We’re in a tricky patch, just now, at our house. The kind most parents of little kids will recognise: this is a solidarity post with all of y’all.
Our three-year-old delight, SBJ, is in the middle of a pretty intense, fragile time of life, and he’s (therefore) not the only one. For the first time, I feel like I spend a lot of my time ‘managing’ his behaviour, and no one is really enjoying it.
I also spend an awful lot of time thinking about it – and how badly I’m doing! – so inevitably all that thought is leaking out into a blog post.
As I’ve tried to write things down this week, my thoughts have crystallised into a list of things I’m trying to remember to do or think about. It’s helping a lot, both in bringing out the sunnier side of the little ‘un and in shaping how I think of him in the hard moments.
I’m not presenting myself as any kind of expert. I just want to remind myself of how I want to mother him, and make some space to articulate what (aspirationally) gentle parenting can look like in this more difficult season.
It’s my story, not his, really, so I’m not going to describe his behaviour in any detail. I’m sure you can imagine. It’s just outbursts of negative behaviour when he’s frustrated or upset – and that’s currently more often than any of us are used to.
So here are eleven things I’m trying to remember to do each day – some as prevention, and some in the middle of the hard moments.
1. Keep my empathy on high alert
The poor boy has had a topsy-turvy few months. In December his little sister arrived on the outside, and in January we shifted to a new town we’d never lived in for a few months. He’s been bombarded with newness: a new family configuration, two new homes in quick succession, a new kindergarten, new friends, a new church, new toys, new everything.
On top of that, the central person to his world – that would be me – has had a lot less energy and time for him in the last few months, through pregnancy and now breastfeeding an infant. He’s forever being told ‘no’ or ‘wait’ just because my arms are full or my bones are tired.
Those are obvious – and enormous – stressors that make it harder for him to manage his emotions.
I also realised recently that he has a lot less time where he gets to do things at his own pace. He gets pulled around from pillar to post a lot these days, just with the demands of our circumstances.
So the poor kid has a lot of good reasons for feeling a bit fragile.
The first thing I’m trying to do – lots – is remember to be empathetic, and walk in his little shoes.
If he were an adult, he might just burst into tears and tell me ‘it’s all too hard!’ and I’d know to be sympathetic. Because he’s three, he’s more likely to throw a toy at the window. And that means I’m more likely to feel annoyed than sorry for him. But if my empathy is on high alert, I can try and use it to connect his behaviour with his underlying feelings and stress-levels that aren’t obvious to either of us.
(On the subject of helping kids deal with transitions, by the way, check out Angela’s wonderful post on helping her travelling family say goodbye.)
2. Help him name his feelings
‘Are you feeling a feeling?’ my husband often asks our little guy, quoting Grover and Dave Matthews in this wonderful song about hard feelings:
Naming has power. Giving kids the power to recognise and name feelings is super helpful, and has been really useful for us.
‘Are you frustrated?’
‘Are you angry about that?’
‘Are you disappointed we can’t stay longer?’
‘What kind of feeling are you feeling right now?’
‘It looks like you might be feeling a bit worried – is that right?’
3. If in doubt, follow a script (and upskill with new ones as necessary)
Along with lots of parents, we try to follow this kind of conversational structure when a hard moment hits:
Me: Are you feeling angry? You’re upset that I can’t play with you right now? [Empathy; naming feelings]
SBJ: *grumpy nodding*
Me: I can understand that. It’s fun when we can do the Lego together, right? [Empathy, solidarity]
SBJ: Yeah. Play with me now!
Me: I’d love to play with you. I’m feeding H at the moment, so I can play with you soon. [Explain reality of present limit, offer hope for a good result soon.]
SBJ: No! Now!
Me: I can play with you soon [phrasing positively – what we can do, rather than what we can’t]. Hey, is that your helicopter there? Who’s going to fly it? [Redirect into fun stuff in the meantime – this is the part I find hardest to do off the cuff, and it needs to be fast!]
We do this many times a day at the moment. If everything else is going well, this can be enough to get us through.
Laura Markham, from Aha! Parenting has heaps of more detailed scripts for how to have emotionally intelligent interactions with kids in hard moments. For example, I particularly like this one for ‘when your child hits you’ – check it out.
The next step, that I’m practising but haven’t mastered at all, is following the ‘non-violent communication’ pattern Lucy posts about here.
It’s really helpful and effective so far in calm negotiations. My only trouble is that it’s quite a wordy approach (four things you try to communicate in order) and difficult to get it all out in a charged situation with a three-year-old. I’m experimenting with shortcuts for when I need to intervene speedily.
I’d love to hear your scripts – please add a comment below to let us know what works for you guys.
4. Remind him of his other options
Our little guy has got quite good at explaining (after knocking over a pile of folded laundry, say) ‘well, I was just feeling grumpy.’
The next step we’re practising is choosing to do something positive, or non-violent, in response to his feelings.
The most popular one is to ask for a cuddle if you’re feeling angry or frustrated. Given that most of our tussles are about him wanting my attention, it seems like a good solution. About once a day he remembers to ask for the cuddle rather than do something antisocial. We’re getting there.
I’ve noticed that he needs to learn this step for all sorts of emotions. Last week when his friend had a knock and was crying, my son went up and hit him firmly on the back. It took a while to figure out what was going on in his brain, but I’m certain now that he was feeling sympathetic, but had no idea how to show that, and it came out in a hit. So now we’re practising ‘circle pats’ (rubbing someone’s back), hoping to make it the go-to ‘if you don’t know what to do with your body’.
What else might work? Tips, anyone?
5. Build up credit in the emotional bank
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (that would be less poetic in metric, right?)
I find it so tempting to spend any spare second in the day on Facebook or laundry, but I’m trying to remember that spending spare seconds doing something my boy will love – like two minutes of mad dancing or three minutes of Lego helicopters – is important for his wellbeing. Speaking strategically, it also means I’m building up credit I can draw on later.
If I have to try and negotiate with him while anchored to a sofa breastfeeding, then we’re going to have a better shot of finding a win-win solution if he’s had some attention from me recently than if he’s already feeling neglected and in deficit.
6. Meet the immediate hidden needs
Also on the topic of prevention, isn’t it so often true that ‘bad behaviour’ happens when we’re tired or hungry? With adults and kids, right?
This list is super helpful, though I don’t always remember all of the items on it:
These aren’t the only things that might be going on, but they’re ones I have a measure of influence over.
I don’t think my boy is alone in finding it very difficult to listen to his body’s needs for any of these things ahead of his focused passion for whatever he’s doing right now.
So I’m trying hard to a) think of these things for him and slip a carrot stick into his hand or pass him his water bottle while he builds a tower and b) help him listen to his body and choose to look after its needs.
[A brief interruption!]
I have a few more ideas still to come, but just before we get to them, I wanted to mention that I’ve just started a Patreon account.
If you’ve found this article thoughtful and useful, and would like to support me to write more stuff like this, please head on over. You can leave your suggestions, vote for what the next article will be, and make my writing possible. Thanks!
Back to the tips!
7. Shamelessly exploit the sweet spots
I am bundling my little one into the shower on the slightest of pretexts these days, as often as possible, where he takes horrendously long showers, playing out detailed dramedies with his plastic animals.
I’ve discovered a long shower is a cure for whatever ails him, so I’m making the most of it. It does us all good.
Whatever keeps everyone happiest – do more of it! Not necessarily in a dose-’em-up-with-junk-food way (we’re going for both short and long term happiness), but in a this-too-shall-pass way. Half-hour showers are not going to be the norm in our family for all time, but for right now, they’re a small price to pay.
On this subject, there’s also the important strategy of just doing something fun – for this, see Lucy’s marvellous list of 40 ways to get back your parenting mojo. I’m not going to talk more about that stuff here though, because there are inevitably moments in the day that aren’t fun, or I have my hands full with a baby and that’s really what this post is about.
This is hugely important, and probably the part of it that we are best at.
I’m conscious that little kids have very little control over their lives, so I’m always open to negotiation. It’s probably the subject of a whole nother post, but where it comes in here is that many a meltdown has been stopped in its tracks by asking him ‘do you want to negotiate?’
Very often, if he knows he has some influence over his fate, he feels much better about life.
9. Communicate and Explain
Similarly, I’m careful to communicate what’s going on, so there are no surprises.
We talk a lot. I warn him before we do something – whether it’s a fun thing or not – and give reasons wherever I can, even before the ubiquitous ‘why’ appears. For my boy at least, there’s a strong correlation between the amount of information he’s given and his willingness to join in cheerfully with a plan.
We had a great example of this yesterday. I have been unable to convince the little guy not to jump off the coffee table onto the sofa. We’re fine with most furniture clambering, but this one has a slippery cover on it – and is used for food – so we’re not keen on the latest acrobatics, which have led to several near misses.
We went through another round of him jumping and slipping, and me fruitlessly repeating what I wanted. But this time my husband was there and asked, ‘Do you understand why Mama thinks it’s not a good idea?’ We went on to have a conversation about the kinds of injuries and treatment options that might be in the future of someone who cracked their head open (we’re a medical family – this is just normal ).
After my husband had left for work, the little guy jumped up on the table again. I said, ‘Do you remember…?’ and he looked at me, said, ‘Oh, yes’ and jumped straight down again.
10. Practise my poker face
I’m a pretty moral person. I don’t mean that I necessarily behave in a moral way, but that I readily ascribe moral intent to behaviour. I don’t find it easy to separate good behaviour from good moral character – whether that’s appropriate or not. I’m not saying this is the right way to be, it’s just how I am, instinctively.
But it’s also true that I don’t believe, even at three or four years old, that little kids have much in the way of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to their character or even actions. When a kid this age does something ‘naughty’ it is rarely connected to an unkind or wicked intention.
As Rebecca Eanes puts it in her winsome article from the point of view of a toddler:
1. My Brain is a Toddler Too!
You know the part of your brain that is responsible for logical thinking, forming strategies and planning, foreseeing and weighing possible consequences for behavior, and impulse control? That’s called the prefrontal cortex, and mine is very underdeveloped! It doesn’t even really begin to develop until around age 4, and it won’t be mature until I’m in my 20’s!
That means I can’t possibly be manipulating you when I cry or have strong emotions. Manipulation requires forming strategies and planning. I’m really just having a hard time when I have a tantrum or act aggressively, and what I need is help.
[Read more at Creative Child.]
Little kids are learning how the world works and experimenting with different behaviour. Add to that their almost total lack of impulse control and how hard it is for them to manage their big emotions, and no wonder they’re always skating around the edge of what’s socially appropriate or safe.
Intellectually, I know that when he’s upset and does something inappropriate, he’s not doing it to hurt me – even if he is sometimes trying to raise a reaction from me. And if the thing he hiffs a toy at ends up breaking, it’s not because he was trying to cause maximum inconvenient (and, erm, rented house) damage.
But my inner moral compass is horrified, and I instinctively want to show him how bad this behaviour is. Especially when he knows it’s not the way we do things (you might recognise that gleeful look on a small person’s face as they check to see if you’re watching them do something destructive).
I’m generally not a yeller, but as often as some parents shout, I very easily sound dreadfully disappointed or disapproving. Instinctively I want to show the moral turpitude in the behaviour on show. Yes – even though I know that the winding-up behaviour of a three-year-old has very little moral content.
So I’m trying to practise my poker face. I’m failing so far, but I’m trying. I want to help him channel his emotional reactions into useful, non-hurtful activities that will make us all feel better. I don’t want to shame him for having these feelings, and for, let’s face it, being three years old.
So I’m trying not to look horrified when I am. I’m trying.
I has occurred to me that I need to distinguish between this – trying not to imprint my son with an inappropriate sense of shame – and traditional behaviourist advice to ignore bad behaviour and praise good, though there will be some overlap for people who go that way.
Does any of this resonate with you?
11. Practise my light tone and fake smile
I’ve been working hard on Tip 10, not-looking-disapproving, this week. What I’ve been trying to replace it with – and this has actually been making a real difference – is a very deliberate, even forced, smile and light tone of voice to say the same things I feel like saying with a scowl and a growl.
I read this great article this week, written by Rebecca Eanes, from the perspective of a toddler giving the inside goss to parents:
3. I Am Whatever You Say I Am!
My self-concept is being formed right this minute, and right now, I see myself the way you see me. So, if you see me as naughty or bad, that’s how I’ll see myself. If you see me as kind and wonderful, that’s what I’ll think about me, too.
Oh, and just so you know, I’ll always strive to live up (or down) to my self-concept; that’s what we humans do. If you want me to be good and kind and caring, catch me being those things and tell me! I like hearing you say nice things about me, and when you see me as a good person, I’ll want to behave like one.
[Read more at Creative Child.]
If the goal is to help my son be a lovely, kind, helpful boy (rather than trying to make him feel bad about what he’s done), tone of voice makes such a difference. Imagine saying this in different tones, first angry-disappointed, then playful-remindery:
‘Honey! Off the table, please!’
When I say that in a solemn, thou-hast-disobeyed tone, on one level I’m communicating that he is a bad boy. When I say the same words in a sing-song, not-too-worried tone, I’m just reminding him that he’s a kind, helpful boy who has forgotten for a moment that ‘we don’t stand on tables’.
At the moment, this doesn’t always come naturally – especially by 8pm. So I am deliberately putting on a ‘fake’ light tone, thinking about it consciously, and even adding a smile, whether I feel like it or not, and goodness me it is making an astonishing difference – for both of us.
It stops escalation – he doesn’t spiral down into embarrassment or shame or anger at me or himself, which had started happening sometimes – and it actually results in moving to more helpful behaviour more quickly than when I make a big deal out of it with my annoyed voice. It’s a good lesson for me.
So what are your tips, dear readers? I feel very new at this, and these 11 are just me scrabbling in the dark for some things to hold onto. I’d love your advice for other things to add to the repertoire. Please add a comment below with what works in your household.
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