When I saw this Facebook post had received almost a 1000 likes and over 750 shares in just over 5 hours it moved me closer to understanding why it is that many parents and children today are in so much trouble. We’ve got it all backwards.
Point systems may change behaviour but they don’t grow us up. They make me feel coerced, controlled and resentful and make me want to push back rather than co-operate. How about you?
They work against the deep relationship that we so want with our children because we use what they care about against them…and then we expect them to do what we ask with a smile and a cheerful attitude. Would you?
Grounded children make our lives miserable. Where’s the sense in that? I’ll make you suffer and then I’ll suffer alongside you. I’m only doing this because I really love you. Huh? Then we’ll do it all again tomorrow and again next week…
There is another way, a much simpler, kinder way…
Children who feel loved, honoured and respected want to follow their parents lead because it feels right, it feels good. They do what we ask because they want to, not because they have to.
Sometimes ‘old’ posts are worth revisiting as they help us to regain our focus and they set us back on the path we may have strayed from. Enjoy this revisit.
This morning after taking my daughter to school I decided to walk the long way home so that I could have a little alone time in my head before all the craziness starts up. Going into June is always a busy time as our school year is winding down and the celebrations for the last of everything are ramping up. We are heading directly into the silly season filled with end of school parties, end of gym parties, end of dance parties, last minute before the Summer starts birthday parties. The list goes on and on. My children go into overdrive and I need head space in preparation for it all!
On my quiet walk in the rain it occurred to me that there was so much about this hiking trail that reminds me of my parenting journey. I took more than a few pictures to try and explain just what I mean.
Come along, let’s take a walk.
1. Setting Off.
When we prepared to have our children (a little more than a decade ago) we willingly set off on this journey. We had no definite plans, no map pinpointing our direction, just a vague idea of what we hoped for and a blurry sense of how we would ge there. (Clearly we had no idea of what we were in for, and that is probably a very good thing, or like many people, we would have been too terrified to give it a go!).
A few weeks after having our first child we discovered that there were a couple of different parenting paths to follow. We choose one that appealed to us the most, pretty much go with the flow, take it as it comes, see what happens kind of thing. Each day unfolded differently. One child became two and things really got interesting. Some days were like walking along a smooth paved path, some days were clearly marked with directional arrows (and we felt like we were heading in the right direction) and others still seem to be more like a walk on the wild side, where none of us have a clue where we are all going to end up!
2. Let the Second Guessing Begin.
Once on the path we realised that there are other parents on very different paths and we began to wonder if we had chosen the right path for us and our children. What ‘right’ actually means we don’t really know for sure, but when things aren’t going well, we begin to think that any path that we are on is probably be the wrong one! The terror of it all takes over, what if everyone else is doing it right and our kids turn out wrong? Again, what exactly is ‘wrong’ anyway? I now put it all down to GPA diagnosis. Generalised Parental Anxiety. We all want the very best for our children and when we feel that we aren’t giving them exactly that, the guilt and the fear in us takes over. Not a good place to be.
The more we look around us the more we realise that everyone is trying something different, if it isn’t sleep training ,it is parenting on demand, if it isn’t reward charts it is consequences. Too many more options to even mention. Some parents go this way, some parents go that way and some are so far off the beaten track altogether you have to wonder if they’ll ever make it anywhere. We take comfort in knowing we are doing the best that we can, and that surely counts for something!
3. When in Doubt, Google it…or Not!
We keep our heads down, following our path, occasionally looking up to see what other are up to. In the early days (I’d say particularly in the first five ten years of being parents ) every now and again, sometimes more than we would like, we would run into an obstacle in our parenting path that we just didn’t know what to do with…soooo… We’d google it! We’d get an ‘experts’ take on it, try and figure it out.More times than not though, those experts brought with them more damage than good so we have given up on them now, instead we find our own way through as no one knows our own kids quite like we do.We continue to confront the boulders and the puddles and for the most part seem to come out the other side relatively unscathed.
4. Take the Time to Stop and Smell the Roses.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not on a path littered with obstacles all along the way. There are plenty of good days in between, in fact, many more good days than tough days now that we have found our way through with our girls. There are plenty of opportunities to stop and smell the roses…and we do…we enjoy every peaceful moment…
And just when we think we have it all going on and it will be love and roses all the way…
5. Shit Happens.
Love stays but we walk into a mess, more than we originally signed up for and we wonder how we could have ever thought we had this parenting thing sorted! As it turns out, when you have kids, shit really does happen! Sometimes we walk right into the middle of it, and sometimes we manage to skirt by it, but it is always there…just the type and depth varies! It would seem that growing children up is a messy business and when you expect it to be, you are much better prepared for what you will find on your trail!
6. Let Me Outta Here.
So, when we come across a steaming heap and we step in it, we wipe off our boots and we keep going, after all, what choice do we really have? We all reach the point (tell me I am not alone here) when we want to stop the parenting journey and get off, it’s just too hard. We want to find a sign on the ground that instructs us to get off the trail, that gives us permission to stop, to get off wherever this parenting thing is heading, we just want a break from it all.
7. Suck it up.
And then, we get over ourselves, realize that we love these children of ours and that they are ours for keeps and as hard as it may be, we’re glad that it is so. We have to figure out which way to go and we do, even when we reach a fork in the road, we make a choice, left or right, the smoother option or the road less travelled…sometimes leading right into the unknown and sometimes left to a safe crossing.We pick the one that appears best, even though we never know for sure.
8. It Could Go Either Way.
Over the bridge…or through the woods? We’ll all get where we are going eventually, we just don’t know how long it might take us or what we might encounter along the way, but that is the great part about this parenting journey, it is ours to take and although plenty of mistakes will be made along the way, there is so much to be gained by choosing our own path because these children are ours. What others are up to has very little bearing on what we do for our family. This is our journey…and you get to choose yours.
9. Things are changing.
As time passes, without us truly being aware, our children have been growing up. We are so focussed on the day to day living that seldom do we realise that all of our efforts are beginning show in our children. They are who they are, who they are meant to become. We are starting to see the fruit of maturation.
10. But We Get Distracted.
Growing children come with lots of attitude and plenty of messy behaviour. When we only focus on behaviour we are distracted from who they really are and what they really need from us. We don’t realise that they are putting up defenses in order to protect themselves from that which hurts. I have learnt that in times of strife I need to pull them closer to me, rather than pushing them away because our relationship is the most important thing we have and the fruit of maturation is in there, not always visible but tucked safely behind the thorns. When we look beyond the thorns we see how vulnerable they really are, and those vulnerable feelings need to be kept safe so that they can keep our children’s hearts soft. We can all grow older but without our vulnerable feelings we can’t grow up.
11. More Than We Could Ever Hope For.
And then, sooner than we might expect it, we looked at our children and realised that they are growing up, truly growing up from the inside out. Not because of what we do to them, but because of who we are to them. And then we look at ourselves and realise that alongside them, we too have grown up, not because of what they have done to us, but because of who they are to us. We are all on that same trail together, on the journey towards truly growing up, all going about it in different ways but all yearning to one day get to the same destination, that place where we each reach our potential to become fully human.
12. And There is No End.
The ironic thing is, there is no end to this trail journey. It just keeps on going…like Forrest Gump! These children will always be ours, and we’ll always be theirs . The sooner we are able to accept each other for who we are, the good, the bad and the ugly, the more we will enjoy this hike towards truly growing up together.
Sometimes well meaning parents seem to confuse their sheer ‘brilliance’ with sheer desperation…and then others read about it and decide to do the same. It’s a recipe for disaster and it makes my blood boil.
Now, that might seem a very harsh thing for me to say, but it’s just the way I feel right now.
I follow many different blogs and websites trying to get a sense of what others are doing and thinking. It’s part of my job to know what’s trending out there with parents and I thought I had seen it all, until this landed in my inbox today. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t, seldom do I say anything about the antics of others but today I had a visceral reaction to this particular picture…
It is accompanied by the caption that says “Stick a lock through the holes on the end of electrical plugs when your kids get grounded. It saves you from having to physically remove items from their rooms. Freaking brilliant.” – Brandy
Well, at a first glance maybe it is ‘ freaking brilliant’ BUT that is surely only the case if you happen to be on the hunt for new measures to ‘control’ your children’s behaviour. When parents are impressed by this sort of trickery intended to coerce their children into complying, I think they are clearly already in trouble. Serious trouble.
My concern is not so much the actual act of clamping a padlock onto the plug, it’s what that lock represents. To me I see it as a symbol of contrived power over a child and it says ‘See, I can take away the things that you really care about until you have done what I want. I have all the power and you have none. You need me more than I need you.’
Now, that’s very different to natural power, which relies on a well developed parent-child relationship in order to maintain familial order and to foster a child’s growth towards emotional and psychological maturity. The type of deep connection I am referring to is one that drives children to want to do the bidding of their parents for their own intrinsic reasons rather than feeling pushed into complying because of extrinsic measures like rewards, consequences, bribes and punishment.
The natural power to parent a child is built on a foundation of attachment that exists between the parent and child, where both are in right relationship and want the best for each other out of reciprocal love and mutual respect. It’s a connection fuelled by a feeling of sameness, significance,belonging, loyalty, love and a sense of being known by each other. It takes years to foster and grow and it says, ‘I am your parent and I know what you need. I am here for you and I have your best interests at heart. No matter what you do, you’re still my kid.’
Don’t we all resort to using ‘contrived power’ some of the time? Yes, of course we do. But do we all let it escalate to the place where you have to keep upping the ante to get your kids to comply as they get older and smarter? I hope not.
Do it or else.
Sure you can make a four, or six, maybe even an eight year old do what you want them to do because you are the parent and you hold almost all the cards. Harsh to hear, but true. That’s often where the trouble starts, with parenting our young children. During our interaction with our young, parents are led to believe that these contrived methods actually work and they incorrectly assume that they will serve them well into their parenting future. Not so.
It is a completely different ball game when attempting to use these same control tactics on a thirteen or fifteen or seventeen year old. These teenagers are often bigger and stronger than their parents and the days of carrying them to put them in ‘Time Out’ in order to teach them a lesson are long gone. Parents of older children find themselves scrabbling to find their child’s currency so that they can use it to bargain their way into getting ‘appropriate’ behaviour out of their brood. They look around for what the child cares about in order to use it against them.
Let’s not even go down the road of what parents will need to be threatening with, or taking away, by the time their ‘children’ are eighteen, twenty or even thirty years old. By then you have probably lost all hope, you’ll be exhausted from trying to padlock all the gadget plugs and from hauling the battery out of the car every night. Chances are you will have given up on even trying to enforce the rules because it’s just too hard. Strange how nothing you do seems to work like it used to when they were little, don’t you think?
Sadly your child no longer needs you as much as they once did and you lack the deep relationship you need to get you through the turbulent times. The tables have turned. They now have the power to slam the door on their way out after being told by you that they may not go out with their friends tonight. They can choose to come home to you or not, every night. You’ll be the one left shaking your head asking yourself…’Where did I go wrong, why is my child rejecting me?’ (Side note: this is one of the most popular searches topics that shows up on my blog stats page).
So where to from here? Thankfully, there is good news.
There are so many things that you can do to keep from spiralling down into the abyss of having to use contrived parenting power. You can make a change right now by starting to read whatever you can get your hands on about the developmental approach rooted in attachment.
Once you do, please don’t assume that all of your parenting days going forward will be filled nothing but with sunshine and roses. They won’t, but at least you’ll understand why you have to value your relationship with your children more than you want them to behave appropriately. Once you have that as your goal, the rest will follow. You’ll see.
As parents, we’re generally a desperate bunch. We’re all just trying to do the best that we know how with what we have. We all lose our way and do whatever we think will get our children to where ever it is that they need to go in their lives. We’re not bad people, we just sometimes need another way through.
There is an alternative, and you don’t need padlocks and other extreme measures to get you there. Just a little common sense and the best that developmental and attachment science has to offer.
We all have days when things just don’t seem to go our way.
Frustration builds and before you know it you find yourself cursing. Some call it cussing, some call it swearing but it all amounts to the same thing.
Sometimes you manage to restrain yourself and keep it in your head and other times it flies straight out of your mouth before you have time to stop it.
We all have a favourite word, don’t even begin to deny it. Of course you do. Go on, admit it you have it in your head right now!
My word is Dammit. That one little word is my substitute for so many other offensive expletives. Ordinarily, I would go with ‘Shit’ but given my professional designation and my public commitment to being a responsible parent, I have put that word on hold and have replaced it with ‘Dammit.’
I know, I know, there is nothing particularly charming about that word either, in fact for some of you it may seem even more odious than my previously mentioned Shit. But still, I try hard, really hard to sub in Dammit for Shit whenever I can. Admittedly there are occasions where Dammit just doesn’t do it for me and my Shit flies out, but for the most part, I’m pretty darn good with Dammit.
The other day we passed a store and right there in the window we spotted a basket full of ‘Dammit Dolls.’ Yip you read that right, Dammit Dolls. I just couldn’t believe my eyes and I just had to go in and take a look.
There they were, a collection of dolls made for frustrated people just like me…and you.
They are ugly little things. Not the sort of doll that you would want to cuddle. Not the usual smiling, cutesy dollies we all buy for our children. No, these dolls are clearly not meant for children because the attached tag states,
NOT A TOY. Intended for adults only.
They must be serious because it is printed in BOLD writing. Even the ‘Made in China’ is in small print, so they must be wholly committed to getting you to read the NOT A TOY message before you read anything else.
I was intrigued and picked up one of these most unfortunate looking dolls for a closer inspection. My eyes were immediately drawn to a large label sewn on the front.
Go ahead, read it for yourself.
Quite brilliant, don’t you think? A collection of dolls made for solely for the purpose of releasing adult’s frustration in an ‘appropriate’ manner. Ugly dolls specifically designed to be repeatedly slammed on a hard surface whilst the owner yells Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!
But here’s my question…Why are these dolls only meant for use by adults? Please help me to understand this by taking a quick poll. Choose the answer that most appeals to you and then we’ll move on.
Here’s what I think.
Is it because they have dangerous parts that may be ingested by children young children?Possibly.
Is it because Dammit is a bad word? Probably.
Is it because if we give them a doll and allow them to smack it around aggressively we are advocating, possibly even promoting, violence?
I would put my money on the last one.
Parents are absolutely terrified that they might accidentally raise a serial killer. In an attempt to avoid this, we all try our damnedest (sorry couldn’t resist that one) to limit all opportunities for aggression fearing that if we condone it, we may be inadvertently encouraging it and that my fellow parents, is too much for any well meaning parent to even contemplate.
But here’s my take on that. I think giving a child a Dammit Doll is helpful rather than hurtful and here’s why. Stick around now, at least hear me out.
We all have some frustration in us all of the time, it’s just the amount that is cycling around at any given moment that varies. Frustration builds whenever something is not working for us. It could be that your back is aching, it’s not working for you. It could be that you can’t get your car to start in the morning, it’s not working for you. It could be that your child will not go to sleep at bed time, again that’s something not working for you. Our days are filled with things that are not working for us and as a result our frustration level goes up and up and up until…
You blow up! You are essentially a ticking time bomb, not because of any one thing in isolation, but because of a few things not working for you in succession.
You know what I’m talking about. You have a rough day at work, someone cuts you off on the road on the drive home, you walk in the door and you are barely in the door when your child starts whining for a cookie.
Kaboom, you explode.
It’s not because your child wants a cookie, really wants a cookie, pleeeaase can I have a cookie? It’s because you are frustrated and it has to come out somewhere, sometime. You couldn’t let it out at your boss, so you stifled it down and when you get home and you felt safe, it all burst forth, all over your child, or onto your partner or at your poor dog…or maybe if it is really not your day, at all three. You didn’t mean to snap, you just did. It just happened. It had to happen, unless of course you walked into the house and spontaneously dissolved into tears, which is another way of rapidly draining frustration…but that is a conversation for another day.
Back to the Kaboom, why not instead let loose on a Dammit Doll?
Okay, not really, I’m just messing with you. This really isn’t about the Dammit Dolls at all. I am not promoting them, I’m not getting kickbacks from them, I didn’t even know that they even existed until yesterday. What I am really trying to do here is to open up a conversation, to ask you to consider allowing your children to feel their frustration and to make it okay and safe for them to let it out in their own home. It’s not safe to do it in public because of the blame and shame that follows, but it could be safe at home if you provide the context for it to happen.
I am not talking about letting your children trash the house, no, no, nothing like that. All I am suggesting is that you start by acknowledging that everyone gets frustrated, each and every day. You share the message, I get frustrated, you get frustrated, we all get frustrated and it is completely natural to feel this way. Why not start mentioning that every now and again, start making room for them to feel it when it happens and let them know that it doesn’t make you a bad boy because you feel it, it doesn’t make you a good girl because you suppress it. It is a natural human emotion and we all have it, it’s what we do with it that matters.
Frustration isn’t personal, it just is.
As parents we can help our frustrated children by: Helping them to identify their feelings of frustration, allowing them to release their frustration in a safe way and when needed, allowing them the freedom to cry about what isn’t working for them, with you right by their side. These little things from you are what they need in order to let their frustration drain.
Always remember that frustration doesn’t just disappear, it always has to go somewhere, it has to move through us. We put it where we can, where it presents the least threat to us, where it is appears safe to do so. Maybe it gets taken out on a younger sibling when you are not looking, maybe it gets dumped on the kid next door, maybe it gets kicked into the family dog, or without you even realizing it, children turn it inwards on themselves…and then the trouble really begins.
Dr Gordon Neufeld reminds us that what we do not express, we depress. I don’t want that for my children, I’d much rather that they bring their frustration to me, dump it all over me because I can help them get it all out, safely, within our relationship in which they know there is room for all of them, their good, their bad and their ugly.
So back to those pesky dolls. When we give children the message that Dammit Dolls are only for adults, are we saying that only adults feel frustrated, and therefore it’s only okay for adults to let it all out? Maybe, in a round about, unintentional way, yes we are.
How about instead, we encourage them to come to us to release their frustration, let us be the ones who help them through it. By encouraging our children to take up a relationship with all of their feelings we’ll be helping them to truly grow up and if they have a parent who can do that for them, they’ll never need to rely on a Dammit Doll….
However…that been said…
I love what Dammit Dolls stand for! They should be for everyone because no matter your age we all have frustration and they give us permission to let it all out without hurting another. They acknowledge the existence of frustration and make it okay to beat the ‘dammit’ out of it. The word you use doesn’t have to be Dammit, it can be anything you want it to be. The object you beat senseless doesn’t have to be a doll, any inanimate object will do just fine. It’s not about the thing, it’s about what it represents and I’m all over that.
Just so you know, I now have my very own Dammit Doll…and call me irresponsible … but…anyone want to guess what my daughter is getting for her tenth birthday present next week?
School is out for the Summer, and so are the graffiti ‘artists’ in our neighbourhood. This reminded me of a previous post (that made me smile) and so I’m sharing it here with you, again.
A little while ago, on the way to school, walking hand in hand with my youngest daughter, we came across some new graffiti on a wooden fence. Now and again that happens, and when it does, we discuss it, I paint over it and that is the end of it… until… a bored teenager decides otherwise and once again makes ‘creative’ use of the lovely blank canvas I have provided.
Repeat the process.
This policy has worked very well up until now, but I am having to rethink it because we recently stumbled upon this work of art. (Can I actually call it that?)
I had no idea just how I was going to handle this one because I am a big believer, for the most part, in telling my children the truth. The caveat to this approach is of course, that if I believe that the whole truth and nothing but the truth will be to too hurtful or too harmful, I opt for another way out. In this case both criteria were met. This was way too much for her and waaaaaay too horrifyingly uncomfortable for me.
(I like to think I can handle a lot but please remember that all this took place at eight fifteen in the morning and I was not yet firing on all cylinders.)
She looked at it. I looked at it.
I wished that the ground would open up and swallow me whole. I thought back to graffiti explanations that I have given in the past, but nothing so far could equip me for what was before our eyes right now.
My most memorable past graffiti explanation would have to be when this child of mine was only five years old and learning to read. She looked at the very same fence (four layers of paint ago) and asked,
“Mom what is a pen is?”
Awwww, that was cute. I could handle that one. I smothered my smile and said,
“Actually Sweetie, it doesn’t say pen is. It says penis. You know, it’s the name we use when we are talking about boys private parts.” (You would think that we discussed jiggly bits every day I was so nonchalant about it.)
She nodded and then she said, “I think it was a boy who did it.”
I agreed that it possibly might have been but we couldn’t be 100% sure.
I probed her for more…
“Why do you think it was a boy and not a girl who drew this?”
“Well,” she explained with childlike wisdom, “He had to write penis because vagina is too tricky for a boy to spell!”
Game over. She was not phased by it at all.
We talked about it, I painted over it, we all moved on.
But this time, it was surely not going to be as easy as that. She is older and wiser.
So here’s how it went:
We saw the new graffiti.
She looked at it. I looked at it. Not a word from either of us.
Just as I was mustering up the courage to explain it as tactfully as I could, she beat me to it.
“Ohhhh I get it now, it is a happy whale!”
“Yes'” she went on explaining to her evidently slow mother, “See here is the head and body and tail. It isn’t drawn very well and I could do a much better job of it!”
Yes! I had been saved by her artistic flair and her innocence. A wonderful combo deal!
We saw it, we briefly talked about it, I am yet to paint over it.
I think maybe subconsciously (very, very deep down) I know that there is more discussion that should happen around this whale. I’m not there yet and neither is she, so for now, on the wall is where he will stay.
I still don’t like him very much and his days are definitely numbered but until I find the courage or get tired of his smirk, he’ll be there to greet us on the way to school and on the way home again.
At least for now when I do accidentally make eye contact with him, I see a happy whale and that makes me smile.
Nobody likes to be the bad guy, but sometimes because you are a parent, it is your responsibility to stand up and take it like a man, or as in my case, like a woman. Today I was given another reminder of this.
My girls have been away at day camp this week. It’s a day at the lake in the blazing hot sun with lots of other excitable children, enthusiastic camp leaders and activities that I could only dream of doing as a child. It is a day of go-go-go from the minute you get on the bus until the second you step off it again almost seven hours later. I know that when my children are done for the day, they are exactly that…DONE!
I have learnt this the hard way, the messy way, but I get it now.
In years gone by, before experience had taught me this valuable lesson, I did crazy things like timing the pick up of my girls with a quick side-trip to the store. Not a big shopping experience, just a dash in and out for the basics. Ahhhh no, I don’t that any more. I would sometimes arrange for friends to come over in the afternoon for a play date once we were home. Ahhhh no, I don’t do that anymore either. Would you believe that there were even days when I would plan to do something ‘extra special’ in the late afternoon once they were back from camp? Ahhhh NO, I definitely don’t do that any more… NOT ever!!
Some kids would handle all of the above without any problem, my eldest generally does, but my youngest most definitely does not. She is a sensitive kid. I don’t mean the kind of sensitivity used in everyday conversation meaning that she gets her feelings easily hurt. No, much more than that.
What I am referring to is her heightened sensory awareness. Quite simply put, her sensory input dial is turned up really high, a lot higher than most other people. She was born this way, this is how she still is and will always be. The whole world goes into her system in as if it were in stereo. When she is hot, she is boiling. When something is loud, it is piercing. When she is upset, she is devastated. When she is happy, she is elated. The list goes on. There are no muted colours in her world, she lives in full blown colour, all of the time. For the most part she manages really well, but sometimes it can and does get too overwhelming and when that happens, I have to step in and be the bad guy.
Over the past almost ten years (Yes, it is a lengthy process) I have become more adept at reading her. I usually know how much she can take and I also know how it is going to play out if she doesn’t get the quiet time she needs away from it all in order to reset her system.
The thing is, I do what I do not because I am a mean Mom who doesn’t want her daughter to have too much fun, I do it because she isn’t always able to gauge for herself when she is nearing her own tipping point. That might sound a bit odd, not being able to tell when things are getting too much, but when you are young and you are living fully in each moment, you can’t yet sense when it is all getting to be too much for you to take in. It just suddenly happens, and then you go into sensory over load and you lose it.
I know the day will come when she will be able to do this for herself. I’ve seen her do it more and more as she has matured, but for now, when she is in full blown ‘I’ve been to camp all day, I have had the best time ever, I don’t ever want this to end, I want to keep the craziness going by having a have a playdate straight after camp’ mode…I have to make the call for her in that moment. And it ain’t pretty.
When she was younger it was a noisy business, the crying, the shouting, the general mayhem of trying to change my mind. Many a time we were the family everyone else turned to stare at. I remember those times well, but we have moved on now. I’m pleased to be able to say, as she grows up it gets progressively easier but it has taken us time to get here. You can’t hurry True Growth, even though we would all dearly love to.
So, why am I telling you all of this? Because, unless you have a sensitive child it is hard to really understand what I am describing. I am speaking out on behalf of the parents who know what I am referring to and I’m saying to you, you are not alone, I get it. To the rest of the world, I’d like you to know that this is not about having a child who doesn’t know how to behave appropriately, this isn’t about a child who is spoilt and who is intentionally putting on a performance to get her way. Contrary to popular belief, it’s also not about me being an ineffective parent.
What this is about is being on a journey where we navigate our way through life with a child who frequently experiences sensory overload. There is no technique or method that will stop her from being this way. There are no rewards or consequences that will get her to put the lid on it when she has had too much sensory stimulation. All that we can do is to help her through it when it happens, and know that it is very hard on everyone – the onlookers, the parents, the siblings and most of all, the sensitive child.
Whilst waiting for the camp bus to arrive at the end of the day, I met up with a friend of mine who was also waiting for the safe return of her children. She mentioned that her two were likely to ask for a playdate today. I replied saying that mine would probably do the very same thing but I would be saying No today because after a day at camp my youngest unmarried is in full sensory overload. I explained that I needed to keep our afternoons as low key as possible so that she could reintegrate before heading back into the camp frenzy tomorrow and everyday for the rest of the week. She nodded knowingly as she too has a sensitive child, a lot milder, but enough so to be able to relate to my reasons.
So, the bus stops, all of the kids pile out. All smiles and crazy eyes. I can read my child like a book. She is clearly in overdrive. The anticipated request for a playdate comes. I was ready for it and I knew what I had to do, so I did it.
The two youngest girls didn’t like it at all that I had scuttled their plans. I get that, I really do. Next they did what all children do, they went for another attempt and asked the same question over again.
Kids are smart, they often sum up situations quicker than we realise and they go for another angle. This time they don’t ask me, the Mean Mom, instead they look to the other Mom. The one who hasn’t said No… just yet. I feel confident, we’ve already had our pre-bus-arrival-discussion, we are ready for this and I can count on her answer backing me up because of it. The girls make their request. She looks at them, they all look at me, then her answer comes, “I say it’s fine, but you’ll have to ask her, it’s really up to her!” They all turn and look at me.
You have got to be kidding me! Really, really? A simple NO would have done the trick, two mothers united in their quest, two bad guys in cahoots, a united front that could make all the difference. But then, it all becomes so very clear to me, this isn’t up to anyone else, it isn’t reasonable of me to expect others to get involved, it is my responsibility to do what I believe to be the right thing for my child, I can’t put this on anyone else. I have to be the Mean Mom.
All ten eyes are staring at me, waiting for my response. It would be sooooo easy to cave under the pressure but part of being a parent is saying no because you know it is the best thing for your child. Would giving in have saved me a bit of trouble right here and now? Of course it would have, but it won’t help my daughter in the long run because later on when she is completely frazzled by more stimulation, it’s going to be much harder on her. She is going to have a terrible time…and quite frankly, so are the rest of us who live with her.
I dig deep, really deep, as I do believe that I know what is best for my youngest. I hold my No and I say, “Nope it’s not going to work for us today. I know you’d love to, but it’s not going to work today.” The wave of frustration comes and I am ready for it. The pleading and the giving of reasons why it should work are hurled at me from every side. “Nope I say, it’s just not going to work today.” No wishy washiness, no maybe’s, no justification, just a firm but kind NO.
I know enough by now to start heading for the car. A hasty exit is in order. The please, please, pleases trail me to my car. ‘Nope, nope, it’s just not going to work today guys.’ This could turn ugly, we could so easily once again become the car park spectacle for all to look at.
When my children were younger it often times went sideways, but they now have enough integrative functioning to be able to hold it together reasonably well in a public setting. They generally save their outbursts for in the car or at home, away from the prying eyes and judgements of strangers. In a convoluted way this is actually a backhanded compliment. Saving up our frustration for the ones we love the most, the ones who are meant to love you no matter what, is a sign of a deepening attachment, but that is a post for another day.
We say our goodbyes to the friends (through gnashed teeth) and we zoom off. My eldest doesn’t seem phased, but my youngest is teetering on the edge, getting very ready to blow. I know what is coming…
“Why do you have to be so mean? Why do you ALWAYS say no? Why do you NEVER let us do what we want?” There it is, those two little words that tell me everything that I need to know. Always and Never. My child is lacking her ability to have her mixed feelings, she has lost her mix (Dr Gordon Neufeld). In this moment, all she can think about is what isn’t working for her. She can’t see the bigger picture, she can only focus on what she can’t have and it’s all my fault and that makes me the Meanest Mother everrrrrrrrr. This isn’t personal, I don’t need to counter her statement with a list of the hundred things I do for her daily that make me the Best Mother everrrrr. She couldn’t take in those things in right now so why even try? Me talking back would be like adding fuel to a fire…and what’s the sense in that?
Two minutes into the drive home and the tears start falling, the real reasons for all the upset bubble to the surface.
“I’m soooo tired, I had to swim soooo far and then some girl hit me with an arrow during archery and it really hurt.” The list goes on and on. There it is, all the bad stuff that hasn’t been working for her all day long mixed in with all the wonderful stuff that has. My child is just tired, nope make that exhausted, she is in full sensory overload because summer camp is just too darn overwhelmingly wonderful when your system is wired to take it all in, in stereo!
Her outburst isn’t personal, it’s all just too much for her right now. I get that now and I know what to do to help her through it. As she grows up, so will her ability to manage herself in the world. One day, she won’t need me to be the Mean Mom, the Bad Guy, the one who says No to playdates after a full day at camp…because she’ll know what she needs for herself.
As we drive up the hill towards our home her frustrated cry turns into a deep sob. In this moment the thwarted playdate may appear to be the reason for her upset but her falling tears are for all of the things that did not work for her today, or yesterday or the day before that.We all need to let it out some place safe, that place for her is within our relationship.
The sobbing continues and it signals to me that she is feeling the futility of what cannot be changed sinking in. Her soft heart is allowing her to experience her vulnerable feelings and her brain is adapting to that which she cannot change. As hard as it is to watch, I know that this is part of her truly growing up. She will come through this, we’ll come through this. Her tears slow and then softly her little voice says, “I just want to go home and sit quietly.”
Yes, my sweet child, I know you do, I know that all too well. I’m your Mom and I’ve got you.
I haven’t been blogging for very long time, in fact I’ve only pushed the ‘Publish’ button seventeen times including today! That been shared, the one thing that has stood out for me over the past few months is the absolute fascination parents have with searching up ‘selfish children’ on the internet. I haven’t arrived at this realization based on an official statistical survey but I have come to notice that when I wrote a previous post on the topic, it has by far had the most browser search hits!
It was a tongue-in-cheek post really, not much in it explaining what actually drives children to behave selfishly, since that wasn’t my intention back then. I’ve subsequently considered taking that post down because it isn’t really much help to anyone seeking insight, but then I came up with another idea…
Today I am going to throw out a few thoughts on what selfish behaviour is based on the developmental perspective.
All too often when parents ask about a selfish child they are referring to a child who cannot share, a child who wants what they have for themselves and a child who seems unwilling to consider the needs of others. This behaviour instantly pushes parents buttons because nobody likes a selfish child or adult.
We are all very concerned that unless we teach our children how to share when they are young, they will grow into adults who can’t share either. Now that is certainly a scary thought. It’s no wonder parents are trawling the internet for solutions! As with most growing up, there is no quick fix, no one size fits all technique. I really, really wish there was but unfortunately there isn’t.
So, onto the good news…
Learning to share and consider the needs of others is part of the human developmental process. Yes, children do appear to learn to do this by watching others show kindness and generosity but this is very superficial behaviour because they are imitating those to whom they are attached. You can teach a child to act considerately but you can’t make them feel it. That requires a developmental readiness that lies within, it cannot simply be learnt by modelling the actions of those we love.
Dr Gordon Neufeld, among others, explains that young children generally exhibit what we call selfish behaviour because they do not yet have the capacity for ‘mixed feelings’. What this means is that until we are able to hold two thoughts or feelings in the same place, at the same time, we aren’t capable of being truly considerate of others.
Sounds simple enough really, but now you are probably wondering what having mixed feelings looks like and how it relates to promoting considerate behaviour towards others?
Think about it like this. If you were eating a box of your favourite candy and someone you knew came over to talk to you, you would probably offer them a few candies…or would you?
There are a few reasons as to why you might decide to share. Before reading on, think about what your reasons would be.
The most common reasons people would give are:
(a) That it would be rude not to.
(b) That your Mom told you that you have to.
(c) That you would receive a consequence if you didn’t!
All pretty compelling reasons to share your candy!
Someone motivated to share, based on a mixed feeling, would have two thoughts running through their head at the same time when deciding whether or not to share their candy. The mixed feeling commentary for your decision may go something like this,
(a) “I really love this candy and don’t want to share it BUT I know that she would think me rude if I didn’t at least offer.” Outcome: You share.
(b)”I really love this candy and don’t want to share it BUT my Mom said that nice kids share, and I don’t want to get into trouble.” Outcome: You share.
(c) “I really love this candy and don’t want to share it BUT if I don’t my Mom will not buy me any again, or she’ll take it away, or she’ll call me selfish and I don’t like that!”
Outcome: You share!
No matter the motivation, the outcome is the same: You share and that is because you held two thoughts in the same place, at the same time. If you however, you do not have mixed feelings and you only have one predominant thought in your head it goes something like this, “I really love this candy and I don’t want to share.” You stop there! Outcome: You don’t share, you are considered selfish and you get what is coming to you!
So, that is what a mixed feeling does for you, it makes you think twice! It can help you act more considerately even when you don’t necessarily feel like being considerate! Magic stuff, if only it could be bottled and sold as a tonic labelled “Socially Appropriate Behaviour. Administer with meals, three times a day.”
The really amazing thing about mixed feeling is that just because we are older doesn’t mean we have them all of the time! You will definitely know many adults who just can’t seem to share or be considerate of others. It has very little to do with chronological age and everything to do with maturity!
When we are under the age of five, we pretty much lack mixed feelings most of the time. It’s not on purpose, it’s just the way our brains are wired up at that age. (For more specifics on that you can find out more about ‘Integrative Functioning’ by looking into courses offered here.) When we are older and more mature, we develop our ‘mixed feelings’ but there are still times when they go missing. Ask any tired, hungry or stressed parent and they’ll tell you what I am talking about. We all sometimes snap at our children, even though we really love them, we all eat that piece of chocolate cake, even though we know we are on diet, we all say things to our partner that we really should have kept to ourselves (please tell me I am not alone on this one!). We’re not bad, mean people, we’ve just “lost our mix!” (Gordon Neufeld) and we are unable to consider the needs or feelings of others in that very moment.
Given that there is currently no maturation tonic (Sadly, nor will there ever be) we need to find other ways to help our children and each other to grow up with mixed feelings. One of the most helpful things we can do for our children is to model our own mixed feelings for them each day by saying things like “Part of me wants to stay up and watch tv all night, but part of me knows that tomorrow I’ll be really grumpy” or “Part of me wants to drive my car really fast, but part of me knows that it wouldn’t be safe to do so.” Hearing you express your mixed feelings will set the stage for them to do the same. Please remember though, when you are sharing your adult mixed feelings, don’t share the ones you have right now about them! A real relationship breaker would be to have a parent say to their child, “I’m so mad with you right now that part of me wants to beat you to a pulp, but part of me doesn’t want to do jail time!” Some mixed feelings are best kept in your head where they belong and can serve their true purpose which is to stop you from acting out on them.
Another suggestion would be for you to verbalise some of their mixed feelings aloud for them, especially for younger children who may not yet have the vocabulary needed to express their thoughts and feelings. It may go something like this, “Part of you wishes that you could eat that whole cake, but part of you worries about getting a big tummy ache” or “Part of you really wants to hit your sister right now because you are so mad with her, but part of you doesn’t want to hurt her because you love her” or “Part of you wants to kick your brother but part of you knows that you would get into big trouble and you don’t want that.” Do this in a calm and loving manner, don’t come across as passing judgement on their behaviour. Just call it as you see it, try and draw out their mixed feelings by labelling them for them. It gets easier to do the more often you do it, just don’t do it all the time, you’ll drive them crazy!
Finally, parents please know that just because you create an awareness in your children of their mixed feelings today, does not mean that they will instantly stop wanting three pieces of cake or that they will forever more cease clobbering their little sister. What you are doing is sowing the seeds for maturation, growing them up from the inside out, so that they are able to feel their mixed feelings and hold onto them in the same place at the same time so that someday they will blossom into genuinely caring and considerate human beings, because that is their true potential. Your children are not selfish, they are lacking integration, they don’t yet have their mixed feelings. We all have moments like that and none of us like being labelled ‘selfish’ just because we temporarily lose our mix. Let’s take selfish out of our vocabulary because there really isn’t such a thing when you understand what is really missing is maturation.
True Growthtakes time and we need to be patient because True Growthcan’t be hurried, not by anyone.