Your Child is Never Naughty
...even while running from you in the store in defiance, crying because you won’t buy him that toy today, ignoring your requests to turn off the computer, continuing to jump on the couch after you’ve told her 10 times! Even then your child is not being a bad kid.
This is a radical concept.
Even I, who love and respect kids immensely, have devoted more than a decade to learning about their needs, and advocate for them fiercely, sometimes have a hard time with this one (conditioning runs deep). When your child (or kids you are teaching) just won’t listen, it’s hard not to hear this line running through your head: "Why are they being so bad?"
Even when you get that your kid might have particular sensory needs and has to wiggle, jump, climb, fidget and move in order to learn and release emotions, it can be hard not to buy into the message our society tells us that, “If your kid isn’t listening, they are doing it on purpose!” In essence, they are being bad for the thrill of it or just to be naughty. We are told….
"Your kid just doesn’t want to listen!"
How do you counteract that voice you know just can’t be true?
Here’s an example from my child therapy practice: I was working with two adorable and sweet kindergarteners trying to have them sit in a small circle with me to look over the plan for the day (which involved all kinds of fun games I had planned). Of course they didn’t want to sit; they just wanted to play with the larger than life therapy balls in the play room, bouncing and falling all over them as I tried all my tools to get their attention. For a millisecond my mind said, “Hey! Don’t they know I have fun therapeutic stuff planned! These kids are being naughty! They should listen!” Luckily I can catch myself (I know that’s not my voice in there, but the voice of my teachers and parents from my childhood in their worst moments).
The voice Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, ran through my mind:
“Children are never bad.
They are only connected or disconnected.”
When a child is connected it means they are using all parts of their brain in sync, they are not overwhelmed by emotions or sensations and they feel loved in your presence. When a child is disconnected the higher level thinking parts of their brain that manage impulse-control and decision-making are hijacked by the emotional brain in fight/flight or sensory overload.
I could use this message from Hand in Hand Parenting right in that moment. I thought to myself, If kids are only ever connected or disconnected, then if these kids aren’t listening (and my expectations are not inappropriate) then they must be disconnected. The question then becomes:
How can I help this child feel connected?
When our children are disconnected they need our presence and attention.
This helps them connect the brain’s emotional center to the higher thinking centers. Sometimes they also need some sensory input to connect and harmonize the brain stem, which controls nervous system regulation.
This is the gold. This is where the healing is at. When you notice your child is disconnected (and you’ll usually notice because you feel irritated at ‘how bad they are being’), you can bring this question to mind: “How can I help my child feel connected?” It reminds you that their behavior really has nothing to do with you. They aren’t acting out specifically for the purpose of irritating you (though that may be part of the fun and adrenaline-kick they get from it). They are acting out because they aren’t connected. And they need your attention and presence, and maybe a big squeeze or high jump, to get connected again.
Just so I don’t leave you hanging, this is what I did with those sweet children in my office after I realized the right question was not “Why aren’t they listening?” but rather, “What can I do to get them connected?”: I told them before we do circle we should bounce on the balls and asked how many times we should bounce. This gave them some control over the situation, the sensory input their bodies were craving, and the connection with me as I held their hands, looked into their eyes and counted with joy for every bounce.
So next time your child won’t listen and you’re finding yourself irritated, stop what you’re doing and muster all the attention and presence you can for your child and ask yourself:
“WHAT CAN I DO
TO HELP MY CHILD FEEL CONNECTED?”
Write this new question on a post-it and stick it to your fridge, your mirror, the dash of your car. In time you will find that you have reprogrammed those old voices and are parenting from a more centered and peaceful place.
Want to dive deeper into learning Parenting by Connection or other tools for your child?
Sign up for a consultation for individual or group parenting support.
Karen Wolfe, MFT
Setting limits with your child in public and even with extended family can bring up all sorts of challenges. Feeling judged by others if your child is misbehaving is awful. And trying to get stuff done out in the world when your child is not cooperating can turn even the most patient parent into the Hulk.
It’s hard enough to manage tantrums and stubbornness at home, but how do you keep your cool and get out of these sticky situations in public?
I suggest three ways:
1: Maintain high expectations and high connection with your child.
2: Don’t just set the limit, bring it.
3: Make sure you are getting support.
1- Have high expectations and high connection
Research shows that the parenting style that raises children that are resilient, healthy, and well-adjusted is one that is both moderately high in behavioral expectations and high in warmth and connection. Parenting that is too strict leads to children who are rigid and can’t regulate their emotions and parenting that is too lenient leads to children who engage in risky behavior. But when parents have reasonable expectations for their child’s behavior and a lot of love and warmth, children tend to behave better, deal with their emotions more productively, and make better decisions in the long term. Armed with this information, you as a parent should feel confident in setting behavioral expectations for your child and empowered in meeting your child’s feelings with warmth.
You do want to make sure your expectations are age-appropriate or you will be banging your head against a wall and hurting your child’s esteem. Parents.com has lots of good information on what to expect from children of different ages like in this article. And if your child has special needs of any kind, consult with a professional to keep his/her own personal developmental level in mind when setting your expectations.
Try your best to meet your child exactly where he is at, and ask for one step more. No more. No less. Maintain that expectation, communicating your faith that your child can do it and that you love him no matter what. And if others around you don’t like it, well perhaps they don’t realize what an important job you are doing in that moment, and that you like all parents are finding your own unique voice. You can rest assured that if I was there with you in that store or that family gathering, you would have a strong advocate who is not afraid to stand up and tell those judges to back off while you are being the awesome, unique parent that you are. You are meeting yourself with love where you are at, and asking for one step better. No more. No less. And that’s the perfect amount.
2- Bring the limit
When you are reasonably sure your expectations of your child are more or less on target then you can feel empowered to set your limit. Today parenting has become very child-centered, focusing on peaceful parenting and empathy for children. This is a healthy swing-back from the damaging authoritative “do-as-I-say-or-else!” parenting most of us were raised with. However, in my experience parents who want to raise their children consciously often feel timid about setting limits, as though if you don’t give in to every whim of your child then you are not a loving parent. Quite the contrary. Children need limits. It’s how they learn what is appropriate in the world and also how to deal with feelings about having limits (which will come one day or another). It’s how the limits are given that makes the difference.
So when it’s time to set the limit, don’t just set it, bring it. And do so with love. Bring the limit directly to your child. Use your warmth and your attention. Look your child in the eye, put a hand on her shoulder, remind her that you know she knows how to do it better. That you know she wants to keep playing. That now it’s time to go. Bring the limit. And be there for your child’s feelings as you bring it.
It’s all too easy to get caught in calling across the aisle to your child in the store when it’s time to go. But the second you start to feel frustrated, that is your cue to go directly to your child and using your love, warmth, and attention, to bring that limit directly to him. Don’t wait until you are about to lose it. Bring the limit to your child, even if that means stepping away from a family conversation to avert a big meltdown. It’s worth it and you can rest assured that you are backed by lots of science saying that this type of parenting raises resilient, healthy children. So don’t just set the limit, bring it. With as much warmth, attention, and presence as you can muster.
3- Get support
It’s normal and natural to get flustered while parenting, especially in our modern fast-paced world. There’s a lot of information out there and not a lot of support for this big job. Seek parenting support so that you have a place in which you can vent your frustrations and concerns on a regular basis. Having a place you know you can go to and let out all your worries and stress from the week will allow you to meet your child with more love and connection in those heated moments. Not only will support allow you to release emotional tension that builds up, but it will also provide a buffer for your overwhelm. Listening Partnerships and parenting groups are great for this. I can’t tell you how often a situation will crop up that would in the past make me feel angry, frustrated, worried, or downright depressed, but knowing that I will have my 20 minutes to vent with my listening partner every Friday allows me just enough space to set those feelings aside until I can release them in a healthy non-destructive way. It’s as though I can say to myself, “I don’t have to get upset now, I know I’ll be able to cry and scream about this in my Listening Partnership.” If you aren’t sure how to set up a Listening Partnership (LP) or what exactly it is visit Hand in Hand Parenting’s website for more info and read my blog on venting in LP’s .
So next time you are dealing with a public tantrum remember:
1-High expectations and higher connection
2-Bring the limit. Gently. Directly to your child.
3-Get support to release emotional tension.
Karen Wolfe, MFT is a psychotherapist in San Francisco and the East Bay. She is passionate about helping children and families thrive and has particular expertise with children with exceptional learning and sensory styles.