“I suck at maths!” my son shouts as he hurries away from the kitchen table and stomps down the hall. I force myself to wait in space, instead of running behind him. I notice how I hold my breath when this happens, it’s so stressful. How parents respond in this moment determines what happens next.
1. Acknowledge the feeling not the words
After doing something he likes in his room he will eventually recover and calm down.* When he’s calmer I can help him through his overwhelm like this:
“You’re finding the homework really tough at the moment. I’m guessing it feels like maths is always going to be hard for you.”
Kids need to learn that just because something is hard right now, doesn’t mean that it will always be that way.
There’s a problem.
We can’t tell our kids these exact words, they won’t hear it the way we intend. When parents tell kids they will get better when they practice, it sounds like a lecture. Kids feel patronised and switch off. Instead if we validate their emotion we help them to find a way through really unpleasant feelings. Deal with the feeling first, then move on and only then problem solve.
*Hint: the recovery process time is shorter the more we practice this process.
2. Stay out of the hole of despair – give them wishes in fantasy.
Kids know they have to do homework. They just don’t feel like it. Parents often catastrophise. (Me, in my head, “OMG maths is a core subject! If he can’t do maths then he won’t pass exams and his life will be ruined).
Our control freak brain will have us rushing to these thoughts. When we do, our kids will feel it. It’s so easy to get down in the hole them. When we do that, we run the risk of adding to their distress. Instead, keep your cool and give them wishes in fantasy:
“I bet you wish that you had a calculator in your brain to add up the harder sums.”
Kids live in the moment so wishes in fantasy have an instant appeal. It’s likely they will invent additional versions which lift the mood. (My son once made a sock puppet when his sibling was sulking). Add wishes in fantasy and humour to your list of ways to press the reset button, helping get kids back on track.
3. Take the opportunity to praise effort, attitude, strategies or improvement
Probably the last thing on your mind when your child has just stomped off is the thought of offering some praise. Praising children in an authentic, descriptive way changes the atmosphere and engages cooperation, even when things are spiralling downwards. Here’s how to do it:
“Last week I saw you use the timer to do small chunks of practice for guitar (praise for strategy). You spent a lot of time on Wonderwall (praise for effort), it sounded much more like the song (praise improvement) and I even saw you smiling because you enjoyed it (praise for attitude).”
Focus on one authentic reason to praise them. The trick here is to go further than our usual “good boy/girl, nice job” and to think about why the behaviour was good. When a parent notices and mentions good effort, attitude, strategies or improvement, kids know we’ve really been paying attention to them.
Being specific with praise means kids have a lot more information about exactly how to repeat good behaviour. The more we do this, the better they will behave, even when they are in the midst of a struggle. Kids don’t only want they need our attention for optimal development. If they don’t get our attention for good things then they will get it in other ways. When we’re focusing on the good stuff kids see themselves through a positive lens so this will mean they are more likely to behave well too.
4. Apologise when you make a mistake – your kids need a work in progress parent, not a perfect parent
Education is important, so homework struggles can bring out the worst in us. Raising kids is a messy business, a lot of the time we fall short. Kids also need to learn to be self-compassionate when they make a mistake. We can show them how to make a mistake and keep their dignity. No parent is perfect either so we can model being a work in progress parent by saying:
“When I shouted at you earlier I was very angry. I could have said that in a better way. Here’s what I wish I had said…”
If you’re worried this will make you look weak think about how you feel when someone you love makes a deep and sincere apology. It builds trust and connection. You’re showing that even as a grown adult, you are still a human being, who also makes mistakes. Offer to do something nice to make amends and go easy on yourself. Here’s a saying I like to say to myself (I say it in my head A LOT):
“I am a work in progress, I get there a little at a time, not all at once.”
5. Unrealistic expectations set our kids up to fail -realistic expectations, rules and routines support them
Children going through a transition tend to feel stressed. Events like changing schools or getting used to a new teacher take their toll. It’s easy to forget that every day our children come home from school and that this is a transition. Factor in some down time and a healthy drink and a snack to keep blood sugar levels up.
Children with an especially sensitive nature get tired and overwhelmed much more easily, so their baseline is already feeling a bit stressed. It takes them more time and effort to get into a calm, alert and focussed state. Pay attention to your child’s needs and be realistic about what sets them up well. They may not be ready to sit and chat to you about their day as soon as they get in.
Having a united front (everyone who is looking after the children being on the same page) helps to make progress in this area and to be consistent. This means communicating in advance.
Pre-children dates rarely involve discussions about day to day issues like “what a good homework routine means”. Now you’ve got some, make regular time to chat about these things now. Once you’ve agreed the rules the kids can have some input about how they can make the rules work for them. Arrange a light-hearted family meeting. Aim for kids to take responsibility for their homework. Involve by asking these sorts of questions:
- How could homework go better this term?
- What can we do to make things easier for you?
- What’s one thing you think will work?
Solutions might include – clear the table of distractions or make a plan of what to do first. Exercise beforehand. Use a timer and take more breaks. Getting kids talking and thinking how to set things up well next time is a really empowering way to overcome meltdowns. Homework like a most of the things that trigger a meltdown is something we all have to do, we just don’t feel like it. When we can teach our kids to learn how to do things, even when they don’t want to, we’re on the way to building some seriously good character.
ALL 5 of these parenting strategies I’ve mentioned in this blog post can be used for just about any parenting issue you have. The trick is to set things up to go well, rather than reacting when it goes wrong. If you’ve got any parenting concerns you’d like to discuss I would love to hear from you. Flick me an email: Justine@gtgparenting.co.nz