Photo: Ned Elton

Before children, I thought the hard stuff was going to be the chores—the sheer abundance of them, getting them to sleep, feeding them, having to change so many diapers. And then doing it all over again, all on relatively no sleep.

So when I was able to manage that, I was kind of like, “Okay, I got this! I’m utterly exhausted, but I’ll sleep when they’re 3.” Then, as my kids got older, I figured as long as I didn’t feed them chicken nuggets or give them Hawaiian Punch at every meal I’d be on the right track.

And so, I just assumed that the other stuff, like making them happy, polite emotionally stable human beings would just fall into place. I figured, I’m a good person with manners and I am generally emotionally stable, so that should translate into being a great parent with great kids. I’d be a great role model for them. The “chill mom.” How could anything go wrong? Bingo, automatic pilot.

So when I struggled to get shoes on and leave the house on time or my child literally freaked out because someone had made a mark on her drawing or melted down because I was neither close enough nor far away enough from the jungle gym as I spotted her, I had to really stop and think.

If I could have talked to the parenting gods, I would literally have looked up to the heavens and said, “What the hell is this? Are you kidding me?? I am doing this all the right way! I’m easy going, I’m not helicopter parenting, I’ve got the right amount of schedule,with the right amount of go with the flow thing going on here! They are not supposed to be acting like this—I repeat—not supposed to be acting like this!”

I’d sort of imagined I would instinctively know how to handle these situations. I’d know what to do when they were hurt, know what to do when they were upset or seemingly irrational – know exactly how to get them to get over things, move on, cooperate.

Essentially, how to get them to “feel” better.

That was it. I couldn’t change the way they felt. If they were angry, I couldn’t always get them to calm down. If they were upset and crying, I couldn’t automatically make them happy again. What kind of horrible mother was I? I thought I’d have this magic touch. Wasn’t it that simple?

So I thought about this, maybe it wouldn’t happen again. It was just the lack of an afternoon nap, or they must be hungry, but of course it would happen again, and again and the cycle would repeat itself. My child would get upset, about something or other. And it seemed like no matter what I did, they became more upset and sometimes, eventually angry.

I would twist myself into a pretzel cajoling, distracting, sweetly explaining things, and after an insane amount of patience on my part, or so I thought, I would become upset and even angry. So now, I was angry at my kid for essentially being upset about something. And somewhere down the line I would become upset at myself for not handling it correctly.

It was then I realized I needed to search beyond my magical intuition for some guidance.

And this was the most surprising thing to me about parenting, I couldn’t make them feel better.  They’d misbehave because they were upset and I was at a loss about handling it. The subtle nuances of discipline weren’t clear and straightforward. I thought they would be.

How exactly do I deal with these meltdowns and the power struggles? Time-outs didn’t feel right. I mean, isolating them on a stool so that they could reflect on their bad behavior. Yeah, I’m thinking that’s not going to work. And, it feels mean. But then, I can’t let them just do whatever they want. I really felt like the outside world was judging me on the success of every public parent conflict. Secretly thinking to themselves, is she really going to let them get away with that?

What kind of disciplinarian was I? What did that mean to me, discipline? I certainly am not going to hit, I don’t want to yell all the time—only some of the time, okay—but not all the time.

But, I have to be the parent. They are supposed to do what I tell them, am I right? I need to have control. At least that’s what the lady at Petco told me as my child screamed inconsolably in the stroller. Yes, she did, she told me that. My response was not my best parenting moment.

My younger sister who had kids well before me would say when I tried to calmly explain to my nephew that he couldn’t swing from the dining room chandelier because he might get hurt, that you can’t reason with a two-year-old. And that’s true. But that still doesn’t explain how I should deal with this stuff.

Here’s what I’ve learned. We’re not talking about reasoning and we’re not commanding them listen to us. We’re also not asking them to jump ahead to where we want them to be emotionally by saying, “come on sweetie, come here, to this enlightened place where I am. I know best”. No, that doesn’t work.

You essentially have to start by meeting them where they are first. That crazy upset place they are sitting in. You go in to where they are and you stay there until they can move on with you. And this is what Parenting is really, over and over again, meet them there. And then of course a hell of a lot of acceptance of that. Because you will continually want to go back to either just fixing the damned situation or making them deal with it.

And so, how do you get there?

1. See your child where they are, not where you want them to be or hope that by coaxing, prodding, bribing, yelling or threatening they will be.

Don’t rush in to fix things. That’s the first instinct for many of us. Resist the urge! Fixing things is not actually what they want or need in that moment. They really just want you to hear them. What we may see as a task to be solved (because Moms and Dads are great at solving things—we’re so smart) is really an expression that they want you to KNOW how they feel.

When you start by trying to understand and acknowledging their feelings, that is so deeply moving to someone and so reassuring, you soften, they soften and then they can move beyond those overwhelming feelings. It is only then that they will hear you. So first listen to them, and let them know you are listening, by acknowledging what they are saying and expressing it.

2. Give them some information to help guide them and/or offer them a choice to help them shift. We are helping them help themselves. Coaching them through these feelings, rather than denying the feelings or telling them their feelings aren’t that bad and they need to stop it right now! It goes something like this: “You’re really upset that we chose this book to read tonight. Your sister picked this and you wanted the other one. Yeah, that’s hard having to listen to a book you don’t really like.” Wait for a response, see what you get. Go back to letting them have their feeling if they aren’t ready to move on.

Then follow up with, “Do you want to read this book together tonight and we’ll read yours tomorrow night, or do you want to read your own book to yourself tonight?” (choice) and maybe add, “In this family we take turns deciding on the books we read.” (information) And if this goes on and on. And it may, you continue to acknowledge their feelings. Repeat the choice, and then at some point and you decide the next step.

3. Set your boundary. Set a limit, decide what that limit is, and stick to it.

“I see you’re still upset about reading your sister’s book, and you’re having a hard time deciding what to do. Sweetie, tonight we’re going to read your sisters choice and tomorrow we’ll read yours. You can listen or read in your bed. I’m going to start reading now because it’s getting late.”

Does that mean you avoid the melt down? Probably not, you may very well still get the meltdown and that’s ok. Your child is still angry and upset at the situation, but at least they’re not stuck in the “You don’t understand anything” place. They are going to know if not in that exact moment, then eventually, that when they get upset, you will listen, you do care, even if it that doesn’t mean they get what they want or that you agree with their point of view.

As you continually do this over time, they will learn that they are going to be upset and then they will eventually feel better. You can’t command someone to ‘get over it’. You may think you have changed their feeling, but their feeling is still there. You’ve just forced them to stuff it so it doesn’t continue to annoy you. You’ve just trained them to respond differently. As in, don’t show that feeling because it will go unheard, rejected and you might possibly be shamed.

“Training” a child is not our goal. “Teaching” a child should be. Letting them know they can feel something, feel a certain way and give voice to that is huge. They may not get what they want but they’ll learn that they can have the bad feeling and then be ok. Again, huge!

Little by little they will express their distress and shift more quickly, because they know it’s not the end of the world. We aren’t stalling them in their “this is the end of the world moment” and leaving them there mad and resentful. I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen our kids in those moments. We’re not shoving them by force into our “correct” version reality. We are letting them find it, by coaching them through it.

It’s not magic, or perfect but it works and it models for them the respectful adult we want them to become. When you see your child meeting some other child where they are and showing empathy. Well, to me, honestly that’s the meaning of life right there.

So we stop jumping to solutions. Stop trying to fix, and trying to make them feel better. We can’t make them feel better. Only they can. We can help.

Think about it. When someone tells you things aren’t that bad, or that you’re overreacting, or that you should count your blessings, or be more like so and so, or that you should understand that life is unfair, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make you automatically feel better. You may quit your bitching, but now your still pissed at the situation and you’re also pretty pissed with your friend.

This whole idea that standing your ground and insisting on adherence to what you say is discipline is baloney.  They didn’t learn anything except that their feelings don’t really matter or aren’t valid enough to warrant the time of day. The word “discipline” derives from Latin, meaning “instruction given” or “teaching.” So let’s do that.

Yes, they’ll get there, let them know they are allowed to feel what they feel, instead of making them feel worse and inadequate for having those feelings. Even if forcing them to move on seems quicker and more efficient in the moment, it won’t help them want to behave, cooperate or move on, next time.

So, stop and see your kid in front of you. Let them know you see them and how they are feeling. Give them information to help them or give them a choice to make it easier for them to take the next step. And eventually, set your limit.

I don’t want to give the impression that with a few magic steps and some patience these situations evaporate, never to be seen again. These are foundational building blocks. Basics, but they a long way in helping get your child’s willing cooperation, in not escalating things into a power struggle every time your kid doesn’t eat their peas, and most importantly it models the respect you want your child to emulate.

Maybe even most importantly, you are wiring them to be able to figure these things out as they become teens and eventually adults.

It’s not rocket science. It’s brilliantly simple and deceivingly difficult at the same time because it isn’t just shaping our kids, it is shaping ourselves as well. It’s conscious parenting, It’s the power of creating this connection and building a lifetime bond with your child.

I am learning to really listen, and I am learning what they need in the process and I try to give them as much of that as I can.

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