Parenting is hard. Harder than I ever would have imagined in all of those years that I could not wait to be a mom. I see all these articles pop up about “easy” or “quick” ways to change your child’s behavior. I’m all for the idea of quick change, but let’s be honest, behavior changes don’t happen quickly. And they certainly are never easy.
You can read a million parenting books and articles, but do you want to know the biggest and best way to change your child’s behavior, outlook and expectations? Listen to them. That’s it. Listen. Stop what you’re doing, look at them and listen. Interact with them. Let them know you are listening. Let me explain…
Behavior is indicative of feelings. Feelings you want your child to express and understand. Your job is not “controlling” their behavior, but helping them to learn how to control their own feelings and subsequent behavior.
For example, our children are going to experience frustration and anger their whole lives; when they don’t get a turn at a game in first grade or when they don’t win the award they felt they deserved in middle school or get accepted into their top choice for college. At those developmental times in their lives, those events are on a very equal scale of importance. Imagine a 17 year old came to you crying and frustrated about not getting asked to the dance (the equivalent of not getting a turn when you’re 5) and you told said 17 year old to “get over it” or “it’s not that big of a deal” and to go sit in the corner until they could get themselves under control. That seems ridiculous, but it is exactly what we do to our children for years. We invalidate their feelings, because we don’t think what they’re feeling is that big of a deal. Because we’ve been there and we’ve been through it and it’s just not a big deal. We trivialize some of their very most important feelings because we don’t remember what it felt like. We need to remember.
Bottom line: Everyone needs to feel heard. Even your two year old who wanted 3 cookies not 2. Listen to them. Let them work out a logical reasoning for why they want 3 cookies. They are not trying to “beat the parenting system”. Let me repeat that, they are not trying to “beat the parenting system”, they are learning reasoning and how to fight for what they want. An extremely valuable life skill. Decide to hold your ground or decide to reward their thinking with the 3 cookies. Either way, you have listened. Thankfully, through being heard and allowed to express ourselves we are able to evolve from throwing a tantrum and throwing ourselves on the ground (though we may really still want to some days) and develop an ability to either verbalize or express our frustration in healthy ways. The development of this skill is not inherent, it is learned. Children have to feel heard and be coached on how to express those feelings appropriately. When a child is never taught how to do this, never feels heard, they will decide that words have no value and expressions of feeling unheard become much more aggressive both verbally, in outbursts, and physically. Life is hard. We need to validate our children so they know that the fight is worth it.
I have had to learn a lot about expressing my feelings and fighting the good fight since a car accident in 2011 drastically changed my life, from a married, gainfully employed woman to a widowed, disabled woman. I know pain. I know suffering. The world is full of pain. Every day there is pain all around. We live both in it and among it. Whether it is our pain or the pain of someone else, we cannot avoid it. So what should we do? How do we wake up each morning and continue fighting, moving forward?
Find a pocket of beauty. Find a moment. A gesture. A smile. Find a pocket of beauty.
If your first reaction is to say, “she doesn’t know what I’ve been through, my life has been crap. Her pain doesn’t even compare to mine.” You’re right. There is no comparison. I don’t know your pain. And you don’t know mine, however we both have pain. This mutual understanding is what seems to be absent many days. My not knowing your pain specifically, does not make my experience with pain any less real, any less prominent. Nor yours. We all have our own stories and our own lives. After the accident, friends and they would say things like, “sorry I’m complaining, that is nothing compared with what you’re going through” or “sorry I’m sharing this, I’m fine”. I would stop them immediately and say, “you’re wrong. You’re absolutely wrong. Your pain is as real and as terrible as mine because it is yours and it is happening to you. Right now. Process it and don’t feel like it is any less important because my pain appears on some higher scale of pain.” What I was trying to say and have said since, “Please talk about your pain. Express it. Feel it. And then move on despite that pain and find your pockets of beauty.”
After working in juvenile residential care for a few years, I completed my Masters in Early Education and became a Kindergarten teacher. Since my disability from the car accident has left me unable to teach, I have been volunteering at a local elementary school, tutoring in reading. From my time in residential care, I can spot a kid from a mile away who is trapping things inside and acting angry, rude, disrespectful and is in desperate need of letting all of that out. I don’t know why this is, but it is some strange calling that I can’t ignore. Because of this, I have been forming relationships with students in addition to the ones I’m tutoring. The ones I’m tutoring need reading skills, the other ones I’m interacting with, need life skills.
I saw a new student in the hallway, 2nd grade. Face red and angry. Mouth tight, walking down the hallway. So of course I ask him what’s up. He doesn’t trust me at first, so I say “hey look, I’m just here to read and have fun and along with the other adults in the building, I am here because I want the best for you. What’s your name?”
We get through that part and then he tells me all about how he found a bead and that the other student took it from him and had it in his fist so he couldn’t get it. Now let’s be honest. This situation is not about the bead, it is about getting “what’s mine” and control and making it about the bead will never be enough. But I hear him out first and identify with him by saying something like, “man, that must have been really disappointing to have that bead taken from you.” He looks up and nods with wonderment that I am acknowledging this feeling. I’ve connected. “Where did this happen? Where are you supposed to be now?”
“My teacher sent me out of the room.”
“To go where?” He shrugs his shoulders. “Okay, well when are you supposed to go back back?” He shrugs his shoulders again. So I just start talking to him and ask him his name, grade, brothers, sisters, favorite things to do. After chatting for a while and seeing the tension dissipate, and the smiles return, I ask him again why he is in the hallway. He says “cause I was trying to get that bead back.”
“Oh okay. Are you new here? You don’t look familiar.”
“You’re new here and you’re already getting sent to the hallway?” Shakes his head yes and I say to him, “you have a choice. You can be whoever you want to be. You are new here. No one knows you. The only things they will know about you are the things that you show them. You can listen and learn and embrace this opportunity or you can misbehave and gain nothing.”
“I want to misbehave.”
“Okay, interesting choice. Why do you want to misbehave? What are you gaining from that?”
“I don’t know. That’s just what I want to.”
“What do you think I want for you?”
“To do what you say.” (This answer is a distinct indicator of a child who has lost his faith in the power of words, in expression)
“No, what I want most for you is to embrace the opportunities of this day. Because once this day is over, you never get to have it back. So you can spend all day fighting me, fighting teachers, fighting friends and closing off or you can listen, learn, laugh and be happy. And at the end of the day, instead of feeling angry, you can feel happy.” At this point I break into the running man and start singing “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and he smiles. Oh what I would give to see more of that smile. So I tell him that.
“That smile. That face. That is why I am here. To see the real you. So let’s be goofy and fun and while we’re at it, I bet you’ll do some learning. And at the end of the day, you can remember the laughing and the smiling. You can remember that. And I’ll remember that.” Another smile.
“We can focus on what “so and so” did or how “they” messed up your day but honestly, I don’t want to know all of that. What have you done for yourself today? Free of all of that other stuff. I can’t go back and change any of those situations. But I’m here. Right now. And we can make this moment what we want. And I don’t know about you, but I want to be happy. I want my heart to smile. And when I see you smile or hear you learn new words or have new ideas, my heart smiles so big, I have to do some dancing to let it out.” Resume running man with a little robot thrown in and then I walk him back into his class.
I know that is an isolated incident and when it’s our own children, it isn’t nearly that easy, so let me paint a bit more difficult and deeply personal picture.
My 9 year old daughter was in pain last night. I can’t be sure directly where the pain stemmed from, but her nine years have seen a lot. We were playing a game and when her brother playfully took a card from her, that was it. She lost it. And when I say lost it, I mean lost it. She went to her room, slammed the door and I could hear things being thrown/slammed/tossed or something. Because this is sadly not the first time this has happened, I let it play out for a few minutes. She came out of her room and rejoined the game with a blanket over her head and a sign on her that said, “Do not talk to me.” She is shouting out for me to talk to her, despite what the sign says. I told her that if we could not talk to her then she could not play the game with us. Well, the pain turned into anger and she threw the sign away and went back to her room.
Eventually I went into her room. I told her that I know she is feeling mad and angry, but tearing up her room is not going to change anything. I reminded her that in our counseling we have learned about and practiced healthy coping skills and how to get our anger out appropriately. She said that screaming in a pillow or punching a pillow wasn’t enough, that she wanted to hurt someone. She wanted to hurt me. I was shocked. Heart broken. Maybe mad. But I didn’t let on because I knew that was her visceral response. My job was to help her work through that.
“Will that make you feel better?”
“Will that make mommy feel better?”
“No, but I’m mad and I want to hit someone.”
So I told her she could hit me and was fully prepared to receive the blow. She looked at me with wide eyes and I said it again, “hit me. Punch me in the arm if it will make you feel better.”
***(side note: I am not advising this action for everyone. She has been through counseling on grief and on coping skills specifically so we had a history to work from.)***
She said, “no, it won’t make me feel better. But I’m just so mad.” –at this point what she is mad about is of absolutely no importance. More importantly, neither is my opinion on whether I think she should or should not be mad about whatever it is that she is mad about. Helping her to cope with that anger is the only thing that is important. I see too many parents try to diffuse a situation by saying, “you shouldn’t be mad about that” or “that’s stupid” or “get over it.” I tried to stay focused on getting her calmed down and if she would bring up her brother or the card, I would direct away from any talk of that because it is what happened, it is not where we are going and could be dealt with after we got through the anger.
“Well what would make you feel better?”
“I want to tear something. Like a phone book.” Thank goodness for the counseling of her brother after their dad’s death, she had watched him do this many times at the age of 3. I couldn’t find a phone book, because her brother had long stopped needing them, so I brought her two magazines. She began to tear them up and I quietly stepped out of the room. After about 6 or 7 minutes, I saw she was calm and sitting on her bed. I grabbed one of our wonderful coping books, “When Something Terrible Happens”, and turned to the page that said, “When I am angry….
I silently put the book and her pencil case in her lap and left the room. Again, I can’t advocate this for all children, but with my daughter, she has a history of expressing herself very well through drawing or writing. She was quiet for a while, so I went back and she turned the book over, which I knew meant she had written something. A sat behind her and just hugged her for a moment. The curious mom in me wanted to rip it out of her hands and read it and judge it, but the loving mom in me said, “let’s put the book away if you’re done. I don’t have to see it Alana. You can choose to show me now, show me later or to never show me. That is up to you.” She slowly turns it over and there is a whole chart there. I look it over as she begins telling me what’s on it. When she finishes, I tell her how proud I am of her for expressing her feelings and frustrations. She smiles. I ask if she has any other things she wants to share? She shakes her head no, so I tell her to go brush her teeth and get her book ready like we do every night. In the meantime, I go into the kitchen, make two delicious cups of hot chocolate, with 10 mini marshmallows each and put them on a tray with napkins and spoons. I walk into her room and she sees I have a tray and sits up to make room. As I set the tray down, I pick up her book, tell her to check the temperature on the hot chocolate and after she does, I just start reading the book we have been reading each night. I read until all of our hot chocolate is gone. After that I sing to her, then I pray with her and then I hug her. I don’t tell her she is in trouble or that there will be consequences. That is not what this tantrum was about. All I want her to know is that I still love her as much as I always have and that I am thankful that she trusts me enough to share her hurts with me. From this point on, I have these thoughts of hers to remind me what takes away from her instead of building her up. That information is like parenting gold!
As parents, we need to have that influence. We need them to know that we are on their side, their team. In all honesty, being a child is getting harder. There are so many new, technology driven ways that our children can use to seek attention and validation. We need to remember that no tablet or IPad or IPhone can raise our children. That is in fact the problem. Those devices are being used to control them when they’re young so they never learn how to control themselves.
A friend of mine recently did a promotion video for an organization called HEAT – Holistic Education for the Advancement of Teens and all of the ideas that were spinning in my head came together. We want the best for our children. They are the next generation of leaders, business owners, parents. However, there is a large gap between wanting to give them the best tools for success and knowing how to help them. HEAT is an all inclusive educational program, one that encompasses all areas that touch a teen’s life, their families, and their communities. We must educate ourselves as parents to be able to guide our children. HEAT’s message in this video is simple. Begin by listening.
Our kids are talking. Are you listening?
“We need attention. We don’t want to feel like we don’t exist.
Don’t cast us aside.
Don’t give up on us.
Instead, walk us through it.
Dig your heels in for us
Teach us, talk to us.
See me. I am right here
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/114593413″>HEAT PSA: Saving Our Atlanta At Risk Teens</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/bedheadmedia”>Bed Head Media</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
We are you.”
“The HEAT is on” across Metro Atlanta as Holistic Education for the Advancement of Teens empowers all youth to press towards a full and balanced life – mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. It equips youth to guard against risky behaviors that have sidelined many of their peers, and embraces youth who desire to rebound from past mistakes.
Through educational programming, HEAT reaches beyond youth development towards positively impacting the entire family unit and ultimately each child’s community. Community outreach is the hallmark of our success, and we are privileged to partner with schools, public housing authorities, group homes, churches, youth development organizations and community centers.”
A full and balanced life. That is what we all desire. For our children, it starts with us. Listen to them. Understand Them. Teach Them.