Not listening

April 14, 2014

not listening girlResearch presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference last week has suggested that shouting at children and giving out punishments could make their behaviour worse rather than better.

No kidding. Many parents have known this for years. Unfortunately many have not though, so it’s nice to see this recent piece of research reported in the mainstream media.

Interestingly, however, all the articles I’ve found on the subject only mention shouting in the headline, even though the report from the London School of Economics also warns against punishing and ignoring children.

Certainly, shouting is the only part picked up on by Telegraph journalist Rowan Pelling in her article which she may as well have titled, “I was shouted at and I’m fine”. Dismissing the research, in favour of her own minimal anecdotal evidence, she paints a great picture of how said shouting and punishing really doesn’t help, and in doing so does a great job of defeating her own argument.

She and her husband shout all the time, she is happy to reveal. So guess what? Her kids shout too. Surprise, surprise. Furthermore, her attempts at punishment to control said kids leads to cheeky back-talk. There’s a lack of cooperation, a lack of respect.

And yet, instead of trying to address this, Ms Pelling seems to assume that this is simply the way family life is. It may have been the way her family life was – she’s also happy to reveal, again no surprises here, that she was shouted at regularly as a child.

Shouting is necessary? Kids won’t listen to reasoning? I wouldn’t listen to or respect someone who shouted at me, or tried to use their power to control and manipulate me. I’d push back against those attempts at control. I’d be very disinclined to cooperate with them or respect their wishes.

Shouting won’t do any harm? Unless, by harm done, you include teaching kids to shout at you, at others, and eventually at their own kids, and the daily harm that does to family life. The harm that this does to family relationships, to the connection our children need to feel with us in order to be inclined to cooperate in the first place. And actually there’s plenty of evidence of the emotional harm that regular, frequent shouting can do. It’s been placed in the same league as smacking.

Yes, we all lose it and shout at our kids sometimes. But this latest report isn’t talking about the occasional loss of control. It’s talking about parents, apparently like Ms Pelling, who think it’s OK to do this all the time, every day, and to be so unashamed about it they’re happy to write an article in a major national newspaper dismissing any evidence that it is in fact not OK, not helpful, and counterproductive to boot.

When are we going to learn to stop being so defensive about our parenting to the point that we can’t take on board new information or reflect on where our parenting assumptions are coming from? When are we going to learn to use our own childhood experiences to make changes for the better, instead of blindly carrying on with the worst? When are we going to start listening?


“Santa won’t come unless you’re good.” Taking bribes and threats to greater depths.

December 10, 2013

What’s wrong with a little bribery around Christmas time? Every parent does this, right? It might seem like a convenient and harmless way to get kids to comply without an all-out fight, but I think it’s bribes and threats in their lowest form. 

I don’t like bribery or rewards as a parenting tool at the best of times, for a number of reasons. One is that they teach children to focus on self-gain, to do things for the wrong reasons. I’d really like my child to tidy his room because he’s conscious that it’s the right thing to do, because his connection with me is strong enough that he wants to comply with my requests. Not because he’s rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of the pile of presents he’s going to get at Christmas. I don’t want to encourage a self-interested, ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude.

Normally I’d also point out that when we use rewards as a parenting tool we model bribery and manipulation, and yet, actually, that isn’t a problem in this case. No need to worry about that here since we’re not even bothering to at least be honest about what we’re doing. Instead, we stoop to greater depths and deviousness by hiding behind Santa. It’s his decision, not ours, as to whether or not our child has measured up to standard. How convenient? What a cop-out. 

santa with listThen there’s the use of the term ‘good’ when referring to a child or to their behaviour. It’s quite a broad term really, isn’t it? What does it really mean to our children, other than that when they’re not ‘good’ they are, by default, ‘bad’? Is this really what we want our children to believe? When my child makes a bad choice, loses control, or becomes disconnected, and behaves in ways that I don’t want him to behave, shaming him is really not helpful. Making him believe he is not ‘good enough’ for a visit from Santa isn’t going to make him feel great about himself or help him behave any differently. I don’t want to impose on him these feelings of conditional acceptance. Whatever his behaviour, he is always loved and loveable. 

Think about it. What a horrible message to send a child – that they are so bad that the jolly, generous, magical man who likes to give children presents will simply miss them out because they’re a bad person. What a horrible threat to make to a small child, whether empty or not. Christmas should be a magical time for children, and as such should not be poisoned by adults with their unkind threats and scare stories. Of course every child will be visited by Santa. It’s the season of goodwill, of love, of forgiveness. 

The thing is, children, especially those young enough to believe in Santa, don’t always have complete control over their behaviour, their impulses, or their feelings, and they don’t always make good choices. They’re still not terribly mature, you see. Behaviour is communicating a need. Even if it’s outright defiance, there’s still a message there, a need for connection. Simply trying to use Santa to control behaviour isn’t going to meet those needs, and isn’t going to foster that close connection of love and trust that is the real key to gaining genuine cooperation. 

Bribes and threats have no place in a loving, connected, respectful relationship. Instead of hiding behind Santa we need to be the parents our children need us to be, to understand and address their needs, to show them our gentle leadership, our ability to set empathetic limits and to accept the uncomfortable feelings that may arise in response to those limits. And above all, we need to send the message that they are loved unconditionally. However they might behave, Santa will visit no matter what.


Pressing pause

June 13, 2013

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?

Prevention

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.

See my posts here and here for some approaches, and strategies on gaining cooperation.

But to some extent, I think we have to accept that despite our best efforts and intentions, we all lose it occasionally….

pausePress pause

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?


Looking for discipline techniques that ‘work’? Forget it!

August 16, 2012

“If we don’t use rewards or punishments, what’s the alternative? What else can we use that works“.

I remember asking this question myself when I first began to make the shift in my attitude towards parenting. But the problem lies in the question itself. What do we mean by ‘works’?

Usually, I think we mean ‘get our children to do what we want, now’ or ‘Get a child to stop an unwanted behaviour, and sooner rather than later.’ So we’re measuring the success of a particular method by the immediate and perceivable outcome. Conventional discipline techniques like the naughty step are all about gaining obedience in the short-term. So when we ask, ‘What’s the alternative?’ I think we’re still too hung up on short-term obedience, or in finding ways to manipulate and change behaviour.

There are different strategies we can use to try to avoid power struggles and upsets, and gain cooperation. There are different ways we can respond when a child’s behaviour is unacceptable. But there are no quick fix solutions. We need to think long-term, and seek to guide our children into acceptable behaviour over time, not overnight. If, instead of looking for things that ‘work’ in the immediate term, we pay attention to the relationship, to being connected, and to meeting our child’s emotional needs, this in time will lead to fewer difficulties, and a fresher, more effective approach to the challenges we encounter – and often it’s a change in our own attitude, expectations, and approach that’s needed, rather than a change in our child’s behaviour.

Let go of control.

Too often we try to exert unnecessary levels of control over our children. Make sure there’s a good reason to say no. Often there is. But sometime it’s possible to come up with a compromise or solution that allows your child some autonomy. Save rules for things that really matter. Be mindful of safety without using it as an excuse. Respect a child’s need for what little freedom and autonomy we can afford them. Life as a young child is restrictive enough already.

Don’t be a helicopter or try to micro-manage. Step back a little and chill out. Allow that kids can be messy, forgetful, impulsive, and may not always like or enjoy what you expect them to.

Don’t expect, or even desire, blind and instant obedience.

Have realistic, age appropriate expectations.

Don’t expect a two-year-old to happily share toys with other children. Don’t expect a young child to follow you quietly round the supermarket without ever running in the aisles, attempting to touch anything on the shelves, or whining. Be reasonable, get real, and plan accordingly.

Furthermore, many unwanted behaviours will change over time as part of a child’s natural development, and don’t need to be interfered with by adults with “behaviour modification techniques”. Hitting will stop when a child develops greater impulse control and anger management. We can take steps to prevent it, step in quickly when it happens, gently teach and guide, but we can’t change things overnight.

Change the situation, not the child.

 “It takes a truly adaptive parent to sense the futility of harping on behaviour and to stop railing against what the parent cannot change……It takes a wise parent to focus on what the child is reacting to: the circumstances and situations surrounding the child.  In other words, a parent must first let go of trying to change the child.” Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Mate, M.D., “Hold On to Your Kids“.

Strive to prevent difficult behaviour from happening in the first place. If your child can’t manage certain situations, avoid them, or change them. Maybe they just can’t handle the supermarket. Can you shop online? Make it more fun for them? Leave them with dad and do it on a Saturday?

If something’s going wrong on a regular basis look at the circumstances surrounding it and for ways to change them.

Meltdown? Maybe they didn’t get enough one to one time with you today. Can you build some in tomorrow? Maybe they’re over-tired. Perhaps that after-school playdate wasn’t such a good idea. Every situation is different, and a different set of circumstances led to things turning out how they did. Things will go wrong sometimes. Learn from these without letting yourself or your child feel bad about it, and emerge stronger and wiser the next time.

Stay connected and give attention when it’s needed

“…I hate the phrase, “He was just looking for attention.” For years, the standard advice has been to ignore such behavior. I don’t get that. We don’t say, “He keeps asking for food, but just ignore him: he’s only saying that because he’s hungry.” We don’t say, “Your cup is empty; so I’ll make sure you don’t get a refill.” If someone is looking for attention that bad, I figure they must need some attention! If we give them enough of the good kind, they won’t be so desperate that they’ll settle for the bad kind”. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., “Playful Parenting”.

Forget the old philosophy of not rewarding ‘bad behaviour’ with attention. If your child is attention-seeking, give them some attention. Then give them some more the next day so they won’t have to resort to ‘bad’ behaviour to get it in the first place. Simple.

Difficult behaviours stem from disconnection. Staying connected with your child is the single, most effective way to avoid these.

It’s not discipline techniques we need, conventional or not. It’s the bigger picture, the whole approach and attitude to parenting as an ongoing journey. There are no short cuts. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to any given situation, to any particular child or particular behaviour or issue. We’d all love there to be a magic step-by-step procedure to stop our children hitting, to make them share with other children, to make them get ready for bed every night without any fuss . Programs like Supernanny would have us believe there is. But there isn’t.


Connection is the key.

May 2, 2012

Connection is about maintaining that close, loving, attuned relationship in which a child will feel secure and loved, and will thrive. This alone gives us something to constantly strive for. But there are also practical day-to-day benefits. Connection is the key to preventing and reducing unwanted behaviours, and to gaining cooperation. If my child is disconnected, this is when unwanted behaviour is likely to occur. We need to reconnect. This is why punitive responses to behaviour don’t work. They only widen that feeling of disconnection.

But what does connection mean exactly?

Lawrence Cohen, as usual, does a great job of describing this concept in “Playful Parenting”. He starts by describing that deep connection between babies and their parent, sometimes referred to as eye-love (we all remember those long periods of eye contact with our babies) then goes on;

“If all goes well, the eye-love between infants and parents is replaced by a less blissful, but still solid, connection. You and your child are able to talk or play or hang out easily together, enjoying each other, relatively in tune. These moments can be quiet times, like just before falling asleep, or active playtimes. The next level is a more casual connection, an unspoken bond that may be noticed only when it’s gone, replaced by conflict or distance. At the extreme are the most alienated types of disconnection. Disconnection can be a nightmare of painful isolation, withdrawal, and lashing out…….even normal, healthy children have moments when they lose that thread of connection. They retreat into towers of isolation when they feel lonely, afraid, or overwhelmed.”

How do I know when my child’s disconnected? It’s hard to describe exactly as it’s sometimes a subtle change like avoidance of eye contact, feigned lack of interest in my offers of closeness, an extra jumper or a snack. But often it’s obvious; loud, out of control, slightly crazy behaviour, and at worst, lashing out, either physically, verbally, or just by doing things calculated to enrage.

The more I observe these behaviours, the more likely I am to be able to predict when they might happen, and so take steps to prevent it happening in the first place. So, often I’ll make a point of reconnecting before any difficult behaviour starts, like at school pick up time, or any other time we may have been separated, not just by school, but maybe because he’s just been busy playing outside with his friends all morning.

Sometimes we just need a ‘quick connect’, like a quick high-five, or a joke and a giggle together, or a special something that only the two of us know about. Anything that involves giggling and/or eye contact nearly always works.  Giving a quick passing hug or a kiss usually doesn’t – he needs to be engaged with it, accepting of it.

Sometimes we need to have a longer period of one to one time together, usually playing, especially rough and tumble play that involves lots of physical contact, but also imaginary play that will often bring out things that might be troubling him.

Sometimes, I’ll need to insist on reconnection – in other words, I don’t accept rejection. Children need to know we’re always there for them and that we love them no matter what. Whilst there might be times when they really do need to be alone for a while, and I actually find these are rare, shouts of ‘Go away’ are often a test to see if we really will go, or if we love them enough to stay even when they’re behaving horribly towards us.

Many little things throughout the day can cause that connection to be strained or broken – failing to empathise with something he got upset about, a few harsh words or a betrayal of annoyance and impatience, a disagreement about whether he’s allowed to do or have such and such. Having a handful of ways to reconnect and incorporating these into our day-to-day interactions can help stop things getting out of hand.

One connection technique I sometimes use with my child is challenging him to look constantly into my eyes while we both count to ten. It’s become a bit of a game, and usually gets a bit of a giggle, as well as some eye contact. I’ve always thought the success of it was somewhat varied until the other day. He did something that really annoyed me (I won’t bore you with the details of what it was, it was a silly thing really in hindsight) and I made my annoyance very clear. He said sorry, then put both arms round me and said “Mummy, we need to connect, let’s look into each other’s eyes.”

So we looked into each other’s eyes and counted to ten.

Priceless.


How do you get your child to do what you want?

February 14, 2012

I was asked this question by a father I met on a parenting course last week. He didn’t ask because he was marvelling at the incredible obedience of my child (who wasn’t there and who he’d never met), but I think because it was a question that had been puzzling him lately, and he wanted to hear what other parents had to say.

I found it difficult to give a short answer, which I guess sums it up really – there is no simple answer. So I’ve decided my answer deserves a blog post.

Without the use of bribes and threats, it’s all about strategies. Here are some of mine. None of them are guaranteed to work – that’s why it’s useful to have a few to try for different situations. But I believe they are, however, guaranteed to avoid jeopardising relationships, damaging a child’s self esteem, and creating long term problems.

Give choices

A child is much more likely to comply if they feel they have some control over the situation, have had their wishes consulted, and have been shown respect. Giving choices can achieve all this.

“Shall we put your shoes or coat on first?”

Or “Are you going to sit here or here for shoes on?”

Note that the child does not have overall choice about everything – they don’t have a choice about whether or not they’re going out – the adult retains overall control but gives the child choices within this. Let’s face it – children have very little choice over what happens to them each day. Giving choices where possible can help alleviate feelings of powerlessness and frustration and feed a child’s growing desire for independence. See my previous post on this strategy. 

Give information not commands

A subtle re-phrasing can sometimes be all that’s needed. So instead of “Put your shoes on”;

“We need to put our shoes on now so we can go out.”

“It’s time to put our shoes on.”

“It’s time to go out. Your shoes are ready at the bottom of the stairs.”

Again, I’ve written another post just on this strategy. Don’t knock it just yet – it’s surprising how well it can work.

Be playful and stay connected

This is probably my favourite one, and the one with which I have the most success. Be silly, make a joke, make things fun.

“Let’s race to see who can put their shoes on first.”

“We’re going on an adventure. Let’s get our special adventure shoes on.” Elaborate, create themes ad hoc.

Make silly noises as you put your shoes on and challenge your child to make some of their own, do a silly shoes-on dance or song, get creative, have fun and giggle!

Playfulness brings us to our child’s level and keeps us connected with them. Connection is the key to cooperation – well, to everything really.

This strategy is on my list of topics for future posts. In the meantime, read Lawrence Cohen’s “Playful Parenting”. Brilliant.

Give warnings

Give your child a chance to shift gears. If they’re in the middle of something, don’t expect them to drop everything any more than you would want to if you were in the middle of something.  Give some warnings, explain what’s happening next, and when they can return to what they’re doing now. Make a connection with them before trying to get them to comply.

Validate

If your child protests, cries, gets upset – validate, don’t scold.

“You were having fun doing that and now we have to go out. That must be hard. You’re feeling upset about this etc…”

Showing a child we’re on their side and understand is far more to likely to head off a major power struggle or meltdown.

Do it yourself

Don’t obsess about what age your child should or should not be doing things themselves. Just put their shoes on for them if this is easier. Nicely, whilst talking or joking with them, and making eye contact.

No, you will not still be doing this when they’re a teenager.  You just won’t. Really.

These strategies may sound unrealistic to some, but the most important thing I’ve discovered is that once I made the shift in attitude away from that of expecting instant compliance and blind obedience, and once I dispensed with using any bribes or threats, I found these strategies worked better simply because I was coming up against less resistance in the first place.

Difficult behaviour usually stems from disconnection. Playfulness, empathy, patience, understanding and respect will keep you connected whilst punishment and reward systems won’t.

Please share what strategies have worked for you.


Choices

January 12, 2012

There are no step by step guides, no rights and wrongs, no quick fixes or easy solutions when it comes to parenting, especially, I find, when it comes to parenting without the use of rewards or punishments.  It’s really about strategies, having lots of them up our sleeves, and judging the right time to use them.

One strategy I find I use many times every day is that of giving choices.  This has been an essential tool for me when it comes to gaining the cooperation of my control-crazy child.  “Just tell him” just doesn’t work.  It’s a red flag to a bull, an open invitation for power struggles and day long conflict.  Here are some examples:

Instead of “Come and put your shoes on”, try “Where are you going to sit to put your shoes on?”

Instead of “Brush your teeth and put your pyjamas on”, try “Do you want to brush your teeth now or in your pyjamas?”

Instead of just making his meal, give him a choice; “Do you want pasta or potatoes today?”

Instead of “Time to get out of the bath”, try “Are you ready to get out now, or would you like two more minutes?”

Open ended choices, however, I avoid;  “What would you like for lunch?”, followed by a list of suggestions, is usually followed by a list of “No”s.

All sound a bit tedious?  It can be!  And my neighbours may attest to hearing me on occasion yelling at the top of my voice “Oh for God’s sake just put your pyjamas on!” or similar, especially towards the end of the day.  However, overall, I’d say it’s a lot less exhausting, unpleasant, and remarkably quicker than the “just do what I say” approach.  Power struggles can be time consuming as well as exhausting and unpleasant.  Those two extra minutes in the bath are nothing compared to what could have been.

Some parents worry that giving choices leads a child to expect them all the time and means they will never do as they’re told, which sometimes – actually a lot of the time – they just have to. But others assert that the more children feel respected, and the less they get bossed around, the more likely they will be to comply when we let them know they really need to.  Giving choices doesn’t mean complete anarchy.  There are still limits and boundaries.  You’ll notice the examples I gave are all of giving very limited choices.  But there is still a choice, and children appreciate this.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish write in their book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk“,

“It might seem inconsequential to ask a child whether he wants a half glass of milk or a whole, his toast light or dark; but to the child each small choice represents one more opportunity to exert some control over his own life.  There is so much a child must do that it’s not hard to understand why he becomes resentful and balky.”

Another great benefit, aside from gaining cooperation, is that choices make children feel respected – they feel that their wishes have been consulted, that they are part of the decision making process, that their feelings are important, and likewise that they are an important and respected member of the family.  All good things for a connected relationship and for a child’s self esteem.