In my opinion, parenting is a very, very hard job.
It is a 24 hour, 7 days a week job with no pay, benefits or covered vacation.
No one size fits all.
We are human and thus regularly make mistakes or what I like to call “mis-steps”.
Our very biology can work against us in our parenting efforts.
We tend to be very hard on ourselves about our imperfections.
For all these reasons I have resisted writing a parenting book or blog. I don’t want to misdirect well meaning people. Even more, I don’t want to add fuel to the fire of self blame or shame. And yet, there is learning that I want to share.
So, I want to be very transparent that many of the tools I have learned have evolved from my own mistakes and misunderstandings as a parent. I am a learner from the inside out. Like you, I am an imperfect human, living and growing from each personal and professional experience I have.
One of the most important principles I learned about parenting comes from my colleague, and parent group co-facilitator, Karen Alonge:
“All behavior is communication.”
Children (and even adults) have immature strategies for expressing their needs. For example, a baby cries to signal he is hungry, tired, overstimulated, cold/hot, stressed or simply has a wet diaper. A toddler may hit when she feels overstimulated or needs space. A child may criticize a parent when he feels ashamed and self-protective. A child may exclude another child when she feels insecure. A child may yell when he feels scared.
The caregiver must learn through time and experience the need the different cries, protests, and behaviors signal. In addition to setting some limit or boundary to ensure safety (for the baby, child or adult) the caregiver must also decode the underlying need so that the child can learn new and more constructive ways to meet his/her needs. Read the full article from Karen Alonge here:
To complicate matters further, when a child or an adult has an unmet need, he or she typically feels emotion – feelings and sensations. And often times the feelings and sensations ramp up quickly. As a result, the cortex, the part of our brain that governs verbal communication and hearing becomes compromised. The emotional part of the brain, the limbic system, takes over. Sensing danger (whether real or imagined), it signals the brain stem to protect. In a moment, a felt sense of emotion becomes a scream, a hit, a run, a bite or a biting comment.
It takes great patience and self-restraint to identify the need and the trigger that set this whole reactive process in motion. So what does a parent do?
Well sometimes a parent reacts impulsively. That is the simple truth. Parents are human beings too, with their own history of unmet needs, intense emotions, and fast reactions. And in the case of actual danger, we are alive because we can react in a moment. We are built to survive and make sure our offspring survives. So we are naturally prone to speed or impulsive reactions. It takes significant work and practice to slow down and find new ways so we can teach our children to do the same.
In the links that follow (to come soon) I hope to share tools, strategies and ideas to assist you in this slowing down and decoding process. Please remember it is a process and that you have likely had many more times when you have demonstrated such patience, care, wisdom, self-reflection, resiliency and resourcefulness than you may realize. I am regularly honored by the ingenious ways parents and children have learned to work and grow together. In fact, many of the ideas I offer have come through my work with parents, as well as my own experience being a parent.
All Behavior is Communication
Over the years, I have come to realize that the purpose of most human behavior is to manage our emotions and connect with other humans. This is especially true for a young child whose brain is so underdeveloped and thus reliant on such primitive ways to manage and connect (e.g., crying, screaming, hitting, biting).
So when your child is “misbehaving” ask yourself: What is my child trying to communicate she is feeling or needing?
Is he/she anxious?
Is he/she feeling lonely?
Is he/she overstimulated?
Is he/she warm, cold or tired?
Is he/she thirsty or hungry?
Did he/she have a tough day at school?
Did he/she have a hard time with a friend or peer?
Asking ourselves questions helps us find solutions to the root cause rather than the surface problem. It engages the thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, critical to problem solving and self-calming.
And it introduces a pause, a chance to slow down and be reflective rather than reactive. When we allow ourselves a moment to be reflective and curious, we are generally more open, available, creative and responsive. And in doing so, we train our child to do the same.
Even more, we begin to see challenging moments as problem solving opportunities during which we can work to find sustainable solutions. We become a team with our child. We develop tools to use in the future.
As we get more practiced in inquiry, we become a team with our child. Together, we notice feelings and needs, and find solutions collaboratively. And ultimately, the child becomes his/her own problem solver and active emotional regulator. Of course this takes lots of practice! And we will not be reflective and responsive every time.
However, at any moment we can try again! The beauty of parenting is that we get lots of opportunities to practice.