One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to “be a better parent.” Okay, so it’s one of my resolutions every year. Every. Single. Year. Yes, I strive for this every year because the truth is that I’m by far not a perfect parent. I sometimes lose my patience. Sometimes I get frustrated and raise my voice. Okay, honestly, sometimes I even yell. Yes, I know, this is what every single parenting book I’ve ever read says not to do. But I’m human. I have emotions. And some days are hard. Really hard. My mind is on something else, I’m overwhelmed, I’m stressed, I’m tired, I’m in a hurry. And on top of everything else we grown-ups have to do, we’re expected to be “perfect parents.” Our society tells us that anyway. But the truth is, there are no “perfect parents,” just parents who are, darn it, doing the best we can.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t strive to do “better” in my role as a parent. Even those that we perceive as excellent parents still aren’t sure they’re doing it right. We’re all just doing the best that we can, and honestly, that on top of loving and caring for your kids, is what I consider to be good parenting. We don’t have to be perfect for us to be good parents, so let’s first preface this article with a resolution to stop being so hard on ourselves!
Even though I know with one hundred percent certainty that I will never be a “perfect parent,” I still strive every day, moment by moment, to do the best I can. So I came up with eight parenting resolutions for us parents who made this one of our goals this year.
1. Recognize the Goals of Discipline
One of the most important things that we, as parents, can do is recognize the goals of discipline. Too often, we respond to our child’s misbehavior as though consequences are the ultimate goal. This isn’t true. According to Drs. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, as they wrote in their book “No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” there are two basic goals of why we discipline our kids:
- To attain cooperation in the short-term
- To instruct our kids in ways that help them develop the skills and resiliency to handle and cope with life’s challenging situations, frustrations, and emotional storms (in the long-term)
2. Be Responsive, Not Reactive
How do we typically try to accomplish these discipline goals? Threats and punishment. Our child misbehaves, and we dish out the consequence, right? So what’s really going on is that our kids ACT and in response, we REACT.
Well, you ask, what else are we supposed to do? Just let our child get away with their misbehavior? Absolutely not. To be more effective in accomplishing what we’re setting out to do (our goals of discipline), we should instead RESPOND to our child’s behavior. Instead of being REACTIVE, we want to strive to be RESPONSIVE to our children.
3. Be Intentional
So how do we become responsive? By being INTENTIONAL. By making CONSCIOUS DECISIONS based on principles that we’ve thought about and agreed on BEFORE a misbehavior even occurs. This means considering various options and then choosing the one that helps us achieve, or at least move toward, our intended outcome (the goals of discipline). What lesson do you want to teach? Are you wanting your child to learn self-control? Understand the importance of sharing? To act responsibly?
Whatever you’re trying to teach, your response should be directly related to your goal. Yelling and screaming demands at your child when he punches the wall in anger isn’t going to actually teach him how to handle his anger more appropriately. In fact, our reacting like that will only model for him the opposite of what you’re looking to teach. Really, think about it. What are we really teaching him when we ourselves clench our teeth, spit out a rule, or spank them in reactive anger?
Using fear and punishment actually teaches our kids that POWER and CONTROL are the best tools to get others to do what we want them to do. I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely NOT what I want my child to learn from this kind of situation. Not only are our hair-trigger reactions generally not going to be very effective in getting our message across (especially when you consider the long-term), but this kind of reaction is also counterproductive in terms of building your child’s brain.
4. Connect and Redirect
What are we supposed to do? How do we teach our children to be more cooperative, to learn self-control, to become more responsible?
Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson encourage and teach us to CONNECT AND REDIRECT. When your child misbehaves, do you still love them? Sure, you might be angry with their actions at that moment, but you still love them, right? We want our kids to know that we love them. We may not like their particular choices or actions at certain moments, but even when we’re angry, we still love them. LET THEM KNOW that we love them not only during times when they’re making us proud, not only when they’re displaying kindness to others, and not only when they’re home playing quietly and showing cooperation. SHOW them you love them when you’re addressing their misbehavior too.
Connection means giving our kiddos our attention and letting them know that we respect them enough to listen to them. It means letting them know that we value their contribution in working together to solve the problem at hand and communicating to them that WE’RE ON THEIR SIDE – whether we like the way they’re acting or not.
Make no mistake, connection is NOT the same thing as permissiveness. That connection should be COMBINED with clear and firm boundaries that create structure for our kids. That’s where the “redirection” comes in…
Once you connect with your child and she is more calm, we can then redirect her toward more appropriate behavior and help her see that there IS a better way. Here’s something to remember. Until your child has calmed (or regulated) her emotions at least to a certain extent (reaching closer to her emotion equilibrium, as we psych folks call it), she isn’t going to hear a word you’re saying, regardless of how logical and rational your explanation might be.
Not only is your child physiologically wired like that, that’s how ALL humans are wired. When we experience a stressful or threatening situation, our body reacts in ways to help us deal with the perceived danger. Our body shuts down its nonessential systems and begins to channel blood flow to our large muscles. Then it begins creating extra fuel for energy. It heightens our sensitivity to signs of danger, all the while releasing hormones that will help us deal with the stress. When all this occurs, it also impairs our ability to process information and to think clearly before we speak – exactly the abilities we need to have in order to work through difficult situations. This process is called flooding. And when we become flooded, we operate from a self-preservation mindset. We seek then to protect ourselves (think fight, flight, or freeze).
When our emotional arousal is really high like that, our thinking and reasoning abilities are overwhelmed. Consequently, we say and do things that reflect being overwhelmed. Once our emotional arousal goes up, our thinking abilities go down, and we start to lose the emotional balance we need to communicate effectively. Then we become reactive. Being upset and likely having a lot of negative thoughts in that moment, we start to say things that don’t always reflect what we really want (like attention, understanding, and so on). Instead, we just end up saying something bitter or nasty.
Now let’s apply this to our misbehaving child. She misbehaved, and now she knows that she’s in trouble. When we’re in trouble, our brains send signals to our body that we are in a dangerous or stressful situation, so just like every other human, her brain sends her body that same signal. Nonessential systems are shut down. Emotional arousal goes up. Thinking abilities? They’re likely out the window right now. Now start talking to her. Does she hear you? Probably not, remember that her body’s nonessential systems are shut down at the moment. She’s in survival mode now. You might be too. Best to connect and let her calm herself (you may need to help her do this, particularly if she’s very young) so she can reach equilibrium again so she can begin fully understanding what you’re saying.
5. Ask Yourself, “Why? What? How?”
While all of the above is going on, this is the perfect time to think about how to respond to your child’s misbehavior. Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson provide us with an excellent model in which we can take the time to ask ourselves three important questions. Remembering these questions (and answering them) is important and can help us respond to each and every misbehavior our kids is exhibiting.
WHY did my child act this way?
Look at what your child is doing, and ask yourself why he might be acting the way he is. Look deep at what’s going on beneath his particular misbehavior. I personally recommend using Positive Discipline’s Mistaken Goal Chart for this (check out #6 below). When asking yourself this question, try not to approach it with assumptions; instead, approach it with curiosity. An assumption would be asking yourself this question and deciding right away that your kid’s just being a brat, plain and simple. Or he’s just being selfish or spoiled. Approaching this with curiosity, however, will help you recognize that there’s very likely something deeper going on (again, check out #6 where we’ll briefly look at “breaking the code”).
WHAT lesson do I want to teach in this moment?
The goal of discipline is not to dish out consequences. We want to teach our child some lesson. Maybe it’s learning how to control his emotions more appropriately. Maybe it’s for him to understand the value and importance of sharing, or perhaps you want him to start acting more responsibly. Whatever the lesson you want to teach, keep this in mind when choosing how you want to discipline his misbehavior.
HOW can I best teach this lesson?
Remember your answer from the previous question? Okay, now think about how you can most effectively communicate that message you want to get across. It’s important that when pondering this question, you also consider your child’s age, their developmental stage, and the context of the situation (did he realize the bullhorn was on before he raised it to the dog’s ear?).
Imagine that your four-year-old comes up and smacks you really hard while you’re emailing something important for work and can’t stop right away to play. This very act is likely enough to trigger your own emotion regulation system, so first it’s important to remember to take a moment for yourself to calm down so to avoid simply reacting. (I know, easy to say and harder to do, but you can do it!) This pause between reacting and responding is the beginning of choice and intention as a parent.
As soon as you’re able, you then want to pause and ask yourself the three questions:
- Why did my child act this way? More than likely in this case, she hit you because she wanted your attention and wasn’t getting it. First consider her age. Is this behavior typical of a four-year-old who is wanting attention and can’t immediately get it? Definitely. Is the behavior pretty developmentally appropriate for a four-year-old in this situation? Absolutely. It’s hard for any child this age to wait. Add that to her big feelings of this moment, and you likely have a recipe for dysregulation and misbehavior. At four, she’s not old enough yet to be able to always be able to calm herself effectively or even quickly enough to prevent acting out. In that moment, hitting is her default strategy for expressing her big feelings of frustration and impatience. She still needs some time and skill-building practice to learn how to appropriately handle her anger and for delaying gratification. That’s why she hit you. She wasn’t just being a brat, I promise.
- What lesson do I want to teach in this moment? What do you want her to learn from this? Obviously, just because she’s four and not developmentally capable yet of always being able to handle her big emotions appropriately, we can’t just let her walk around hitting people. The lesson isn’t that hitting merits a consequence; the lesson is that there are better ways of getting your attention and handling her frustration than to resort to violence. You want her to learn that hitting isn’t okay, not that feeling frustrated or angry isn’t okay.
- How can I best teach this lesson? First, try connecting with her. Pull her to you, get on her eye level, and let her know that she has your full attention. Acknowledge (validate) her feelings and model how to communicate those emotions more appropriately: “It’s hard to wait. You really wanted me to play with you, and right now you’re mad that I’m busy. Is that right?” Now she knows that she has your attention, and you have hers too. Now talk with her, keeping in mind that as she becomes calmer, she’ll be better able to listen and actually hear what you’re saying. Explain that hitting isn’t alright, and talk about some other alternatives she can use in order to get your attention.
Click for your free poster to help remind you of the 3 questions!
6. Break the Code
In all likelihood, you’ve probably already figured out in your years as a parent that kids seem to speak a language of their own. The way kids “speak” is most often portrayed in play and behaviors. With children and adults alike, all behavior is purposeful. This is actually one of the major premises of Dr. William Glasser’s Choice Theory. Dr. Glasser, who is also the founder of Reality Therapy, notes that almost all behavior is chosen and that we’re driven to satisfy five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. In essence, behavior has a purpose. “All of our behavior is our best attempt at the time, given the resources at our disposal (knowledge, skills, etc.) to meet our needs.”
As I already noted, children and adolescents are no exception to this theory. In fact, it’s quite evident once you “break their code.” The behaviors they exhibit are done so in order to satisfy their needs, particularly their need for love and belonging.
Positive Discipline, a parenting program founded by Dr. Jane Nelsen that teaches young people to “become responsible, respectful, and resourceful members of their communities,” uses what I consider to be one of the best and most valuable resources to help us “break the code” of our child’s misbehavior: The Mistaken Goal Chart.
Seriously, you’ve got to get your hands on one of these. You can find an excellent PDF version of The Mistaken Goal Chart here
, or if you have very young children (ages 0-3), here’s
a great PDF version especially for parents of those kiddos. Really, print that out. I use it in parenting my own children, as well as in my own private practice when working with children and teens. And if you’re looking for an excellent parenting resource, check out Positive Discipline; it’s widely used and praised by many, many psychologists and therapists.
According to Dr. Nelsen, “‘Mistaken goals’ are called such because their behavior is based on mistaken beliefs about how to achieve the primary goals of belonging and significance.” There are four mistaken goals of behavior
- Undue attention – to keep others busy or get special service
- Misguided power – to be boss
- Revenge – to get even
- Assumed inadequacy – to give up and be left alone
Let me briefly summarize.
If your child’s goal is undue attention, then his mistaken belief is “I belong only when you pay constant attention to me, and/or give me special service.” But let’s look at the coded message; this is what he’s actually saying: “NOTICE ME. INVOLVE ME USEFULLY.”
If your child’s goal is misguided power, his mistaken belief is “I belong only when I’m the boss, or at least when I don’t let you boss me around.” Coded message: “LET ME HELP.”
If the goal is for revenge, his belief is “I don’t belong, and that hurts, so I’ll get even by hurting others.” Code for: “I’M HURTING. VALIDATE MY FEELINGS.”
And finally, if his goal is assumed inadequacy, his mistaken belief is “I give up. Leave me alone.” Again, the coded message: “DON’T GIVE UP ON ME. SHOW ME A SMALL STEP.”
Look again at coded messages. All of a sudden, instead of just anger, annoyance, irritation, and helplessness, you’re liable to also feel a little compassion for what the child must be going through. If a child could say “Don’t give up on me,” instead of portraying through their actions “I give up, leave me alone,” it helps us begin to answer that question from earlier: “WHY is my child acting this way?” Looking at it that way, from their core belief, helps us to better help them.
Think about it this way: Imagine an iceberg. We only see the tip of the iceberg. The belief is hidden underneath. We just have to remember to look for it.
7. Validate feelings
Imagine this common scene between a caring mother and her child (found in “Positive Discipline Parenting Tools” by Dr. Nelsen, Mary Nelsen Tamborski, and Brad Ainge):
Billy is sad because his friend doesn’t want to play with him.
Billy’s mom tries to comfort him by saying,
“Don’t feel sad, Billy. You have other friends, and I love you.”
Okay, raise your hand if you have been an actor yourself in this play. Don’t be shy, my hand’s raised too. Raise your hand again if you remember being the child actor in this scene when you were younger. My hand’s raised.
Let me first preface what I’m about to say with the fact that, maybe like your own parents or caregivers, Billy’s mother cares and loves him a lot. She’s in no way intentionally trying to do the opposite of what I’m getting ready to say here. Just like you and I are also not trying to purposely do the opposite when the same scene plays out with our own kids. Billy’s mom loves Billy and is sincerely trying to help him and comfort him. Unfortunately, she’s not validating her son’s feelings here.
As children, we’re often taught that we shouldn’t feel certain feelings. Not because of malicious parents and caregivers, but because of parents and caregivers who are actually trying to protect us and shield us from those negative feelings. Often we do the same with our own children. It’s important that we instead, validate our child’s feelings and experiences: “You‘re sad because your friend doesn’t want to play today. I know how much that hurts. I felt the same way when my friends didn’t want to play with me.”
Do you see the difference? It’s an important tweak to the wording. By validating our kids’ feelings we’re allowing them to discover that all feelings are normal and okay, that they can work through their feelings, and that they can even learn from them. Just something for us all to remember the next time we feel like fixing, squelching, or denying our child’s feelings. If you’re not quite sure what to say in responding to your child when they’re feeling their big feelings, try something like “How are you feeling about that?” or “I can see that makes you very mad,” or “Little brothers can be so annoying.” Obviously you would want to substitute the appropriate words based on the situation. 😉
Finally, one more thing for us parents and caregivers to aim for is to strive to empower our kids. Share control with your kids so they can develop the skills they need to have power over their own lives. Some suggestions for how to do this (Positive Discipline):
- Teach life skills.
- Focus on solutions together.
- Have faith in your children.
- Let go (in small steps).
- Increase self-awareness: “How do you feel? What do you think? How does this affect what you want in your life?”
Alright, there you have it. Eight of my parenting resolutions for the new year. Wish me luck (and lots of patience)!