Rethinking misbehavior as a threat to my ego
Having started on this path of positive/mindful/calm/lose it less parenting, I have learned more about myself than ever before. While I continue to uncover truths and challenge myself to change and grow, I’ve also come to better understand my kids in the process.
When I am in a frenzied, reactive, hot to trot state, I am absolutely terrified of my kids behavior. I am grabbing at anything I can to try and make them stop or start something. In reality, they know I can’t make them do anything. In fact, we talk about this quite often. “I can’t make you, or anyone else say or do anything. I can encourage you, provide consequences and boundaries, and help you, but you are the only one that is in charge of the choices you make.” Here I am at 34 trying to learn this lesson right along side my 3 and 4 year olds.
The problem is, when my kids don’t listen and make unfortunate choices, it’s hard to remember their misbehavior is not a threat to my ego. The yelling, the hitting, the chaos — these are all absolutely triggering for me which makes staying calm so incredibly hard. However, I also know that I am unable to think clearly if I let these triggers take over. When I react instead of respond, I generally say things I don’t mean or wish I hadn’t said. Again, if this is true for me at 34, how can I expect a 4 year old to respond, not react, when he is upset?
Co-regulating is key
One of my mantras that helps me stay calm is “Your big emotions don’t scare me. I can handle them. You need me to calmly handle them.” Tina Payne Bryson and many others in the field talk about co-regulating. The idea is that your child needs you to help them regulate their emotions. In that moment, for whatever reason, they are unable to do it for themselves. It’s so easy to co-escalate and add fuel to the flame. In fact, I’m really good at doing this when I forget that I can be at peace in the midst of chaos (another go to mantra).
Thinking more about this, even as an adult, there are times where I need a friend or family member to co-regulate with me. I am too upset, overwhelmed, or exhausted to endure a challenge on my own and need a trusted friend to help me. I’d like to think that I get upset over more meaningful things but as Dr. Eger says, “there is no hierarchy in trauma.” Therefore, even if I think crying over a green bowl is absurd, the feelings are real to my kids.
I’m not going to chase you
I tell my kids frequently, “I’m not going to chase you.” This basically means I am not going to turn into a crazy person and lose my cool if you don’t listen. For example, if I have asked them to stop running, come here, or bring me something they should not be playing with, they know I am not going to chase them to obtain it. Do they want me to? Absolutely! How thrilling to see mom running in circles about to lose it! Instead, I have started taking a second to decide that their behavior does not scare me. I empower myself knowing that staying clam is actually my super power that will enable me to think about what my next step will be. It will allow me to respond instead of simply react.
When this happens, I clearly and confidently state my direction or request. Then I remind them there are consequences to their choices. Lastly, I then step back and allow them to make their choice. Of course if they are truly not being safe, I will intervene right away and become a human shield to keep everyone safe. However if it is just a matter of not listening, I am doing everything within my power to remain calm and clear headed.
Staying calm when kids don’t listen
For example, the other day Keener took a flash light I keep under the sink. He turned it on and was playing with it. The problem arose when he pointed it right into my eyes. I asked him to stop and he momentarily did. However, a few seconds later, he did it again. “I’m not going to chase you. Bring me the flashlight so I can help you make safe choices.” The old me would have instantly ripped that flashlight right out of his tiny little grip before he even had a chance to give it up. But what is that teaching him? When someone doesn’t give you what you want, put your hands on them and forcefully take it anyway? Oh goodness… Whether we intend to or not, we are always modeling with our own behavior.
In this instance, he decided to bring it over. However, for many other instances where he doesn’t comply, I have started calmly reminding him that behaviors have consequences. Even if I don’t know what the consequence is going to be just yet, I am buying myself time to think about what would make sense. The old me would have aimlessly thrown out any threat I could think of – one that likely wouldn’t work but would enable me to beat my chest like a big dog (ha!). Now, I have bought myself time to think. I have placed my ego aside and decided that in that moment, I’m not competing with him. I’m not using force. Instead, I am empowering him to make a choice and letting him know that choices have consequences.
Shockingly enough, not knowing the consequence has actually been much more impactful than a.) me chasing him and forcefully taking something or b.) me spewing out whatever comes to my mind first. In the past when I have doled out consequences without thinking clearly, they generally don’t work. They either are so extreme they can’t be reinforced (i.e. you will never use a flashlight ever again!) OR a power struggle begins, “Fine, take away dessert. I didn’t want it anyway. I don’t care.” Then where does that leave you?
Calm is not as fun as frenzied
Having now experienced going down both paths, I can say with certainty that remaining calm and thinking clearly leads to better outcomes for both me and my kids. Remaining calm actually solves the problem much of the time as it’s not very fun to see mom calm. It’s WAY more fun to see her riled up and feisty!
If only staying calm was easy. It’s not. But losing control and dealing with the consequences of that isn’t easy either. Inevitably, I will still practice both approaches as I am just as human as the next person. And instead of beating myself up when I fail, I will model what it looks like to be resilient. To work hard, own your behavior, forgive when needed, and focus on doing better the next time. Dr. Eger reminds us that, “A good definition of being a victim is when you keep the focus outside yourself, when you look outside yourself for someone to blame for your present circumstances, or to determine your purpose, fate, or worth.” Cheers to the next time my kids don’t listen – an opportunity to put my ego aside, keep the focus inside myself, and be available to co-regulate in the moments my kids need me most.