If like me you have come across the widely emerging research on emotional intelligence and its effect on every aspect of a person’s psychological health, you may be leaning toward changing your parenting style in order to support your child’s developing skills and needs more effectively. Like many others of my generation who have grown up within a household that functioned on the traditional punishment/reward disciplinary system, I have chosen to move away from that parenting approach to a more effective and healthy one often called ‘gentle discipline’ but that requires adopting a very different set of skills and behaviors as a parent/person.
The stark differences in approaching behavioral issues with our children under this philosophy compared to how our parents have dealt with us makes it challenging because we lack the essential tools that make it effective in the long term. The use of the techniques like time-outs, spanking, removing privileges, and groundings have been proven to not only be ineffective (which is why they all need to escalate in severity over time to work at all), but also detrimental to a healthy parent-child relationship because they rely on controlling children’s behaviors rather than addressing the underlying needs behind them and modeling appropriate responses.
Children directly emulate the behavioral patterns in their environment. How children react emotionally is a direct mirror to how we, their parents, react under similar emotional strain. They take their cues from us, how we behave when we are angry, frustrated, or sad, and use that as a template for their own behaviors. Children are not emotionally different than adults. They are more emotionally immature only because they have yet to develop the skills necessary to regulate them effectively. All unwanted behaviors have an underlying need that is not being met, whether it is physiological or psychological is up to the parent to discern. It really is a trial-and-error process.
First ask yourself why it is they may be reacting this way. If you were in their shoes, how would you feel in their situation? What would you need right then? The ability to not only empathize with them but to honor and respect what you discover about the reasons for their outbursts is necessary. Theirs needs have to be acknowledged, even if you may personally find them trivial. To them, how they feel is important and in order for you to react in a loving, compassionate manner, you have to connect with them on their level first.
Also ask yourself why you are reacting strongly to their behaviour. Is it related to the current situation or are you just having a bad day and are overly sensitive? Are your own needs being met? Do you need to refuel emotionally yourself? If you try and parent from frustration and anger, you will not be able to be fair and compassionate in handling the situation appropriately since you are not in control of your own emotional state either. Practicing taking a step back emotionally or even physically in order to gain perspective and creating a time to reflect in the moment will help you evaluate the situation accurately and formulate a positive approach to dealing with it that aligns with your parenting goals.
Change does not happen overnight, not with you, nor your children. If they are used to being punished for their reactive behaviors (and with you being used to meting them out), any radical change will be met with confusion and a period of boundary testing to re-configure what is now expected of them. Patience and compassion during this time is essential in making the shift and supporting them during this transition. Working through the problem solving process with them will allow them to see that you are willing to help them rather than control them and that how they feel matters to you too. You will find that over time they will be more likely to cooperate with you when you need something since you do so for them as well. Like every other relationship, it is a process and it will strengthen over time as you employ consistent behaviors yourself in interacting with them authentically.
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