Thursday, 31 March 2011
What Your Children Deserve Least When When They Need it Most
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.