Parenting at the Beach

Kids at the beachWhile relaxing at the beach, I could not help but overhear snippets of interactions from a very nice looking family not too far from us. Here is teaching at it’s best—seeing and hearing from an objective perspective—this time it was what NOT to do.

Here are a few disjointed pieces of overheard dialogue:

Mom (to her maybe 5 yr. old son): “Come on, you’re going in the water.”

Son (crying): “No, I don’t want to.”

Mom: “Are you going to make me pour a bucket of water over you? Stop that whining. One more minute and that bathing suit comes off and I’m going to spank your bottom.”

She asked him to do something and he refused.

Mom: “Well then if you don’t do what I want, I won’t do what you want. I’m not giving you any Cheez-its.” To the others, tauntingly, “Who wants Cheez-its. They’re so good.” To her son, who says he wants some, “No, you can’t have any.”

Mom (taking a picture of him), “Open your eyes, butthead.”

Dad was bagging his surfboard. In response to something his son said: “That’s because you’re a weenie. You were off whining.”

When they were leaving, the boy was told to carry his bucket full of things, and he didn’t want to. Mom said he had to, and she and another woman walked off and left him. He began crying. Dad, who hadn’t heard the interaction was still behind packing his things and asked him what was wrong. Very angrily the boy screamed at him, “Nothing!” Dad: “You speak to me like that again and you’re in the water.” Dad ignored him after that. They left with the boy lagging way behind screaming all the way.

 

What’s wrong with this picture? All of these interactions were attempts by the boy’s parents to get him to mind—intentional parenting, right? He resisted a good deal of the time and even blasted with a rude tone and attitude. The parents saw these interactions as opportunities to further reprimand, humiliate, and control. This adorable little boy, I fear, is growing more and more resistant and defiant who, in no time at all, will leave his parents wondering, How do we control him? What happened? I’ve tried everything and nothing works.

Interactions such as these, show ever so clearly how the seeds of defiance and disobedience are nourished. As painful as they are to witness, similar dialogue often goes unnoticed in our own homes. These everyday occurrences pass by us unnoticed and unexamined but slowly build a wall between our children and ourselves. Behind that wall, children spend a great deal of time defending themselves and their integrity against an onslaught of disrespect coming at them. They learn to pass the blame, turn parent-deaf, and wake up ready for battle in guarded anticipation of blame and criticism. Then we ask, What did I do? I asked him perfectly nicely to get his sweater, and he acted like I was his mortal enemy! Totally out of the blue he screamed, I hate you!

I feel so sad when I witness situations like this one. Even when plenty of love is present, daily critical and shaming interactions from tired and frustrated parents create disconnect that become commonplace. Communication patterns build that are hard to break. And soon that child, once easily controlled, becomes our most feared nightmare.

Your child may have a compliant temperament and does as she is told to get her needs met. But, when treated like this child, she loses herself in the process—either for good or to find it in therapy years down the road. Or he may have a strong will and resists until he finally has the ability to turn things around and punish those who have punished him. Which type of child do you have? What do you foresee in your future relationship?

  • Pay attention to the words and tone you use. Be intentional with your dialogue.
  • Never give empty threats—never give threats at all.
  • Take the time now to listen to what your child is trying to tell you even if it comes out in a whine or resistant tone.
  • Even if your child has to do what he is told, acknowledge his agenda and let him know you understand his feelings—be considerate.
  • Ask yourself if you are holding power over your child to get him to comply. If so, back off and ask, “How can we make this work for both of us?”
  • Treat your child like the person you want him to become. Be the person you want your child to be.

 

“You just don’t understand!” ~ a teen’s lament

TeensSound familiar? And I have to agree. We don’t understand. Most of us have locked away the pains of our teen years and approach this raising children business with a hindsight perspective (read, I now know better). Teens feel misunderstood, angry and detached from the most important people in their lives when their parents appear clueless to what is important to them.

Parents are at their wit’s end with fear and worry about their children’s activities (or inactivities) once parental supervision is reduced. We want the best for them. We want them to be safe and smart and make good decisions. We want them to do well in school so they have opportunities for success in life. It drives us crazy when we see that “I don’t care” attitude at our cautions.

Brain research tells us that the prefrontal cortex is not complete until age 25, which means the ability to look ahead, gauge the consequences of particular choices, and make decisions based on those assumptions is trumped by the excitement of risky activities. And what’s more—this delay is apparently biologically important for the evolution of the species. (Learn more in Dan Siegel’s, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.)

But when our teen is experimenting with drugs, staying out all night, driving recklessly, and ignoring homework, the evolution of the species is the last thing we care about. So how do we deal?

The more we blame, threaten, ground, and take away cellphones, the more we push our teens out of our sphere of influence. We worry about the dropping grades of a daughter in love, ignored household chores, reclusiveness and non-communication, rude attitudes, drinking and driving, not to mention the drugs (legal and illegal), sex, pregnancy, and addictions. We worry—that’s what we’re best at.

But teens worry, too. About their futures in a not-too-welcoming world, what their friends say about them, what their hair looks like, the pants that someone looked at funny, name-calling, rejections. Academics sometimes tops their worry list and sometimes comes in last. They want independence desperately and recoil from it at the same time.

Both parents and teens have it hard. But when we perceive our kids as problems, we lose compassion and understanding and move directly to control and criticism.

Studies show that connection—communication, empathy and acceptance—is the strongest protective factor against dangerous teen behaviors. There is no guarantee that your child won’t be in a car accident, won’t become addicted to drugs, won’t get pregnant. But even if the worse case scenario occurred, wouldn’t you want to get through it together?

Some things to keep in mind to stay connected instead of clueless when your surly teen announces he’s not going to pick up his mess because he doesn’t care about it:

• Don’t react in the heat of the moment. No lesson is learned with emotional reactivity. Walk away and take care of yourself. Acknowledge your feelings without blame. Breathe and wait for a return to calm.

• Own your problem and don’t dump it on your teen. She doesn’t care if you are going to be late or have too much to do. That’s your problem.

• Start with “I”, never “You”. “I am scared about you driving in a car with a new driver.” “I saw your grades online, and I’m very concerned.” “I don’t like feeling ignored when I ask for help.” “That feels disrespectful to me. Is that what you mean?”

• Problem-solve. “I want this done and you want to do that. How can we both get what we want?” “This doesn’t work for me. What other choice can you make so it works for both of us?”

• Make plans and agreements and put them in writing. When your teen is engaged with the structure of your family life, he is far more likely to cooperate.

• Allow a certain amount of reclusiveness. They want privacy. Their room is their domain.

• Maintain family meals, vacations, etc. even if your teen is moody and quiet.

• Be firm and strong. If something hasn’t been done that was agreed on, don’t sweep it under the carpet to avoid an argument. Motivate don’t threaten. “As soon as the dishwasher has been loaded and the food put away, I will be happy to take you to your friends.” Then walk away, instead of, “If you don’t do what I asked hours ago, you can forget about me taking you anywhere.”

• Respect and be considerate of your teen’s agenda as you would like her to be considerate of yours. Pay attention to what your teen is doing and is interested in—even if it’s something you don’t like.

• Make sure they feel that they belong in your family. Find windows of opportunity for connecting, talking, listening. Own past mistakes and reactions.

• Encourage friends and activities under your roof. Be inviting.

• Consider relationship above all else. When you are connected, you will hear more about the angst of school, the worries about what the boyfriend said, the confusion about what choice to make. Your child will be more likely to listen to you, if you first listen to her.

• Always maintain the perspective that unacceptable behavior means your teen is having a problem, not being a problem. Compassion will carry you miles in your relationship.

Note to parents: You must grow too—right alongside your teen.

 

Building Defensive Behavior One Brick at a Time

Defensive glare

     Don’t do that! You know you’re not supposed to….

     What do I have to do to get you to listen to me?

     Stop hitting your sister. Cut it out.

     How many times do I have to tell you?!

     Brendan!!

     Quiet down, you’re going to be the death of me!

        (read all with tone of frustration and blame)

 

Be the child on the receiving end of these remarks. What happens to you when hear the accusations? Do you tense up, look away, run off, shut down? Where does your focus go? Depending on your temperament and how you have learned to avoid trouble, you choose a defense mechanism. So when that familiar tone emanates from your parent, you immediately hide behind your wall—your defense of choice. You do not put your focus on the effects of your behavior (a hurt sister, a tired mother), you put your focus on yourself and strategize how to keep from getting in trouble.

We teach our children early to defend themselves—unbeknownst to us—and then get furious when they do, claiming they never take responsibility for themselves.

Blame specifically and necessarily provokes defensive behavior.

Blame and the defense mechanisms provoked are obstacles to taking responsibility for one’s actions and for building an early and thus a pure, untainted conscience. A conscience is built upon experiencing the effects (the natural consequences) of one’s behavior—best experienced when nothing interferes.

When we blame our children, a natural and automatic reaction since we were brought up on it, we literally prevent them from taking responsibility for the situation at hand. A compliant child will likely apologize or make the amends a parent insists on, but the blame can lead to embedded shame that causes the child to believe he is not good. Forced apologies become just that—forced rather than rooted in a desire to make amends or do the right thing. Later they may lead to a rather snide, “Saawrry!” And then we have taught the child that “sorry” is all that’s required.

We want our children to learn right from wrong and to have intrinsic motivation to do what’s right rather than only what they are told to do. We believe that doling out blame, threats and punishment is the way for that to happen. That belief couldn’t be any more wrong. But we have it out of fear of the opposite: If we don’t blame they’ll never learn they have done anything wrong. That fear is based on distrust of the child’s innate abilities and desires to be successful—an essential belief for unconditional acceptance.

Deflecting blame by running away, fighting back, laughing, covering ears, hitting, lying, yelling “you’re not the boss of me”, “you’re stupid”, “you’re so mean”—are all defensive reactions to retaliate for the blame children feel. Those defense mechanisms obstruct their experience of natural consequences and the development of conscience.

Children start building their wall of defense at a surprisingly early age. A two or three year old who slams into his baby brother or “accidentally” kicks him in the head will look at you when the baby starts to cry rather than at the baby, when he is used to being called out for it. It’s all about him and what will happen to him.

Some children become overly concerned about how you feel, which translates to how are you going to treat me? “Are you happy, Mommy?” means the child has learned to take responsibility for his mother’s feelings. Her happiness means he can relax.

Resist the automatic tone of blame and replace it with doing nothing—yet. Deal with what has been harmed or who has been hurt and ignore the offender. When the offender learns she will not get “in trouble”, she will hang around. When you have calmed, ask her if she would like to get the icepack from the freezer, hand her the dust pan and broom or the cleaner and rag, remind her that you are talking to her and would like her to listen, bring the box for the toys or mess to go in, etc. all of which give her the opportunity to make amends. She may not go for it until she trusts she will not get blamed or punished. Then and only then, will she begin to effortlessly take responsibility, cooperate, and learn from the natural consequences of her behavior.