t say it’s debilitating and my son has certainly gained a lot of confidence since starting school, but my daughter tends to cling to me at parties or in new situations. I try to get her comfortable by getting her involved in things and then gradually withdrawing. I’m really not sure what the best approach is.
A. The simple answer is: Let them be shy, follow their lead. They must get the message that they are perfectly normal in order to gain confidence. Shyness is painful for children only when others think there is something wrong with them and try to push them into being social. “Go on in their and play. You’ll have so much fun” sends the message that they are not okay if they want to hold back. “Cat got your tongue?” “Oh, you’re being shy?” “Don’t be shy.” These comments ridicule children’s feelings. Have some standard phrases you can use to help your children feel supported. “She’s learning to be cautious about who she engages with.” “He is a great observer and learns from watching.” Confidence comes when you know you are understood and accepted for who you are. Trust each child’s process. They know when to hang onto you and when to venture out. The more you allow and accept the clingyness, the sooner your daughter will feel confident to move away. Shy kids like to hold back and observe, to feel out the scene before engaging. Do not push them before they are ready. Most likely they are both introverts. As Mary Sheedy Kurcinka says, introverts get their energy from being alone so they can be with people; extroverts get their energy from being with people so they can be alone. Neither is positive or negative. I would encourage you to think of your children as cautious, since shy often carries a negative perception with it in our culture. You can gently encourage your daughter’s involvement before gradually leaving but never sneak out. You don’t want her to learn she can’t trust whether you will be there or not. Sneaking out is the sure way to encourage more clinginess. I also suggest reading “Quiet” by Susan Cain.
Questionable Safety Issues with Friends
Q. My daughter, now 11, is friends with a girl whose home life seems erratic and potentially unsafe. They are on welfare and several children from several fathers live in the home. They scream and yell a lot. Her friend’s mother was going to have her daughter come over here alone in a taxi because she didn’t have a car. I said no because I was uncomfortable with it. My daughter wanted to sleep over at this girl’s house last night and I said no. I hesitantly said she could go for a few hours for a play date. My daughter told me this morning that while she was there the mother gave out sleeping pills to the other two girls who asked my daughter if she wanted some. Thankfully she said no. I am not comfortable with my daughter over there anymore. I have offered times to have her friend at our home, but they haven’t worked for the other girl. I think the other girl knows I set limits. My daughter commented on how much fun the other Mother was and how she blasted the car radio while driving them to McDonalds for dinner. I kept quiet and listened. How can I best say no to going over there without getting into the reasons?
A. I see nothing wrong with getting into the reasons you are apprehensive. You have some very real concerns and can tell your daughter how you feel without laying a guilt trip on her or playing judging the other family. Always start with “I” when you are letting your child know what YOUR problem is with any situation. “I feel very concerned about this girl’s home life. I felt worried when I heard that the mother was going to send her daughter in a taxi. If you were there, I would want to know she had a trustworthy car in case anything happened to any of you. I especially got upset when I heard about the sleeping pills. I was so pleased that you didn’t accept one. But I feel worried about what might happen next. I don’t expect you to judge your friend based on her mother’s choices. I know you like her. Let’s keep trying to have her over here.” You must own your worries and concerns and not ask your daughter to take responsibility for them. Let her know that your job is to keep her safe until she is able to herself and that sometimes you are going to make decisions that she doesn’t agree with—and that’s okay—it’s still your job.
My 9 yo son started repeatedly calling his 5 yo sister a “dickhead”–really pushing my buttons. He wouldn’t stop when I asked him. He ignored me and started saying it louder… my button meter was through the roof. Then I got aggressive and physically forced him outside, and didn’t even care if it hurt him. He pushed his way back inside and started to whack his sister. I tried to step in but things started to spiral out of control. I lost it big time and dragged him out of the room. I was very tired (after a very busy weekend), impatient, wanted to get things tidied up, get dinner ready early, and get everyone to bed early. I had no patience. The name-calling started again this morning, and I was able to stay calm. I changed my assumption to “he’s finding it hard to get organised and ready for school” rather than “he’s walking all over me, he’s being a *((&*^” and I could so clearly see that he sensed the change in my assumptions by the way I was dealing with him. Not only did he stop the name calling of his own accord, he apologised to his sister of his own accord as well. Amazing!