When our kids are driving us crazy it’s easy to get locked into negativity. They’re being terrible, we’re trying to get them to quit being terrible, which often causes us to also act terribly and then we’re all being terrible with and at each other and that’s where many people are by the time they land in my office.
When this happens, one of the best things parents can do is to look for times their kids are being good and then praise the heck out of them. (Even if they’re not being all that good.)
To explain how this works, let’s use Goofus (as in Goofus and Gallant) as our example. Do you remember them? They’re from Highlights Magazine and Gallant does all the good stuff and Goofus is just plain rotten. (As a kid I didn’t really like either of them because Gallant was so good he made the rest of us look bad and Goofus seemed like the kind of boy I wanted to avoid during recess.)
For absolutely understandable reasons, Goofus’s parents are likely pretty sick of parenting him. Per Highlights:
- Goofus barrels through people in the way and bosses them around.
- Goofus is rude when responding to others’ ideas.
- Goofus uses his book with dirty hands.
- Goofus berates the bus when he misses it.
- Goofus yells when he can’t get what he wants.
- Goofus takes the last apple.
Man, Goofus, seriously. GET. IT. TOGETHER.
What all this means is that Goofus’s parents probably sound like this all of the time:
- Watch where you’re going!
- We do not talk that way in this family!
- Stop touching that!
- What is wrong with you?!?
- Go to your room!
- Put that back!
Given his track record, it’s no wonder Goofus’s parents are always steeling themselves for yet another Goofus screw up. They’re behind him before he’s done anything wrong saying, “Careful! Watch it! You better clean that up when you’re finished!” and he’s got it in his head that he’s a lousy person, someone who does mess up all of the time so why even bother?
Seeing as we’re the ones with fully developed frontal lobes, it’s up to us parents to disrupt the pattern. Goofus’s parents are the ones who have to help themselves (and help Goofus) see him as someone who can and will do better. And often this starts with finding ways to say, “Good job!”
When Goofus grabs his book with dirty hands his parents could ignore the urge to tell him to go wash up and instead say, “Goofus, you are such a great reader!” (Unless the book is a priceless edition or belongs to someone else, it can always be replaced so ignore the grubbiness for the sake of paradigm changing.)
Of course some things demand intervention — safety issues, for example. Parents can’t ignore it when Goofus (per one Highlights example) brings glass into the pool area but because they’ve learned to let go of things like dirty hands on books, Goofus is more likely to listen. First they can say, “I love the way you pay attention to your thirst signals, Goofus! That’s a smart thing to do in hot weather” before adding, “But let’s get a plastic cup to be sure you stay safe.”
Some days it’s a lot harder because some days Goofus is probably even more awful than usual. On those days, parents can and should find any little way to praise him. Even if it’s just, “I really appreciate the way you walked across the room there, buddy, without bopping your brother on the head.”
Goofus’s parents need to start looking for the good in him and pointing it out so that Goofus can start finding the good in himself. This can be really hard to do if you’re locked on molding your kid to be more like Gallant — it can feel like you’re allowing mayhem into your home if you’re not offering lots of correction. But you know that “be the change you want to see” quote? You need to SEE the change you want your kid to be before it ever happens.
Trust me, most kids know when they’re being rotten and they would like to find another way to be but they either don’t know how, or feel stuck in the immediate gratification or they think that’s the best way to get their parents to put all eyes on them.
Goofus’s parents need to see it for him. They need to ignore the filthy socks on the floor and instead say, “Thanks for changing your socks everyday.” They need to download one of those “100 Ways to Say Good Job” posters and memorize it so they have a whole bunch of phrases at the ready.
Now this is not empty praise; it’s finding new things to praise. It’s changing the atmosphere between parent and child and finding new ways to interact. It takes time to create a new way to be and it can be scary. It can feel downright neglectful not to call your kid out whenever he does something wrong so it’s important that both parents get in on the plan and have a clear idea about what’s non-negotiable (safety) and what they’re willing to ignore for the sake of building back a positive relationship.
For kids who are really entrenched, I think it makes sense to find a therapist. Many of the children I see who are acting out are struggling with other issues — anxiety, low self esteem, etc. It’s not fun to be Goofus, at least not all of the time.
When my son was a toddler he went from wobbling baby I knew and adored to a stomping, glaring child I didn’t understand. My tried and true techniques quit working and more than once I carried his screaming self out of the store, the library and away from the park completely baffled by his behavior. I felt guilty for his behavior, I felt guilty because I didn’t know how to quit triggering his anger and I really felt guilty because I sure wasn’t liking him much.
It seemed like neither of us could do anything right.
“I’m a terrible parent,” I cried to my husband. “I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m ruining him.”
It was my first lesson in how developmental stages could hit both of us. I knew he was going to grow and change but I didn’t understand that I would have to grow and change with him. It was only when I was commiserating (i.e., crying on the phone) with a friend whose daughter was exactly one month younger that I realized that I’d become stagnant. I was still trying to parent a toddler and he was trying to grow into a kid.
Parenting is anything but stationary. Our kids are growing all of the time and sometimes it takes a crisis in the relationship for us to realize that it’s time to change things up. We can’t parent a preschooler like a toddler; we can’t parent a teen like a tween. Those parenting plateaus — where kids and parents are perfectly in sync — are temporary. They grow, we grow and then we all have to readjust to each other.
I have found in my own life and in the lives of the families I see that the greatest push-pull comes when kids are edging to greater independence and parents haven’t caught up with this new scenario. There are predictable developmental windows when it’s easy to lose track of each other — when toddlers learn that they’re separate from their parents; when teens start looking to peers instead of mom or dad. But it can happen in less volatile times, too. Maybe a child wants the training wheels off or wants to choose their own clothes or wants to be left alone with a project. What was welcomed as attentive parenting one day is all of a sudden perceived as overbearing and we don’t even know when we crossed the line.
I tell this story a lot so you may have heard it but right around this same time when my son and I were first knocking heads he got furious with me because I didn’t remember his dream. He was trying to tell me about it at breakfast and he was so angry that I couldn’t remember it for him. For me, that sums up those trying toddler-preschooler times; he wanted me to psychically keep track of his inner thoughts and feelings but he sure didn’t want to hold my hand when we were crossing the street. No wonder I was confused, right? This stuff is confusing.
It’s painful to grow up (and not just for kids). It’s hard to make sense of these mixed messages — the 13-year old who mouths off and rolls her eyes then tries to climb onto your lap, the teen who won’t let you into his room but who wants to tell you the entire plot of Homestuck and exactly what he thinks of it. How are we supposed to know?
The answer is that we can’t know until we run into that brick wall and realize that our parenting needs updating. Conflict is a sign that things need to change. Sometimes what needs to change is our parental expectation and behavior. Sometimes it’s our kids who are dragging us to the next stage while we’re still trying to hammer away at the way things used to be.
It’s hard. It’s frustrating. And it is often painful.
That first time was the worst. I really thought I’d broken him and that chaos and conflict were going to be a permanent reality. But we did work it out. I changed up my expectations, I built in more opportunities for him to feel independent and suddenly my sunshine son was back, both of us happy to be with each other again.
And after that I could recognize when the landscape was starting to change and knew to rewrite my map. Acclimating to the new terrain got a lot easier once I knew what to look for.
One of my most favorite things to do is help stuck parents because I’ve been there (boy howdy) and I know how hard it is. Hit me up if you’d like some support.
Young children, bless their little hearts, think their parents are perfect. It takes them awhile to realize what messes we really are but at the beginning, they think we’re All Good and so when they do things that are Not So Good they sometimes think it means they are in some way defective. After all, the adults who they love and look up to don’t seem to have trouble not spilling the milk or wetting the bed or remembering how to tie shoes. Kids are usually under the false impression that grownups are never deliberately bad. (As grownups ourselves we know that deliberately misbehaving is actually quite the grown up kind of thing — witness insider trading and and people who double park — but when our children are only noticing our stellar milk pouring skills, it’s easy to impress them.)
When you’re little and you sneak a cookie or lie about brushing your teeth, it changes how you feel about yourself. You don’t have a broad enough worldview to know that being bad is part of being human and that misbehavior is something most of us struggle with on some level for our entire lives. Little kids tend to think very black and white, “I have done this bad thing therefore I am a bad person.” When parents react with shock or dismay when they discover a child’s transgressions, it solidifies that child’s self concept as “bad person.” That’s why it’s so important to reflect back the unconditional acceptance of the small person before us even when we need to condemn that same small person’s behavior.
Keeping the focus on the bike left in the middle of the driveway (“Michael! Your bike!”) and not on Michael himself (“What is wrong with you? Do you ever think about anyone else? Do you think I like getting out of my car in the rain to move your bike?”) will perhaps help grown up Michael not cheat on his taxes. Grown up Michael will think, “I’m a pretty good person. I try hard to take responsibility for my mistakes and do the right thing. I think I’ll ignore my brother-in-law’s advice to claim the kid’s play room as my home office.”
Positive discipline: Saving your child from future IRS audits!
One thing I encourage parents to do is to make a point of reconnecting with children after particularly bad days — the days when you feel like all you did was holler at them — by talking to them about the predictable developmental challenges that kids face. Little children are encouraged to hear that it will become easier to get things “right” as their maturity levels increase. It’s terrific when parents can say to a 3-year old, “I know it’s hard to remember to use your words when you are three, but someday soon it will be easier for you. Until then, I will help you remember.”
Even teenagers are reassured to hear that their displeasure with the family is developmentally appropriate and that someday everyone will likely be good friends again.
Knowing that your parents can see the good in you when you are having trouble seeing the good in yourself is a very big deal for growing kids.
This is so amazingly interesting:
About 20 percent of people are born with a personality trait called sensory perception sensitivity (SPS) that can manifest itself as the tendency to be inhibited, or even neuroticism. The trait can be seen in some children who are “slow to warm up” in a situation but eventually join in, need little punishment, cry easily, ask unusual questions or have especially deep thoughts, the study researchers say.
The new results show that these highly sensitive individuals also pay more attention to detail, and have more activity in certain regions of their brains when trying to process visual information than those who are not classified as highly sensitive.
Individuals with this highly sensitive trait prefer to take longer to make decisions, are more conscientious, need more time to themselves in order to reflect, and are more easily bored with small talk, research suggests.
Previous work has also shown that compared with others those with a highly sensitive temperament are more bothered by noise and crowds, more affected by caffeine, and more easily startled. That is, the trait seems to confer sensitivity all around.
The researchers in the current study propose the simple sensory sensitivity to noise, pain, or caffeine is a side effect of an inborn preference to pay more attention to experiences.
via Study Sheds Light on What Makes People Shy | LiveScience
It’s been my experience that highly sensitive people often believe something fixable is wrong with them — that they are too sensitive. I would also be interested to know whether or not highly sensitive people are overdiagnosed with anxiety (not that you can’t be highly sensitive AND anxious, mind you).
Sometimes I think that we forget that there are many many many ways to be in the world and none of them is necessarily the right way for anybody else.
I was reading Mary Pipher’s Writing to Change the World and I came across this:
Theologian Reinhold Niebuht wrote that to effect change, we need to practice “spiritual discipline against resentment.”
Pretty heady instructions, that.
Sometimes even recognizing another point of view feels like giving in, you know? Sometimes it feels scary to say, “I can see how you’d feel that way.”
When I was a young feminist taking my first women’s studies class one of my assignments was to interview a woman who worked for The Child Assault Prevention Program (“Living Safe, Strong and Free!”). I’m not positive, but I think she helped create that child abuse program, which is now used nationwide. In any case, she was a radical feminist and we were talking about activism and creating change. She told me that she used to not shave under her arms or her legs. She used to buzz her hair crazy-short (it was still pretty short but styled) and she didn’t wear skirts or make-up. Then she started working for CAPP and part of her job was development, which is the getting of money. And she discovered that these fancy-schmancy business guys in suits were more likely to listen to her if she wore some make-up (this was the eighties after all when we all wore at least four shades of eyeshadow) and if she wore a skirt and she noticed that her unshaven legs didn’t look so hot in hose (again, it was the eighties and we didn’t go around bare legged much then) so she started shaving her legs.
“I did this,” she told me. “Because I wanted the program to have money because I wanted to prevent child abuse.”
But some of her friends were angry. They said she was giving in. They said she was selling out. There’s no doubt that it was a sacrifice for her but it was a sacrifice she was willing to make in the interest of a cause that was more important to her than not shaving her legs.
I’ve thought about this off and on in the years since that interview. I’ve thought about how powerful it can be to change things from the inside out and how compromise, used with discretion, can be a good thing.
Sometimes it takes more strength to work with the perceived enemy.