Q. I have a very strong-willed, acting out 8-year-old boy. I only recently read and started implementing your 8 principles book and watched your YouTube videos and am trying to implement your “connective parenting” approach which has already been very helpful. But I have struggled with this for so long, and I have a hard time handling friends, family, anyone in public not getting what I am doing. I get lookers, judgments, and even comments of how “bad” he is. They tell me how he needs a smack or more punishment, that he’s disrespectful, etc. I am trying to find confidence in my parenting, but this is a real brick wall. Do you smile politely and say, “My son is having a hard time”? Do you tell them to mind their own business and that you are working on it! Do you just ignore them? It makes me want to wear a t-shirt that states, “I am doing the best I can and so is my son”.
A. I love the tee-shirt idea! You’ll need several so you don’t run out. I would suggest selling them on Etsy. You could make a killing! 90% of American parents would buy them! Congratulations on your new journey to raising a happier, healthier son—and you a happier, healthier mom.
But it can be a long, hard journey, and will require your patience and determination. Your son has 8 years of patterns behind him. It will take time for him to trust that you are coming from a truly supportive place and that your new ways of communicating are genuine and will remain consistent before you will see much change from him. Keep in mind that you are learning to behave more responsibly and respectfully while understanding how to give him unconditional acceptance even in the face of out-of-control behavior.
This is about you. This learning is for you to model for him the type of person you want him to become. You are not doing this “being nice” stuff to get him to behave better. That will come only when his emotional state heals from feeling misunderstood, unaccepted, not good enough, powerless—the emotions that have likely been provoking his behavior for a long time.
This requires your perceptual change to see that his behavior signals that he is having a problem, not being a problem—that when he behaves badly it means he is in pain. Once you can make that mindset shift, you will approach him with compassion instead of anger (very different from permissiveness), with understanding and problem solving instead of threats and consequences. This all takes time when your automatics are reactive and have roots in your past.
In the meantime, you need a lot of self-care and protection from the thoughtless judgments of others. Make sure you do something fulfilling and nurturing for yourself every day. We always put ourselves at the bottom of the to-do list—if we’re on it at all. This will not help you to help your son.
You need to be strong and confident to hold solid boundaries and able to let looks and comments bounce off instead of taking them personally. It’s hard to have confidence when you’re embarking on something new, and you don’t “have it” yet.
“We’re a work in progress” might be another good tee-shirt. And don’t even try to explain the principles of what you’re doing until it feels integrated in your body. When you are working with your child during or after a blowup or meltdown, take him into another room or space whenever you can. That way you don’t have eyes watching what you do. They trust you are handling it. And privacy is always better for your child who likely feels humiliated in front of others.
Words to try with family and friends:
- “I’m working on a new approach that he isn’t trusting yet. It will take a while. Would you like to hear about it?” That will likely shut them up. But you must have something at the ready in case they say, yes.
- With close family and good friends, it’s important to ask for support. “I know you want the best for Johnny, and you’re worried I’m not doing what you think is best. I’m learning a new approach and it’s a work in progress. Changing old habits takes time. I really need your support and understanding.”
Ignore strangers the best you can. You know your child better than anyone. Anyone who judges you by your son’s surface behavior is not worth your attention. Easier said than done.
Your embarrassment in public makes it hard to focus on what your son needs in that moment. When you feel those eyes on you, your stress level jumps, you go into fight or flight, and your rational brain shuts down. You feel attacked and so you attack—usually your child. It takes conscious effort to interrupt that instinct.
Responding to your child’s behavior in public means caring more about your son than some stranger you may never see again.
Prepare a mantra for yourself. Perhaps something like, You don’t know me or my son. My son needs me. Or, This is my problem not yours.
Expect to make mistakes, expect to lose it and fall back on old habits. Give yourself a huge break, a pat on the back, and make sure you have a good friend you trust who is willing to be a good listener. It’s important to be able to rant and yell your frustrations out with someone who understands and doesn’t tell you what to do.