Recently I was presenting a parenting seminar when a dad asked for help understanding his three year old daughter’s behavior at breakfast that morning. This is the way he described what happened:
“…My daughter was sitting on my lap, eating her cereal, when I asked her a question. She got really upset, made a mean face and screamed; ‘Don’t talk to me when I am eating!’ I let her get down off my lap and as she took her cereal over to her little chair and table, she continued to make a really mean face at me. She sat down and proceeded to eat her cereal alone. I asked her why she was being so mean to me. She didn’t answer and I felt really bad.”
This little story is an example of many interactions in homes across our country. Let’s use dad’s experience as our point of reference in helping adults understand why their children behave the way they do and how to tap into our parenting power.
Temperament is the fuel behind much of our children’s behavior. A child who is an intense reactor feels her feelings in a BIG way. An incident that seems minor to us can trigger a giant reaction in some children. It is helpful for a parent who lives with one of these children to remind him/herself not to take these reactions too personally. It is equally important to acknowledge that we have no power to change our children’s temperaments. This can leave a parent feeling powerless and frustrated. But there is hope! Parents really do have a ‘point of power.’ Finding this treasure of influence is a parent’s greatest ally in creating a family environment of authentic respect, love, empathy, appreciation and cooperation.
Let’s explore this vignette a bit further as we uncover dad’s point of power.
I asked the daddy how he felt when his daughter yelled at him. He described the way she looked at him and the tone of her voice. I encouraged him to describe how he felt. One of the other people in the class asked, “Did you feel rejected?” “Yes!” Dad responded. “I felt hurt and angry too.” I was thrilled to see that dad was able to get in touch with his own feelings! “That’s it!” I exclaimed. “That’s what was happening. When your little daughter yelled at you and made a mean face you felt hurt, angry and rejected. Wow, those were some powerful feelings.”
How many times do our children say or do things that push our emotional buttons? When we are feeling hurt, angry or rejected we tend to respond quickly and unconsciously. Many times we react with our own hurtful words. I asked dad how he responded to his daughter’s outburst. “Why are you being so mean to me?” he asked his little one. The daughter screamed back, “Because I don’t like when you talk to me when I am eating!!!” Dad was now hurt, angry, rejected and totally confused! It was challenging to know how to respond.
Our point of power is in the moment we respond to our child’s behavior. The moment we respond, the moment the words leave our lips; that is the decisive moment! It is the moment where we fall victim to our raw feelings, get swept up in the wave of unconscious habitual behavior, or move forward with deliberate, conscious, well practiced reactions that teach our children how to maintain a sense of self as well as an appreciation for others.
* When we ‘react’ to unwanted behavior we lose our power.
* When we acknowledge our own feelings we regain a sense of control.
* When we acknowledge our children’s feelings we allow them to keep their own sense of power. By not launching into a lecture or lashing out with a punishment we prevent power struggles from brewing.
* When we use ‘authentic’ power rather than old-fashioned ‘coercive’ power we teach our children to communicate their needs in a more acceptable way.
If we react to the adrenalin rush of our angry, hurt feelings we set into motion words of ‘war’. That is not authentic power. When we demand apologies, send them to time out, yell at them for causing us physical or emotional pain, for being selfish, unappreciative, or spoiled, we create an energy of win/lose. Our harsh words and angry voice remind them who is the ‘boss.’ This is not authentic power. This neither teaches them respect, empathy or responsibility. It encourages children to submit to the person in power. It gives them the message that pleasing others is more important than personal truth. In some cases it sets into motion a battle for power and children become angry and rebellious. We may get children to ‘behave’ with a coercive approach but it takes an emotional toll with wounds that last a lifetime.
Your point of authentic power is in the words you use, your tone of voice and the look on your face! It is all about the message you deliver to your child in that moment.
Here are some suggestions of what dad could have said to his big reacting three year old at breakfast. They all convey a message of unconditional love, respect for her feelings, acknowledgment of his feelings and a kind way of letting her know that she might be able to find a better way of communicating her needs.
“Hmmm…it sounds like you are really upset. I’m thinking that you don’t like it when I talk to you when you are eating.” (This shows dad understands her…) Dad can continue, “It doesn’t feel good to me when you yell at me and make angry faces. I wonder if you could let me know what you need without yelling.” (Dad acknowledges his feelings and leads her to think about another way of communicating.)
Here are some other responses dad could have chosen:
“I’m going to go in the next room and talk with ______. Let me know when you are finished with your cereal.”
“I’m going to give you some quiet time to finish eating breakfast. Maybe there will be time later today for us to talk and play together.”
Dad’s tone needs to be loving and accepting; not with guilt or anger
Dad could also shorten the amount of words and simply say:
“You sound angry. I’ll come back and try again later.”
Dad could say nothing and wait until his little girl is finished with breakfast and then say:
“It didn’t feel good when you yelled at me. Did you realize that you were yelling? You made quite an angry face. Would you like to look in the mirror and see how your face looks when you are angry?” While his little girl is still having her ‘big reaction’ she may not be able to ‘hear’ anything from him. If dad waits until her strong feelings pass she may be able to actually hear his message, to realize her behavior was hurtful and then to laugh at herself as she sees her reflection in the mirror. They could share a bonding moment as they both make faces in the mirror and giggle together. Of course, it also helps if dad models appropriate behavior and does not yell when he is upset with her.
You can practice your ‘point of power.’ Create a ‘mantra’ that you say to yourself each day. Rehearse the language you will use the next time your child does something that upsets you. You can re-wire yourself so that you don’t react. You can prepare yourself for a response that will help you feel your authentic power without giving in to old fashioned coercive punishments. Here is an example of a daily ‘mantra.’
“My daughter is a gift to me in many ways. She is a big reactor and so I will not take her reactions personally. I help her best by just being understanding. I can walk away and detach with love….” (Of course, you can create whatever patterns of thought that work best for you and for your particular family dynamics.)
Here is some language you can practice to use in your ‘power moment.’ Each example offers children choices. We encourage children to feel a sense of empowerment when we give them choices. Notice that although these give children choices, the parent is still in control of the situation. That’s a true win/win situation! You might want to write these down on index cards and post them on the refrigerator or keep them in the car. We tend to forget to use them when our ‘buttons’ get pushed. So- practice, practice, practice!
“Do you want to do it by yourself or have me help you?”
“Do you want to come over here by yourself or have me come get you?”
“Do you want to make the decision by yourself or do you want some help?
“I don’t like it when you ____. It makes it hard for us to _____. I hear you crying and I know you are upset. We can do it this way now and try again later.”
“It looks like you need to cry a bit longer. That’s O.K. I’ll be here with you until you start to feel better. If you need a hug, come over here.”(put out your arms.)
“I can see this is hard for you.” (not getting the cookie, having to leave the park, etc.)
”When you finish crying, I will be able to hear your words.”
“It is OK to feel angry; I’m here if you need my help.”
“Get all of your anger out so you can go have fun.”
“That really upset/scared you. I’ll stay with you until you feel better.”
Remember to use a soft voice that communicates you understand. It NEVER means that you give in to demands or are manipulated by your child’s anger, tears, etc. When you speak like this to your child you teach her to take responsibility for her choices and behavior. You let her know that she is respected and heard and that ultimately she is her own source of happiness. Children who get messages of love and respect become more cooperative and instead of growing up angry and resentful learn to embrace the concept of personal responsibility.
Who said parenting was going to be easy? It is true that we are our children’s most influential teachers. It is equally true that they have come into our lives to teach us to become more than we ever thought we could be.
YOU CAN BECOME MORE. YOUR CHILDREN WILL MAKE SURE OF IT!