In my professional work I encounter parents and children who are sad, frustrated, resentful, and feeling hopeless about a positive and fulfilling relationship with their child. “Parents are the bad guys” or “I’m not supposed to be my child’s friend” are often phrases I hear. When it comes to managing children’s behaviors, the focus is often on the compliance of the child, regardless of the emotional or relational cost.
It seems that parenting comes down to a battle of the wills: “You will do what I say.”
When I dig in my heels and refuse to collaborate with my child on desired expectations, we both lose. The child feels marginalized, unheard, and angry. The parents feel ineffective, frustrated, and like they are failing as a parent. Dr. Dan Siegel talks extensively about the research associated with the brain and development in his book, The Whole Brain Child. We as parents are the mirrors from which our children learn how to act appropriately. If their mistakes are met with criticism, anger, and blame, they will react with anger, mistrust, and defensiveness. The approach he recommends is the idea that children need us to help make meaning for them out of their daily activities.
When I think about how I approach the process of educating my child at home, I recognize that children cannot learn or retain information if they are living in chaotic environments, worried about their next meal, or dealing with other detrimental environmental factors. When I apply this to the home setting, it would seem that my child cannot engage in growing and learning if they do not feel accepted or cared for, or if they are worried about parental reactions/punishment. This doesn’t mean indulgence or lack of discipline, however; nor does it mean the parent isn’t in charge. It simply places the relationship in a position of cooperation vs. dominance. As a parent I am on a continual quest for balance between connection and correction. If my child feels connected and I am in tune with their needs, then they will naturally want to please me more than if I am acting or reacting with anger and punishments.
Here are three things I’ve found helpful in addressing my child’s behavior:
- Modeling grace: If I make a mistake I say so, I own it and say “uh oh,” and clean up the mess or apologize.
- Meeting anger with understanding: If my child is upset and emotional, I acknowledge that whatever they are feeling is valid and hard for them (even if its seems silly that they can’t find the right shoes).
- Redirect with whimsy instead of demands: Singing instead of talking, making a game out of the expectation, and assuming they will follow through by helping them start the task — all are positive encouragements.