JACKSON HOLE NEWS AND GUIDE:
Read the pairs of statements below and consider how each sounds to you:
“Don’t speak to me like that!” or
“Ouch. That hurts. You must be pretty upset to use words like that with me.”
“Stand still!” or
“Your body is telling me you have a lot of energy right now.”
“Calm down. You’ll be fine.” or
“You seem pretty stressed out about that test tomorrow.”
“Go to your room!” or
“Something doesn’t feel right to you. Do you want to tell me about it?”
“You two stop fighting!” or
“I hear two angry voices.”
“You’re grounded!” or
“You had a hard time following our agreement tonight. We’re going to have to talk about that.”
We can demand that a child or teen behave a certain way, dismiss their feelings or experience, or shame them for their actions all in the name of helping them learn a different way of behaving. And sometimes these strategies can get the child or teen to do what we want in the moment. Yet what is this teaching, how is it teaching, and how does it contribute to how the child or teen is feeling?
Or, we can dive in with our kids to help them think about their feelings and actions, witness our kids for who they are, show them we are on their side and eventually move toward problem solving. We can’t expect kids of any age to not have emotions, to not get upset, to not make mistakes or to know how to handle every situation with grace and kindness. From age 0 to 18 and beyond, their brains are still developing, neural pathways are rearranging, and hormones are changing. Kids need both our understanding and empathy, and they need to learn how to handle some situations more skillfully.
I get a lot of parents asking me why parenting styles have changed so much from when they were raised. “When I was a kid I just did what I was told” is the argument, and I’ll address that topic in columns to come. But right now I want to ask you, of the two approaches outlined above, which feels better to you?
Think about it from your perspective. Let’s say you had a rough morning at home. It was stressful getting out of the house on time and getting the kids to school so you could be at your 8:00 am meeting. You go to pull out your notes for your part of the presentation and realize you left them on the kitchen counter. As you fumble through your talk, you see your boss getting more and more angry to the point of saying something nasty to you in front of everyone in the room and later docking your pay for the week. You try to explain, but your boss won’t hear it.
Now think about your child or teen in a similar situation. They tried their best. They messed up. They didn’t know how to do what you were asking, communicate how they were feeling or remember the steps they were supposed to take. You might feel frustrated and angry. You can act on those feelings as the boss in the above example did, or you can look below the surface to uncover what was going on with your child or teen to lead them to this place of dysregulation. You can give them a sense of understanding, acknowledge that we all make mistakes, talk to them about what tripped them up, problem solve and talk about how to make amends if needed.
The second approach takes hard work. It’s what parent coach Lori Petro calls “conscious communication” and it takes parents stepping back before they react, observing the situation at hand and being thoughtful in how they respond. It’s easy to see a child or teen’s behavior as something that needs to be changed. And we do want to guide our kids toward thoughtful, kind behavior. Yet first our kids need to be understood.
The more I think about raising kids, working with parents or engaging in any human relationship, the more I think we will all get along better if we can tell it like it is. I think of it as observing and narrating. Observe what you see happening in any situation or interaction, and narrate what you observe – and this part is especially important – without judgement: “You are so mad you wanted to hit your brother.” “You’re disappointed your friends didn’t call.” “You’re feeling a lot of pressure from school.” “You’re angry I wouldn't let you do what you want.” “You feel like I’m asking too much of you.”
There is always something behind a behavior that we find challenging. If we can listen, observe and name (or make our best guess) at what the child or teen is experiencing before going into correction, blame or shame, our children will feel understood. And when our kids are validated and when they feel our empathy for their situation and feelings, they disarm (if not in the moment then often once they have calmed). They are less likely to fight back. It opens the door to communication, curiosity and self reflection.
We all want to be seen and heard. It’s a basic human need.
During this season I invite you to step back, take a deep breath, and turn toward your children, your partner, your loved ones and lean in. In times of challenge, dysregulation or conflict, rather than putting up your defenses or trying to change, fix or halt the behavior or emotions, try to dive a little deeper. Offer your understanding, a listening ear, a hug, and really see and hear what the other person is trying to say. You might find that the original challenge resolves itself much quicker and your relationship is strengthened in the process.
Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is excited to explore the world of raising children with you!