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The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways

The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.I snapped a picture of this quote on the wall at the Magellan International School the other day, and posted it on Facebook.  A week or so later, it had been shared by 68 people, and viewed by nearly 7000.  Obviously, this quote resonates for many of us.

One of the first things I tell most parents that I work with is that behavior is a communication, and that understanding the message in a child’s behavior is incredibly helpful for changing those behaviors.  To put it another way, something is behind or underneath unwanted behavior; triggering or motivating or strengthening it.  Those hidden drivers are usually unmet needs of some variety.  When parents can identify what those unmet needs are, they typically find that those underlying needs are needs they want to support.  In other words: the behaviors are unwanted, but the needs driving those behaviors are understandable!

Children who are acting in unloving ways are likely to themselves be feeling unloved, unwanted, not valuable, incapable, powerless, or hurt. (*) The response those children need isn’t greater control, or bigger punishments, they need understanding, compassion, and support for their growth.   LOVE.

How should a parent respond to these ‘unloving’ behaviors?  That’s a more complicated topic than this blog post can tackle, but here’s a little basic information.  A sustainable and effective response will include: staying calm and compassionate ourselves, not taking obnoxious (or even mean) behaviors personally, plenty of self-care for the parent/caregiver, working to understand the drivers of unwanted behaviors, identifying patterns and triggers, modifying the environment to prevent problem situations and support positive ones, and using circle-back conversations to provide information/support for learning, growing, and healing.

Can you spot the need for love in a child’s unloving behaviors today?  Stay tuned for next month’s article, which will share more details about how to do this.  (Or contact me!)

(*) And, it’s worth mentioning, physical states are deeply influential: hunger, thirst, tiredness, and overstimulation can all stimulate crummy behavior.

(**)  I googled for the origin of this quote.  I didn’t really find anything definitive, but one source said that it was the words of a teacher quoted by Russell Barkley (ADHD expert.)  Anyway, kudos to that teacher, whoever she may be.  :^)

Wallow with them!

It's a Tough Life for a Pig
I love the word wallow.  It’s fun to say, plus it reminds me of two totally separate things: self-pity, and pigs in mud.  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the phrase used without one of those two things attached!

Except, I often use the phrase at work in a way that is counter to its usual definition and negative connotation.

Something that we parents don’t generally do often or well is to connect with our children when they are having upset or uncomfortable emotions.  Instead, we try to distract or minimize or rationalize or joke or extinguish those emotions.  We do it for many different reasons, perhaps because the expression is ill-timed or inappropriate in size, or because their upset is about us and we feel defensive, or because it’s about something we can’t control and we feel helpless.  But for whatever reason, we often entirely skip the step where we reflect and validate our children’s emotions.  Emotionally healthy parenting requires that we give our children permission to feel their feelings, even tough feelings.  Furthermore, our children need to feel connected to us even when they are feeling angry or resentful or worried or freaked out.  (*)

So I use the word wallow.  I don’t actually want parents to wallow in their children’s emotional states, but because we tend to err on the side of minimizing those emotions, I use a word that guides us towards the other side of the continuum.

When your child is upset or angry or worried, take a deep breath.  Mentally remind yourself that you want them to know that they have your permission to feel those feelings.  (This will help them internalize, for life, the important lesson that they have a right to their feelings.)  Reflect to your child that you see how they are feeling.  That can be done simply by saying something like: “wow, I can tell you are really feeling ___ .”   Take it a step further (and borrow a page from Imago couples therapists) and validate their feelings: “It makes sense to me that you would feel upset about that.  If I were in your position, I’d probably feel the same way.”

And then maybe take another deep breath.  Let a little space come in to the room and in to your interaction.  This is where the ‘wallowing’ happens.  Just stay in that space for a moment: stay in the space of having given your child permission to feel those feelings.  Let your child soak that in.  Don’t rush too quickly to distract or redirect.  Offering a hug, caring eye contact, or a loving touch might feel good to them right now.  This all serves to help them feel less agitated, less out of control, less overwhelmed by those feelings, and often has the very appealing effect of reducing the upset.  When your child has felt “heard” and even validated, it will be much easier to get them to ‘hear’ you and your perspective.

Important note: saying “I can tell that you feel mad that I am making you unload the dishwasher, and it makes perfect sense to me that you would really rather play than do chores” does NOT mean that my daughter can go back to playing and skip the chore.  The limits/requests/expectations remain the same.  All that’s different is that I am giving her permission to feel whatever she feels about those expectations.  But, it’s an amazing, healthy, effective, loving difference.  And, by the way, one of the long term payoffs is a much higher-quality relationship when your child is an adult.

Experiment with it if you are so inclined: see if you can find a place this week to give your child permission to feel their upset, angry, jealous, agitated, or anxious feelings.  See what happens and how it feels to both you and your child.  Good things can happen!

(*) I can’t find a citation for it, but I was taught once that the Talaris Institute studied this and found that responding in an emotionally responsive/healthy way just 30% of the time is enough to get the benefit.  Yay for not needing to be perfect!

Are you going to let her get away with that?

True personal story:

When my oldest daughter was about 8 months old, she got over-stimulated and grabbed an adult relative hard enough to cause pain.  We pulled her off, apologized, went into another room and helped her calm down.   About 20 minutes later, I apologized for my daughter’s behavior again to my relative.  Her response surprised me.  She said:

“Are you going to let her get away with that?  Shouldn’t you give her a little swat on the butt?”

At the time, I think I simply said that no, I wouldn’t be spanking my infant.  But, years later, I still often think of that brief exchange because of the stark contrast between “conventional” parenting wisdom and what–thanks to research–we now know.

To start with, did you know that when a baby or child is upset, the part of their brain that learns best is turned off?  When they are crying, dysregulated, hungry, overtired, “wired,” or “fried,” they can’t really learn.  So all the words, all the lessons, all the good advice you give them during that time?  It pretty much goes in one ear and out the other.  And it’s not their fault, either.  Their brains (and yours and mine, too!) are hard-wired to work this way.  Furthermore, in those over-stimulated situations, the part of the child’s brain that IS working is a primal, emotional, impulsive, defensive part of the brain.  You aren’t going to change the fact that the primal brain is primal, trust me… what you can hope for instead is to help your child improve their skills at managing their own dysregulation, so that they can get better and faster at bringing their more sophisticated brain functions back online.  That’s not going to happen for any 8 month old; we’re lucky if our 8 year olds can do it some of the time.

So, the next time your child is really upset, don’t try to “teach them a lesson.”  Instead:

  • Press the pause button on your own words and reactions.
  • Take a deep breath and help yourself either stay or return to calm.
  • Then, share your calm energy with your child, with the simple goal of helping them get back to their normal, higher-functioning self.
  • And for those children old enough to take your advice, save it for a later time, when your child’s brain and body are back in their normal, peaceful state.  That’s the very best time to teach!

When we rely solely on punishments to change behaviors, we either end up unsuccessful (for example: the prison system) or somewhat successful with negative side effects (for example:  poor relationships between parent & child, aggression in the child towards others, increases in lying and hiding behaviors, etc.)  To create a life-long positive relationship with our children, we have to approach shaping their behavior with gentleness, consistency, flexibility, and understanding.  Punishments don’t do any of those things—at 8 months, 8 years, or 18 years.

What we now know… is to limit our lecturing, work to understand why our kids misbehave, create an environment that supports the behaviors we want, create cooperation and mutual respect, and focus on the positives.  This creates healthy adults, better parent-child relationships, and it works.

***If you like this post, click over to this one on a similar theme that I wrote last year: If not punishment, then what?


Why did you do that?

Ever ask your kid why they did some (dumb, unwanted, whatever) thing?  Yeah, me too.  But!  When I’m running my parenting “A” game, I try not to–for at least 2 good reasons. 

The first reason is that an influential teacher early in my career always said that the only answer to “Why did you do that?”  was something along the lines of “…because I’m a jerk.”  (except when he said it, he usually used a more colorful word than jerk!)  Strong language aside, it’s a very good point–“Why did you do that?” is often a rhetorical question, because what a parent means to say is more along the lines of “I wish you hadn’t done that.”  Better to actually say what we really mean, you know?  It makes for better communication, more honesty, better relationships, etc…

I found a second reason not to say “Why…” a few months ago while listening to the Total Transformation CDs.  The TT folks sent me a review copy of their program, and though I haven’t finished listening to all of it, I have already found lots of good stuff.  One such item was the author (James Lehman) saying that when we ask our kids “Why” they did something, we are in effect teaching them to make excuses for their behavior.  His point is, we’re plainly saying that if they can just give us a good enough “why” answer, then we will understand/forgive/overlook their behavior.  So of course they are going to try to come up with a reason (ie, make an excuse) EVERY time they get in trouble–we taught them how!   I realize that every once in a while there really is a situation where the reasons justify the actions, but that’s much more rare than our questioning.  And certainly with younger children, who may not even have the cognitive development to understand the concept, much less answer it–what parents instead get is a series of guesses that the child intuitively hopes will satisfy the parent (NOT real explanations!)

So, experiment for a while–try to banish “Why” questions from your parenting vocabulary for a couple of weeks, and see what happens.  Let me know how it goes!


De Jure versus De Facto Parenting

(I’m excited to get to pull out 1 of 3 Latin phrases I know with today’s post.)  ;^)

Wikipedia defines the “De Jure” versus “De Facto,” as what the law says versus what actually happens in practice.

I talk about this difference with parents frequently.  We parents often say things like “She needs to understand that no means no” or simply “He doesn’t listen!”  Behind these complaints is often a big ugly truth that just happens to have a Latin description: sometimes what we parents say isn’t what we actually do. 

An example:

Mom:  “Zachary, we’re leaving in 5 minutes.”
5 minutes go by unnoticed, Mom’s still chatting with friends, Zachary is still playing.
20 minutes later, Mom tells Zachary that it’s time to go and he resists.  Mom feels annoyed that he isn’t listening, and gets frustrated with him for it.  She yells, and then–only then–does he get up to leave.


But, what’s really going on here?  Is it:

A.  The child is really not listening, and/or needs to be yelled at to get his attention.

B.  The mother is not being real about the messages she’s sending.  She has taught her son that “We’re leaving in 5 minutes” is a throwaway comment, and that the real indicators of her meaning business are when she is (a) upset and (b) yelling.

Yeah, it’s B.  And we all do some version of this.  The hard truth is that if we want our kids to consistently do what we ask them to do, we need to be consistent with them first.  First step to consistency–paying attention to what we say & do, and making sure that they are one in the same. 


PS.  The #2 Latin phrase I remember is “Rara Avis,” which is what the fun professor who taught my Latin class called herself.  :^)


Setting Physical Limits


Is it okay for me to do that?”

Parents ask me this question from time to time, and while I feel awkward answering it* (My job is not to judge!), I can totally understand where it comes from.   Modern parents are bombarded by advice, books, judgments, and conflicting opinions about how best to parent.  We are often weighing Expert A’s opinion against Expert B’s, and they both are different from how we were parented, and different still from how our friends are all doing things, too… no wonder we’re left confused about what’s right. 

Setting physical limits** is a particularly sticky area for many of the parents with whom I work.  When our toddlers are 18 months old, we’re confident that steering them away from the electrical outlet is “right,” but the water gets murkier when they are 3 and refusing to walk to the car after music class.  Don’t even mention the bane of children (and parents) everywhere: the carseat.

But, yes, I advise parents that it is okay to set a physical limit, and–as with all things in parenting, there are a zillion contingencies to consider.  Here are two:

  1. By far the most important… in fact you could stop reading after this it’s so critical–is YOUR emotional state.  If you are upset, don’t do it.  Period.
  2. A very distant second consideration:  can you avoid it?  Let it go?  Use a different tool?  Be playful? Talk it through?  Wait patiently?  If the answer to any of those is yes, try those first. 

After weighing your options, and perhaps trying a few other tools, let’s assume that you do have to set the physical limit.  As you proceed, here are a few things to consider including in the process:

  • Describe to your child what needs to happen. 
  • Remind your kid that if they can’t make the right decision, you’ll have to make it for them.
  • Take your next steps more slowly than usual.
  • Later, talk together about what happened.  Be a problem-solving consultant to your child: “What could Mommy do to help you make the right choice next time?”
  • Next time, remind child about this time (“Remember the last time you & I came to this library, you couldn’t keep your body from going up those stairs, and I had to pick you up to keep you from doing it–and you really didn’t like that.”)  Play the role of the problem-solving consultant again: “What can I do to help you make the right choice this time?”

So, the next time you’re faced with a (parenting) problem that you can’t solve with talking, I hope some of these suggestions will help. 

Take care.

* For the record, with few exceptions, I always say the same thing: yes.  You can parent the way you want to.  Of course, I am direct with my clients about things I advise against, like spanking, losing your temper, being inconsistent, etc, but the parents who take the time & energy (and money!) to come in to see a therapist/parenting coach are conscientious, caring, proactive people who are working on fine-tuning their already loving and thoughtful skills. 

** Obviously, I’m excluding those times when your child’s immediate safety is in jeopardy.  You do what you must in those situations, and that’s what’s right. 



Q: When should a parent seek professional help?

When our kids are sick and we don’t know what’s wrong or how to deal with it, we usually go to the doctor. We don’t feel conflicted about seeking that professional’s help, and we don’t wait until things are so bad that our child is comatose. But for some reason, with behavioral/emotional/relationship challenges, people can be reluctant to seek help, often waiting until the problems worsen and get cemented in place. John Gottman says that, on average, couples wait 7 years before they seek the help they need. I think that parents do better, and seek help much sooner, but it is so important to remember that therapy can be supportive at any stage, and can help improve relationships by resolving minor challenges before they become a major problem.

When a child has behavior problems, parents come in to my office, and say that they worry that “x” behavior might be a sign of something very serious. I understand that fear, I really do (I’m a parent, too.) But, it’s not just when something’s terribly wrong that we can get help from a professional. Even when “everything’s fine,” it’s possible for a professional to help parents identify and improve the small hangups in their daily life.  A skillful child & family therapist can help parents tweak a particular area, and–via the magic of the parenting relationship–even if the parents had little to do with creating the problem, they can still be largely responsible for fixing the problem.

So what is a small area of your daily life that you’d love to see get better? Bedtime? Transitions? The dinner table? A difference of opinion between you & your spouse about how to handle something? Homework? Mornings? Chores? I encourage you to seek out a supportive, non-judgmental therapist who specializes in kids/families/parenting. Please feel free to email or call me if I might be of help!

T. Berry Brazelton on Self-esteem, Spanking, and Vegetables!

The New York Times website has a blog called “Well” that recently interviewed Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, one of our country’s most known (and loved) pediatricians.  He’s the author of at least 24 books on parenting, child development, and the like, and he’s a bit of a hero to me. 

In the interview, Dr. Brazelton and co-author Dr. Josh Sparrow answer questions from readers, on several topics including self-esteem, spanking, learning from your kids, and nutrition.  I wanted to highlight 3 things for you from the interview.  On self esteem, they describe the importance of unconditional acceptance from the parent, and the opportunity for challenge, failure, and success as keys to building self-esteem. 

On spanking, they say:

Our belief is that spanking is not necessary, can be harmful, and certainly does not serve the purposes of discipline.

And on nutrition, Dr. Brazelton says:

Vegetables! I hated them as a child — and I still hate them. My younger
brother hated them more. As I watched my mother hover over him for
hours trying to shovel vegetables into him, while completely ignoring
me, I began to hate my brother even more than vegetables. Now you know
why I became a pediatrician — to stamp out vegetables, and to overcome
my guilt at wanting to kill my brother!

He goes on to advise parents: “Forget about vegetables!” and focus on exposure and avoiding power struggles instead.  It’s great advice, of course!

To read the entire post about self-esteem and spanking, click here.

Or here for the article about nutrition.