What's Preventive Maintenance? Think about 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. With preventive maintenance, you meet your child's needs before the unmet needs cause a breakdown.
Unfortunately, parents aren't given a preventive maintenance plan for their children. But if you don't refill your child's love tank with acknowledgment and validation, roughhouse with them daily so they get some good giggling in, and give them regular one-on-one time, you can count on more breakdown time.
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 her friends. The trick is to prevent the breakdown to begin with.
So 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 and Connection your go-to way of relating to your child.
Ninety percent of your interactions with your child should be about connecting, so she can accept the 10 percent that are about correcting.
One of the best ways to build connection is empathy, which strengthens your relationship with your child, helps you understand her better, and helps her feel understood. That 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. Processing emotions as she feels them helps her develop the emotional skills to manage her feelings and behavior, even when she doesn't like your limits.
2. Roughhouse daily to get kids laughing.
Children build up anxiety (mild fear) all day long, and they need a way to let it out. What do they have to be anxious about? They're small people in a big, chaotic, unsafe world. Their brain is still developing, so they often feel overwhelmed by big emotions. They're not in charge of much that happens to them, so they feel pushed around a lot. They also often feel scared about things from mundane (what if the teacher calls on them?) to huge (what if you stopped loving them, or died?)
Luckily, nature has designed humans with a great way to off-load 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 small fear response. That's why they giggle when you play peekaboo (Could you really disappear for good?) or toss them around in the air (Could you actually drop them?!)
Roughhousing also triggers bonding hormones, which build trust. This is important for all kids, but especially critical if your child is highly sensitive or has any past traumas to work out, large or small. That includes past punishment and yelling, for instance, if you're making the transition from conventional to peaceful parenting.
(Tickling isn't the best way to get kids laughing. It seems to involve a different physiological response so it doesn't accomplish the goal of release, and it can make kids feel out of control. If your child begs for tickling, try "pretend tickling" where you threaten to tickle, but don't actually make contact. Your child will still laugh. And once you develop a repertoire of other games that get your child laughing, you'll find they stop asking to be tickled.)
3. Make time for Special Time.
Life has a way of disconnecting us from each other. Spending one-on-one time with each child daily is your most important tool to reconnect, so you can build trust, foster self-esteem and help your child work through big emotions. Turn off your phone (yes, really!) and let your child take the lead, while you simply delight in your child. Many 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, power struggles 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. Routines also make it more likely that your child's needs for sleep, food, and unscheduled time will be met, which gives them more inner resources to face the demands of the day.
When you incorporate connection opportunities into the routine, it not only helps your child feel loved; it also makes the routine go more smoothly, because your child feels more cooperative. So be sure that your daily routine includes a morning snuggle with each child, a family hug and high five before you leave the house, and/or appreciations all around the table at dinner.
Pro Tip: If you work with your child to take photos of the routine and make a chart, he can start taking charge of moving through the routine himself, which reduces power struggles and resistance. All children want to be "in charge" of themselves!
5. Welcoming Emotions.
Emotions are a message. Once we get that message, they begin to evaporate. If we try to push them away, we may push them out of our conscious awareness, but the feelings are still there in the body, waiting for us to notice them. I call that the Emotional Backpack, because we end up lugging those emotions around until we have a safe opportunity to feel them and let them go.
Sometimes, our empathy is enough support for kids to notice what they're feeling and move through it. Other times, children become whiny, demanding, impossible to please. They try to pick fights with us. They can't express it in words, but they know they just don't feel right. That's a sign that your child needs to cry.
So welcome those tears; they're nature's way of healing. When your child is cranky, aggressive, or simply seems unhappy, instead of sighing and hoping she'll snap out of it, think of those early warning signals like red lights on the dashboard. Time for some preventive maintenance in the form of a scheduled meltdown.
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 in the safety of your home, when you can really listen and empathize, and without the pressure of schedules or onlookers.
First, acknowledge any irritation you have at your child, and shift yourself to a more empathic frame of mind, so you can be compassionate. This is essential, because unless you do, your child won't feel safe enough to move past her anger to the more upsetting feelings that are behind both the anger and her "bad" behavior. So use one of the many posts on this website that show you how to shift yourself back into a calmer state, such as this one: When Your Child Makes You Want to Scream: 10 Steps To Calm.
Your goal is to help your child express what's going on. Most kids can't articulate it, of course, but if you help, they 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."
Your warm presence will create the safety he needs to let himself feel those uncomfortable tears and fears behind his anger. If you can stay compassionate enough (which is the challenge for most parents), he'll feel safe enough to go behind the anger to show you his hurts. Sometimes he can express them verbally, but often he'll just need to cry. Afterward, he'll feel better -- and act better.
Remember that it isn't the anger that's therapeutic. It's showing you the more vulnerable feelings driving the anger. That's why you don't respond to his invitation to fight by fighting back. Instead, you create safety.
Your child needs a witness to brave all that hurt, loneliness, powerlessness and fear that he's been stuffing down. After a good cry, he'll be back to his best self. He'll feel closer to you. 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 right when you had to leave the house to pick up his sister.
And those are the five preventive maintenance habits that will keep your family out of the breakdown lane: Empathy, Roughhousing, Special time, Routines and Welcoming emotions. You'll find that investing this time up front actually saves you time. That's because children raised with empathy, roughhousing, special time, routines and welcoming emotions are better able to regulate their emotions, and therefore their behavior.
So you and your whole family can spend more time laughing and connecting, and less time in the breakdown lane.
Of course, this raises a number of other questions.
- What if your child gets angry, but never breaks through to tears?
- What if your child is having a meltdown and another child needs you at the same time?
- What if you have a strong-willed child who tests every single limit, no matter how consistent you are?