recently discovered Aha! Parenting and am trying hard to change things
at our house, but my kids seem to be acting out more. So I still lose
it. And I feel so guilty about the past. What am I doing wrong?" - Kate
"For me, this type of parenting is a daily choice. Every morning I have to make the commitment not to yell, to stay calm, to chose love. And there is something very empowering about that. I've learned that when I apologize to my kids when I make mistakes and slip - I see that when they accept my apology, they feel empowerment and generosity of spirit. This influences their behavior with each other - there are more kind words and gestures, more "I'm sorry" and more "Don't worry, I know it wasn't your fault" that they extend to each other, than before. There are days when things are a big struggle, but I really feel that something is changing deep within our hearts AND I feel us grow closer together when we chose love, and when in the middle of a tantrum I hug my child and genuinely tell him that I hear his pain and that I'll help him work through it."
Shifting your parenting approach is a big transition, and you can expect some bumps as you and your children learn new patterns of relating. It doesn't mean that you're doing anything wrong. In fact, what's happening is that you're healing old hurt feelings so they stop driving new bad behavior. When your child acts out, he's showing you feelings from the past when you punished or yelled. It takes extra compassion from you, but your empathic response will heal those hurts so you can all move on.
So ditch that guilt -- you're paying the price, after all, and making amends now! Besides, feeling bad doesn't help you act good, any more than it helps your child. Here's your plan.
1. Explain what's happening. "You
know how I yell at you and send you to your room when you break the
rules? I've decided that isn't helping. I'm so sorry that I have gotten
into a bad habit of yelling so much. I love you so much, and I know you
try hard. When you're upset, I want to help you with those feelings and
with whatever problem you're having. Let's work together to solve the
problems that come up, okay?"
2. Ask for cooperation. "We still have all the same rules. Our most important rule is that in this house we treat each other with kindness. I'm going to work very hard not to yell at you, and to really listen and be kind. Do you think you can work on this rule, too, and be kind to your sister?" (It's best to limit yourself to the most important request, at the beginning. Once you see improvement, you can work on other areas.)
3. Offer Support and Model Win-Win Solutions. "I know your little sister gets on your nerves sometimes, and she always wants to play with your things. That's really annoying to you. You deserve to be able to keep your treasures safe. But it isn't okay to yell at your sister or hit her. Why don't we work together to find a safe place for your treasures where your sister can't get at them? And if you start getting annoyed at her, what can you do instead of yelling?"
4. Connect. Your child only cooperates to the degree that she feels connected to you and believes you're on her side. Positive parenting doesn't work without connection, because you squander your only leverage and have to resort to threats (which destroy trust and start your child acting out again.) Spend at least ten minutes connecting one-on-one with each child daily, just following her lead and pouring your love into her. You'll be amazed at the difference in the way she responds to your requests.
5. Expect emotions. When children have been punished, they've learned that those big emotions that drove them to misbehave are BAD, and so they try to stuff them. That doesn't work, of course. The jealousy, frustration and need are still there in your child's emotional backpack, popping out at the slightest provocation. The only reason your child keeps them under wraps is because he's afraid. So once you stop punishing, those emotions are bound to bubble up to get healed.
Acting out is not a personal challenge to you. When your child "acts out" he is acting out feelings that he can't express in words. Like "All those times you yelled at me, and I was so scared, I acted like I didn't care, but I was terrified inside....That fear is still inside me and it eats away at me and feels awful....So I lash out to keep those feelings down." No child could tell you that, so he acts out. Train yourself to see misbehavior as a cry for help. Emotions are never the problem; humans will always have big emotions. The key is to help your child understand his emotions so he can manage them -- and can manage his behavior.
6. Create Safety When your child shows you her upsets, stay calm. Don't take it personally. The more you stay compassionate and accepting, the more she will be able to show you the fears and tears behind her anger. Expressing those fears and tears is healing. Once she shares them with you -- and she doesn't even need to know what they're about, or to use words -- those feelings will evaporate, and she won't need that chip on her shoulder to protect herself. (If she's stuck in anger, create more safety by doing lots of giggling together.)
7. Help your child make sense of his experience with a story. "When you were little, I was having a hard time...I yelled a lot...I didn't know what else to do...That frightened you....So you got very very mad sometimes...But now I work really hard to be kind, and not to yell....You don't get so frightened....And you are learning better ways to show me when you are scared or mad.....We work together to solve problems in our family.....Everyone gets upset sometimes....We try to listen to each other and be kind....Then we always make things better between us." Older kids, especially, benefit from using words to understand their emotional life. Just be careful to empathize, not analyze -- so he feels understood, not invaded.
8. Teach reparations. If you've been punishing, you'll feel unfinished if your child breaks a rule and you don't punish him. Train yourself to think in terms of repair, instead. So after everyone has calmed down and is feeling reconnected, have a private discussion with your child about what happened. Listen to his perspective and empathize. "You were pretty mad when he did that...I hear you." Point out the damage: "When you said that to your brother, it really hurt his feelings....and it made him not feel as close to you." Ask your child if there is anything he can do to repair the damage. "What could you do to repair that hurt with your brother?" Resist the urge to punish or force an apology. Instead, empower your child to see that he can repair his mistakes. That process will teach him that he doesn't want to make those mistakes to begin with.
9. Model apologies. Don't force your child to apologize, because it leads to resentment. But if you model apology yourself, your child will follow your example. When something goes wrong, take as much responsibility as you can "I see two upset kids...I'm so sorry I wasn't here to help you work this out before you both started hitting...and then I got worried someone was getting hurt, so I started yelling, too...I'm so sorry....Let's all try a do-over.....I know you don't want to hit each other, hitting hurts." Over time, your modeling will help your children step up and take responsibility, too.
10. Expect setbacks. You're human, so you aren't perfect. Expect to make mistakes. Expect some days to be a huge struggle. Life is hard, and parenting is even harder. But you're on a good path now, that leads to a happier, more peaceful family. Two steps forward, one step back still gets you where you want to go. Soon you'll find yourself in a whole new landscape. Enjoy the journey.
Want more help? Two ways to support yourself:
- Join me tonight as I kick off the Peaceful Parent Happy Kids Blog Tour with a live call hosted by the Natural Parents Network. The topic is BEYOND DISCIPLINE, and I'll be answering questions from parents. The call is free, moderated by Dionna Ford of Code Name Mama, and you can get the access information at http://naturalparentsnetwork.com/chat-dr-laura-ahaparenting/. You can see the rest of my Blog Tour stops here: http://www.ahaparenting.com/Blog_Tour
- You'll find step-by-step plans to stop yelling, start connecting, and coach your child to happier cooperation in Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, now available at your local bookstore or library (Please ask!) Or...
Buy from Barnes and Noble, including for Nook.
Buy from an Independent Bookseller near you