Of course, it's natural that we will have to remind our children repeatedly to do things they aren't motivated to do. That normal childish behavior is best handled with a sense of humor. They do learn, with time and repetition, as long as they feel connected to us and therefore WANT to follow our lead.
But what about those times when the cycle escalates? When we're stuck in resentment, or the assumption that it's all our child's fault, and he should be different? It's only human to think we should be able to make our child to change.
But children (and adults!) naturally rebel against force, so you can't actually control anyone except yourself. Luckily, if you change how you engage with your child, your child will change how he responds.
That's why change needs to start with us. We're the adult, so it's our job to start the peace process. Here's how to move toward less drama and more love.
1. Take responsibility for your own feelings.
Next time your child pushes your buttons, consider this: No one can make you feel upset. If you're getting triggered, that's your responsibility.
Sure, your child's behavior is annoying you. And maybe for good reason. But that’s YOUR annoyance. Another parent in the same situation might be able to just dissolve the tension with laughter or empathy, because they don’t have a hot button about this issue. (And yes, that parent has other triggers, which may not bother you at all. The point isn't to compare ourselves, but to remember that what bothers us is at least partly about our own issues.)
When we get triggered, we over-react. And that can inflame your child's behavior, even if you're trying to do the opposite. So when you notice that a given issue always makes you mad, take that as a cue to do some work on yourself. For instance:
- Are you so depleted that you resent your child's neediness?
- Are you being over-controlling to make yourself feel better about not having control in other areas of your life right now?
- Do you take your child's behavior as a sign of disrespect, even though your child doesn't mean it that way and is just upset about something? (This is often a sign that you felt disrespected as a child yourself, or that you feel disrespected now in some part of your life.)
Once we notice and acknowledge whatever we're feeling, we can address it directly, instead of letting it derail our relationship with our child. The amazing thing is that when we love ourselves through that stuck place, we loosen up that tight knot in ourselves -- and that stuck place with our child begins to dissolve, too.
2. Remember that taking responsibility for your feelings doesn't mean blaming yourself.
Before we can change, we first need to accept the whole glorious mess of ourselves, as tenderly as we would our child when they're hurting. Almost magically, once we bless our own wounds with compassion, we find that we stop over-reacting. We don't get triggered b y our child's behavior in the same way.
Of course, being human, we'll never be perfect. And children have an unerring ability to trigger us, expose our wounded places, draw out our unreasonable fears and anger. So accept your feelings, including your frustration and anger at your child. Those are normal emotions!
And, of course, having feelings of frustration, annoyance and anger doesn't mean that you act on them. Just as we hope that our children will express what they need and want without verbally (or physically) attacking the other person, we need to model that self-regulation.
3. Reframe your child's behavior.
"Bad" behavior is a cry for help. Your child is not a bad person, and his behavior is not inexplicable, even if you don't understand it. Whatever your child is doing, he's doing his best to meet his needs and deal with feelings that are overwhelming him.
- If he's being aggressive, that's a red flag that he's got some big fear locked inside. (Melt that hardened heart to let the fears and tears out by staying compassionate in the face of his anger.)
- If she's continually challenging your limits, she may be showing you that she feels controlled. Kids always rebel against force. (Remember that you don't have to attend every power struggle to which you're invited.)
- If he's super-needy, is it possible that he needs more nurturing than he's getting? (Make sure your cup is full so you can be emotionally generous with your child.)
- If she's defiant, she's showing you that she feels disconnected from you. (Parenting is 80% connection; otherwise kids can't accept our guidance. How's your ratio?)
- If he's being "impossible" and nothing you do makes him happy, he may be asking for your help with some big feelings. (Set a calm, kind, limit and hold him while he cries.)
Instead of hardening into judgment, take a deep breath and get curious about what would make your child act this way. She has a reason, even if you don't think it's a good one. If you can see the situation from your child's perspective, you're more than half way to the solution. Once you find another way to meet her needs and help her with her emotions, your child has no reason to keep acting out.
4. Look for win/win solutions.
You're stuck because you're assuming that you're right and your child is wrong. But of course your child assumes they're right, and you're not listening to the problem they're having!
Sure, you may need to set a limit. Your kid can't show his displeasure with his sibling by hitting her, and he can't stay glued to a screen all day. You do need her to brush her teeth and clean up her toys. But if you're willing to give up being "right," you might find a way to get your own needs met that feels better to your child. You can't simultaneously blame and find a solution. Once you stop trying to make your child "learn a lesson," there's always a solution that works for everyone. (What a great lesson to teach your child!)
5. Model calm.
When kids get dysregulated, they need us, their parents, to help them calm down. You're the role model. If you can keep your own emotions regulated, your child will learn how from you. Once she can regulate her feelings, she can regulate her behavior. So your job is always to calm the storm, not escalate it. Just keep telling yourself: Less drama, More love!
6. Keep connecting.
Children are biologically programmed to accept guidance from their parents, but only if they're convinced that their parents are on their side. (Mother Nature knows that increases their chance of survival.) So if your child experiences you as always opposing him, or feels hurt by you, he'll resist you at every turn. The best way to turn around a bad pattern is connecting more. How? Empathy (even as you set limits), laughter, roughhousing, one on one time, and lots of hugs.
Hard work? Very. Children give us the perfect opportunity to grow past our stuck places. Isn't it great to have your very own live-in zen master?
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“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."