I recently went to hear Dr Dan Siegel speaking at a conference on “The Mindsight Approach to Parenting”. The focus of his talk was unusual I thought. He talked, as I expected, about the mind. But here’s the thing; it wasn’t about my child’s mind. It was about mine.
I’ve spent a great deal of time learning about how babies’ brains develop, why toddlers have tantrums, what children can and can’t understand at certain ages, how children develop and manage their feelings, and why they might behave in certain ways etc etc. And I reckon I’ve also learnt a fair bit about how to respond to and treat children accordingly. So I know about validating feelings, being empathetic, not using punishments, the need to stay connected, what probably is and isn’t the right thing to say etc etc. I even write a blog about it.
So why, I often ask myself, do I sometimes hear words coming from my own mouth that I know are the opposite of what I should be saying, that I know will only make things worse, that I know will hurt my child’s feelings, that I know are not modelling the kind of person I want my child to be? It’s as if there’s some other person inside me saying these words on my behalf, but without my approval, and against my wishes. What the hell?
That’s where my own brain comes into the equation.
When I was preparing for the arrival of my child, I was having a conversation with someone about how I might deal with difficult behaviour. (Of course, I had some very clear ideas, all of which have been long forgotten). “They really can take you places you didn’t know you could go”, this person told me. And she didn’t mean nice places. I thought this sounded a little, er, negative. Now I know exactly what she was talking about.
Never, before becoming a parent, had I experienced that moment when my patience is so completely drained, my anger and frustration so aroused, and I just totally lose it. It’s quite sudden, like a bomb exploding. I think all parents must know what I’m talking about – at least all the ones I’ve spoken to do, which is in some way reassuring.
So, what to do about it?
When things go wrong, the plus side is that we can learn from them. What situation or set of circumstances led your child to behave in such a way that made you snap? Is there any way to do things differently next time?
If something’s a daily battle, do something about it. Try a different strategy, a different approach. Is your child going to magically change their behaviour in this same situation tomorrow? Probably not. Change the situation not the child.
But to some extent, I think we have to accept that despite our best efforts and intentions, we all lose it occasionally….
OK, so the prevention bit didn’t work this time and you’ve totally lost it. Press pause.
The important thing to understand is that it’s impossible to parent when we’re in a reactive state. The rational, thinking part of the brain simply isn’t functioning properly. Until you’ve really calmed down, don’t even try to respond.
Don’t speak. Anything you say is unlikely to be helpful at this stage. More likely to be the opposite. Don’t let those words come out of your mouth that you’ll later regret . Button it.
Dr Siegel also suggests putting your arms behind your back to help suppress any urge to push, pull or otherwise be more rough with your child than you would like.
We need to be able to recognise when we’re in this reactive state in order to then be able to stop ourselves saying or doing things that we know to be inappropriate and unhelpful. When a child behaves in a way that makes us really mad, we might need to take some immediate steps to keep them safe, but we don’t always need to say or do anything else right away. Wait until you’re both calm. Often your child is more likely to be in a state of mind to listen and learn later on as well.
Make a repair
If the pause button doesn’t work and your anger gets the better of you, it’s important to do what Dr Siegel refers to as ‘making a repair’. A repair to our relationship and connection with our child. When we yell, are rough with, or say unkind things to our children, we lose that connection with them, and when connection isn’t there, the things our children do that make us mad are more likely to keep happening.
So when you’ve calmed down, go to your child and apologise. And make this unconditional. “I’m sorry I yelled, but you made me really mad” won’t cut it. Just apologise. Admit that your behaviour was not OK. You can talk about your child’s behaviour, if you need to, later. It’s OK to admit to our children that we’re wrong sometimes. Nobody’s perfect, and saying sorry and making amends is important. Surely this is a lesson worth teaching?