Lessons for Everyday Parenting

The Connective Parenting Newsletter, December 2013

Expectations are always high at this time of year. Often the season raises spirits, people are friendlier and wish each other cheer, and family gatherings are anticipated. But just as often this is not the case.

Stress, tension, expectations of providing gifts and dealing with gatherings are heightened at this time of year. Loneliness, grief, and loss feel worse now than at any other time of the year. Suicide statistics peak.

Expectations of cheer can be met by happy people. For many the season is filled with joyful times. But the unhappy feel more isolated, rejected, and angry.

Can you allow another’s sadness, even depression and anger, without spoiling your own happiness? Can you be the support that a loved one needs without thinking you have to do something about it and then backing away because you don’t know what to do? Are you free to feel how you want without fearing the judgment of others?

Many hate and resent this time of year—the commercialism, the lies and myths, the money spent, the decorating, the fake cheeriness. Can you empathize—understand another point of view—without being brought down by it or thinking you have to either agree or try to change their point of view?

Parents tend to take responsibility for their children’s feelings, especially at this time of year. Christmas is for children after all—isn’t it? We expect their excitement and smiling faces. But what about disappointed, sad, bereft children? Isn’t Christmas for them too?

I often get questions from parents who complain about daily occurrences with a difficult child by saying things like, “He’s ruining it for everyone else” or “We all get dragged down by her mood. It’s not fair to the rest of us.”

Have you ever felt depressed, lonely, angry? Of course you have. Do you feel that way in order to make others feel the same? I doubt it. Don’t put that power on your children. You will only increase their unhappiness and add to their guilt when they learn that they are “making” everyone else feel bad.

There is a freedom that comes with knowing that the only person you can control is yourself. Of course that means taking responsibility for your own emotions and not blaming others for how you feel. But it also means that you don’t take it personally when others, even your children, feel bad or are angry with you. You cannot nor should not change that. But taking it personally will ruin things for you.

However empathy, acceptance, support, consideration, and respect go a long way toward providing the unhappy person with what they need. A person at any age needs to feel normal and accepted no matter what they are feeling and thinking. When we meet anger with anger we send the message that your anger causes mine. Staying above it, yet considerate of it means you are not being dragged down, and you are providing space for the anger of the other to dissipate.

This holiday season see if you can feel free to feel however you do. If someone tries to talk you out of it or cheer you up or bring you down, simply ask to be accepted and understood. Don’t ask for anyone to make it better for you and don’t try to make it better for another. Just let it be.

‘Tis the Season for Compassion.

Questions and Answers

I want your questions. Here’s how it works: You email me a question to bh@bonnieharris.com, 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.

Forced apologies

Q. I stay at home with my 2.5 year old daughter and 6 month old son. My daughter hits other children (usually smaller ones, including her 6 mo. old brother, but mostly ones she can interact with). It will inevitably happen if we are together with other kids for over 2 hours but happens in shorter times too. I get so embarrassed about it, feeling like others are judging me/her. I even heard one mom say to her kid ‘now you know not to play by her’. My current reaction for hitting is I kneel down to her level touch her gently and say “That hurt him you need to tell him you are sorry (or give ‘nice touches’). We do not hurt our friends” in a firm voice but not overly aggressive. A related problem: Bossiness, example: she will go to the top of a slide and tell other kids (sometimes bigger than her) “You can’t come up here, I am up here” and other ‘bossy’ phrases to which I usually say “You need to share” or “You need to let other kids play too”. Just today she kicked sand at a little boy after I said it was time to go (she was not playing with him; he just was in the wrong place/time and she took anger out on him). I knelt down with her (he was there too) and told her it was not nice to do that and to say sorry, she refused a few times then offered a quiet insincere sorry, I asked her to say it so he could hear but she refused and I gave up. We left with me openly frustrated with her. Even though I never say ‘you were bad/naughty’ etc, I over-hear her saying to herself or to Dad “I was not nice today. I am not a nice girl.” It breaks my heart. I cannot just let her do these things to kids but apparently in the process I am hurting her emotionally. How can I approach these scenarios so that she can learn from them but not feel that she is a bad kid?

A. Unfortunately some children at this age can be biters or hitters. Fortunately it is temporary—they mature out of it in less than a year. These behaviors are not meant aggressively but are the child’s method of communicating, often meaning “play with me.” The hitting may look aggressive but if it is not done in anger, it is most likely developmental. How you are responding, touching her gently and calmly saying that it hurts the other child is fine. What you want to stop is forcing an apology—mainly because it makes her confused since she is not doing anything that she sees as wrong. If you see it her way—as one of her methods of communicating—then you can gently take her away and talk about it calmly. Let her know that you can see that she wants the other child to… whatever is your best guess… and that sometimes it feels really frustrating when the other child doesn’t do what she wants. Let her know that as she gets older she will be able to tell the other child what she wants but there will always be times when the other one wants something different. Do not ever punish or threaten her in any way for this behavior. Let her know that hitting can hurt and that you know she doesn’t mean for that to happen. Ask her, “If your hands could talk, what would they say to your brother, the other child, whoever.” By understanding her motives as simply wanting to get what she wants when she wants it (absolutely normal development for a long time to come) and not as mean-spirited, you will help her move through this stage more quickly. Her bossiness is her temperament. She likes being in charge as many kids do. Don’t try to talk her out of that but do give her words that will be in keeping with her energy, for instance, “You would really like the slide all to yourself. It’s hard to have to share. Why don’t you take your turn and then this boy can have a turn and then you’ll get another turn.” That way you are validating her energy and desire, helping her feel normal and not like a bad girl and giving her ways to handle it. If she has a meltdown, as calmly as possible take her away from the area letting her know that you are going to help her through her upset and simply validate her feelings. When she is done, give her a hug and ask her if she is ready to go back and take turns. Kicking sand at the boy was a result of growing anger at not getting her way—again, normal for this age. Simply take her away and tell her that is not okay. There is no need for blame or punishment and do not tell her she’s not being nice or that she has to apologize. She is way too young for all that. You do the comforting that the other child might need.

Strong Will

Q. My 7 yr. old son has always struggled with letting things go and moving on from a situation. For example, two kids grab the same pencil and he will not step down, he will argue and debate his point beyond what is appropriate and won’t compromise without being forced. It’s not as extreme, but when it comes to ideas for play, he wants to do things his way. He does have plenty of good group play and can often do a great job collaborating depending on the person or circumstance, but often it’s hard for him to deviate from his vision. I appreciate his perseverance on getting what he wants and following through on an idea, but when you’re in an environment with 17 other kids, all also having their own agendas and needs, you have to step back once in a while. It’s enough outside the “norm” for his age that his teacher is concerned about his relationships next year. He’s an only child so he doesn’t get forced to compromise as much as he should at home. I’m wondering how we can help him understand the importance of being able to work in a group and value the ideas of his peers.

A. Your son is like so many kids I hear about. You fear will be this way always, or get worse with time, which isn’t the case—as long as you support his temperament. His persistence and perseverance, as you have said, will stand him in good stead when it comes to not being pushed around by a bunch of potentially influential teens. Your job is to verbally appreciate his clarity of mind so he feels supported and understood before the problem solving starts. “You really know your mind and what you want. No one is going to push you around. What an admirable quality to have. I wish I had a little more of it!” Then, “How do you think you can get what you want without pushing away the other person so he can get what he wants too?” Also after talking about the strength of this quality, then suggest that every strength has a weakness. See if he knows what his is (much better if it comes from him). If not, say it makes it hard to allow someone else to express the same quality without feeling that he is losing. Talk about ways that two people can both work together and actually both get what they want. Practice this at home—this is problem solving. Your job is to support him in who he is and help him soften from his point of strength. Then say, “How can we both get what we want here?” You can do it with him so it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a sibling.

A great exercise for opening up family discussion: As a family, tell each other what you each see as both your own and each others strengths and weaknesses.

The Dishonesty Button

Q. I’ve recently become aware of a button (I now understand after reading your book) that I was really trying very hard to pretend wasn’t there. When my 12-year-old son tries to get out of his responsibilities—a normal thing for a 12-year-old–he does it by handing me excuse after excuse as to why he “can’t” do something I’ve asked. “I can’t find the sponge.” “My boots are wet.” “You didn’t tell me I had to bring my homework today.” When he does this, I have an emotionally overwhelming reaction that is out of proportion to the offense. It is affecting our relationship so negatively that I often wake up in the morning already aggravated, expecting the worst from him. It finally dawned on me why this drives me so mental—it reminds me of his father. As my son grows into a young man, I catch glimpses of my ex-husband, who left us four years ago after starting an affair with a much younger woman (to whom he is now married). The affair was his solution to our marital problems; I took it as a sign that serious work was needed to repair our relationship, but for him there was no relationship left to repair. At any rate, it is the backhanded, dishonest way he weaseled out of his responsibility to his family that still hurts. My conflict style is blunt, and I handle problems best when they are stated directly. When my son hands me excuses instead of telling me the truth, that he simply doesn’t care about an assignment or doesn’t want to do the dishes, I get triggered by the dishonesty I perceive and find it difficult to respect him. Am I expecting too much? How do I defuse this button and see my son clearly rather than a copy of his father who is out to destroy our family balance?

A. First of all, may I say that your description of this problem is very astute and aware. The fact that you have been able to identify it and take responsibility for it is a huge first step. The suggestion I would make for communicating with your son when you hear one of his excuses, is to reflect back to him the directness you want instead of blaming him for not being honest.

Him: You didn’t tell me I had to bring my homework today.
You: Sounds like you want me to take responsibility for it.
He probably doesn’t want to be direct with you because directness sounds worse and presenting an excuse, feeble as it may be, may be his way of keeping you from being disappointed in him. He doesn’t want to appear resistant or belligerent so he softens it with, “I can’t find the sponge”. If you can accept that he is protecting himself from the reaction he assumes he might get if he said, “I don’t want to clean the bathroom”, then you can acknowledge, “Huh, sounds like you wish you didn’t have to clean the bathroom. If you don’t want to do it now, when can I expect that it will be done?” We all do this. Often directness sounds cold or harsh and if we can soften it, we think we can avoid being perceived as a bad person. His avoidance skills just haven’t gotten very sophisticated yet—that’s a good thing. I’m guessing your ex had given up on the relationship and didn’t want to do the work necessary so he did what he wanted instead—the easy way out, rather than dishonest. Your son is not being dishonest, he just doesn’t want to look bad. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t take responsibility for himself; hence the reflection back of saying it like it is—but with no blame or judgment attached. My guess is that your “dishonesty” button was created further back in your childhood and you tend to see dishonesty where it doesn’t necessarily reside.


A response to last month’s Lesson:

As is often the case, you’ve struck the very issue I’ve been working on in myself lately: taking responsibility for my own feelings (and allowing myself to feel them), and recognizing others are entitled to feel their feelings without my emotions complicating things. How liberating for us all! Truly, at 51, this is a remarkable change. A friend said to me some years ago “Stay in your own boat,” and from that a visual came to mind—small boats in flowing water, each one piloted by a paddler navigating eddies and currents. Capsizing seems likely when paddlers attempt to climb from one boat to another. A few words from an experienced paddler may be helpful to someone hung up on a rock, but climbing aboard? That’s just crazy. I am finally learning to stay in my own boat. It’s about time.


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