We were every cliché: she spilled her milk all over the table and was using her fingers to spread it into a big and messy design; I was already waaaay late making dinner. I was feeling anxious and frustrated, and struggling to be mindful of the positive parenting ideas from part one of this article. (Yep, I'm human, too.) Forget "don't cry over spilled milk"—I just wanted her to stop it.
Doing my best to manage my frustration but failing pretty miserably, I heard myself ask impatiently, "What are you doing?" It was a ridiculous question. My eyes work. I could see what she was doing. Fortunately, she overlooked my tone and simply responded, "I'm doing what the book said. I'm turning an 'oops' into something beautiful!" (afflinks) Oh. That's right! I taught her that positive outlook from a book, and I did it intentionally there in that gentle parenting-driven exchange (cough, cough, ahem...I wish).
As it turns out, I had just gotten lucky. As expert Kelly Matthews of A Place for You Early Childhood Consulting suggests (and as she learned from her mentor, Deb Curtis), "Don't get mad, get curious!" Wow, what a paradigm shift, and what a wonderful mantra for the heat of the moment! I'll admit that when I'm in a tough place mentally, my default is sometimes frustration. When I'm in that mental state, I don't always assume the best of my child's intentions. That's my problem, though, and not hers. Oftentimes, she's simply exploring something in an age-appropriate way* that my adult brain has forgotten; wondering how something works rather than trying to break it.
Before you think I'm saying you should never be angry or frustrated, let me clarify. All your emotions are valid. Anger and frustration serve a necessary purpose—they're your built-in warning system that a boundary has been crossed, no matter the source. In addition, anger often covers up other emotions that warrant exploring, if you can imagine anger as the tip of a complex iceberg**. It's critical that you be able to express your anger in productive ways. So, the questions become how you process and express it, and what you can do to maintain gentle parenting even when you're upset.
In the toughest moments, when gentle parenting seems impossible, you can try a few things to ground yourself:
Take two seconds and remember those wise words: "Don't get mad, get curious." Consider the possibility that you might be missing some information that would change your perspective. Case in point: my girl's attempt to "fix" her spill by turning it into art. Incidentally, after writing this article, I read the best chapter I've ever read about anger and other big feelings. Although I wish the book's title were different, since, in my opinion, the information applies waaaaay beyond little kids, Positive Discipline for Preschoolers is an incredible resource. It's hugely insightful and offers a host of helpful ideas for you and your child.
I can't overestimate the power of looking into your child's eyes. Before you say anything at all, get on your child's level and look directly into his gaze. It's much easier to feel upset with another person when you're in fight or flight mode and looking at a mess / the back of your child's head / anything that doesn't drive empathy. Conversely, it's much easier to feel compassion toward another person when you're looking him in the eye. Drs. Seigel and Bryson suggest getting even lower than your child's eye level to remove the intimidation factor (details in their book).
This type of "look me in the eye" is completely different than how many of us were raised, where a threat was attached to it. This is an effort to rebuild connection, regardless who was wronged in the tough situation through which you're working. Genuine, sincere eye contact "in the moment" can diffuse all sorts of negativity. Moreover, eye contact on a regular basis is connection technique that lasts. Practice it genuinely and authentically. The more you practice really seeing your child and connecting visually in the good moments, the more of a default it will be in the bad ones.
Now, it's (maybe) time to say something to your child. Some of us naturally yell when we're upset. Others of us, don't. Either way, we all have a "mad voice," and our kids recognize it. For the record, I don't write "inside voice" to sound patronizing; rather, I use it because we've all heard it, so it's easy to remember. No matter your volume, when you're ready to talk, speak to your child much more quietly than you normally would. If you're thinking, "...but my kids don't listen unless I yell," I'd challenge you to rock their worlds—and get their attention—by doing the opposite of what you normally do. Even if you're naturally soft spoken, whispering (or using a quiet voice) takes intimidation off the table and helps you connect to your child.
From an evolutionary perspective, yelling raises adrenaline and helped earlier humans prepare their bodies to fight. We certainly weren’t going to reason with a saber tooth tiger. So, to the extent that yelling can actually increase your anger*** rather than quell it, whispering can automatically reduce the adrenaline that fuels it. A quieter voice than usual, then, makes you calmer and may reduce your child's resistance to what you're saying. Win/win. Note, if you're seething and whisper-yelling through gritted teeth, skip to idea #4 and try this again when you're ready. Ground yourself first. See the footnotes for the science behind this.
Too triggered to connect? Rather than sending your child away (which I don't advocate regardless), let her know that you're upset and that you need to calm down. It's okay to use those words; you're modeling real feelings and the need we all have for space to process. Your tone can reflect your feelings here; model authenticity. Make sure she's in a safe place and assure her that you're coming back soon. Of course, stay within a safe distance if your child is young.
Taking time to compose yourself is always preferable to saying or doing something you'll regret later. Avoid labeling your reason for distance as being because of something your child did (which can result in shame); rather, model it as a healthy way to cool off when you're too triggered to speak calmly. "I feel..." statements work well here (as in, "I feel frustrated and need to go into the bedroom to calm down, but I'll be back in a minute."). For little kids who don't yet understand time as we do, it helps to give them a frame of reference they understand, such as, "I'll be back by the time you could sing the ABC song three times." When you're in a calmer place, go back to your child and try idea #3 again.
It's easy to stay mad about a situation when you're still looking right at it. Maybe something your child did triggered you; maybe he said something that pushed you over the edge (or maybe, just maybe, the issue was just yours but it manifested in him). If you're still feeling triggered, invite your child to another location to discuss what happened and how to improve things for the future.
Best case scenario, you head outside together to talk about it. Fresh air is amazing medicine. Or, your approach might simply be, using collaborative language, "Let's go sit on the floor together in the living room and work through this." (Unusual locations can give you a new perspective mentally, strange as it sounds.) Physically removing yourself from the place where you had your most visceral reaction can be tremendously helpful for your psyche. It's literally neutral territory. A change of scenery can help you see more clearly before you work through whatever happens next. Refrain from creating a "danger zone" where you simply move your child elsewhere for so-called punishment; this is intended to be a safe space for you both.
Extend grace to your child, just as you hope others will for you. Oh, yeah. And breathe. Anger has a place in parenting, just like it does in all relationships. Fortunately, a strong connection can overcome the tough moments. And with gentle parenting, you can demonstrate effective and loving ways to help your kids navigate it in their own lives.
*** Source: http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov04/hormones.aspx
From the backseat of the car, my daughter asked me to tell her a story. Since we were on the way to her annual well child exam, I wondered if she was seeking a virtual role play in which the heroine of my story would be on her way to the doctor, too. So, sure enough, Kittenpants (the heroine of most of our stories lately, name chosen by my child) was, indeed, about to get her checkup and had some doctor anxiety. As I continued, my child kept asking for more detail. My hunch had been correct. She very much wanted to know what she was about to get into, but safely first, through a story.
Even for me, as an adult, I have some doctor anxiety. However, I actually like going to the dentist. My theory is that, with a young child, relaxing in the dental chair is about the longest I ever have to "do nothing". I digress; I know doctors and dentists, alike, cause anxiety for a lot of humans, especially the young ones who have fewer years of experience with them. If your kiddo lacks enthusiasm when it's doctor or dentist time, what's a gentle parent to do? We all have to go to these appointments sometimes, right? Some of these ideas might help you and your child:
And take him along to observe. Rather than having someone care for your child while you're at your appointments, let him see you undergo many of the same processes he'll encounter when it's his turn. There's a lot to be said for desensitization to reduce dentist and doctor anxiety; the more you expose him to a situation, the less foreign, and less scary, it might be (particularly when there's no threat to him). Did I take my daughter into surgery with me last summer? Heck no, of course not. But she comes with me to every physical, every sick visit, and every routine maintenance activity I schedule. The more she can get comfortable with the concept of doctors in general, the easier it is when it's her turn. A couple of doctors have even offered to have her "help" with my checkups, to which she gladly agrees (only in kid-safe ways, such as using the stethoscope). Talk about removing the fear factor! To the extent that you can, eliminate your child's fear of the unknown. Before her appointment, let her know what to expect there. Recall what she's seen, and talk her through what she hasn't.
Look for a doctor or dentist who your kid seems to like and who shows respect for her, even during "non-negotiable" parts of the visit. Even very young kids have strong feelings about who they like and don't. To the extent possible, follow their lead. If your child has an ear infection but won't let Dr. Amazing look in her ears, see if said doctor will perform the exam while your child is in the safety of your arms. This can substantially reduce your child's doctor anxiety. If that's not feasible, stand next to her exam table while you touch her reassuringly. If your doctor's approach is "my way or the highway," it might not be the best fit. I don't know about you, but if a person 4x my size approached me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable and my caretaker let him, I'd have a problem with that. The procedure might need to happen, but the provider's approach and demeanor should be a peaceful and collaborative one. There are plenty of fish in the proverbial sea, and that applies to medical professionals, too. Find the best match for each of your children. This isn't your doctor; it's theirs.
Recently, a 9-year-old boy I know named Théo went to the dentist and needed a filling. He was scared of the novocaine shot. After working past it and successfully getting his cavity filled, the dentist chided him and asked if it was worth him having been afraid. Théo maturely responded, "I couldn't have been brave without first having been scared. Courage without fear is merely indifference." Wow, I couldn't love his response more if it were baked in a cake! It's absolutely okay to be scared; it's a biologically normal and healthy response to many situations. Fear serves a purpose in keeping us safe. Does that mean you should say to your child, "Yes, you should be nervous! It's so scary at the dentist!" No, absolutely not. What it does mean, however, is that your child needs to know you hear him without judgment, and without your trying to talk him out of his feelings. Try this: "I understand. I hear that you're nervous. I'll be there to support you." Feeling understood can help relieve anxiety*.
Pay attention to the messages that you inadvertently send about your doctor and dental visits. If all your child ever hears you say is how much you hate going, he'll internalize your doctor anxiety and save those feelings for when it's his turn. Moreover, let your child decide how he feels about each part of the visit. The first time my child saw me give blood, she saw me look away (I can't watch), but she got as close to my blood-giving arm as the phlebotomist would let her. She was fascinated. The next time she saw a needle, she stared right at it as her doctor gave her a shot. She didn't cry. (Whaaaat? Whose child is this?) I was shocked, but relieved that I hadn't projected my own needle-anxiety upon her. After the fact, she told me that it had hurt a bit, but my worries about how she'd handle it far exceeded the stress of the actual event.
If laughter is the best medicine and your child is still young enough, role play it out in the silliest ways you know how, while staying "true-ish" to real doctor-like scenarios. Her truck needs its blood pressure checked; her toy tomato has a fever. When my daughter was three, she kept coming to me to cure her "chronic case of the 3s," during which she responded to every question and every part of my "medical" exam by yelling "THREE!" She thought it was hilarious, even when she was getting pretend shots that somehow made her "condition" worse.
"Just the facts, ma'am." For the record, I'd rather get a shot in the nose than be called "ma'am," but the expression, like it or not, is a memorable reminder that it is what it is: a doctor visit. In the case of things like shots or other "painful" events, explain what will happen, but in neutral, textbook-like terms. You're the provider of information; your child gets to process and judge the information in whatever ways work best for him. Before shots, I remind my child that "Sometimes they hurt temporarily, but then they feel better very soon. Sometimes, they don't hurt at all. Either way, I'll be with you for the entire visit." Neutral. Confident. Peaceful. For little or big kids, but especially if your child is older, read age-appropriate books about doctors or types of medical things that interest them. Pick up a book (or watch a non-scary video) about some aspect of medicine that might interest her. Learn about it, and perhaps come up with a question of interest to save for the "real" doctor or dentist. Empower your child with age-appropriate information. Tell her you're going to the appointment with enough time to prepare for it mentally. No surprises.
From an anxiety perspective, we can all get caught up in the fear of the upcoming visit. Remind your child, by having a specific after-the-visit plan, that life goes on, on the other side of the appointment. Have an “after” idea that’s not conditional or a bribe. Instead of, "If you do well at the doctor, we can go to the park," try, "I have an idea--after the doctor visit today, let's plan to go to the park. It's fun to have something to look forward to later in the day." Having something good to anticipate can help ground your child (and you, too). Most of all, let your child take refuge in the emotional safety that you can provide, before the appointment, during it, and after she survives it. Assure her that you're right there with her, and will continue to be, just as you always are. * Source: The Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, http://csamsandiego.com/blog/2016/5/26/how-to-listen-when-someone-you-love-is-struggling
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