If you're like most parents, there are times when you'd like to submit your child to "Extreme Child Makeover." (That's a reality show playing in a living room near you.)
Maybe you're mortified about the way he clobbers the other kids in the playgroup. Maybe she shrieks when you try to shampoo her hair, or gives you attitude that would put a teenager to shame. Maybe you just always wanted a girl and you were blessed with two raucous boys.
But in honor of Valentines Day, let's remind ourselves of one thing we know for certain about child development. Children who feel loved and cherished thrive.
That doesn’t mean kids who ARE loved. Plenty of kids whose parents love them don’t thrive. The kids who thrive are the ones who FEEL loved, accepted and cherished for exactly who they are.
The hard work for us as parents is accepting who our child is, including the things we wish we could change – and cherishing him or her for being that person, even while guiding their behavior. No, it's not impossible. Here's how.
1. Take time to delight in your child. The most important factor in your child's development may well be your delight in them. Children need to know that they inspire their parents to love caring for them. Be sure you tell your child daily how lucky you are that you get to be their parent, and that you could never love anyone else more than you love them.
2. Really notice your child -- aloud -- so they feel seen: "You've been working for a long time on that tower." "You love being in the water." "That makes you so mad!" The point isn't to evaluate their behavior, but to let them know that you see and accept who they actually are, by acknowledging what they do and how they react to the world.
3. Use a positive lens. When something about your child's behavior makes you unhappy, remember that weaknesses are always the flip side of that person's strengths. If she has trouble controlling her anger when her brother disrespects her, is she a passionate fighter against injustice? Is his dawdling a sign of the imagination that will someday make him a great novelist?
4. See things from his perspective. Maybe his behavior is irritating to you, but it's always understandable if you take the time to see his viewpoint. Ok, so he hit the baby. Do whatever you need to do to prevent a recurrence, including not leaving them unsupervised. And of course promote repair -- "The baby was frightened when you hurt him. I wonder what you could do now to make things better with him?"
But punishing him won't help, because that will just exacerbate the terror of losing you that drove him to act so aggressively. You did get a replacement child, after all. He can be forgiven for wondering if he's lost his place in your heart. If you can connect deeply with him so that he feels your love is indestructible, his terror of losing you will diminish, and his love for the baby will have a chance to bloom.
5. Empathize. Once children are no longer always on our laps or in our presence, it can get more challenging to stay connected. But every time your child expresses anything, that's an opportunity to connect. Just empathize:
- "I hear you! You wish..."
- "It's exciting, isn't it?!"
- "You sound disappointed."
When you welcome your child's emotions, you're giving him the help he needs to learn to manage them: "You're sad that you can't stay up with the big kids. It's ok to cry. It's hard to have to go to bed when other kids are still up. Let's read an extra book tonight so we can snuggle longer and help you feel better."
6. Help your child learn to manage her challenges without negative labeling. How? Describe that you've noticed this wonderful thing about her, but sometimes the flip side of this trait can be a challenge to live with -- both for her and other people. Ask her if she has ideas about how to manage it so she gets the benefits but not the drawbacks. If you (or her other parent) have the same trait, point that out and talk about learning to manage it. Every one of us needs to work to develop the skills to manage ourselves. Make your story positive and hopeful. That will help her to feel less alone, and more optimistic about handling what may seem like a daunting challenge. Be sure to make it clear that everyone changes, and that as we grow up, our brains grow too, so it gets easier to manage ourselves.
7. Remember that most of what upsets parents is developmentally normal. They act like children because they are children. That doesn't mean they'll grow up to be criminals. Kids need to know that they don’t make mistakes because they're bad, but because they're human, and, in many cases, because they're children: “I know you didn’t mean to yell at your friend when you got upset. You’ve been working hard not to lose your temper. I had a hard time managing my temper when I was eight, too. It will get easier as you get older. Let's practice some techniques to calm down when we get mad.”
8. Own your reactions. Sometimes we think it's self-evident that our child should change. But what bothers one parent might not bother another. A high energy kid might fit right in with some families but exhaust others. And often, it's our own stress that makes us over-react. Try expressing your needs as "I" statements rather than criticism: "I see you feel like jumping around right now. I'm tired and a little cranky, and the noise is too much for me. Do you want to go outside and play, or down in the basement to jump on the old mattress?"
9. Look in the mirror. Often what drives us crazy about our child is something that we can't acknowledge about ourselves. If we think our child is obstinate, we might want to look at who he's pushing up against. It takes two to have a power struggle. If we think she's a "drama queen," is that because we had to stuff our own big feelings when our parents told us to stop over-reacting? If we can stretch ourselves to grow, we often find that our issue with our child melts away.
10. Remember when you were a child, how vulnerable you were, how much you just wanted someone to see and appreciate you? That's what your child needs. You play a larger than life role in your child's psyche. How she hears you talk to her will be her inner voice for the rest of her life.
If you always worry that your child isn't quite good enough, he'll always worry, too. But if you can accept him as he is and help him to see himself positively,
he'll be on the road to learning how to manage even the most challenging character traits.
Even more important, he'll feel cherished for who he is. He'll have a big heart, able to love deeply and feel loved in return. And that's a valentine that will last for life.