First, I’m going to talk about our children and then I will talk about us. Because there’s really two parts to this equation—it takes two to tango, right? Behavior is a form of communication. Our children behave in certain ways to communicate. And sometimes, because they’re really young or because they’re frustrated, they can’t get the right words out. Either it’s a lack of skill—they don’t know how to communicate the right way—or it’s just because they can’t, because their brain is flooded with all the frustration or the madness, or whatever’s happening. They’re trying to communicate a need.
It’s our job as parents to figure out exactly what that need is. We have to dig deep, and try to look under the behavior, the tantrum, to what the “no” saying is all about and figure out what that all is. As parents, Dr. Siegel said that we can foster secure attachment if we remember the following 4 “S”s. Our children need to be: Seen, Safe, Soothed and Secure. Those are four things that our children need. They’re looking for a way to get attention, which means that they need connection.
What Do Our Kids Need?
What we need to figure out is, what is it that our kids need? Do they need something physical or social. Do they have a need for food, water or sleep? Do they have a need to be hugged or squeezed (physical input)? It could also be something where they just need that connection. They’re looking for attention, and they need connection. Is it that they need five minutes with the parent? Or is it that they need attention from the person they’re fighting with? Maybe their sibling isn’t paying attention to them and that’s why they’re fighting.
Looking at what that need is, is really important. We have to be little detectives to figure out what is the behavior saying, because the child can’t say it.
Finding Teachable Moments
The other part is being able to teach our children. Discipline is a teaching opportunity. So instead of punishing our children, let’s try to teach them so they learn the right way. We can do this by role modeling.
We do this by showing our kids a different way to speak to get their needs met. We show our children, instead of grabbing a toy, we ask, “When you’re finished with that, can I play with that toy?” And we physically role model with our words. That way it’s a teaching opportunity and we’re not always resorting to punishment. This practice and role modeling will help alleviate some of the stress for the child when they are in a hyper- reactive state.
Talking About Feelings
Again, if the children are young, or if they are in a state of hyper-reactivity, they’re not able to come out with the vocabulary themselves. Being able to talk about the feelings and naming the feelings empowers the child. Dr. Dan Siegel suggested naming to tame the feeling “For all of us, as teenagers or adults, when intense emotions erupt in our minds, we need to learn to feel them and deal with them…Learning to deal with emotions means being aware of them and modifying them inside so we can think clearly. Sometimes we can name it to tame it and help balance our brains emotional intensity by putting words to what we feel…There are even some brain studies that show how this naming process can activate the prefrontal cortex and calm the limbic amygdala!”. Giving a name to the feeling often disempowers the feeling, and just brings some relief to the situation. It’s really important to practice naming the feelings that are happening.
“I see that you’re frustrated.”
“Are you feeling frustrated because your sister won’t share the toy?”
“Are you feeling frustrated or sad? Are you feeling sad because I won’t lay in bed with you?”
Offering this kind of role modeling for our children is really important.
So that’s really the crux of what I want us to pay attention to with the kids: It’s looking at behaviors, communication, teaching, role modeling, and talking about feelings. And again, we need to do this. And it takes practice.
Where We’re Coming From
I’m going to move into parenting, to us as the parents. I want all of us to really bring some self-empathy to the situation. I want us to forgive ourselves when we make these mistakes. We can be the parent we want to be, but we need to make some changes. I’m hoping some of these ideas will help you along that journey.
As far as the parent, that’s a big part, and a lot of times it’s difficult for parent to hear this, but we need to accept the situation for what it is. A lot of times we see our kids fighting and we want to stop it. If everyone is safe, what we need to do is accept the situation: our kids are fighting and go forward without judgement. Without saying to your older child, “Oh, you’re always the one starting this fight with your little sister. Can’t you just share? You should know better.” Those are all phrases that we say with judgement, and that doesn’t really allow for honest communication.
Let’s accept the situation for what it is. It’s happening. We can’t change it. So, we have to accept it for what it is. And what we can do, what we do have control of, is looking at our internal landscape.
What is happening on the inside?
What’s happening in my head?
What are the words that I’m saying to myself, what are the phrases I’m saying?
What are the feelings within my body, physiologically? Is my heart rate increasing? Is my stomach tight? Am I trying to detach from my children and just ignore the situation and hope it goes away?
Really get in tune and be a witness to what is happening inside of you.
Responding with Compassion
Parents often respond with fear. Because we’re afraid that our children are going to continue fighting and that they’re going to fight forever, or they’re never going to sleep by themselves, or they’ll go to college still sucking their thumb, or whatever it is. This is a reaction based on fear, instead of responding with compassion, which is what our children really need. Our children need our compassion, so that they feel understood. So that they know, hey, my mom gets me. And we think, Even if I don’t agree with the situation, I understand you’re frustrated. You might have not handled it the right way, but I understand you’re really frustrated.
Reasons for Our Response Style
And the last thing, the most important thing, is to understand why you are being triggered. A lot of our parenting beliefs and what frustrates us comes from the way we were parented.
We need to understand what those triggers are. For example, I have two girls. I am one of two sisters, and I was really mean to my little sister when I was a kid. So now I tend to get really frustrated with my older child when she’s mean to her little sister because I remember being mean to my sister, and I don’t want my older daughter treating my younger daughter the way I treated my little sister. So that easily triggers me.
You need to look inside yourself and think about, where does that trigger come from? Once you understand the trigger, you really can start to sit with it a little bit longer, and accept that as is, and create some space. And that space creates opportunity for change.
I think I’ve spoken about this before: breath is so important. When our kids are fighting, when we’re frustrated because they want us to lay with them at bedtime, or they want us to help pack their bag to get out the door or whatever it is, when we take a deep breath, we create space, and that space gives us the opportunity for change. It gives us the opportunity to look at the situation, to look within ourselves. I hope all of this is really helpful in supporting you in some of these parenting challenges.
Thank you for all the comments I’ve received over the past few weeks. If any of you practice some of this, accepting the “as is,” and moving forward without judgement, and looking at your triggers, I would love to hear from you. I would love to hear how that transformed the situation.