Challenges Give Kids a Feeling of Power
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Young children LOVE being challenged. Give them a problem to solve, little challenges to master, and they will rise to your challenges every time—as long as they are given with a light-hearted approach.
It’s so exhausting and draining to keep threatening and yelling at our kids, to get them to do what we want. Challenges and choices offer children an opportunity to use their creative and imaginative muscles while at the same time getting them to do what you want. We spend far too much time telling our children what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Make sure you give them the opportunity to direct you once in awhile so they don’t keep ending up on the short end of the power stick.
If your kids are acting out, are angry at you, or taking it out on a sibling, you can be pretty sure that a feeling of powerless is at the root of the behavior. Giving them challenges and choices evens out the balance and you will likely see better behavior.
Here are a few ideas to motivate and set challenges–then try some of your own:
- I’m not sure you can pick that jacket up and get it to actually stay on the hook. Isn’t that hook too high for you to reach?
- How long do you think it would take you to run around the outside of the house? How about if I count and see what number I get up to?
- I bet you can’t get dressed as fast as I can. Shall we set the timer?
- I wonder if you can get your plate to the sink by the time I count to 10.
- Let’s see who can be silent the longest? First one who makes a noise has to give the other one a kiss.
- If you run upstairs to get your sweater, I’ll count. Let’s see how high I get to.
- Can you do “Itsy Bitsy Spider” all the way through with no words only the hand motions?
- Do you want to climb into your car seat like a monkey? A Lion? Or fly in like an eagle?
- You can’t have ice cream now. Imagine if you could turn everything in the kitchen into ice cream. What flavor would the refrigerator be? The sink? The stove? Which one would you lick first?
- Imagine if your bed had wings that would shoot out when you pressed a button. Where would you make it fly?
- Which one of you will feed the dog and which one will clear the table? Whoever gets it done gets a big kiss from me.
- It’s time to go upstairs. What marching song shall we choose tonight? “When the Saints Go Marching In” or “Stars and Stripes Forever”?
- You don’t like that I told you to turn off the TV. I wonder what it would be like if you didn’t have a parent telling you what to do all the time. Let’s think of all the things you could do.
This reply came from a parent who tried this: “Challenges all last night. Especially while preparing dinner, (mostly in an attempt to keep them out of the kitchen!) “Who can do 20 jumping jacks?” “Who can clap while singing Mary Had a Little Lamb?”….”I CAN!”…”I CAN!!” Like a charm!! It was excellent! They even started presenting challenges to each other…haha!”
Of course, being in the space to offer your kids a challenge, means that you have to be feeling pretty chill. When your button has just been pushed, the challenge you have is not to yell or threaten. Give the challenges when things are going well, and once you get in the habit, you may be able to give them when you really need to defuse a tense situation.
Questions and Answers
A Hitting and Biting Toddler
Q. My 17 month son has been throwing tantrums, what toddler doesn’t, but I can not get him to stop hitting me or biting me. Then he wants to hug me to make up for it. This has been going on for months and we can’t seem to get him to stop. We both work full time but spend time with him after daycare. Nothing I seem to do is changing his behavior, and I am getting extremely frustrated with him, to the point that I don’t even want to spend time with him. Do you have any recommendations?
A. Unfortunately, some children at this age are hitters, some are biters and it is not something they can stop when “taught” not to because he has no impulse control. Your job is to understand it as developmental — not as anything wrong or bad. Not easy, I know, when he is hitting you. Are the hits and bites angry? Does he hit or bite in daycare? If they are not in anger, ask him for a hug instead of a hit/bite. Give him a hug if you can. May sound counter-intuitive but hits and bites at this age are usually the child’s way of saying pay attention to me, play with me, etc. Giving positive attention does not reinforce the behavior, it answers the need. You DO NOT want him to learn that he is bad for what he cannot help. And he even shows remorse for it. His reactions are pure impulse. Age 3 is just the beginning of impulse control. Now, this doesn’t mean that he should be allowed to hit and bite you. But your effectiveness in helping him stop has ALL to do with how you respond to him. Understandably you are reactive and angry — that’s because of your perceptions of his behavior. You think he should be able to learn, you should be able to teach him, and since he’s still doing it, so you think you are both failing. As soon as you see it differently and understand he is not doing it on purpose, then you will be more neutral when you tell him you don’t want to be hit or bitten and that it hurts. You can certainly yell, OW! just as you would if a door slammed on you. But taking away the blame and the frustration at not being able to teach him to stop will change everything. Also as soon after the hit or bite as possible, give him something that is ok to hit or bite—pillows, stuffed animals, etc. Instead of trying to stop up his energy and impulses, you can rechannel them to show him what he CAN hit or bite. When he feels understood, he will move through this developmental stage faster (not fast enough, I’m sure!) and with a strong sense of self intact.
Why can’t I stop blaming?
Q. I am able to apologise to my 7 yo son, to admit that I don’t like how I behaved or the choice I made, but I still can’t stop myself from blaming. When I get angry, when things don’t go to plan, I make blaming statements like, “You are turning this into a difficult day,” “You made X happen.” My son reacts to blame with very intense distress, and also uses blaming statements himself. When he gets hurt it’s because I “made” him hurt himself. I can see how damaging it all is… so why can’t I stop doing it? I don’t know where to go with it except, “I’m obviously not working hard enough at it, my commitment to Connective Parenting is not strong enough” — the same old self-blaming, “not good enough” deficit statements being rehearsed over again. Where is the way out of the labyrinth?
A. If I could give you the 5 steps out of the labyrinth, I’d be a millionaire. There is no easy answer but I do know it does NOT mean you are not committed enough or good enough. It more likely is about how you felt about yourself when blamed as a child, believing you weren’t good enough to please or get approval – the result of conditional parenting. It’s so hard to understand that we don’t need blame to teach our children right from wrong. A firm “I don’t like it when you do that” is so much more effective than “Don’t do that!” It also carries with it the natural consequence of doing something wrong – you don’t like it. Practice with little things when you are feeling fine, when your automatics are not the first thing that fly out of your mouth. Start with “I”. If you can write that mantra on your brain, that will help. “I don’t like it when things get so difficult, I hate it when stuff is left all over the floor, I have a really hard time when I don’t think you’re listening.” When you start with “I”, it’s much harder to blame. It will feel awkward but maybe you can share this with your son and let him know that when he feels blamed he can say to you, “remember “I” mom”, and then you can restate it in the moment. See if he will be willing for you to do the same – “remember “I”. When you get the “I” down in simple situations, then taking blame away from tougher ones will get easier. “You made X happen” can change to “I’m so upset that this happened.” When you are aware of coming down on yourself, remind yourself that you are unlearning many years of habit. Blaming yourself is just as damaging as blaming your child.
Q. Do you have suggestions for my 10-year old daughter who has panic attacks during tests/exams. She is generally a happy, outgoing person but tends to flounder faced with adversity and has self esteem issues. She specifically has panic attacks during assessments at school, which obviously affect her performance. Although she is very able and should in principle do well, during tests she freezes when she cannot immediately answer a question, gets stressed when others are faster than her, and stops functioning altogether. Can you suggest coping techniques she could practice?
A. Many children do well in school and panic when it comes to testing. Your daughter will only have self-esteem issues if she believes she is wrong or dumb for being the way she is. The best you can do for her is to assure her she’s normal. DO NOT reassure her that “everything will be fine and she will do well”. That sends the message that you don’t get it, and she is alone in her worry – which exacerbates the panic. Point out to her that FEELINGS of anxiety come from her THOUGHTS. Help her identify the thoughts she has at the time panic hits and what she could change those to. For instance, “I’m going to fail this test” could change to “I’m feeling really nervous right now.” “Everybody’s going to beat me” could reframe to “I will do this at my pace.” Keep it truthful and factual – just to take the edge off. She could write some reframed thoughts down and read them at the time. You can make suggestions but don’t tell her what she should do and don’t expect her worry to disappear. You must understand that this is her problem. If you are upset about it, it makes her problem worse, and then she has your upset to deal with. Your job is to understand her dilemma and to give her support. Every time she gets through it, she builds resilience. You might also point out that the reason she gets panicky is because of the high expectations she holds for herself. She cares very much how she does. Point out the obvious positives and then add that the downside is how hard she can be on herself, something she can work on over time. Mindfulness meditation practices help. The two of you could practice together a few minutes a day.
Staying Calm Always Works
My 11 yr. old son was trying his usual bullying tactics on his little sister to get her to do something and she refused. Then he tried threatening her with what would happen if she didn’t do it. This would normally send my Button Meter through the roof and cause a very unhelpful reaction in an attempt to deal with this “terrible behaviour”, but because I had been in a connective “zone” with him all morning, I was able to talk straight with him, rather than jumping into fear and anger. I was able to explain coolly and simply that it wasn’t his sister’s problem. His direction completely changed. He still looked a bit annoyed, but resigned himself to get on with it and leave his sister alone. This is the first time it’s really hit me exactly just how powerful this connective communication is – it was like my words went “whack” straight to his heart.