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Dr.  Laura....I don't understand how to even begin to validate our very strong willed 2.5 son when he is screaming at me from inside the van and won't get in his seat so we can get his big sister from school and the 6 month old is there as well..." - Anita

What happens to your car if you don't fill it with gas, change the oil, and give it a regular tune up?  It ends up in the breakdown lane.  Life with children isn't so different. Unfortunately, parents aren't given a preventive maintenance plan for their children.  But if you don't refill your child's love tank, roughhouse with him daily so he gets some good giggling in, and give him regular one-on-one time, you can count on more breakdown time. Especially if there's a relatively new baby in the family, or if you're transitioning from conventional parenting to gentle parenting and your child has some old emotions to process.

Unfortunately, once your car is in the breakdown lane, your options are limited. Similarly, there are only so many things you can do once your two year old is in meltdown mode when you're trying to buckle him into his carseat, or your twelve year old is lying to you about drinking with his friends. The trick is to prevent the breakdown to begin with.

By the time you're having a problem with your child, it's hard to see how you could have prevented it. And yes, many kids have issues that present real challenges for parents. But if you're having an ongoing problem with your child, it's worth asking what kinds of preventive maintenance might keep you from ending up in the breakdown lane so often. And if you have more than one child, you certainly can't always be available for meltdowns when your child "blows." That means that your primary parenting strategy has to be prevention. 

Here's your 5-step preventive maintenance plan.

1. Make Empathy your go-to way of relating to your child.  Empathy strengthens your relationship with your child and helps her feel understood. That makes her WANT to cooperate, and it helps you understand her better. It means she feels safer to feel her emotions as they happen, instead of stuffing them in her emotional backpack where they'll burst out uncontrolled at a later time. Empathy is especially important when you're setting limits. Of course your child needs guidance, but she can’t accept the guidance if the relationship isn’t there to support it. Ninety percent of your interactions with your child should be about connecting, so she can accept the 10 percent that are about correcting. (And yes, gentle parents correct. Kids do need limits and guidance, but they're more effective when they're set with empathy."

2. Daily Roughhousing. Children build up anxiety (mild fear) all day long, and they need a way to let it out. Luckily, nature has designed humans with a great way to vent anxiety: giggling. Laughter really is the best medicine, and the best way to get your child laughing is physical games that very mildly provoke a fear response, such as roughhousing. Roughhousing also releases bonding hormones, so it builds trust.  This is important for all kids, but critical if your child has any past traumas to work out, large or small. That includes past punishment and yelling, if you're making the transition from conventional to peaceful parenting. (One caveat: I don't recommend tickling. It is a different physiological response so it doesn't accomplish the goal of release, and it can make kids feel out of control.)

3. Special Time. Life has a way of disconnecting us.  Spending one-on-one time with each child daily is your most important tool to build trust, stay connected and help your child express his emotions. Most parents tell me that once they start daily Special Time, their problems with their child diminish dramatically, whether the problem is aggression between siblings, tantrums, or defiance.

4. Use Routines. You don't have to be a slave to the schedule, but regular routines minimize your job as head cop, reduce power struggles and increase your child's sense of safety.

5. Scheduled meltdowns. What's a scheduled meltdown?  It's the same meltdown your child would have had at the playground or supermarket, except you give him a chance to have it at home, at your convenience! Most parents need to convert their attitude from disapproval of their child's feelings to welcoming them.  Yes, it is good for your child to cry, in your warm presence! Once he feels those scary emotions, they evaporate and he is free to get on with his life. Tears are nature's way of healing us.

Basically, you notice when your child is cranky, aggressive, or simply seems unhappy. Instead of sighing and hoping your kid will snap out of it, you see these early warning signals like red lights on the dashboard, and do some scheduled maintenance. First, acknowledge any irritation you have at your child, and shift yourself to a more empathic frame of mind, so you can be compassionate.

Your goal is to help your child express what's going on. Most kids can't articulate it, of course, but if you help him, he can show you. How? Set a kind limit about whatever he's doing:  "Sweetie, you're yelling, and that hurts my ears. Can you tell me what you want in an inside voice?"  If he gets angry, ratchet up your empathy a notch: "Oh, Sweetie, I see you're upset...I'm sorry this is so hard."  Behind his anger there are tears and fears, and your goal is to help him feel safe enough to go behind the anger to show you his hurts. If you can stay compassionate enough (which is the challenge for most parents), he'll cry. (That's what's therapeutic, not the anger.) After he's gotten those upsets off his chest, he'll be back to his best self. And since you've gotten the meltdown out of the way at a time when you can really listen, you've just dodged the tantrum that would have happened next time you try to buckle him into his carseat.

Children raised with empathy, roughhousing, special time, routines and scheduled meltdowns are better able to regulate their emotions, and therefore their behavior. So you can spend more time laughing and connecting, and less time in the breakdown lane.


P.S.  Want more practical, kid-tested strategies to make life with your child happier and more rewarding?  You'll find them in my new book: Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.

Get Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids from Amazon (including for Kindle).
Get Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids from Barnes and Noble (Including for Nook.
Get Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids from an Independent Bookseller near you

Get Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids directly from Dr. Laura (autographed copy inscribed to you)

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013 | Permalink | Blog Home
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