Q. I know you don’t believe in consequences, but is there ever a circumstance where a consequence is effective even when knowing the root cause of the behavior? Example: My 10-year-old son expressed this morning that he wished he didn’t have to go to school. He was moody and angry. I did some digging and turns out he hates music and it’s his first class of the day. I get it. I said missing school isn’t an option and asked if he could think of anything to make the day bearable. He was super angry and wasn’t open to hearing me and started to call me vulgar names/swears. I told him that calling me names is unacceptable—something I’ve told him many times. He stormed outside to ride his scooter for a bit, and I was left wondering if he should lose YouTube after school. Will it make him remember or think twice when he is in the red zone swearing at me? Is it just a thing parents do to feel in control when the situation feels so out of control? Can I do both? Does it make sense to say, “in our home when you call me vulgar names you lose privileges”?
Q. I am really trying to parent my two kids, 5 and 7, differently than the way I was raised. I am good at telling my husband and my friends that I want to parent with connection. But when they say what does that mean, I’m lost. I get about as far as – ‘Well, it just doesn’t feel right to parent the old way.’ And of course I have my days when I lose it and do everything wrong. I wonder if you could help me think thru why I want to do a connective approach and what I can say to my naysayer friends.
A. This is a common conundrum for many parents who want to parent differently but who haven’t yet absorbed the principles of why or experienced the results of a connected relationship yet. It takes time to incorporate a new method before you can explain to others why you are doing what you’re doing.
It also requires a certain amount of child development knowledge not well understood in traditional parenting to know what can be realistically and appropriately expected for a child to succeed at meeting those expectations. As well as a trusting understanding of your child’s unique temperament.
Q. I’m utterly overwhelmed. I’m resentful of those who have support from a partner and grandparents and guilty for feeling resentful. Frustrated that there’s no end in sight. Exhausted, emotionally and physically. Sad. I miss my family and friends. Lonely. 3 kids 1, 4 and 8 entirely on my own. Working 60 hours a week. Trying to be grateful I’m employed but there is no balance possible when you have 3 kids in tow. I don’t bathe or sleep without them and if I try, they scream or immediately ‘need’ me for something which is their anxiety showing up. It’s endless. How do I stay sane?
A. We’re on year three of a global pandemic and all of us, especially parents with young unvaccinated children or families with unpredictable child education schedules due to positive COVID cases, are still very much in the throes of it. If we thought we were exhausted in May, 2020, it’s certainly not gotten better for a lot of people. Maybe we’ve become more accustomed to our reality, but emotional stress among our hardworking families is very real and present.
Expectations are always high at this time of year. It’s the season for joy, friendly people wishing each other cheer, generosity of spirit, and family gatherings. But just as often, it’s not for so many.
The stress and tension of buying gifts, satisfying expectant children, and anticipating family gatherings fraught with anxiety and judgement are also heightened at this time of year. Loneliness, grief, and loss feel heavier now than at any other time. Suicide statistics peak. And on top of all the usual stress, we are in our second holiday season marred by a world-wide pandemic with a new and possibly scarier variant at our doorstep. The unhappy and the sick feel more isolated, rejected, and angry at this time of year.
Now that I have fully depressed all of you, I do not mean to be a downer. What I want is to prod your compassion and empathy to understand that this season is just as hard for many as it can be joyful for others.
Can you allow a family member’s, even your child’s, sadness, depression, anger, without allowing it to spoiling your own happiness? Can you be the support that a loved one needs without worrying you must do something about it, feeling guilty 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. We come in all shapes and sizes of how we celebrate, what we believe, what brings us happiness, and what brings us down. The question is not can we simply tolerate the differences. Can we accept them? That does not mean agreeing, joining, or endorsing. Can I accept that people are different, that someone believes something that I don’t, that my child thinks it’s wrong that he doesn’t have a smartphone and I disagree? That I feel happy, and you feel despair? Or vice versa. And it’s okay. I don’t have to change anything.
True empathy means I get how you see the world from your vantage point, in your experience of the world with the feelings that come up for you—and I don’t judge that. It does not mean I agree with or share your point of view. It does not mean it is my job to fix things for you so that you see it differently. It really and truly means I understand. It’s not sympathy. Sympathy puts me in your experience with you. Empathy means I can stand in my experience and understand and support you in your experience.
Can you empathize—understand another’s point of view—without being brought down by it or thinking you must fix it? If you think you should but know you can’t fix it, that’s when you will walk away, avoid, or ignore the one who is hurting—because you feel incompetent. But all any of us really want is just to be heard, recognized, and validated—not fixed or changed.
Parents tend to take responsibility for their children’s feelings. 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? We all want our children to be happy but taking responsibility for that happiness puts you in a no-win situation. You are not responsible for their happiness—an impossible task. You are responsible for all your feelings, words, and behavior. But that is what you often want to blame on others.
I often get questions from parents complaining their child is “ruining it for everyone else” or “dragging everyone 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 to make others feel the same? I doubt it. Don’t put that power on your children—or anyone for that matter. You will only increase their unhappiness and add to their guilt when they learn that they are “making” everyone else feel bad.
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 experiencing. When we meet anger with anger, we send the message that your anger causes mine, and it’s not okay. Staying above it, yet empathic with the angry person means you are not being dragged down into the negative experience. And you are providing space for the anger of the other to dissipate on its own.
No one, but children especially, should ever feel forced to alter their feelings. Yes, they are often inconvenient and can take up a lot of space. But isolating, belittling, criticizing, and blaming adds fuel to the emotional fire. If it does put out the flames, it’s only temporary. Burning embers burst into flame at the next opportunity.
This holiday season see if you can feel free to feel however you do. If someone tries to talk you out of your mood or cheer you up or bring you down, simply ask to be accepted and understood. Try, “I’m not asking you to do anything about it. I just need to be here for as long as I need. I’m only asking you to understand.” Just let it be. This too will pass.
Are you exhausted and overwhelmed by your clever little manipulator who fights you every step of the way, won’t take no for an answer and will not be told what to do? Do the words stubborn, demanding, disrespectful, disobedient, and argumentative come to mind? My guess is you have an Integrity Child* as opposed to that delightfully easy Harmony Child* who makes you feel like the best parent in the world.
In my humble opinion, understanding your Integrity child could be the most important job you will ever do. Orchids* (1 in 5 children)—my term is Integrity to incorporate a broader range—have the potential of becoming the brilliant revolutionaries of the world when given the nurturing their extremely sensitive natures require. When misunderstood and pressured to be different, they can become burdens on society as the very troubled and often addicted young people we fear raising.
As I see it, your Integrity child is born with an internal core of a sense of rightness and justice that drives his every mood and behavior. These kids try our very souls. And while we think they will never learn and we fear for their futures, what they are doing is demanding our personal responsibility and integrity. But it’s hard to see that from the trenches of daily battles.
Having both a Harmony and Integrity child myself and counseling parents of Integrity kids for many years, I have learned what these kids need to thrive.
Problem: Your young immature child’s sense of rightness does not mesh with what it will become as an adult. He seems defiant and willful and does not hesitate to lash out if he feels wrongfully treated. It seems only right to a four-year-old who just had his Lego building destroyed to slug the perpetrator. While you argue, yell, threaten, and punish to get him to do as he’s told, you get screams of It’s not fair, I hate you, and You’re mean or stupid. After the 5th power struggle of the day, you throw in the parenting towel and declare failure.
Key: Know that he cannot, not will not, capitulate to a request that counters what he believes right—his sense of integrity. Integrity kids work by a their own set of rules. Your power struggles will stop when you understand that. You don’t have to follow his rules, or even agree with them. Simply understand and acknowledge their importance to your child. You worked hard on that lego building and felt furious when it got knocked down. He will not be forced to listen and obey. When you try to get him to see it your way, he argues and resists. When he feels understood and connected, he will work with you. Next time that happens what could you do instead of hit?
Problem: You think you must break down that hard shell that continually fights back. You think what she’s doing is trying to get control, and you fear losing control over her as her words get louder and more dramatic.
Key: The fights and meltdowns are your Integrity child’s way of demanding your respect—what she doesn’t get when you yell, threaten, and manipulate her. In fact, that hard shell is the suit of armor she puts on every morning expecting battles. Her extreme sensitivity requires the defense she puts on to protect herself. When you change your perception of her from rude and obstinate to defending her pain and switch from anger to compassion—the nourishment she demands—her defenses can melt.
Problem: There are times when he says the most amazing things, when his wisdom seems beyond his years. Integrity kids are deeply perceptive and intuitive. Sometimes his immature intuition will become a tirade on something that makes no sense to you, and you struggle to get him to understand your explanation. But he will dig in his heels and argue with an energy that either exhausts you or catapults you into a rage.
Key: Mirror his logic. Get into his head. Oh, I get it. You think I’d rather be with your brother than you. So of course you get angry when I do something with him. Mirroring does not mean agreeing. It enables him to hear himself think, to bounce ideas off the sounding board you provide. It’s got to be hard to have a brother who seems to have such an easy time. Your acknowledgement normalizes his feelings so he can relax. Then he can hear your side.
Problem: She can fight with a fury and then fall apart when getting out the door in the morning. Transitions can be hard. Remember her sensitivity in all situations. She may have a heightened sense of smell, taste, hearing and texture that can cause havoc around food, clothing, and stimulation.
Key: Never pressure her to eat something she doesn’t like. Let her pick out new clothes as fabrics can feel like rough sandpaper. Loud noises may dysregulate her. Understand how hard it can be to switch internal gears to leave home, leave you, and get herself into a new environment. When pressured she can become anxious. She may be nervously anticipating the unrealistic expectations of others.
Problem: You have answered his ridiculous request with a perfectly logical ‘no’ and he erupts.
Key: Remember your Integrity kid will not take no for an answer. Find a way of saying ‘no’ without saying ‘no’. He will not hear any explanation that follows a ‘no’. Sounds like you really want me to play that game. I can’t do that now but let’s look at the calendar and mark a time that works for both of us. Acknowledge his wants even if it’s candy. Of course you want candy. Why wouldn’t you? I’m not going to give you any now but let’s decide when you can have some. You don’t have to fulfill his wants but let him know there is never a problem with the wanting.
Problem: Telling your Integrity child what to do or say will never work.
Key: She has to feel she belongs. Start by giving her choices so she has some power. Use problem solving to work out any issue as it is all about fairness and logic. You want x, I want y. How do we make it work for both of us? Involving her opinions, even if she doesn’t get exactly what she wants will go a long way towards compromise and cooperation. Never say, You can’t do that, which is a threat she will fight. Instead, That doesn’t work for me or I don’t like that calls on your integrity.
Problem: You feel disdain and disrespect from your Integrity child.
Key: Your Integrity kid is hypersensitive to anything that smacks of dishonesty or illogic. He wants the truth and can see through platitudes and false praise like, I love that. It’s beautiful or Good job. Be clear, factual, and responsible with your words and behavior. Never try to hide or sneak to avoid a meltdown. Integrity kids want honesty and authenticity even when it hurts. You can usually get away with We can’t afford that with a Harmony child. Don’t even try it with your Integrity child. I don’t want to buy that for you is better, especially if you have validated his want first. Finishing with…so how can you find a way to get one? poses a challenge, which he loves.
Problem: This is the child who pushes your buttons again and again.
Key: Holding strong boundaries is imperative. Being responsible means standing in your own integrity. Don’t ask her to take care of your problems—Just stop would you? Why can’t you ever think of anyone else?—and do not try to fix her problems. Once she gets that problem solving never means losing, guide her with questions that put her decision-making into play. What is it you want? How can you make that happen? What do you think will happen then? She is likely to disdain and thus say disrespectful things to a parent who backs down, gives in, and is always walking on eggshells—and then exploding. She will keep on pushing your buttons until you get that those buttons are yours to heal, not hers to leave alone. If you can take ownership of your buttons and work to defuse them, you will emerge a far better person. Your Integrity child is the best teacher you will ever have.
Problem: His behavior has gotten out of hand. He is angry and retaliatory most of the time. Your home has become a war zone. He may scream and swear at you, and even threaten hurting you. Integrity kids can throw barbs that cut deep. He resents his Harmony sibling to the point of cruelty. You have gotten into a pattern of only yelling, taking things away, or ignoring him.
Key: Understand that unacceptable behavior is your clue that he is in pain. He has come to believe he is unacceptable, bad, wrong, and unloved. All he can do is demand in a loud and dangerous voice because he feels so powerless. Don’t take his behavior personally. Learn to interpret words and behavior by looking beneath the surface to the emotions that provoke behavior. Find compassion for the pain. An environment of anger, threats and punitive measures is not supportive of any child, but due to his sensitivity, the Integrity child can be quite damaged and suffer greatly under punitive methods. NEVER punish or threaten an Integrity child. He will punish you back. It is the most unfair, illogical thing he can imagine. Your work at this point is to admit your mistakes, acknowledge that you have misunderstood him and want desperately to change your relationship. It will likely take time and consistency for him to learn to trust you.
When your Integrity child feels understood and supported; when she feels “gotten”, not necessarily agreed with; when she is spoken to from a place of your honesty and integrity, she will respond cooperatively. She may always be frustrating and argumentative, but when she is launched feeling confident and comfortable in her own skin, you will be dazzled by her capabilities.
Read about the Harmony child here.
*Integrity and Harmony are my terms. They are based on the 30 years of scientific research done by Dr. Thomas Boyce and many colleagues culminating in his book, The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive. The Orchid is 1 in 5 children. The Integrity child is not quite as extreme and is more common.
Q. I’m concerned about my almost 15 year-old boy. He is depressed and with good reason. He is slightly on the spectrum and has A.D.D. (no hyperactivity). We’ve moved twice in 14 months and we’re currently renting. He is a creature of habit and our lives have been very unpredictable for almost three years. He lost his baby brother when he was 6 and had to deal with Mom and Dad’s grief. He is totally quiet and therefore doesn’t make friends. Being stuck at home doesn’t help. He has never really talked much, especially about emotions. How can I help him open up?
A. Everything you have described is life events that have been out of your or your son’s control. Very hard but this is life happening. These are situations that people have to deal with. Depression has all to do with how those events are perceived and dealt with. If your son’s emotions are swept under the carpet, ignored or criticized, then he will be left feeling unheard, alone, misunderstood, etc. – fertile ground for depression. But if his feelings are acknowledged, even if your son doesn’t do much talking, then he is left with the sadness, grief, or anger about the situations, but everything is out in the open and feelings usually do not fester to cause depression.
We want and often expect our kids to be open with us emotionally – mothers especially. But not all kids, especially boys, are open with their thoughts and feelings. That doesn’t mean they feel unheard. How we communicate with them has all to do with how they feel about themselves.
When you have a non-talker, you want to make sure you don’t use the excuse that he doesn’t open up or share to ignore the situation and not talk about it. You can use what I call connective communication (best communication with anyone actually), which does not ask questions. When you ask questions – What’s wrong? How do you feel about…? Why don’t you…? – you put him on the spot, and he feels forced to come up with something. He may lie, tell you what he thinks you want to hear or what he knows you don’t want to hear to get you off his back. Rarely do questions, unless and until you have a very open connective relationship, get you the information you want.
Making statements goes a lot further:
Moving as many times as we have done lately must be quite discombobulating for you. I know how difficult change can be, and we’ve forced you into a lot of it. Changing schools is tough. I’m actually amazed at how well you have taken it. But I imagine that it has taken its toll on you. It’s really hard, right now. Period.
I wonder sometimes about how you are with not having many friends. I’m curious to know if that’s hard on you or if that is your choice. Sometimes kids your age can be tough to be around. Period.
Sometimes I think about how hard it must have been for you when Dad and I were grieving the loss of your little brother. We weren’t there for you as much as I would have liked. I feel so sad about that time – for all of us. Period.
That must have been hard to hear. I bet if I were you, I would have felt angry and confused. Period.
It’s so hard not to ask questions when you are hoping to find out answers. When there are no questions, the other person feels more inclined to listen, doesn’t feel obligated to talk, and connection gets better. Ironically, talking is more likely – but don’t expect it.
Here is an article of mine explaining this further –
Communication 101: How to get your child to listen
What your son needs is to know he can talk with you WHEN and IF he wants to. Especially kids on the spectrum have a harder time organizing their thoughts and making sense of them enough to formulate a conversation. Talking about emotions is hard for most people, males especially, and for an ADD kid on the spectrum, it’s especially tough.
Also, boys tend to talk more when they are active, which may be why he talks to your husband more. Shoot hoops, take a bike ride or a walk. In the car, at bedtime if you are around him then (maybe not at 15), and perhaps mealtimes may be times to share yourself and how you are feeling. Your job is to model for him what it looks like to talk about emotions and values and what you think about people and events. Don’t expect it from him. If you don’t talk to him because there’s not much coming back, you are not being honest with yourself; you’re actually fearful of him.
But the important thing to know is that traumatic life events only negatively affect us long-term when they are shoved down inside and not dealt with. His ability to talk about things will come from your openness and freedom to share how you feel and think. And just naming what happened in his life to cause upset is validating for him. Eventually he will be able to talk about it himself but maybe not with you.
I would hesitate to identify him as depressed. Once you feel connection through making statements, then you can ask questions. Then you might ask, “Do you think you’re depressed?” If he responds with a yes, then ask, “Don’t you think getting help would be a good thing? Once you have made connection, he may feel differently about getting help because you can freely talk about it and help him see that this is not about him being a problem. If he still doesn’t want to, don’t force it. Hopefully he will come to it on his own.
But then again, maybe he’s not depressed! Maybe he just looks it from your point of view. It is so easy for us to project our way of seeing things onto our kids. We have to consciously be aware that what is a problem for me might not be for my child.
Quietness can easily be interpreted as depression – unfairly. Introverts are looked on with concern or pity in our society – completely the opposite in other societies. Nothing wrong with being quiet and introverted. He is likely a deeply perceptive person who works things out internally long before he expresses himself. Extraverts are the opposite. They have to talk it through to know what they think!
Often deep thinkers are not drawn to the more popular high school kids. They have nothing in common with them. It often takes years before many kids find their tribe — others who share their interests and values.
To submit a question, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your short question and I will answer you within a few days. It may appear in the newsletter at a later date.
All parents struggle with fears and worries about their children and many end up just getting in their own way. When you take your children’s behavior personally and use your authority to control them to do what you want, you may wind up creating the scenario you most fear.
The problem comes when we think it’s our children who need to change when indeed it is us. Whatever you need to do to get to acceptance is the answer.
The following is a story from one of my clients that I find truly inspiring. Her struggles to understand her son and ultimately herself have led to a wonderful relationship. I hope it motivates you to trust your children and let go of a small bit of your fears. You will always have fears and doubts — you wouldn’t be a conscientious parent without them. But in the moment, when your child needs your connection, you must be able to at least temporarily put those fears aside.
Reflections on my journey with my son – Mother of three
I am enjoying a playful moment in the kitchen with my 6’6, 17 year old son. He likes to get in my space and see if he can startle me with his big teenage energy. I get flustered and cry out, “You make me feel anxious when you do that!” He smiles with this gentle warmth and looking right in my eyes he says lovingly, “Mum, it’s not what I do that makes you feel anxious. It’s what you think about what I do.”
The wisdom of his insight seems far beyond his years and the truth of it shimmers in the moment. It has been a lot of inner and outer work for me to get here. I remember hearing years ago that I couldn’t worry and love at the same time. Given that choice I wanted to choose love as the energy that I was offering my children — also to myself as the worry felt utterly agonizing to live with. However, so often things happening on the outside seemed to justify worry and that “thought slide” became easy to glide down with ever repeated use.
We found Bonnie Harris when our child was in middle school. My husband and I consulted her, driven by our deep concerns that our son was developing a gaming addiction. Having been an incredibly active, outdoor-loving child, all of a sudden, he seemed willing to forego what we thought of as his “healthy” choices for spending hours on end in his room in front of a screen. We had entered into a pattern of trying to curb his screen time followed by endless arguing. We had majorly lost connection with our son.
I will not forget that late afternoon meeting in Bonnie’s office, me tearful, my husband and I feeling distant from each other because of our own fighting over how to parent our son, and both of us worried about him. After hearing what we had to say and a long, thoughtful pause, Bonnie gestured to the empty chair in our circle and asked gently, “What do you imagine your son would say if he were sitting here with us and could speak for himself?” Immediately I was drawn to my heart space that felt full of compassion and love for him and I said, “I think he would say, “You don’t understand me.’”
It was an instant, dramatic and powerful paradigm shift. I got out of my head which was very much about me and into my heart where I could truly be with him without my thoughts. And he really had spoken to me. At the end of that meeting, Bonnie suggested we make the shift to tell our son we trusted his inner guidance that would help him regulate his gaming. She prepared us that he might really go wild with this freedom for a time, but she suspected things would work out.
I wrote him a letter to express what we had learned and how we were shifting to a place of trust in him. It was greeted with a huge smile and relief. It was so clear that he wanted connection with us too and to feel that we had faith in him to make his own choices.
What a journey it has been in the last 7 years. I cannot count the number of times I have gotten buried in worry while my son smiled at me and said with his eyes, “Trust me.” The title of one of Bonnie’s books is, “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons”. I always used to focus on “When Your Kids Push…” but I had an Aha! moment recently and saw “Your Buttons” seemingly for the first time. These are not our kids buttons, they are ours. And we can certainly do something about our own buttons.
Here is an example of how I have come to discover my own issue and address it. I have often fretted about seeing my son have an interest and then not have the discipline to develop it. He loved playing basketball in middle school, and I imagined he would play in high school but to my surprise he didn’t play any sports for the first three years. To get into a place of trust, I took a good hard look at the button that was being pushed. Where did I have an interest and no discipline? My contemplation led me to start taking voice lessons and practicing daily. It took enormous effort at first, but I felt so fulfilled when I honored my commitment! I saw how it also took my attention away from worrying about my son and it set an example of discipline that he could notice… or not!
To my absolute utter surprise, my son is now on the Varsity Basketball team in his senior year because he said he realized he missed it and wanted to play with his friends. When he tried out, the coach said, “Well son, this is unusual to be trying out in your senior year, but you don’t know what you can do if you don’t try!” He mostly doesn’t play in games but loves practicing, being on a great team and is often getting his teammates cups of water during a timeout. He’s happy and he did it his way. He also has even said that he can see how far he could have come if he had kept playing. And he feels comfortable saying that to us because he feels his parent’s detachment. I know I didn’t cause any of this but because I focused on myself, I feel so fulfilled with my own pursuits and I bring a more joyful, independent me to enjoy going to the team’s games.
In short, I’ve learned when someone pushes my buttons, the only thing I have control over is what I do with the opportunity to see and address my own stuff. That’s so empowering.
I have gotten very creative about my buttons too! I’ve looked for many ways to bring my attention back to myself and not wandering around into my son’s business. When my son got his license and I saw my mind going wild about the potential scenarios that might result from my thrill-seeking teen, I created an imaginary warm, loving and burly bodyguard that I would mentally see by my son’s side to look out for him. I would send them off in my mind with love. It puts my mind at rest in an outer situation where I had no control. It lessons my stress. The button was my own tendency toward anxiety.
After our first meeting with Bonnie, my husband and I jumped fully on the same page to make connection with our son the priority. Over the years we’ve consulted Bonnie when we felt we were parenting in a way that seemed so outside the “norm” of a “top down” approach that is so advocated in our culture. We were checking in with our intuition and having discussions with our son and arriving at solutions and compromises. It was so helpful to have a third party look at all of it and confirm that we were on the right track for our family because our connection and open communication was there. I remember during one of our discussions with our son, he said, “Mum, I know you really care about me, but I think what you don’t understand is that I really care about me too!”
I heard years ago that something so important to a human being is the ability to make choices. That a teen, when confronted with control from parents will do everything in their power to demonstrate that they have choice, even if it means that the way to do it is by doing something that may appear self-destructive. Whatever we resist persists, especially with regards to teens.
I have witnessed parents fighting to control their teenagers, and it appears that what they are really doing is teaching their teens to cultivate a habit of being really good at lying. What else are the children going to do when faced with a punishment if they tell the truth? And I have seen the heartache of a parent feeling disconnected from their child and at a loss for how to ever get that back with sincerely no understanding that perhaps the way to do it is to let go of their expectations of how things should be and sink into acceptance of what is with an open heart.
Byron Katie, in her book “A Thousand Names for Joy”, page 186, says it so exquisitely:
“It’s painful to think you know what’s best for your children. It’s hopeless. When you think that you need to protect them, you’re teaching anxiety and dependence. But when you question your mind and learn how not to be mentally in your children’s business, finally there’s an example in the house: someone who knows how to live a happy life. They notice that you have your act together and that you’re happy, so they start to follow. You have taught them everything they know about anxiety and dependence, and now they begin to learn something else, something about what freedom looks like…. If your happiness depends on your children being happy, that makes them your hostages. I think I’ll just skip them and be happy from here. That’s a lot saner. It’s called unconditional love…. If what they do brings them happiness, that’s what I want; if it brings them unhappiness, that’s what I want, because they learn from that what I could never teach them.”
So here I find myself, a woman and a mother who is continually growing and learning and living into new subtleties that are revealed on this journey with my son. There is part of me that wishes I could go back and tell my younger self that all that energy of worrying was for naught, but I had to learn it for myself just as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz couldn’t know about her ruby red slippers and their power from the very beginning.
My son is in a wonderful place in his life, applying to colleges on his own terms, exploring all sorts of new hobbies, one of them being a passion for wall climbing. This young man who I wondered years ago if he would ever even stick it out through high school scored in the 98th percentile of the SAT. When I asked him how he got such a high verbal score he told me about how he is usually reading articles when he is on his phone. I never thought of that! He never had a book in his hand, so I thought…
And all those hours of gaming? He still loves to game with his friends, and I imagine it will always be a hobby, but it doesn’t dominate his life. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he has a real knack for computer programming and plans to major in Computer Science. When I watch him program, I see that all those skills he was learning with his fingers in gaming are what he puts to use in programming.
I so look forward to having more of my assumptions dismantled. In fact, I find he has taught me that making assumptions about him, or anyone else for that matter, and judgement of any kind is a huge waste of energy and time. He has been and continues to be my greatest teacher and I am so grateful for it. After all, it is my immense love for my son that has been the force to guide me to continually choose connection with him and set aside my ego when required — to settle into the place of simply not knowing the answer of what is “right”. As I see it, that’s a win-win!
Toxic stress in early childhood can harm children for life, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Don’t think your children have experienced toxic stress? All children do to differing degrees. Whoever said childhood is bliss didn’t know what he was talking about. Children experience stress just by being a child. From nightmares, worry about transitions, being afraid of the dark or thunder storms, social fears, children have a hard lot. And that doesn’t cover huge emotions and dysregulation that they cannot possibly understand when asked, “What’s wrong?” Then being punished, criticized, or threatened for behavior they can’t control…. You name it, a day rarely goes by when a child doesn’t experience stress.
Stress arises for a child when sensing a threat with no one to protect him from that threat. Children who experience this kind of stress in the early years, even prenatally through mother’s hormones, “…are more likely to suffer heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments…also more likely to struggle in school, have short tempers and tangle with the law.”
A now more than two decade long scientific study by the Academy and the CDC shows the long term, harmful effects on society when we turn a blind eye on the problems faced by young children. From the stress children experience when their parents abuse alcohol or drugs, emotional or physical abuse or neglect, emotional or physical treatment between parents, mental illness, separation or divorce, to a child crying out and not being comforted and feeling unloved — stress comes in all shapes and sizes.
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, originally conducted from 1995-1997, is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being. We now have research showing the connection between disrupted neurodevelopment, social, emotional and cognitive impairment, risky behaviors, disease, disability and even early death to Adverse Childhood Experiences.
Now that I have thoroughly depressed you, let’s look at what we can do about it.
The Academy has issued a policy statement that includes, “Protecting young children from adversity is a promising, science-based strategy to address many of the most persistent and costly problems facing contemporary society, including limited educational achievement, diminished economic productivity, criminality, and disparities in health.”
The study outlines extensive strategies to turn the horrendous statistics around — strengthening economic supports to families, changing social norms to promote positive parenting, quality care and education, better parenting skills training, and intervention methods.
We can’t always control the environment for our children. Death and loss, natural disasters, accidents, an ex-spouse’s choices, disciplinary measures at school, hurtful remarks and bullying are all beyond our control. Nor should we hover and protect our children from growing up and experiencing the world we live in. Many circumstances children find themselves in can be toxic and traumatic, but when they have a protective factor to turn to safely, namely a parent or caring adult who understands, listens, accepts, and connects, a child can deal with and learn to make sense of most experiences. Ignoring, sweeping problems or sensitive issues under the carpet, screaming at and punishing big emotions that parents don’t want or know how to deal with undermine the protection you can provide.
Your connection to your children is the protective factor they need most. But connection is harder than we think, as most parents know. It often requires a mindset shift away from traditional parenting methods.
How you can provide that protective factor:
Stop threatening and punishing — the #1 tactic used by parents to coerce children’s behavior. In order to be the grounding force your children feel safe to come to no matter what, they must trust that you will never pose a threat to them. If they have nowhere to turn for an understanding ear, they will turn exactly where you fear most. This usually means
When we remain stuck in the mindset that punishments and consequences for inappropriate behavior are the way to get appropriate behavior, we forfeit our child’s trust. Mostly what the child learns is “you don’t understand me”, because behavior is provoked by emotions that parents typically pay no attention to. It is the emotional state that needs connection. When that is ignored and parents focus on behavior, the primary link to the protective factors parents provide is broken.
Habitual tactics are easy to fall back on when a child’s behavior gets tough. It is so tempting to pull computer time and cell phones, put kids in time out or send them to their rooms. These tactics miss the mark and only make kids mad. And if they “work”, it is only to get that cell phone back. Sneaky, conniving strategies result, and that all-important connection is risked.
What to do instead – Problem Solving promotes connection:
Handling Big Emotions and Understanding the Behavior
Q. We had an episode with our 5 1/2 yr. old son. For the past 2 years, we have tried every approach. Our son is smart but immature. We feel he lacks confidence and tends to hold things in rather than talk. I tried to get to the root cause but he still won’t budge (one might say stubborn). Tonight he was off the wall jumping on chairs, interrupting when I had someone over and had to help them work. No matter how many times my husband or I ask him to stop jumping on chairs, he would say “no never”. He has a temper – will hit, throw, slam doors, spit and call us “stupid” or say “never” when we’re explaining how we want him to stop hitting and start listening. However, his tantrums have become less frequent and recovering has become quicker except tonight. Usually he’ll go through the tantrum and then start crying. If we try to challenge him and he’s in the mood, he’ll do it. But most of the time, he’ll say, no let’s do something totally different or I can’t or don’t know how. If I say I’ll show you, then he’ll whine and say he’s a baby. He always has a comeback. What do you think?
We all know the feeling. Our child says or does that certain something, we see red and react in ways we regret. We feel out of control, blame the child, and set up our next power struggle. We “go on automatic” and lose our maturity and authority. But we have a choice. We can either punish our child for pushing our buttons or take a look at what our buttons are, why we react the way we do, and take responsibility for our behavior—like an adult.
You know your button has been pushed when:
- You engage in the “Road Rage of Parenting”
- You hear your mother or father saying those words you swore you never would
- You feel enraged, hopeless, guilty, resentful, etc.
- You catastrophize and project your child into the future
- You know you could never have gotten away with what your child just did
Our child’s behavior triggers an old wound. Our buttons were planted long ago from messages we took in from our parents’ reactions to us. Those old painful emotions get tapped, it hurts, and we retaliate—but we don’t realize what’s happening. To stop this automatic reaction, first we must recognize that our reactions are caused by our own perceptions.
We believe that our child’s behavior causes our feelings and reactions. “You make me so mad. How many times do I have to yell before you’ll listen?” The unintended message sent is you are responsible for my emotions and my behavior. We leave out a critical piece—the assumptions we make.
The assumptions—perceptions, thoughts, and judgments—we make about ourselves or our children (He never listens, She’s so mean, I’m a terrible mother) are the culprits that provoke our emotions. We feel mad because we have fears and thoughts that hijack our emotions. Reactions inevitably follow.
Your behavior makes me THINK you are being mean
and AFRAID I have not taught you how to behave properly.
It is this PERCEPTION that causes me to FEEL angry and then to REACT.
Reframing our Assumptions:
We can’t change our feelings, but we can change our thoughts—the assumptions that provoke our emotions and reactions. No one can “make” us mad. We can reframe our assumption from my child is being a problem, to my child is having a problem. The result is a 180 degree switch in perception, a shift from anger to compassion.
If a child yells, “You’re so stupid”, it’s because the child feels frustrated by something. If it pushes a button, the adult may react with, “Don’t you ever talk to me like that! Who do you think you are?!” The parent feels threatened and has taken it personally. She may have experienced a parent, sibling, or teacher making remarks like, “What are you stupid or something?” or “That’s not a very smart thing to say” enough times that the message sticks—I’m stupid, I’m not good enough. If no button gets pushed, the parent can acknowledge, “You wish I would say something different. You don’t like it when I ask you to do something you don’t want to do” and then redirect the child appropriately. This parent is not taking the child’s remark personally and can remain objective. She sees it as it is—an expression of frustration or powerlessness and deals with it maturely.
When your button gets pushed:
- Stop, walk away, do nothing (yet)
- Breathe deeply at least 3 times
- Wait until both you and your child are calm
- Go back over the situation and problem solve (do a “do-over”)