Have you ever savored a moment when you were understood and appreciated as a unique and precious human being?
Do you remember how pleasant it felt not to have to please anyone or complete a task and just rejoice in the freedom of being yourself?
With all the pressures of teaching our children how to be successful in modern society parents sometimes forget how important it is to relax and enjoy their children right now, in this moment, exactly the way they are. Many of us think our children know that we love and appreciate them but our words and actions sometimes give a more conflicting message. I recently was speaking with the mother of an eight-year-old boy. Her son had just been scolded by his dad and the little guy said to his mom, “I don’t think I’m the child that daddy wanted to have.” The mom’s heart was aching as she tried to convince her son that he was loved and wanted exactly as he was. It is my intention to help parents learn how to balance understanding with discipline. We can support our children in learning how to be kind, responsible and empathetic members of society but we don’t have to break their spirit or control their natural desires to explore, create and follow their dreams in order to do so.
Understanding Temperament: One way of understanding our children is to become aware of the important role of ‘temperament.’
Temperament is our natural way of reacting to life. It is pretty obvious that none of us get to choose what our physical characteristics are going to be when we come into this world. Most of us come to a quick appreciation of our children’s physical make up as we realize we have no control over it. We would feel foolish if we yelled at our children because we were displeased with the color of their eyes or hair. We are equally powerless in controlling our children’s temperament. A huge factor in the way our children react to life is their hard wiring and the way their sensory system is set up. In the same way parents cannot control their child’s physical make up they cannot control their child’s temperament. If you have more than one child you have probably noticed how different they are in the way they react to similar situations.
Imagine a hospital nursery and in two of the bassinets are a tiny boy and a tiny girl….twins….both of them conceived together, grown together, born together. We know, however, that their mix of genes is totally different…and the potential for different combinations is endless….kind of like lottery numbers…. Both infants are sleeping peacefully- like two angelic jackpots. The boy begins to wake up and when he opens his eyes and sees the bright lights of the nursery he is startled for the moment but quickly recovers. He feels the wet diaper and begins to wiggle in his blanket and when he realizes his hunger he starts to gurgle and coo and let the nurse know that he is ready for some attention. Suddenly his sister wakes up and when she sees the bright lights she is startled and begins to cry. She quickly feels the wet diaper and cries louder. By the time she notices the hunger in her belly she is kicking and fussing and howling!!! She can hardly bear the way she feels! The nurses come running and note that she is going to be quite a handful. We know that the little boy is not “good” and the little girt is not “bad.” They are just reacting to life. It is likely, however, that the little guy will be a much softer reactor as he is going through his growing stages and his sister will probably feel her feelings in a more intense way. She may grow into the two year old who bites or has a tantrum when she can’t bear the feelings of not getting what she wants or maybe she will be called a little ‘actress’ because her reactions come out in a much bigger way. Parents who understand that she honestly feels her feelings in a very big way may not be quite as angry with her and hopefully will be willing to refrain from punishments or teasing as they teach her to cope with her overwhelming feelings.
How does understanding this little girl help you, her parent, guide her through the stages of life from infancy to adulthood? Let’s look at a grown up example to help us ‘feel her feelings.’ Let’s suppose that you have had a hard day at work. Your boss comes in to your office in a bad mood and yells at you for a mistake that you made on an important deal. A co-worker gossips about you. Your friend does something to disappoint you and the traffic on the way home is worse than usual. You are feeling BIG feelings! You walk into your house, slam the door and throw your keys on the counter. Your spouse looks at you and says, “What’s up with you?” You pour out your frustration about your challenging day. Your spouse reacts by saying, “You’re just over reacting. It’s not as bad as it seems. You really should be grateful that you even have the job you have. Calm down. It will all be O.K.”
I ask you; does this response calm you down? Does it make you feel better, less frustrated, and more hopeful? Most people say that it would make them feel worse and probably increase the intensity of negative feelings.
When we believe that we are not understood, especially by the people we love the most, we feel lonely, angry and powerless. The feelings of frustration are magnified, not reduced.
We do this with our children without realizing it. When they are upset, frustrated, uncooperative, angry, etc. we give them the message that something is wrong with them. We set into motion a series of responses that bring more frustration for everyone. If our little girl is naturally a ‘big reactor’ because of her temperament and she has a meltdown because we say, “NO, you cannot have that toy,” getting angry with her will not soften her feelings to help her calm down. They will only increase her frustration and heighten the tantrum. We sometimes get angry at her response and punish her or yell at her for being upset. Some parents might send her to a ‘time out’ corner where she is supposed to ‘think about what she has done.’ We exaggerate the frustration by insisting that she apologize for her behavior when she is allowed to return to our presence. Oh, my goodness, we have unconsciously created a ‘war zone’ in our home!!!! Some children may give us what we demand and stop crying, apologize and promise to ‘be good’ but this behavior change is a temporary compliance that actually masks what they are really feeling and another explosion eventually takes place. Frustrated parents see this repeated behavior as defiance and repeat the yelling and punishments but everyone starts to feel exhausted and hopeless.
Just imagine what would happen in the grown up story if instead of giving advice or judgment a gentle hug was offered with the words, “Wow, it sounds like you had a hard day.”
Though our days are often filled with fun and joy, they also contains stress and responsibilities for moms and dads. Remember that each of you, adult and child, bring into every situation your own temperament and your own natural way of reacting to life. As you move through your day, remember to stop every now and then to give your children a hug. If you or your child is a natural ‘big emotional reactor’ plan some quiet time into your busy schedule. Take a quiet walk, breathe in the fresh air and make a mental list of all the people and things in your life for which you feel deep appreciation. Leave enough time to get your children ready when you are going places. Having to rush is a set up of stress for children, especially those with sensitive temperaments. Rushing causes YOU stress, which will be felt by your child. You are a better parent for your children when you give yourself some quiet time to connect with your own unique and precious self.
Savor the blessings of your children and remember that time passes quickly. Take time to slow down just a bit and to include the ‘gift of understanding!’