1. “Help, my threenager is in charge!”
Life before kids involved working in a calm, predictable office. When I asked people to do something, they just did it. The transition to having an impulsive and strong-willed toddler and a baby was a rude awakening. My threenager ignored many of my very reasonable requests. He had tantrums for no apparent reason. Things got worse, he started to bite. I am a resilient person so I told myself: “…We can crack this…” and “…He’ll grow out of it…” He didn’t.
2. He’s having a problem, not being a problem
People gave me a whole lot of advice. Mainly when I hadn’t asked for it (“… bite him back…”). Our pre-school teacher mentioned a parenting course. A couple of times. So, I went along. (Do I really need this? I thought). It was a life-changing decision.
One of the first things I learned was to see my child as having a problem, rather than being a problem. This really helped me to feel empathy towards my son, which is hard when you have a child who is biting. Other Mums don’t tend to feel empathetic when their child has teeth marks and sometimes when we’re embarassed it can be hard for us to feel empathy too.
3. Words to help connect
Soon after I started to speak to my son differently he actually asked me to speak to him in a nice voice: “…Mummy, can you talk to me in your nice parenting voice…” It was bittersweet. I liked that he was happier now but I realised he felt I had been talking in a “not nice voice” before. He changed his body language. His whole attitude towards me improved, he was more cooperative and helpful. I felt encouraged to keep going. For more ideas about how to use words to engage, encourage and improve relationship with kids see this post http://bit.ly/2Fl9oLf
4. How did I stop the biting?
The biting was a symptom of what was going on underneath the surface. The feelings underneath were the real cause of the behaviour. I reframed my focus on the cause of the behaviour. This phrase became my motto: “All behaviour has a cause”. I focused on the need to find ways to express strong and uncomfortable feelings, without biting by being an emotion coach.
5. Changing our physical state changes our emotional state
Ever notice how getting outside for a walk can really lift your mood? Pushing a wall, stomping his foot, shouting “It’s not fair!” were all acceptable methods for my son to communicate his feelings. Letting out strong feelings, without biting, was a thing he needed to practice. We had to practice when he was calm. We spent a lot of time practising, so he could access the strategies when he was not. The process of being able to remain calm, alert and focused is called “Self-regulation”. Watch this clip from Stuart Shanker to learn more. http://bit.ly/2Fp0qNg
6. Learning to see things from another person’s point of view
Kids don’t tell us what is going on with words – they use their behaviour to communicate. Sometimes our child’s behaviour reveals a gap, in my case his ability to express strong feelings. We can’t “fix” the behaviour unless the child learns what to do. Parents need to teach children about the effect of their actions on others or children won’t learn empathy skills. An inspiring story from a couple I know illustrates this:
“At day care 3 year old Sam kept pushing other children over. Sam pushed one particular little boy over a lot. This little boy was physically disabled. The parents were mortified when the teacher told them what was happening. Sam was told over and over again not to do this. The mum carefully explained that pushing people over is “mean”. He continued pushing despite the teacher regularly making him sit in the corner. Nothing worked. Until Sam’s parents tried another approach. They focused on talking to Sam about how the other child would feel when he got pushed and how Sam would feel if this happened to him. Sam stopped pushing other children over.”
Addressing the cause of the behaviour was essential, so Sam could learn how to treat everyone at daycare well. No one had thought to talk to Sam about the effect of his behaviour on others. Parents need to model good behaviour, so don’t think pushing him over will help. Instead, think about the cause of the behaviour.
7. Teaching happens when everyone is calm, including parents
Sam was compelled to push the children over for any number of reasons but the key piece of the puzzle he was missing was that he needed to think about things from another person’s point of view. Obviously, that’s not easy with a Threenager. Toddlers have an egocentric view of the world. Pushing, biting or pinching can even be a 3 year old’s way of having fun, without realising how cruel this looks to the rest of us (or how much it actually hurts). Rather than ignoring the behaviour, parents need to teach toddlers to learn how to manage overwhelm. Disappointment, sadness or confusion, are hard feelings to handle. This has to happen when everyone is calm. Not in the moment.
8. How to help little people manage BIG feelings
Talking to Sam about the effect of his behaviour on others made a crucial impact. It’s easy to see how this vital link can be overlooked when we are all used to using punishment to discipline. The aim of discipline is to teach. Imposing a punishment – like making kids sit on a “naughty step” – just makes children feel bad about themselves and resentful towards us. Giving Sam a punishment was not only ineffective, it missed out the vital gap in his learning. Here are some words Sam’s parents used to help with that:
“When people are pushed over it really hurts.”
“How do you think the boy feels when that happens?”
“How do you feel when people push you over?”
These words are powerful ways to encourage and develop EQ or emotional intelligence.
Firm, loving boundaries that reinforce these skills create empathetic and kind adults. So next time your threenager throws a strop:
- press the “pause” button
- think about the cause of the behaviour. What is going on for that child? Are there skills that you need to teach?
- when things have calmed down, help the child to practice the skills
Kids experience the full range of emotion (just like adults) and they need to learn how to manage their emotions. Work with the child you have and focus on the areas they need to make progress on. Don’t miss out on those learning experiences and use them to work towards building the adult you imagine your child will become.