...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.
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Karen Wolfe, MFT
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.