...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?
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Karen Wolfe, MFT
No, it’s not 1, 2, 3 magic. And it has nothing to do with time outs. This approach goes beyond all that. This is about the real reason we set limits with our children: to help them (and sometimes to help us) to calm the &%#@ down! (okay, yes, and also to raise emotionally healthy, well-adjusted children).
You know you don’t want to lose it and freak out on them (though, to be honest, we all lose it sometimes...more on that another time). But you also don’t want them running around like crazy people (there are not enough headphones and baths in this universe to keep you sane with that kind of chaos).
So how do you let your kids be kids and also keep your cool?
Last week I talked about noticing your desire to to set a limit is for yourself or for your child and the week before I talked about just how important letting them rough house play is to healthy emotional development. This week we get into the nitty gritty: How to actually set the limit.
Hand in Hand Parenting suggests a 3-step formula:
1- Listen to your child: what is s/he experiencing? Why? Listen within yourself: what’s the limit that will need to be set about, both for your and for your child.
2- Set the limit. Do it early. As soon as you notice your kid’s behavior is off track, move in close. Make eye contact. Offer your warmth, and your connection. Put your hand in the middle of whatever is going on. Set the limit. “I can’t let you hit your brother.” “I can’t let you have ice cream for breakfast.”
3- Listen again: What feelings in your child come up from having this limit set? Setting a limit with love and connection allows whatever ucky feelings that are getting in the way to come up to be released. Listen to them with love. “I can understand that sometimes you might want to hit your brother.” “I get that it would be fun to have ice cream for breakfast.”
A plethora of research shows that when discipline includes listening with warmth in this way and the gentle, but firm setting of limits, children has more self-esteem, self-control, and resilience.
Most of us did not have limits set in the way I am explaining here, so it might feel a bit (or A LOT) like swimming upstream at first. And, yes, it is a lot more work, which means parents need more support. But it pays off in the long run.
Children whose parents listen with warmth as they express the feelings that come up when given a limit are able to regulate their emotions, delay gratification, and in general make better decisions for themselves later in life. They develop what Sam Goldstein and Robert Brooks in their book “Raising Resilient Children” call "the emotional clutch."
So next time you feel the call to set a limit remember:
You want to let your kids rough house. You know now the importance of that (if you missed that article click here). But you are worried about it getting out of hand.
Our job as parents and teachers is to keep our children safe. But it is also to help them learn and grow. And growing involves some growing pains.
How do we balance the needs for safety and challenge when our kids play rough?
Last week I talked about the incredible importance of rough-and-tumble play for kids. This week we address how to tumble with our kids and to set limits when needed to keep it in that optimal risk zone (safe, but challenging and boundary-pushing). We need to balance the need for risk-taking with that for safety in three areas: their body, your body, and the environment. This week will focus on setting limits to keep your kidʼs body safe in rough-and-tumble play.
Recently I was engaged in some intense foam sword fighting with two brothers in my play therapy office. The older brother loved to show off his moves and use his strength. Even though the younger brother looked overwhelmed and would sometimes get hurt, he wanted his brother to go hard on him. He needed it. In order to feel his strength he needed to be pushed to his limit. Itʼs my job to help him feel that inner strength. But it is also my job to keep him safe from harm. So imagine my dilemma when after saying he did not want his brother go easier on him, a piece of the foam sword broke off exposing the plastic underneath and grazed his neck causing a small scrape. Anxiety about if I am creating a safe enough environment for him, worry about what his parents might say, a desire to stop the game all together ran through my system in a millisecond. If I had listened to my own fear I would have stopped the game abruptly leaving him feeling weak and helpless once again. But instead I paused the game, really looked at his face that showed the pain but also strength, and asked if he would like to stop. He took a breath and said no, continuing on with a smile with his brother until they decided to stop on their own. The moral here: set limits from a place of keeping your kids safe from real danger, not from your own fear about if youʼre doing a good job. Your kids will thank you.
Itʼs normal and healthy to want to protect our children. And it is true that play involves risk. But what research has shown is that allowing the natural course of some cuts and bruises and a few tears in play far exceeds the risks of cutting them off from this play (see the article on how stopping rough-and-tumble play can lead to violent tendencies). And even beyond allowing some hurts being okay, itʼs actually healing.
When an adult lightly supervises rough-and-tumble play then they are there to listen to the hurts that open up when there is a cut or your child goes beyond her boundary and scares herself. All the scares or hurts from the day, the week, and even earlier in life can come out through those tears and into the loving heart of the caring adult that listens with patience and attention. This is the Hand in Hand Parenting Tool called Staylistening.
So this week when you duke it out with your little ninja, remember to check in if you are setting a limit to truly keep them safe, or from your own place of worry or overwhelm.
Want tips on how to deal with your own anxiety about chaotic play?
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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.