Did you grow up hearing phrases like, ’She’s a naughty child’? My mum frequently said it about me. I was the child who was always pushing the limits – the child testing the boundaries.
Fast forward to 2015.
I’m the last out the door and everyone is already in the car.
My adult son teasingly eases the car forward, as though he’ll leave me behind. I jump into the back seat and smilingly exclaim to him,
‘Oh, you’re naughty!’
’Naughty,’ repeats my toddler grandson.
‘’That’s a new word,’ says his mother. ‘He’s never heard that one before!’
As we travel I muse how much I appreciate that his parents never label him as ‘naughty’. They never refer to him as a ‘bold child’, even at times when he’s acting out. They are aware that when his behaviour is challenging for them, there’s something going on for him that needs attention. He’s not ‘naughty’!
‘Isn’t it strange, ‘ I comment. ‘We never use the word “naughty” to describe an adult, unless we say ‘He has a naughty sense of humour,” or “naughty underwear”.’ We give this term a different meaning for adults. When we talk about a child being naughty, whether it’s a toddler tantrum, a child who won’t listen, or a defiant child, what we’re really meaning is, ‘My child won’t do what he’s told,’ ‘My child won’t comply.’ In other words, we’re saying, ‘My child won’t follow my agenda.’ But just because your child is choosing to follow his one path, not yours, doesn’t mean he deserves a shaming label.
‘Do you have a word in Danish for “naughty?”‘ I ask Sophia.
‘No, not really,’ she says. ‘If we were talking about a child who seems to be always acting out we might comment that the child was, “Uopdragen”. “Opdrage” means, “to raise”. So “uopdragen” literally means “unraised”. ‘
As we drive along the highway I muse on this. “Uopdragen – unraised,” isn’t saying the child is “naughty”; it isn’t shaming the child. It isn’t making the child “wrong”. It’s saying the parent hasn’t fulfilled the responsibility of raising the child; the parent hasn’t given the child the support and skills needed to interact successfully.
I think the Danes are recognising something significant here; it’s our job as parents to successfully raise our children. To “opdrage” – to raise your child, whether your child is “easy to raise” or challenging – takes mindful parenting, commitment and consistency.
As parents it is our responsibility to raise a child. This is our task – blaming or shaming our child won’t achieve what’s needed.
5 Parenting Tips for when you might be tempted to label your child as ‘naughty’.
1. Your children’s behaviour is about them, your response is about you.
When your children act out, it doesn’t mean you’re a “bad parent”. It means your children are trying to let you know something is “not ok” for them. If you let your thoughts run away with, “What will other people think?” you won’t be able to focus on what your child needs.
2. Respond rather than React
Think of ‘React’ as in a knee-jerk reaction – instant and without thinking. In any situation you have a split second to determine whether this is an emergency, (where you need to instantly react to ensure safety) or whether to pause and assess what’s needed. In most situations, except for “emergency” concerns, if you want to “raise your child”, it’s more helpful to pause to assess, then respond in a way that gives your child the message, “I’m here for you.”
2. Focus on your breathing.
When you want to respond, but can feel your own anger or anxiety is likely to overwhelm, take a moment to focus on slowing and steadying your breathing. When your own strong emotions get in the way it becomes impossible to figure out what’s needed in that moment to effectively ‘raise a child’. When you steady your breathing you will steady your thoughts.
3. Remember to ‘HALT’.
When you need to deal with your child’s challenging behaviour, first stop and use the ‘HALT signpost‘ to ask yourself, ‘Is my child Hungry? / Anxious or Angry? / Lonely or iLL? / Tired?’ When you respond to your child’s needs often the challenging behaviour will dissipate. Ask yourself, ‘What’s really needed here?’
4. Remember, ‘All behaviour makes sense.’
Often our children’s challenging behaviour can be frustrating or worrying for us as parents. Remember your children are not “naughty” and they not trying to “get at you”. They are trying to let you know they are in a “not-okay” place. They are acting out because they need your support. Ask yourself, ‘What might this behaviour be telling me?’
5. Recognise a Challenging Moment is a Teaching Opportunity
Maybe it’s a teaching moment for yourself as parent – about what works, what doesn’t and what’s needed. And sometimes it’s an opportunity for you to help your child learn about life. Most times that lesson is not a lecture, but what we model. The lesson is in our actions. Maybe it’s a lesson of, “You are loved, no matter what,’ or a lesson in kindness, a lesson in, ‘I trust you.’ What lessons do you most want your child to learn?
When you have one of those ‘not-feeling-beautiful’ days (or weeks or years!) do you avoid the mirror?
When we moved into our new home we bought a new dressing table.
Whilst I love thepiece of furniture, the attached mirror makes me look fat. Fat and hippy. The mirror distorts and enlarges the parts of me I least want to see enlarged. Do I really look that bad! I avert my eyes when I walk towards the mirror so I don’t have to see myself like that, or else I scold myself about how I should be working harder on my weight. Not that it helps – the fat image makes me feel ‘not ok’ and demotivates me from achieving my healthier me.
Ironically I have another new mirror in my house that has the reverse effect. I love this jewellery cabinet with a place for every pair of earrings, every necklace and my bangles. And when I look in that mirror I look thin! First time I saw this reflection of myself it jolted me.Then I got to quite like this mirror. Hey, I really look slim in this new dress. Great! But this mirror doesn’t really help either. I can kid myself I’m looking fine and that also doesn’t motivate me to make the health changes I really want to make.
I need a regular, kind and realistic look at myself to see how I am and to remind me of what’s working and what I need to do differently to be the healthy me I want to be.
I’ve been thinking that the same applies to parenting. There are those ‘expert’ books and people that are like the ‘fat’ mirror. They make you feel not good enough in your parenting. That ‘not ok’ experience leaves you feeling – ‘not ok’, not good enough – and instead of motivating – you feel resigned nothing is going to change no matter how hard you try.
Then there are the people, perhaps even your best friends, and the articles that are equivalent to the ‘skinny’ mirror – ‘You’re fantastic! You’re brilliant!’ And deep inside you know that’s not true. That’s not how you really are. And either you choose to pretend to believe the lie – and go on as you were (which ultimately isn’t helpful); or you remind yourself that’s just an illusion. Either way it doesn’t motivate you to be the parent you’d really love to be.
Imagine having a gentle, rose-tinted mirror that lets you see how you really are, in a way that helps you to really notice your best bits. The bits of you that you like and are working for you. This mirror accurately and kindly reflects what you need to work on. The good news is – you do! I figure every parent has one or more of those mirrors in their home – they just haven’t noticed that mirror is there all the time.
So you want me to tell you where to find this mirror that will give you the helpful reflection you need about being the parent you want to be? I figure that mirror is our children’s behaviour. The thing is, our children love us and want to cooperate with us. And their behaviour tells us when our parenting isn’t helpful in creating the enjoyable and fulfilling family life we all need.
Many ‘experts’ tell us how to manage our children’s behaviour – but that’s not possible. The only person’s behaviour you can manage is your own. Rather we need to learn to understand our children’s behaviour – to recognise that all behaviour has a cause and all behaviour has an intention. Rather than focusing on how to manage your child’s behaviour, ask yourself, ‘What might this behavour be telling me?’
In other words, ‘How is my child’s behaviour an image of what’s really going on here?’ The family behaviour (including yours!) is a pretty accurate reflection on how things are really shaping up in your family.
The rest of this letter is sharing with you about my latest resource for parents who are facing the challenge of children’s challenging behaviour. If you want to know more, please read on:
You may be wondering, ‘But how do I figure out what my child’s behaviour is trying to tell me?‘ I’ve been asked that question so many times that it’s spurred me on to produce resources for parents specifically on this issue. Some people are so keen to get this material that, rather than you having to wait for the book, I’m giving you some of the insights in my audio for parents: ‘Behave – an introduction to Parenting Challenges’, because I know parents are looking for answers now!
In this audio you will discover two significant signposts that help you make sense of your child’s challenging behaviour. And when you have the signposts, you can understand how your children’s behaviour is a message. Sometimes it’s a message about what they need. Perhaps their behaviour is telling you they need you to be more consistent, more firm on boundaries, or maybe more relaxed. And you’ll also discover that their behaviour might be telling you when you aren’t looking after your own needs. They get ratty when we get ratty. They’re happy when we’re happy. They’re relaxed and go with the flow when we’re relaxed and go with the flow. After all, didn’t you have kids because you wanted it to be fun? Didn’t you want having kids to be an enjoyable, pleasant experience? If some days you feel as though you don’t like the parent you see when you look in the mirror, here’s practical help to discover how to use what your children are reflecting as helpful feedback to be the parent you really want to be! If you want to know how to see your child’s behaviour as a reflection to guide you to be the parent you want to be you’re only one click away on iTunes!
Perhaps you have one of those ‘school angel – house devil’ children; good as gold when out with others but driving you mad at home? Or perhaps your child’s behaviour is driving everyone mad. Maybe it’s some particular behaviour that you wish you could do something about – get them to listen, get them to be more confident, stop whining, stop fighting, stop bullying, stand up for themselves, do their homework. I don’t think that there’s a parent who doesn’t puzzle about what to do when it comes to dealing with challenging behaviour, at least some of the time.
Over the next few days I’m going to share three practical insights about challenges parents face and give you some helpful tips to help you create less stress and more fun in your home. I’m asking your to read this and then take time to REFLECT on what this might mean to your family – and especially to you as parent. It’s easy to read something, think ‘yes, ‘yes’ and then rush on to the next item in your agenda. But the three thoughts I’m going to share with you in these articles over the next few days could move you to a whole different and more enjoyable path of parenting. What it will take is time to let them soak into your mind?
So here’s the wildly challenging thought for today:
Getting your child to be ‘good’ might be bad for your child.
Yes, of course you’d like a ‘good’ child. ‘Good’ would be so much easier.
A child who always does what they are told. Who wouldn’t want a ‘good’ child!
But your focus on what you need now you might be overlooking the long-term cost of ‘good’. That cost may be far too high. That cost might mean low self esteem, it might mean becoming a ‘yes’ person to whatever others demand, which will get in the way of your child’s fulfilment and happiness in life. You want a child who does what he is told, right? But if that’s what you instil then don’t be surprised if this becomes the teen who does whatever anyone else asks: stealing, drugs, sex. Your ‘good’ child is likely to become a vulnerable target for others’ selfish desires. Because ‘good ‘ is about your child fitting in with your agenda, ignoring their own needs as human beings.
And who decides what is ‘good’?
What parent doesn’t wait for the school report, hoping to read the words ‘excellent pupil’, ‘well behaved’ – anxious about the teacher’s comment. And it makes sense that teachers tend to praise children who are compliant. In most school situations teachers are overburdened with too large classes, administrative demands, a syllabus to complete and the emphasis on examination marks. Our school system is set up to encourage ‘good’, also known as ‘compliant’. But the compliant child is not going to be the mover and the shaker that is what the world needs now. Do you really want a ‘good’ child or do you want to support your child to grow into the full potential of the unique, wonderful, awesome human being that he or she already is? The children who grow up to really make a difference in the world are very often the ones who didn’t ‘cut it’ at school.
Think of Einstein, Steve Jobs, Oprah, Richard Branson. I wonder if there’s a school report lying around some dusty attic for any one of those characters! I bet that would make interesting reading, and I doubt you would find the word ‘good’ on their school reports.
You’d be more likely to spot phrases like ‘daydreamer’, ‘doesn’t listen’, ”won’t settle in class’. Children in touch with themselves and with life don’t put their focus of fulfilling someone else’s agenda. They intuitively know they must follow their own inner calling.
So what are the words that are maybe used to describe your child that cause you concern?
‘Wilful or stubborn’ – They know what they want.
‘Daydreamer’ or ‘easily distracted’ – Their minds are on other more exciting things. ‘Imagination is everything. It is a preview of life’s coming attractions.’ Albert Einstein knew how to use his imagination. That’s how he discovered such amazing things.
‘Needs to listen’ – maybe your child listens to his or her own inner rhythm.
So if you are dreading receiving one of those school reports, maybe it’s time to think again.
Take time to think about:
What am I actually focused on when I want my child to be ‘good’?
What do I really want, when I think long term?
In what ways could my child’s challenging behaviour actually be a positive?
What do I need as Parent (or support person to the child) to help this child to develop to his or her full potential?
Let’s move beyond ‘good’ to ‘happy’, ‘curious’, ‘interested’, ‘imaginative’ , ‘tenacious’ and all of the other crazily wonderful qualities that make your child a unique person who lives fully.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating wild, out of control behaviour. Rather I’m saying that as parents and people working with children we need to think further than ‘good’. But rather than striving for compliant behaviour we need to know how to create environments that encourage cooperative behaviour. That’s what the Koemba approach is all about. Watch out for my next blog in a couple of days, because I’ll be chatting about how if you focus on keeping your child ‘safe’ it may not actually nurture your child’s health and well-being.
What do you do if your child seems to be showing ADHD type behaviours?
How do you cope with the outbursts and the excessive energy?
I felt distress as I watched the Prime Time RTE programme dealing with this heartbreaking subject and saw the despair that some parents are experiencing. I imagine these parents WISH that they could receive an immediate response from those who could make a difference, instead of horrifically long delays before they receive any support.
Any person with an ounce of compassion would be wondering how these parents cope with the unrelenting energy of their child and the torment of ‘How do we get through today (or even the next ten minutes)?’ I admire the courage of these parents who allowed the television crew to capture some of the frustration and anguish, that I imagine many experience daily.
I’m writing this blog not only to express my concern and appreciation for these parents, but also to encourage parents that things can get smoother. I’m not saying ‘perfect’, I’m not saying there won’t be bumps and sharp turns on the journey but there is hope. The good news is that, as parents, we CAN DO SOMETHING to create calmer homes and more happiness, while we are waiting for the services to respond. We can discover how to support children to behave more cooperatively. I know from my own experience, that parenting isn’t easy. And I imagine that it’s particularly challenging if you have a child who is wound up like a clockwork toy and who seems to push against every boundary.
As I watched the RTE PrimeTime television documentary, I spotted some simple, subtle ways in which parents can create more harmony and connection.
So here’s TEN PRACTICAL TIPS, based on interactions observed within the film footage of the Prime Time programme, to support you in taking little steps creating smoother relationships and more cooperative behaviour.
1. What I observed when the child is acting out.
Parent: ‘This is not you.’ But this IS part of who the child is, right now, at this moment. His behaviour does not need to define him. He’s so much MORE than only this behaviour. But when we deny that this is ‘him’, we are, in a sense denying part of who he is.
A response you could find more helpful:
‘You’re angry right now.’ Help him to NAME and CLAIM his strong emotions. As he can CLAIM his feelings, over time he’ll learn also to TAME them – to be in control of his emotions, instead of his emotions being in control of him.
2. What I observed when the child is in tears:
Parent: ‘You don’t have to cry anymore.’
A response you could find more helpful:
Focus on being present to your child, show sympathy and give support. Let the tears flow naturally. Apparently the tears we cry when we are emotionally upset are chemically different to the tears we cry when we peel an onion. The ‘upset’ tears contain stress hormones. So ‘Have a good cry’, ‘Cry it all out’ make sense. The tears will be healing when the child senses our gentle, loving support alongside him, when we’re relaxed with his tears and not trying to stop them.
3. What I observed when the child is distressed, as she remembers the awful thought she had, which were a side effect to the medication she’d been given: Parent: ‘Those thoughts are gone.’ But they’re not gone. She’s still upset about them!
A response you could find more helpful:
Acknowledge the experience. Give her a safe space to talk about them. Then reassure her that the upsetting thoughts were brought on by the medication. In life, it is not so much the bad things that happen to us that are the concern, but rather that we have not yet woven them into the fabric of our lives. Like embroidery that was knotted and tangled at the back, the child needs support to gently untangle these threads and to weave them into her ‘narrative’, her story of her life. Daniel Siegel’s book ‘Parenting From the Inside Out’is a great resource to understand this more fully. Making sense of our own unique life story is rather like a beautiful Persian carpet – provided it is well woven, the dark patches are an integral part of the beauty of the design. In a similar way the ‘dark patches’ of our lives, when worked through so that we understand this part of who we are, have the potential to become part of the richness and beauty of our personality.
4. What I observed when the child is energetically bouncing on the seat, as the parent is trying to interact with someone else: Parent: ‘Can you stop it please.’
A response you could find more helpful:
Anticipate moments like these and have activities to attract his attention and keep him busy. With younger children, playdough is ideal and tends to have a soothing effect on the child. Crayons and paper are great to have on hand. With older children construction toys like Lego and K’nex can keep their attention. Also keep in mind that still periods probably won’t be long. When you hold an awareness that your child is probably doing the best he can right now, it’ll be easier to adapt to his needs, even if that means inviting the visitor to walk and talk, so that your child can work off some energy.
Also, rather than giving a negative comment say what you do want. Instead of ‘stop it’ give the child a choice, directing his attention to something positive he can do. ‘You can choose to sit next to me and listen or you can choose to play with these toys.’ When the child is given a choice he’s far more likely to cooperate.
5. What I observed: television constantly on.
A response you could find more helpful:
Create a family culture where the television is off, unless you’re actually sitting and watching something together, and even then be thoughtful about what programmes you chose. All children needs calm space, and particularly those with very high energy levels. Exposure to energetic or aggressive action is likely to evoke more of the same. (However, be aware that sudden changes in his routine, like suddenly stopping television viewing, are likely to trigger a strong emotional reaction. You need to discuss and plan other enjoyable activities to replace the television viewing, probably making this a gradual adjustment).
6. What I observed was the parent talking about the child’s issues to others in front of him. Children tend to live up to their parent’s expectations. Whilst it makes sense that you really need a space to talk about the challenges you’re facing, if he hears from you that he’s ‘out of control’ /’a challenge’/ ‘wrecking your head’ the message he receives is that this is what you expect from him, and he’s likely to live up to your expectations.
A response you could find more helpful:
You are facing such a huge responsibility it makes sense that you need a safe space to let off steam – but please find it away from the ears of any children. Also notice that talking with some people will increase your sense of frustration and powerlessness, whereas others will encourage you and help you to be the clear-headed, compassionate parent you want to be. Find the safe, encouraging friends and professionals who will genuinely support you.
7. What I observed when the child acted aggressively:
Parent: ‘Upstairs! Don’t kick me.’
A response you could find more helpful:
There’s a fine line between giving him ‘time with himself’ to calm down and reflect on what’s needed and ‘time out’ as a punishment, which isolates him from you. When a child experiences being emotionally abandoned by the parent, he’s likely to protest. All conflict is a protest at the disconnection. This statement might seem strange when he’s acting out when you’re still physically present, but your child senses when you are angry or have emotionally disconnected from him, and he reacts. At other times, your child may have disconnected from himself; then he’s unable to take control of himself. Ironically, these times, when it’s hardest to stay emotionally engaged with him in a supportive way, are the times he most needs connection with you. He needs you to help him regain control of himself.
Also when we give negative commands the child doesn’t hear the ‘don’t’ – he tends to only hear the command, e.g. ‘kick me’. Rather say what you DO want, such as, ‘Peter, calm down.’ (in a calm, connecting voice). (Using his name at the start of your sentence also helps him to reconnect and to focus on what you are saying).
8. What I observed when the parent is discussing the child’s experience of a situation:
Parent: ‘You love your teachers.’ Child: ‘NO!’
A response you could find more helpful:
Create a listening space for him to share his perspective. Hear how it is for her. The child needs to be able to make sense of her experience. If she is being rejected by other children or reprimanded at school it’s likely that she’s feeling frustrated and she needs to be able to process those feelings. She needs home to be a safe space to share how she’s experiencing what’s happening in her world. That doesn’t mean we encourage her take a ‘Poor Me’ attitude, but once she feels heard and connected she’ll be in a better place to reflect on what she could have done differently, that could have been more helpful.
9. What I observed was the child cavorting in spiderman clothes.
Over many years in preschool education I saw time and time again that when children are dressed in ‘invincible’ outfits, ‘invincible’ behaviours erupted. Part of our school policy became ‘No spiderman, batman, etc outfits.’
Think too about the choice of toys. You may notice that when he is playing with certain toys it sparks OTT behaviour. Some toys are far more likely to evoke aggressive or hyper-active behaviours. Discover the alternatives that lead to calmer ways of playing.
10. What I observed was the parents’ pain when it is inferred by others that the child is ‘a brat’ or ‘bold’.
A response you could find helpful:
Whether a child is challenged with ADHD or not, labels like ‘bold’ or ‘brat’ are never helpful. Any child is likely to feel attacked when negative labels are used. In our minds, we need to separate out the behaviour from the child him (or her) self. It ‘s more helpful to say ‘I don’t like it when you … and I would prefer it if you …’
Likewise we need to beware of labelling ourselves. Self-criticism, like ‘Bad parent’, is only going to make us feel bad. The stress level with dealing with a child with challenging behaviour is already high enough, without the added pressure of self-punishment and self-criticism. It’s easier to be reflective about what’s working if you think in terms of:
‘What am I doing that’s helpful in this situation?’
By noticing what we do that creates more cooperative behaviour, we discover how to create more of the same. Particularly, we can start noticing the ‘good times’ and discover how to create more of this in our lives.
A final note:
The one small step that can make a huge difference is to recognise that we can’t change our children (as much as we might like to, particularly on some days!) but we can change the way we react or respond to them. The secret is to develop our own mindfulness in our parenting, so that we become more aware of what’s working and what’s not.
While you’re waiting for the help you deserve, the help your child needs, I encourage you – don’t just wait. Use the time to develop your own awareness about WHAT WORKS to create connection, communication and cooperation between family members.
If this article has been helpful for you, make sure you are signed up for the Koemba newsletter. You’ll be just in time to hear about our January special: exciting new material about what to do when children’s difficult behaviour challenges you.
You’ve just had a melt-down! After Tantrum #7 and many attempts to figure out how to calm your toddler you lost it. A few seconds later you feel as though you have just watched a bad movie, starring you as the Monster parent! “I can’t believe I screamed at my child! How could I have reacted that way? What an awful parent I am!” And it probably doesn’t stop there. You continue to beat yourself up periodically throughout the day.
The Perfect Parent
You remember all of those report cards. If you’re like most people in our culture, throughout your life you received messages about how well you were doing, not just in school, but perhaps in sports, in attractiveness, and in how “nice” you were. You may have been taught to strive for perfection.
And so you learned to measure and judge yourself. Am I smart enough? Fast enough? Pretty enough? And am I a good enough parent? With self-judgment often comes self-criticism, which may consist of some fairly harsh, negative, mental thrashing (e.g., “What a bad parent I am! Why did I lose my temper over something so silly?”). Clearly such negative thoughts serve to tear down our own sense of competence.
The truth is:
There is no such thing as a “perfect parent” thank goodness! How would your child ever live up to the expectation to be like you if you were perfect! Talk about pressure!
Parents are human beings. Human beings do not behave consistently all of the time. You, as a human being and a parent, have many emotions that sometimes just push through your attempts to be calm and rational. It’s human nature.
So while you may intend to always react calmly to your children, when the unexpected happens (e.g., You sniff out the stench in the house to discover your 10-year-old’s missing baseball socks under her bed, growing mold) you just might scream!
Instead of beating yourself up…
Try a little kindness. Your child is going to see you get upset for a variety of reasons from time to time. What’s important is that s/he also sees you treat yourself with compassion.
If you feel you have mishandled a situation with your child, rather than beat yourself up, try comforting yourself. You don’t deserve to be punished for your mistake, but that is what you are doing when you criticize yourself in a demeaning fashion.
According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D. the first step in a self-compassionate approach is to be aware of what’s going on inside:
Take a moment to notice what you are saying to yourself. You might be thinking, “Of course I know what I’m saying to myself!” But most people don’t actually stop to hear the words and how harsh they sound; it has become automatic to say “What a dummy,” etc. We end up sending ourselves these critical messages over and over again. Unless you become more consciously aware of these messages, you continue to chip away at your own self-esteem.
Pay attention to the “tone of voice” you are using in your self-talk. If you are calling yourself names, you probably sound angry, and harsh.
Then, just as you would comfort your child, or a good friend, be compassionate with yourself. Soften your tone of voice. Choose words that serve to comfort. Practice an attitude of acceptance. You might tell yourself, “That didn’t turn out the way I wanted…. Like every other human being on this earth, I made a mistake.” You could smile, and even give yourself a hug. According to Dr. Neff, your body responds to that physical gesture of warmth and care. It may seem silly, but self-hugging can help to soothe distressing emotions.
In this attitude of compassion, seek to repair the disconnect with your child. For example, you might say, “When I found your socks I really just lost it. I didn’t handle that well. Would you like a hug?” Then just listen. At a later time you can restate your expectation that your child will put dirty socks in the laundry room.In the case of the tantrumming toddler, just be present. Hold your child when s/he is ready to be held. In a soothing voice you might say, “You were very angry when I said we couldn’t go outside…..And then I got angry and I yelled. I’m just going to sit here now and be quiet. Do you want to sit with me?” Even if your little one is too young to understand your words, say them anyway. Your child will hear your compassion.
I highly recommend the book, Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., who writes openly about her own struggles with parenting her autistic child. Take a few moments to look at her website http://www.self-compassion.org, where she has a brief video clip and some guided meditations.
Like most mothers, I constantly strive to achieve harmony in my home and help my children know the difference between right and wrong. Many parents, crèches, early education centers and primary schools use a ‘bold step’ or ‘bold chair’ where the child who has misbehaved must sit and take ‘time out’ from an activity until they are invited back by the parent or teacher. Even Supernanny on television is a big fan of the ‘bold step’ and ‘time out’ concepts.
I have never been comfortable with the parenting tool of ‘time out’ but I couldn’t see any alternatives. When I did use it, I always felt like it was a battle of wits between myself and my son. The scene would play out as follows: him acting in a manner which I felt warranted punishment, me telling him to go sit on the bold step, him refusing, me ordering him to go, him still refusing, me dragging him there, him getting up, me putting him back etc. etc. By this stage, both of us have lost our heads and neither is thinking rationally. What could be the possible learning point here for any child? I, for one, cannot see any benefit for either him or me. However, in the absence of an alternative, I continued periodically to force my son to take ‘time out’.
One of the things that made some difference was helping my son to try to control his anger. For example, when his sister annoyed him, his immediate reaction had been to lash out. I suggested counting to ten, taking a deep breath or walking away. However, if the behaviour continued, I would have then ordered him to the ‘bold step’ and we’d be back to the battle of wits.
For the past six months I have been on a parent coaching course with Koemba and as a result have had my eyes opened to alternatives when it comes to disciplining my children. Besides the helpful tools and insights on the course itself, one of the features is reading and reviewing books on parenting. In his book entitled ‘Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason’, Alfie Kohn describes time out as ‘a version of love withdrawal when children are sent away against their will’. He believes that by removing the child, you might get the behaviour to cease but it is only a short term solution. It doesn’t examine what’s causing the behavior. He states ‘it is the child who engages in a behaviour, not just the behavior itself that matters’.
Kohn provides a number of alternatives to time out as follows:
1. If possible talk to your child and try to ascertain the reason for the behavior and explain why the behavior in question is not helpful;
2. If the child needs to first of all calm down, ask him/her if they would benefit from taking some time to themselves, e.g. in their room. It’s important that the child does not feel they are being forced to take time out;
3. If the child does not want to take time to himself/herself but it’s not appropriate to leave them where the behavior occurred, then the parent, as a last resort could remove the child and stay with them.
‘The Whole-Brain Child’ by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson is a very interesting parenting book. It describes how a child’s brain develops and explains the difference between the left and right sides of the brain. When a child is upset, they are overwhelmed with right brain emotions and cannot employ left brain logic until they are calmer. The authors recommend that when a child is flooded with right brain emotions, parents should initially respond with their own right brains instead of trying to reason with the child which would mean using the left side of the brain. Responding with our right brain could mean making soothing sounds, being present for your child, listening attentively. I really like the following quote: “when parent and child are tuned in to each other, they experience a sense of joining together”. Once the child has calmed down, the parent can then apply logic and reason.
This book also explains how the upstairs and downstairs of the brain differ. Shortly after reading this section in the Whole-brain Child, I explained to my six year old son about “flipping the lid”. I showed him the illustrations in the book which were created specifically for children. They describe how our lids get flipped when we are cross or upset about something. It is only when we are calm, and our lids are back down, that we can be start to think clearly again. My son understood this message immediately. He was now able to put a label on how he felt when he got angry and wanted to lash out.
Since then my son has been learning to identify the signs when he is about to flip his lid. Even when he does lose his cool, he knows that he then needs to take time to himself until he calms down. He is effectively taking ownership of his own time out instead of me forcing it on him. Sometimes I just say, “Maybe you should go upstairs until you calm down” but most times he just goes to his room without any prompting. He then returns when he decides he is calm, not when I tell him to. That could be after two minutes or anything up to ten minutes later. When he returns we discuss what caused him to lose his cool, how he could have handled the situation differently, how he would likely deal with a similar scenario in the future, how he felt when he flipped his lid, how he feels now and how he thinks others involved in the incident felt.
While my 6 year old son is happy to go off on his own until he calms down, my 4 year old daughter takes a different approach. When she is upset and has flipped her lid, she wants me to stay with her while she calms down. She often wants me to hold her while she does this. Maybe, over time, she will follow her brother’s example and go to her room, but for now having me there is helpful for her. So, where an argument comes to a head between the two of them, he takes off to his room to calm down and she stays with me. When he returns with his lid back down and when she is calm again, we discuss the argument in a rational and non judgmental way. We all learn and grow from these experiences.
It has been amazing seeing my son and daughter develop in this way, taking control of their own emotions. In fact, my son recently said to me,
“Mam, you’ve just flipped your lid”.
That stopped me in my tracks and when I’d calmed down, I thanked him for pointing that out to me and explained that everyone loses their cool from time to time.
The bold step no longer features in my house. In fact my daughter has never been on it and I don’t envisage ever using it for my 2 year old son. It’s great to know that there are alternatives to smacking children or using ‘time out’. It’s up to every parent to find the one that best fits their family and their quest for harmony in their home.
The debate rages and, no matter which side of the argument you’re on, you can see you’re right. And what if, in one sense, both parties are right?
I say both parties may be right because I’m looking past the ‘to smack or not to smack’ and I’m asking a different question. I’m asking ‘What is it we really want to achieve?’ And I suspect that both parties will agree without hesitation that what we want is young people who are respectful of other people and of others people’s property.
So what would happen instead of trying to outshout each other’s argument regarding whether or not smacking is okay, we reflect on what might be learnt from the mindset of the other.
Here’s what it looks like from my viewpoint:
The ‘Smackers’ are right about children needing boundaries. When you’re standing on the ‘Smackers’’ side of the fence it’s obvious that many good old -fashioned values and behaviours have been undermined. They are saying ‘children need boundaries.’ And they are absolutely right. Children need boundaries for our benefit and also for their own. A child without boundaries can feel very insecure because he doesn’t know where the limits are. I once heard a wise lady describe a child raised without boundaries as being like a blind person trying to walk in a room that went on and on, without any walls. Imagine how disorientating, and perhaps even frightening, it would be to have no walls to help you gain a sense of direction. Children need boundaries so that they know what to expect and what’s expected from them. In fact, the ‘Smackers’ are cautioning something really significant here – Discipline is essential if we want peaceful society. ‘Kids who are brought up with firm, fair, consistent boundaries don’t go off the rails so easily.’ Sue Atkins Certainly part of the problem with the UK riots had to do with lack of boundaries and discipline.
And what if the ‘Non-Smackers’ are also right because they have figured out that actually children are people too and all people deserve to be treated with respect? What if they’ve recognized that violence begets violence?
For some insight into why smacking isn’t going to achieve what’s needed, here are some key points that leading international neuroscientists recognise:
1. The child’s brain is still ‘under construction’. This means that the child will not always perceive things as we adults do. Yes, there are times when children will need our intervention and guidance.
2. Because the child’s brain is not fully developed, it also means that at times of strong emotion, children need adults who can be the ‘emotional thermostats’ – helping to keep the heat of roused emotions at a reasonable temperature.
3. When we are upset we don’t ‘think straight’. This is because we don’t have one brain. In a sense we have three brains, and the innermost section of the brain, often called the reptilian brain, is the part that reacts when the person is under threat. When we sense ‘danger’, the brain focuses its energy on this deep inner brain – causing us to go into reactive mode, of fight, flight, freeze or appease, to help keep us safe in an emergency. The cost of this ‘survival mode’ is that clear logical thinking temporarily shuts down. It makes sense that when a child is smacked, they are going to feel under attack, which means the primitive ‘survival’ mode of the brain is triggered, which means that they won’t take any learning from the situation. All the child will gain is a fear reaction that will get them to avoid being in the same situation again.
Will it teach them not to repeat that behaviour any time the authority figure is present to reinforce the punishment? Yes.
Will it teach them compassion or consideration for others? No, because the part reptilian part of the brain that is triggered when we are under attack doesn’t do compassion or reasoning – it only does survival. Crocodiles don’t worry about connection – they just do survival!
David Lammy UK author of ‘Out of the Ashes: After the Riots’  states in an article in the Guardian, where he blames anti-smacking law for UK riots. “The ability to exercise their (parents’) own judgment in relation to discipline and reasonable chastisement has been taken away. ”
What I’d like to say to David is that I agree with him that children need discipline but Punishment and Discipline are not synonyms. ‘Chastisement’ is Punishment – not Discipline. Punishment attempts to work from the outside in. Discipline works from the inside out.
Smacking (a.k.a, Punishment) isn’t going to achieve what’s needed because, in the words of leading neuroscientist Daniel Siegel:
“Discipline” really means to teach, not to “punish”.
What we want is surely to teach our children acceptable social behaviour.
Some parents resort to smacking children because they don’t know how else to maintain boundaries. Some parents don’t smack but resort to other tools of coercion and manipulation that ultimately might be just as harmful, (and much of this is advocated on popular TV Parenting programmes).
I appreciate that David Lammy MP is voicing that the violence that erupted in the UK is a signal that this is an issue that needs urgent and serious attention. When Smackers and the Non-Smackers choose to focus on the outcome we desire: ‘What is it we really want to achieve?’, here’s some of the factors we’ll most probably agree on:
Yes, society needs children to have boundaries.
Yes, children need to have boundaries.
Yes, everyone deserves to be treated with respect.
And it’s time to learn from experts in the fields of child development, attachment parenting and neuroscience about what’s needed to raise emotionally healthy individuals who respect themselves and others.
What’s vital is that parents and educators are equipped with helpful discipline tools that work, not just on the short term from the adult’s perspective – but ‘work’ in the sense that they are going to achieve the long term goals of a peaceful and respectful society, where everyone’s needs, including children’s, are taken into account.
‘How do I give my twelve year old freedom but also keep an eye on her without her thinking that I don’t trust her?’
What’s helpful when teenagers are pushing for freedom and you’re worried about their safety?
As parents we develop strategies to try to keep our teens safe – but not all are necessarily helpful.
The Checking Up Strategy
What I think isn’t helpful is ‘sneaky’ checking up.
I think of one mother who used to surreptitiously check her teenage daughter’s phone. The daughter resorted to renaming the ‘not- allowed’ boyfriend as ‘Jenny’ on her phone.
Life has a strange way of boomeranging – and if you do sneaky you’re likely to get sneaky.
One of the things that I did with my sons that was helpful was to have a policy that if they wanted to go out, we, as parents, would be phoning the parents who were hosting the event so that we could check arrangements.
They knew this was the deal and that we would not agree to them going out if there was anything that was of concern to us.
The ‘ParentPepTalk’ Strategy
I was so anxious that my sons would turn out ‘right’ that I thought it was my job to repeatedly remind them what ‘good’, responsible behaviour looked like. Now I look back I recognise that my sons had been taking ‘snapshots’ of ‘how we do life’ from a very early age. By the time they get to their teens they have a complete reference catalogue stored up –
how we do conflict
how we deal with upset feelings
what we do if we can cheat and get away with it
how we show love
what’s okay and not okay.
The endless list is already stored and the last thing teens need or want at this stage of their lives is the constant peptalk. When my son was in his early teens he told me about boys drinking at parties, he immediately got the ‘That’s not okay, please don’t you ever do that, I’ll be so disappointed, blaah, blaah, blaah’ ad infinitum lecture. So what happened within a couple of years is he stopped telling me what was happening in his life. The wiser me now recognises that he was telling me because he was trying to make sense of the standards we’d encouraged. It would have been more helpful if I’d just listened to what he wanted to share and asked his opinion.
We can get so worried by what we think might go wrong that we only focus on the negatives. What I know now is that if a child has a strong sense of self-esteem she’s not going to be trying to fill the ‘hole in her soul’ with drink, drugs, sex and all the other parent nightmares. A child with a strong self-esteem has an inner core she can rely on.
So how do we build young people’s self esteem?
Recognise that self esteem is much more than self confidence. Self Esteem is like a three legged stool and confidence is only one of those ‘legs’. Like any stool we need the legs to be of equal length and strength for a stable base. I’m most grateful for learning this concept through Jesper Juul’s book: ‘Your Competent Child’.
So let’s look at each of these:
Confidence comes from our sense of competence. Learning to be able to do things for yourself and to be able to figure out what’s needed is all part of confidence building. Obviously a situation that’s too big and overwhelming and beyond the child’s control will have the opposite effect and would damage the child’s confidence. That’s why it is important that we as parents both build our children’s confidence and also set clear boundaries around what we do and don’t permit.
Confidence is built when young people can figure out their own solutions. If parents are always rushing in to solve every dilemma, how do children learn? Ask yourself if there are times when it would be more helpful to let your child take the consequences of her action (or inaction).
Belonging In the teen years a sense of being part of the group becomes very important. The challenge comes when your child loses a sense of ‘belonging to herself’. Our need to feel connected to ourselves (our autonomy) and our need to be connected with others is like a see-saw. Both parts are necessary and the balance will only be kept if it’s firmly grounded in unconditional love.
When you get the first ‘teenage rumbles’ rather than resort to ‘Because I said so’ or caving in, focus on seeing these as opportunities to help the child keep connected with herself and her values and to learn to negotiate with you.
Worth Your child needs to know that nothing she does can add to or take away from her intrinsic worth. When she knows this she’ll know you are the ones to turn to when life’s uncertain.
When your child has a self esteem stool with three strong legs of confidence, belonging and worth, she has a stable base to deal with the challenges of teenagehood.
Our children are already born with incredible potential to beautiful, wise, creative, compassionate, wonderful people.
It’s our job as parents to create conditions for them to thrive.