I like this interview with Rebecca Eanes, author of the book Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide (to be released in July 2016). Eanes talks about the top 5 parenting challenges as reported by parents, and how we can tweak our approach to addressing these challenges so we have a “more positive parenting experience.” I personally feel less concerned about my experience of my parenting than I do about my child’s experience of my parenting, but nonetheless this is good stuff. I like that Eanes considers the neuroscience of child development in presenting her advice and she understands the critical role of the parent-child connection when addressing any behavior issue.
Here’s a summary of her insights about the top 5 parenting challenges along with my own 2 cents:
One minute our little darling is playing sweetly with our best friend’s child; the next minute . . . scratch, pow, bam! Aggression. It’s hard to watch in our own children.
Many parents struggle with their child’s aggression toward other children. Eanes cautions parents about responding to their child’s aggression with aggression, such as spanking. Instead, model self-control. She suggests “time-ins”: your child sits with you while he calms down. If he isn’t calm, his brain remains in a reactive state. When your child is finally calm, you can let him know how his aggression made his friend or sibling feel, and we can help him make amends. This helps him get out of his own head and experience to connect to others emotionally — he’s exercising those empathy muscles.
I’ve always preferred this concept of “time-ins” or “couch time” to time-outs where the child is sent to sit in a corner (or in the dreaded “naughty seat”) because the latter is much more punitive in tone. I also think we can consider not only what our child is doing – hitting, biting – but why he’s doing it. In my experience, that’s the most important thing to remember when looking for solutions to aggressive behavior. Does our child feel safe? Is the hitting and biting happening in preschool but not at home? Does it tend to happen with only particular children or with us? What’s going on in that relationship? If a child doesn’t feel safe and secure with a person, he will become aggressive. Fear is often at the heart of aggressive behavior even if our child looks mighty when he’s slapping the child next to them.
As the author points out, there’s a difference between a toddler and preschool-aged child’s tantrum and an older school-aged child’s “fit”. Young children frequently cannot manage their emotions — their big feelings rise up in them and they really are utterly overwhelmed. Once they get amped up to a particular state, they really can’t come down without our help. Yes, we can scare the daylights out of them by screaming at them and maybe they will calm down because they’re scared of us, but that doesn’t help them regulate their emotions in the long run. Eanes says, “Ultimately feelings cannot be punished away; they must be worked through. It comes down to determining why a tantrum is occurring and giving children the knowledge and skills needed to move beyond tantrums.”
With older kids, I recommend setting clear expectations about behavior especially in hot button situations. Eanes points out that sometimes older kids genuinely feel we are not respecting them or listening to them, so we can have compassion for their experience while still requiring respectful communication with us. But sometimes older kids also develop bad habits of manipulation. They figure out that they can get what they want if they ask for it for at the right time. Because we’re less likely to say no to their requests, they know to ask for extra computer time when we’re tired after dinner or to ask for candy in the check-out stand in the grocery store when we’re distracted. Then if we do say no, they realize they can throw a fit and we’ll be too tired or embarrassed to go on. We surrender. These kids aren’t bad; they’re just being resourceful!
Before you enter your hot-button situation, remind your child of your expectations: no candy at the check-out or no computer time after dinner. And then don’t give in. While you are rested and calm, explain to your older child how their behavior is making you feel and why you have set the imposed limitation (not to ruin their lives, but to make their lives better).
Most parents are worn down by constant whining, even the most gentle-minded parents. Eanes cautions against heading the traditional advice to ignore whining; we shouldn’t ignore anybody important to us. So true. She offers 4 approaches to handling whining:
1) Really listen to your child. All human beings have a need to be heard and understood. Kids are no different. Sometimes whining is the natural result of mom or dad being too preoccupied with their own affairs.
2) Look for the reason behind the whining. Sometimes we’re so irritated by the way our child is whining that we forget to ask ourselves why they are doing it. Kids might be hungry, tired, lonely, or bored. Sometimes they just need a snack or help putting on their shoes so they can play in the back yard.
3) Get your child to laugh. Larry Cohen has a whole book on responding to your child’s behavior problems through play and laughter. It’s superb. The great thing about this approach is that it not only interrupts the child’s behavior, but it gives us tools for strengthening our relationship with our child.
4) Ask your child to use a different tone of voice.
4. Not Listening
We want our kids to “listen” to us because we want them to cooperate with our expectations. However, perhaps we can reflect on how we’re communicating with them. “Nagging, lecturing, counting, and demanding do nothing to foster cooperation. Punishment or the threat of punishment may compel the child to act, but this isn’t real cooperation.”
The key to cooperation is a solid connection with a child. If we ensure we’re spending quality with them doing fun, positive activities we are more likely to have a cooperative tone in our relationship with them. How do we spend the majority of our time with our child? Are we lecturing them, telling them to do their homework and chores, reminding them of how they’ve disappointed us? If so, they will tune us out just like we do them when they are whining!
Those times when we are the “rule enforcer” should be far out-balanced by those times when we are building rapport with our child through positive, fun activities. If the majority of our time with our child is spent on things like games night, going for hikes together, cooking together, even just sitting around the dinner table chatting — whatever works for your relationship with your child — then our child is more likely to pay attention to what we’re saying when we need him to do his chores or get ready for bed.
5. Back Talk
What did he just say? Back chat, giving us lip, back talk; it makes us feel like our child doesn’t respect us and we want respect. Eanes recommends that we don’t shut our child down, but that we use the back talk as an opportunity to practice conflict resolution:
We are tempted to shut it down immediately in order to prove our authority, but children learn the valuable skill of conflict resolution by being in conflict with people, and that means firstly by being in conflict with parents. Rather than being quick to shut down back talk, we can use it as an opportunity to teach our children how to respectfully communicate their disagreement and state their case.
She suggests engaging with your child about what they want or need, but to still require respectful communication. You can come up with solutions that will work for everyone. I think this advice seems most applicable to older children. Very young children tend to back talk because they’re asserting their budding sense of independence – they realize at about age 3 that they are their own person. They want to press the boundaries and press our buttons so they can see how far they can go! With little children, I guess we can do some negotiating, but I think back talking at this stage is best handled by coaching in how to speak in a respectful manner while asking for what they want or need. Setting clear rules about respect and reminding our younger kids about those rules is important.
With older kids, we assume they already know how to communicate respectfully if we communicate with them respectfully, but sometimes they lack the practice and they get into the habit of back talking out of frustration. I would not engage with an older child who is back talking; I would tell them that what they have to say is important to me, but I will not engage with somebody who is being rude to me. If the foundation of the relationship is strong — if the connection and rapport are solid — then the child will want to work things out and will figure out that they are not getting accomplishing anything with back talking. If that basic foundation is weak, it doesn’t matter what we think or say — our older child won’t care if they’re hurting us. So the problem is the weak foundation in the relationship and the back talking is a symptom of that.