Lessons for Everyday Parenting
The Connective Parenting Newsletter, October 2013
To read Part 1—click here »
Connecting and Validating
All any of us really want is to be heard and understood. If you came home and told your partner about something hurtful someone said to you, you’d want your partner to acknowledge your hurt feelings—even validate you by saying he would have felt hurt too. You do not want your partner to tell you what you should have said or that you shouldn’t let such a stupid remark get to you.
In the same way, our children, who don’t yet understand their feelings, want to know that you understand so they learn their feelings are always okay and we all have them. When big emotions feel overwhelming, it is very validating to hear a parent say, “You were really angry when I said you couldn’t have ice cream. You wanted to hit me and I stopped you, which made you even angrier. Then you cried really hard, and I got mad too. We both got really mad, didn’t we?” In this way, the parent mirrors what happened for the child, and he feels understood and accepted—even though he may still feel mad. In this regulated state, he can think clearly and learns to trust.
When someone names what is going on for us, it feels extremely soothing (that’s why people pay big bucks for therapy). When we feel comforted, we are in a much better place to solve problems and make amends.
After connection has been made, and feelings are calm, you can talk about what needs to be done. “Hitting me shows me you are mad. I know you know it’s not okay to hit me. How else can you let me know you’re mad?” Or, “I don’t like being hit. You want ice cream, and I don’t want you to have it now. How can we work this out?” Seem impossible? Not at all. Don’t stop figuring it out until you have it solved. Your child will problem-solve if and when he feels heard and understood. Maybe the ice cream comes after dinner or tomorrow. But if he comes up with it, that’s problem solving.
Our basic need is to belong and feel accepted for who we are, not just for how we behave. How many of us grew up believing we weren’t good enough or didn’t meet up to our parent’s expectations? This means not feeling accepted. And that makes it hard to unconditionally accept your child.
Unfortunately most of us attach acceptance to behavior. Accepting your child doesn’t mean accepting her behavior. When behavior is wrong, your child will more easily adjust her behavior if she knows you accept her, mistakes and all, so she grows with self-confidence.
“How can I accept my child when he’s hitting his sister? I can’t accept meanness.” You don’t accept the behavior—or meanness. What you accept is the anger your child is feeling and the fact that he can’t behave differently at the moment. Feeling accepted and understood allows problem solving to follow—true accountability.
Have you ever said or done anything you didn’t mean? Of course. Why is it we don’t give our children the benefit of the doubt and understand that a hit in anger is impulsive and perhaps not meant to hurt. A good response would be, “Your anger toward your sister got the better of you. I know you didn’t mean to hurt her so much (good message even if he did). Can you think of a different way to tell her what you want?”
When you see unacceptable behavior, your response needs to send the message: You have made a mistake. I know that you know that is not okay. Your behavior is telling me that you are feeling upset, powerless, dysregulated. You do not want to behave this way, it’s just that you can’t help it right now. This behavior tells me that you are having a problem. I will stop you until you are able to stop yourself.
Fear that our children will turn out bad if we don’t react and punish, sends the message: You are being a problem. I can’t trust you to do the right thing. Punishment and threats tell our children that they are not capable of behaving well unless we train them to do so—I don’t accept you the way you are. Then they tend to honor our self-fulfilling prophesies.
To read Part 1—click here »
Part 3—next month
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.
Habits: Eliminating old and creating new
Q. My four year old daughter recently started biting her fingernails. I really don’t want her developing this habit. For starters, I don’t want to think about the germs she’s getting from those fingertips. But mostly I bit my fingernails my entire childhood, and I hated the habit. I hated feeling ashamed about my ugly fingernail stubs, I found it actually increased my anxiety instead of quelling it, and I wanted to stop but found it impossible. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I found a way. I don’t want to shame her by basically saying “don’t do that. That’s bad,” but it’s hard to curb behavior without that being the undertone. She did notice that she couldn’t open her advent calendar window, and we talked about if she had fingernails that she would be able to pry it open. When we talked about stopping biting her fingernails she replied “I could do that for a year.” Meaning it would be no problem for her. But of course the next minute she’s biting them again.
A. I think you should tell your daughter about your experience and how it took you until you were 18 to stop the habit. She will love to hear a story about you. Tell her how habits get harder to break as time goes on. And then own your problem with it. “I’m concerned about it because I’m afraid you’ll end up like I did.” When you own it, you’re not telling her what she has to do about it. Then ask her if she wishes she didn’t do it—since we all do lots of things we wish we didn’t–that’s the nature of habits. Also find other things like the advent calendar that she can’t do herself because of no nails. If she indicates yes she wants to stop the biting, then ask her if she’d like your help? When kids want to break habits, this is when sticker charts work—when the child wants to change a behavior instead of the parent wanting the behavior to change. Make a 2 week chart and buy stickers with her that she likes. Let her know that some stickers are for times when she doesn’t bite her nails and some are for when she does, so she can choose which are for which. You might divide the day in 3 sections and in each she puts a sticker depending on whether she bit her nails or not. The point is for her to see how she is able to control her behavior and make a change. The reward is her feeling of pride in herself. But you see how important it is for her to want to do this.
Model Respect to Change Behavior
Q. I have listened to the Pushing Your Buttons CD set and I love your suggested approach, but found myself using punishments as my husband thought that was the appropriate way to parent. I thought one of your most thought provoking questions to us at your lecture was, how do you think your child sees themselves through your eyes. I was a little upset as I thought of the self-image we might be creating. I am trying a new outlook and am looking forward to building better relationships with my children. One issue I am struggling with is what the response should be to a strong willed 8 year old who lashes out at my husband and I – sometimes the moment she gets up and is mean to her 4 year old brother (willfully stepping on his drawing he’s doing on the floor, etc.). I’ve tried the “it sounds like you are really upset” – this get’s a “duh” and the behavior continues. I try to not take it personally and not overreact, but this isn’t acceptable behavior. When things escalate and she won’t go into another room, I tell her I am taking some time away for myself, because I don’t like to be talked to this way and I go up to my room. I try to figure out what she’s trying to teach me, but I am concerned that in large part, it is her temperament. She can be very loving and caring for us all at times and has no problems at school or outside the house. Her meanness and disrespect is just scary at times and I don’t know how to react or figure out the issue.
A.You’re right, your 8 yr. old’s behavior is not acceptable but when and how it ends is most determined by how you respond to it and how you respond to it is determined by how you perceive it. When you perceive that she is mean and disrespectful, you will only provoke angry and reproachful feelings and reactions. The Buttons work helps you to reframe those assumptions so you can get closer to compassion. It is important that you understand that her angry behavior means she is having a problem, not being a problem. You can reframe your assumptions to something like, “She must feel so threatened by all of us that she feels she has to lash out to protect herself. I wonder what she thinks she has to protect herself from.” Do you see how that takes you to compassion for her predicament. You also need to see the big picture and the fact that she is not going to respond to your new approach as quickly as you may be changing your approach. After 8 yrs. she has built up some distrust of how you see her, and she needs to have a consistent accepting approach from you before she trusts the change. So your approach has to be strong and solid regardless of her behavior. When you get to compassion, then you can address her anger in a less patronizing way (“it sounds like you are really upset” feels very patronizing). Leaving to take time for yourself and not be treated in a way you don’t like is absolutely the right approach. Much better than sending her off. Then later when you are both calm, come back to it. This is the step that most parents don’t want to make and it is the MOST important one. “You were really angry this morning when you yelled at us/stepped on your brother’s drawing. I wonder if you can tell me now what your anger was about. I want you to be able to say it rather than act it out. Saying it has not gotten me to pay attention to what you want in the past but now I will listen.” She may or may not respond but if she does, just listen and acknowledge her point of view. You don’t have to know what to do about it yet. Just take it in. What she may be teaching you is how to listen to her and truly accept and hear her. Her temperament is one that does not deal well with injustice and unfairness. Her behavior is provoked by her emotions not her temperament. It’s a very good sign that she does well in the outside world. She’s just telling you that you don’t understand her and thanks you are being unfair—especially if it looks like you favor her brother. These changes are not easy, especially when it doesn’t look like it’s “working”. You need to convince yourself that you are treating her with respect because that is the modeling you want to give her, not because it will change her behavior. Her behavior will eventually change when you don’t try to manipulate it. Also check out my blog on Sibling Rivalry for how to manage that.
Maintaining House Rules
Q. We have a rule in the house for our 13-year-old daughter: no ‘devices’ (ipods, cell phones, laptops) in her room upstairs (we don’t want her to disappear for hours in her room on those things) plus she is limited to only about 1 hour of sitcoms or movies per day (downstairs). We thought she was in compliance until today we heard a sitcom sound coming from the upstairs bathroom window. The fact that she broke the rules is not the big problem for us. The problem is that she is lying to us—denying that she was doing this—yet we both heard it as clear as day. She has became increasingly angry and in conviction in her stance. We have told her that we heard the sound and that we believe she is lying and that there will have to be a punishment—but that we haven’t decided what that will be. We know that we can ground her or take her devices away (which we have never had to do to her before), and that’s fine for just breaking rules, but we really don’t see how those punishments will get us towards the aim of her being truthful with us and the aim of maintaining our connection with her. At the same time we don’t want her to get away with lying and enable a pattern of deception.
A. You are absolutely right that punishment will not help to end the lying or build connection. The first thing for you to think about is reframing your perception from “she’s lying to us” to “she’s trying to find a way to get what she wants without us knowing about it”. Lying is deceitful and will only arouse your anger. Understanding that she is trying to find a way around the rules to do what she knows you won’t allow elicits different emotions from you. I see it as her way to not confront you, not get angry at you, not cause your disappointment in her. All kids who know that punishment is the consequence will get sneaky about doing what they want. Punishment of any kind—grounding, taking devices away—will only set you back further from the goal you want to accomplish. Problem solving is the way to go. Start off the conversation by telling her that you know that she doesn’t mean to deceive you, that she just wants to get what she wants. That will open her ears. Then let her know that her behavior of sneaking the viewing tells you that an evaluation of rules needs to happen. If she is going to sneak off, stay away from the family in order to do her thing, then your goal of connection is not working under the current system. You three need to sit down and tell each other your wishes and concerns. No one’s are any more important than anyone else’s. She needs to know that she will be heard. Give her the opportunity to plead her case to you. Then tell her your reasons for the rules. Let her know from the beginning that the three of you will not stop this evaluation process until the rules work for ALL of you. Compromise is the name of the game here. She’s 13 and perhaps your rules are antiquated for her. You need to listen to what’s important to her, weigh that against what’s important to you and come to an agreement. Are you willing to forgo a sitcom a week for better connection with her? That’s how you need to think about it. If she is sneaking into the bathroom, it means she wants it pretty badly—perhaps all her friends at school watch and she feels dorky and out of it because she can’t. Who knows. But once you all air your concerns, the final agreement will come naturally—possibly not right away. You may need to keep the process up. The rule is you don’t change anything until you ALL agree—it has to be okay for all of you. This is the best training you can do. If she learns the power of problem solving, it will be a life-long skill.
I find Connective Parenting not only helps avoid troublesome situations in the first place, but it is also so effective for repair. We all need repair, everyone makes mistakes and ‘lapses’ into old patterns. It can be argued that repair is the most useful relationship skill of all. Here’s an example. My 7 yr. old son was breaking one of our house rules—reading a book at the table. We had been away on holidays, out of routine, and I guess the rules had got blurry (but he often pushes this rule anyway). I asked him a few times to put the book away, then physically took it from him. He grabbed my forearm and (in my perception) scratched me as hard as he could. I got angry and began yelling at him that no matter how angry he feels, it is not ok to hurt me and that ‘this hurting has to stop’ and ‘it has been going on far too long’ etc. He ran to his room and hid under the sheets. I went into the bathroom and cleaned the mirror, giving myself time to change direction away from fury and down gear emotionally. Then I went into his room and said “I can see and hear that you are very upset. I would like to hear your version of why that is.”
He came out from under the sheet and said that he hadn’t meant to scratch me, only to grab the book back. I said, “So then I need to take back all I said about the hurting.” He said, “Yes” and put his head on my knee. I said, “So the only thing we need to discuss then is about the rule” and we proceeded to talk about how sometimes rules get blurry, about the reasons for the rule and what we would do in future regarding books at the table.
A few minutes after this he feel asleep, happy and relaxed. That our evening could end on a happy and loving note after this incident is 100% owing to Connective Parenting.