Thursday, 31 March 2011

What Your Children Deserve Least When When They Need it Most

One of the most challenging paradoxes of parenthood is this:

The times our children deserve our love the least are the times they need it the most.

Let me say that again for emphasis... the times that our children are the most demanding, the most trying, the most obnoxious, disrespectful, unkind, and simply out-and-out frustrating... those times are the times that they need us to be at our best for them, at our kindest and most compassionate for them, and at our most loving for them.

When our children are doing things that we don't like we, as parents, usually make a demand for compliance.

"Do as I say - now!"

Perhaps unsurprisingly our children resist this... for one simple reason. The law of physics demands it - force creates resistance. It happens with objects and it happens with people.

Parents prefer not to have their authority questioned. So rather than considering why a child may be resisting, they up the ante, doing their best puffer-fish impersonation, and make threats.

When threatened, it's not unusual for a child to respond poorly. Now we have an angry parent and a child who feels threatened and upset. If the situation escalates the parent will typically punish (in a poor attempt to 'discipline' or teach) which will only push the child further away.

So here's the problem: When our children feel sad, angry, or afraid - or just plain obstinate - our responses push them further away from us.

That is, when our children are at their lowest emotionally, most parents typically get upset with them!

Why? Well, for one, kids' emotions are pretty inconvenient!

Second, as parents we do not like having our authority questioned. When we ask our children to do something (or tell them) we exhibit a tremendous sense of entitlement. We simply expect that it will be done/dealt with/sorted out immediately. Whether it is doing a chore, stopping a challenging behaviour, or simply being patient or calming down, when it doesn't happen we are incensed. In many ways we essentially say that:

"I'm the parent and you must do as I say."

This is an abuse of power and a prime example of bullying.

But perhaps the main reason is that, as parents, we aren't really sure about how to deal with our children's emotions and non-compliance. When our children are upset or refuse to follow our wishes we do not know how to respond. We fail to recognise that their emotional outbursts are actually a plea for love. Their refusal to act on our wishes is a cry for attention.

So what is the alternative?

Based on the three challenges, I propose three solutions.

First, we can see our children's emotions through a new frame of reference. Rather than seeing their emotions and refusal as inconvenient, we can recognise the opportunity for connection that they represent.

Second, we should encourage our authority to be questioned. Huh? Do we really want our children to question our authority?

Yes - in the right way. Respectfully.

As parents we don't know everything so we need to stop acting like we know it all! We are angered when our children behave as though the world revolves around them, yet we expect their world to revolve around us. They may be busy playing, or be in the middle of their favourite show, or they may simply be sitting and feeling quiet. We burst into the room and demand that it be tidied, or that the dinner table be set, and so on. And we do it with little or no regard for their needs and activities. It may be true that these things need to be done - by them - but we often require it of them with no thought for what their wishes are at the moment.

Third, and most importantly, we can respond to our children's emotions compassionately.

When our children are upset, angry, even defiant, our primal response (might is right) is unhelpful. Being the big person does not give us the right to throw our weight around in order to obtain compliance or get them to toughen up.

Our child's emotion is best responded to with love and kindness. Taking the time to connect with our children, help them recognise the emotions that they are feeling, and talk about things helps them to feel more comfortable with their emotions, regulate them more effectively, and feel valued, respected, and worthy as real-life people.

To give love when love is 'undeserved' means parents must suspend judgment. It means we tend to emotional needs gently. We soothe and show we care. We model emotional understanding.

As one brief example, imagine that your eight year-old is disrespectful to you. She shouts at you when you ask for help, and then tells you she hates you.

By refusing to be drawn into a power struggle, a parent might crouch beside her daughter and acknowledge the emotions being experienced.

"Wow. You seem really hurt/angry/frustrated."

By offering understanding - and perhaps even a cuddle - a child is likely to open up. It may take a few minutes. Sometimes an understanding, "Let's talk together in a minute or two when we're calm" response is appropriate.

When love is felt and a child feels comfortable and valued, you can then discuss the emotion.

"I saw you were really angry earlier. Would you like to talk about it?"
"Were things difficult for you at school today?"
"I want you to know that even when you're angry I love you."

Letting your child know it is safe to have emotions will remove the fear associated with having an emotion. Children will be more comfortable feeling, identifying, and responding to their emotions. They will better regulate their emotions.

And they will know that no matter what the emotion or circumstance, and no matter how undeserving they may be, they will be loved.


Paris said...

What a fantastic blog post. I agree 100%. My husband is a physicist and I can't wait to share the "force creates resistance" concept in regards to parenting with him. I am encouraged and inspired! Thank you! (new follower)

Sharni said...

I also loved this post and shared on my facebook page . Thanks!

Justin Coulson said...

Paris and Sharni,

So glad you appreciated the post and found things worth sharing! Thanks for the input and feedback.

Paris, hope your hubby appreciates the force and resistance concept. It's powerful!

Sharni, I checked out your fb page. I'm not on it so couldn't 'like' it, but I like it! (If you know what I mean).

I suspect that one of your followers missed the point when she said you can 'discipline with love'. My point was, in fact, precisely that! But the love has to be felt before any discipline can be effective - and when I say discipline I mean teaching, not punishment. I don't think you can punish with love. (Might post on that in the coming day or two).


Anonymous said...

What would you suggest a parent do with a child who tries to provoke anger in a parent, especially a teenager that bullies his own mother? What do you do with a child who has a disorder that can end up making the parent feel isolated, alone, misunderstood, and unloved? How do you keep loving through that when every time you've reached out for help it hasn't worked? That is where my family is at (and I'm not even one of the parents!) and we are at a loss. My sibling borders on sociopathic with seemingly no ability to feel emotion about anyone but himself. I have never seem him cry or be happy about anything unrelated to his needs or wishes.

Justin Coulson said...

Hi Anon

Your situation is clearly challenging - and draining. It is extremely hard to give love to someone who you feel is consistently trampling that love under his feet. In spite of the difficulty I suggest that:

No love is EVER wasted. We cannot measure the value in love given by considering love returned.

Due to my lack of intimate knowledge of the situation I cannot give specific advice. There may be many factors I am unaware of and specific advice may end up being anything but beneficial. However, I can make some general suggestions that may be helpful.

1. Show love, especially when it is undeserved. When he is angry, do not be drawn in. Reassure him of your love and your desire to help and give him space until he asks for involvement. Respect him as a person. Remember that any attempt to force him, to make him 'see', or to be coerced into doing something will likely end up creating anger.

2. Create opportunities for him to have one-on-one time with his mum/dad or another mature adult. It may be a Saturday morning smoothie at a local cafe, or a Sunday afternoon stroll. Time together where he feels valued and can feel his family's love can be helpful. These 'dates' should not be about 'fixing' him. Instead they should be times where he can feel loved, and an important part of his family.

3. Remember to see the world through his eyes. He is experiencing MASSIVE changes in his own life as his body and brain development. Perhaps there are issues with his school environment, his friends, a girlfriend, or other things in his life that can damage his sense of worth (such as drugs, addiction to pornography online, facebook bullying, etc).

At this point in his life, he is potentially feeling disconnected from the people around him who are his lifeline. Giving love to him will not be a waste.

Note - when behaviour such as you have described is occurring, changes will not be fast. It is likely that is will take a lot of time and investment - and a lot of love - before things improve.

But force, anger, sanctions, and bad behaviour on the part of the ones who should love him most will not help him. He needs to feel safe and loved. Over time, this will make the greatest difference for him.

Alex | Perfecting Dad said...

I think this can be summarized with "Respect your children." They are not employees or inconveniences -- they are real people who value their lives and freedoms just as much as parents value their lives and freedoms. Family should be more like a team than a company. Not sure if I like the talk about "deserving love" but I think you're just illustrating a point rather than literally.

Alex | Perfecting Dad said...

I would guess that anon's parents are far into a serious problem.
When it's this far gone I think the remedy is hard-core overwhelming love, and courageous leadership. It shouldn't be possible for a child to bully his mother ... someone outside those two and probably outside the family must lead at least one, hopefully both of them to a place of effectiveness.

I distinctly remember the exact moment that my father lead me to understand that other lives are just as important as mine (story at How to Build Compassionate Kids: Deadly Beasts, Cannibals, Empathy, and Enlightenment). Left to my own devices I may not have gotten there. Probably this entire family is a bit lost and needs a breakthrough by someone -- maybe from Anon the sibling who sees what is happening and might have the strength.

Justin Coulson said...

Thanks Alex. Great points... and yes, 'deserving' love is for simplicity and illustration.

Neat blog too. Nice ideas.

Megan said...

Thank you for so clearly expressing that it IS possible to help children grow into responsible, contributing members of society without bullying them - and how to do it. It's not always easy to put ourselves in those little shoes, but it's always worth it.