It was one of those lazy Sunday afternoons and the sky was beautiful blue. White, billowy clouds were floating by as I sat and watched them on my front porch. The only problem with this day was I felt guilty about not being more productive. I felt like I “should” be doing something. Pulling weeds, reading some important journal paper or updating my blog. I remember this feeling as a parent too. There always seem like there is so much to do and I was always so far behind on something. Shouldn’t I be doing laundry instead of playing catch in the backyard with my kids or working on some craft? There were many times my guilt drove me to try and do household chores and play with the kids at the same time. Let’s just say, it wasn’t very effective in either area.
Many of us NEED to listen to that inner voice. That bathroom really does need some more attention but for the majority of parents, guilt is a constant critic. It is driven by the need for perfection. It fears what others will think of us. It causes us to forget that our children are more important than a clean dish put away into the dishwasher.
As a grandparent, you realize that the moments slip away into days into years into decades and then there are gone. When you realize all the magical moments missed with your child because you just had to prune the rose bush or scrub the shower (or for you working parents, work an extra hour or two in your home office), that is when the real guilt settles in. It is for what you could have done with your child if I wasn’t just so tightly wound up over the little things.
Here’s my parenting expert, grandfatherly advice: Spend an entire weekend just interacting with your children and let guilt go for two entire days! Just two days mind you. That means the beds don’t get made, the dishes may stay in the sink (OK, you can put them away after they go to bed) and the home office door stays shut. Oh yeah, and the electronic devices are off. Yes, off!
Tell me how the experience goes by posting a comment here or sharing on twitter or facebook.
The most difficult problem I have when working with children, in my private practice, is the parents. When parents cannot agree on how to raise a child, and specifically, how to discipline, it is almost impossible to reach a solution. By the time parents reach me, the problem has been going on for such a long time that neither parent will budge from there position. It is only when one of the parents will give up some of the battle ground that I can help the parents help the child.
This is even truer in divorced or separated families. In these situations, the parents are more interested in returning cannon fire at the “other parent” for past wrongs then they are interested in co-parenting their children although
that is what they claim motivates their actions. They will fight with their child’s name as their battle cry, making their warring appear righteous and their violence just, and sacrificing the needs of their children for stable, cooperative parents.
But, I have few battle tactics myself. In those moments when parents cannot agree, I offer parents some difficult truces:
The first truce is called “Squatters Rights.” The first parent on the scene gets to do the
discipline, no interference allowed. This works well for parents that cannot reach a compromise or with children who are masters at the “divide and conquer” routine. In this routine, the child, who may or may not have been the original transgressor, walks away from the crime, leaving warring parents in his or her wake. Why? Because the child has learned the art, dark and ugly as it is, of how to manipulate parents into a confrontation with one another to get out of trouble. Only parents who have recognized this routine with their children can use this truce effectively.
The second truce is called “Tag Team Discipline.” The other parent can only take over the discipline when the first parent signals for help. Just like tag team wrestling, a tag
or signal must be made before the other parent can enter the ring. At that point it is
the other parents turn to discipline and no interference is allowed from the first parent
who left the ring. Unless a second tag is made. This truce will only work when parents recognize a need to cooperate more but can’t break out of old warring patterns with each other.
The third truce is called “Two Heads are Better Than One.” In this situation, no decision
is made unless both parents have consulted one another and agree completely on the decision.
If they do not agree, no decision is made. This will put an immediate stop to children whom
play one parent against the other. It will work only for parents who are motivated to working
cooperatively together but are having difficulty knowing how to get started.
The fourth truce is called “Getting Off the See-Saw.” You have seen a see-saw at a child’s play ground. It has a long board, usually with two seats at either end, resting of a bar or
barrel so that the board can rock up and down. Parents who war with one another are like two
children playing on a see-saw. Push down on one side of the see-saw and the other side goes up. Push back on the other side and the first side goes up. Parents who disagree are engaging in a rocking motion that is self-perpetuating. It becomes very difficult to stop playing on the see-saw, especially after years of practice. This truce is only for parents who sincerely want to stop the see-saw rhythm in their relationship but cannot get the other person to stop pushing on the see-saw. It requires that the parent, who wants to get off, to moving toward the middle of the see-saw and away from their extreme position. If your husband is too lax with the kids, act more permissive and he will be more authoritarian. If he is too harsh, set some firm limits and he may become softer. The other parent can’t help put push on their end, even if it is not the one they originally choose. Eventually they will be forced to step off and stand on equal ground.
The fifth truce is called the “Ben Franklin’s Problem Solving Method.” It has been said that whenever Ben Franklin, an American Patriarch and successful business man, could not make a decision, he would take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. He would then put all the reasons for the decision on one side of the line and all the reasons against it on the other. The side with the most reasons would win. The success of this method is its reliance on logic and facts versus emotions – a dangerous area for warring parents. It will only work for parents who have had some experience cooperating with one another but get stuck on a particularly emotional issues.
The six truce is called the “Coin Toss.” Sometimes parents, even cooperative ones, cannot reach an agreement. Usually the best choice here is to decide to not make a choice. But when that isn’t possible I suggest that parents simply toss a coin. One parent calls it in the air and which ever side it lands on that parent gets the final say. Of course, I am usually joking with the parents when I suggest this truce, but if they want to use it, each parent has 50 percent chance of winning. I know for a fact that this is a higher percentage than most parents get in decision-making with each other. Humor is an important skill in parental negotiations. When parents take parenting too seriously, they lose perspective on what they are trying to accomplish and war erupts. Families today experience more stress than families of the past. This is why humor and a flexible attitude is crucial to cooperation. This truce will only work for parents whom generally cooperate with one another but get stuck from time to time.
These six truces cover the full range of situations where parents can disagree about parenting. If they do not work, find a family therapist to help the negotiations. Otherwise, war will continue. As with real wars, innocent children are often victims of even the most righteous causes.
Remember what attracted you to your mate when you first got married? Are those characteristics that originally attracted you to your partner the very things drive you crazy now? The old saying “opposites attract” may have a lot of truth when it comes to creating a balanced parenting relationship but it is also true that those styles of parenting can rips homes apart and be a source of constant parenting struggle. It is natural for people to want to fill in the gaps of their personality or find a compliment to their own skills and abilities. These different styles unconsciously “round out” their parenting roles. This is why one partner may be more aggressive, more organized, more emotional, or more controlled than the other partner and why together the two personalities seem, at least at first glance, to be a good “team.”
Just as values are largely unconscious and tucked out of parents awareness, certain styles of parenting that were attractive early on in the parenting relationship are also largely unconscious. Parents may have fallen in love, not just with the other person, but with their ability to make firm decisions or feel passionate about something. Parents may have even fallen in love with characteristics they lacked or felt they never could adequately provide for a child. The ability of one parent to follow a budget or use common sense may impress another parent whose checkbook is always unbalanced or feels their finances and life are out of control. The other person creates a sense of balance in their life that translates to a feeling of balance of love and limits during child rearing. After a while, though, these attractive attributes can become annoying. The parenting partner, who provided a sense of stability early on in the relationship and could offer common sense when the baby cried all night long, is seen as boring, emotionally detached, and too rigid later on in the relationship.
Parenting changes how people perceive themselves. Setting limits on one’s checkbook is different than setting limits on a child. And nurturing oneself is very different from nurturing a totally depended, often demanding infant. This evolution from “partners in love” to “partners in parenting” creates a feeling of imbalance. Having a child forces the partners to merge two sets of cultures, parenting values, and beliefs. It also brings up positive and negative memories of a parent’s own childhood. Parents, who had abusive parents or whose partner had abusive parents, may fear their own children being abused. Parents who idealized their parents may feel incompetent when comparing their own parenting skills to their parental figures. Now, as parents, the positive attributes that attracted one parenting partner to another, reminds partners of negative traits in their own parents. The organizational skills they admired in their partner and in their own parents also remind them of the compulsive, rigid behavior of their parent. The spontaneity and attention given by one’s partner also reminds them of their parents smothering overprotection.
Having children also force partners to make decisions they never had to be make before. It requires them to act cooperatively with one another on such things as who stays home with the child when he or she is sick; how to deal with a bad grade on a report card; or how to handle a child who has an emotional or behavioral disorder, all of which can result in parental disagreements, arguments, and resentments. Even the value that parenting partners must be, act, or react in the same manner can be disastrous to a balance of love and limits. Fortunately, these differences can become the groundwork for a fuller relationship if partners are willing to learn from one another rather than continue the vicious cycle of anger and resentment. This is possible only where both parents make an honest attempt at communication and cooperation. In addition, partners can learn from one another’s differences and incorporate the others strengths into their own parenting style.
LEARNING FROM DIFFERENCES
The first step to learning from the other parenting figure is to accept that differences are acceptable, even necessary, in the parenting relationship. If one parent is to develop certain parenting characteristics they never received from their own parental figures, they must accept and allow the other person to demonstrates these qualities. Believing that the other parent has something valuable to offer the parenting relationship will create cooperation in the difficult task of raising a child rather than resentment.
The second step is to learn new ways to parent from the example of the other parent. Getting out of the way and letting them “do their thing” will not produce growth in one’s own parenting skills. Letting the other person have their way is not synonymous with learning. This can become learned helplessness, which results in negative feelings toward oneself and the other partner. While one parent may never be quite as good at setting firm rules at bedtime, they can learn to do it more frequent and more consistently than they have in the past, simply by learning from the example of the other parent.
The third step is to agree to disagree. Not every parenting decision will be made in total agreement. Nor should one person, regardless of how confident or aggressive they are in making decisions make every decision. Parenting partners can take turns on how to take care of night-time fears, with one parent singing and holding the child one week and the other parent scaring away the bedtime monsters with a flashlight, the next. Or they can compromise by finding a third, equally agreeable solution to getting their child to stay in bed. If an equally agreeable solution does not present itself, partners can always “agree to disagree” by waiting until a third solution does becomes possible. “Agreeing to disagree” is helpful when a discussion becomes “heated” and partners need to wait until both parties are feeling “cooler” and better able to see the other person’s viewpoint. This behavior is a powerful model to children. It demonstrates that parents can be different and disagree without engaging in a physical or verbal battle. It communicates to the children that “we are working it out.” And relationships can continue to be satisfying (or balanced) even when an issue is not yet settled.
The fourth step is to recognize that the negative or uncooperative behavior seen in the other parent may be a reflection of a characteristic of their own personality of their past and not the other parenting partner after all. It may be a habit learned from parental figures in one’s own childhood about how to deal with a frustrating situation or cope with a problem. Take time to reflect on your own past and talk with the other partner about childhood experiences. Insight, not ignorance, will lead to intimacy.
And the fifth step is to have a discussion on balancing parenting styles free of name-calling, blaming, or shaming one another. Don’t make the other parent feel bad by labeling them “stubborn,” talking about them in front of friends, or constantly pointing out their flaws. If this is too difficult to master, parenting partners will need to find help to deal with these destructive communication styles. While it is true that “opposites attract” it is also true that “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
If you didn’t catch my radio show interview this morning you can listen to the archived mp3 at http://toginet.com/shows/theparentsplate/articles/1314 Brenda Nixon, host of the Parents Plate radio show, invited me to chat about the controversial diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and the current state of mental health treatment of traumatized children today. I shared some great ideas in our hour long discussion that you will want to listen in on…everything from how children are diagnosed to attachment neuroscience to practical parenting tools. I even shared on why children with attachment impairments “Monster Up!” – a phrase I coined. Take a moment to download or stream the show at http://toginet.com/shows/theparentsplate/articles/1314
I recently watched a movie called “Unthinkable” (CAUTION: Movie spoilers ahead) and was shocked by the intensity of the violence. At first I turned it off then later went back to finish watching the movie. There was something about the plot line that drew me back in. The subject matter was simple: A terrorist sets up nuclear bombs throughout America, is captured, and then tortured to tell their locations. Yes, tortured. Aside from the more obvious political messages here, there was a subtler, frightening psychological message.
No matter how much the terrorist was tortured physically or mentally he never broke. He suffered but he continued to play mind games with this capturers till the very end. What would hold a person together despite such horrific punishments? I realized what the answer to this question was when the terrorist stated that “he deserved this” for all the bad things he had done. The movie never really described what these “bad things” were but it was enough of a mindset for him to endure unbelievable torture. His captors tried everything to break him: reason, empathy, brutality, mind games, more brutality and finally more brutality. They just kept upping the ante on the terrorist with the belief that eventually everyone breaks. He didn’t.
What struck such a cord in me was that many of the children I work with, who have been mistreated, have this “terrorist” mindset. Their behavior says: “What can you possibly do to me that I have not already endured in a much younger, more vulnerable state as an infant or young child?” So many of the children who adopt this “defiant” attitude have a deeper narrative that they deserve the punishments they are getting. Children internalize their abuse and believe that they are responsible for what happened to them. In fact, they often believe that they are “damaged goods” unworthy of love or kindness or anything good. They may set up caregivers to make them angry and want to punish them. It is easy for an adult caregiver to play right into this narrative and reinforce the very thing they want to change in the child. They may not beat them or leave them in a closet for days but we do use other punishment-based techniques (lock them up, move them from home to home, shame them with words or actions, make them carry out sentences, etc) all with the hopes that they will express their guilt and shame and change their behaviors.
I think the end goal is a worthy one. We want to help the child see things differently but our methods need some updating. Hope for this is coming from the field of neuroscience which is why you will see so much of this in this blog. It may not be the final answer but it is allowing us to see the small, hurting child behind the big terrorist mask. It is telling us that children’s brains and minds are affected by their mistreatment and we must go back and redo attachment-based treatments to help them rebuild the mental and physical capacity for love and affection and moral reasoning too.
I know it sounds like I am hard on the adult caregivers. I guess I am but we are the ones who have to do something different. We can’t expect the child to “get it” and explain it to us. We have to look deeper to see the alternative narratives for the child to live out. That will take time and patience. Unfortunately, we caregivers are products of our own culture and parenting narratives. A shame-based approach to parenting is how many of us were raised and so, it is the only approach we know how to use. If time out for an hour in a child’s room doesn’t work, what else is there? More time in the room? Perhaps we should yell louder or threaten more? Obviously not. The answer to my title: How can you punish an abused child, is simple. You can’t.
The mission of the Parenting Toolbox blog is to give parents more tools. I used to teach a lot of court-ordered parenting classes where parents where referred to learn non-punitive parenting skills. I quickly learned that you got no where trying to debate the punishment mindset. I realized that I couldn’t really win the “spank/no spank” argument. I might get some compliance from the parent but there was no change in insight. My focus became teaching other things the parent could do by giving lots of parenting tools. This worked. It is my vision to see parents better equipped and hurt children healed with this blog as well.
In my last post I talked about how parents can change a child’s brain. Hopefully you can begin to believe that this is possible. I think it suggest a very different approach to parenting. Instead of trying to “manage” a child’s behavior, we can begin to explore how to “train” a child from the inside out. One of the areas parents might really benefit from this approach is to help them pay attention. I am not talking about dealing with diagnosable Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorders but that might be applicable as well. I am simply thinking about ways to get your child to look up from the cell phone or hear your request to come in for dinner, the first time, when they are engaged in play outside. Would you like to say something the first time and be heard without repeating (yelling) it again? How about on a more personal level: Wouldn’t you like to be able to focus on your families needs without feeling overwhelmed and stressed? How many things try to capture our attention in a day? How many times do our children have to ask a question before we turn to focus on them? This is what Amishi Jha, the brain scientist, is talking about in the short video clip (see below).
People in today’s society have so much demand on their attention that they are constantly battling what to pay attention to. This is true for our children as well as ourselves! Unfortunately, what occurs is that we live our life in “instant replay” mode. We are constantly having to go back and review what someone said or someone did.
We hear our children fighting from the other room and have to go back and rewind our mental tapes to understand what is going on and how we are going to intervene. We don’t have the luxury to live in the moment and deal with only one thing at a time. Consequently, we engage in shortcut strategies to survive. Our children do the same. The brain has an Executive System to deploy attention and memory resources to problems as they occur around us. This is probably why so many of us parents work on crisis mode with our children. We may miss good things our children do as our emotional resources are concentrating on putting out fires. We feel we don’t have the capacity to focus on what is working due to so much focus on what is going wrong. As you can imagine this creates a vicious cycle for parent and child.
How do we keep the play button of the brain on the present moment instead of being focused on the past moment or future moment (on what we need to do next)? Mindfulness researchers would ask this question by saying “how do we pay attention to our present moment without judgement and stay calm in the midst of stressful demands of life?” There are a lot of books that look at mindfulness out that can inform parents on this. My favorite is the book “Parenting from the inside out” by Daniel Siegel. We also have the knowledge of our spiritual practices that can inform a more mindful, present-focused parenting. It may be useful to start meditating on how to pay more attention to our children, in the moment, and model better attentional skills in our children simultaneously. Click link here to watch Amishi Jha talk about how to train brains to pay better attention: Amishi Jha: Building Attention Learn more on this topic and other real life parenting tools in our ParentingToolbox Newsletter. Click here now!
Some of the research listed below suggests that parents (and teachers) are in the brain changing business. Although parents might struggle with changing a child’s “mind” they inevitably have a role in the child’s developing brain. A child’s experiences in life can alter the structures of the brain for good or ill.
The most important experiences are those they share with their caretakers. This might put a lot of weight on parents already weighty lives and cause them to feel that can’t do anything right. The only result, they might joke, is pay for the therapy latter! Fortunately, those therapists have long known that optimal is better than perfect. The idea of the “Good Enough” parent is a comforting one, to myself at least. We don’t have to do everything perfect. It is more important that we try, even in the event of failures (blow our top, pick the child up late from preschool, can’t help with a math assignment or get a divorce) a child can come out OK. It is our overall efforts and results that children judge us by and it is our consistent effort to provide structure and nurturing that create the healthiest brains/people.
“No matter what business you’re involved in, first and foremost you’re in the brain change business.” So asserts Houston neuro-psychiatrist, Bruce Perry. In line with that premise, it makes great sense to know at least a few of the basics about how your own and other people’s brains grow and change in ways that could possibly help make them work like Einstein’s, Michelangelo’s and Mother Teresa’s all rolled into one!
The brain is perhaps best thought of as a collection of interconnected endocrine glands – roughly 52 individual parts controlling different actions. They all must work together to “process energy and information.” Thinking about the brain in such terms – as a network of organs that must optimally process the energy and information of our daily lives – turns out to be a very useful template to help us understand our own and others’ reactions to the world, and to make good decisions in response to them.
Ideally, we only want ourselves and our family and friends involved in activities that their brains are developmentally suited to handle, and perhaps a little bit more. It’s the “little bit more” that can become tricky, which is how we build resilience in ourselves and our kids.
Recently I did a poll here on the ParentingToolbox to see what some of the biggest parenting issues were in 2010. Sixty percent of the parents that responded said that “child behavior problems” were their main concerns. It could be that parents that come to my blog do so because they are looking for help with their children’s behavior. The blog does focus on that topic over other parenting topics. Even with that possibility, I think it is still quite relevant to parents. It always has been in my 20 plus years of working with families. So it should surprise me to see that result. What the poll doesn’t ask is what kind of behavior issues is troublesome to parents. I did ask about teen drug use, bullying, child abuse and other stressful issues. These got some attention but not much. I am left with the assumption that parents are referring to the age-old concerns of defiance, noncompliance, sibling rivalry, etc. I will be addressing all these issues in my new Premium Parenting Toolbox Newsletter that launches this month. Get on board now while I have the introductory price available and you will find detailed parenting help on topics you need help with. Click here for more information!Leave a comment below on the behavior issues you have been dealing with. Be specific. I may provide some tailored answers to you in the newsletter.