Some days I'm quite certain all I've been trained to know about children and behavior flies out of my brain through a small and undetectable, or invisible, hole. I forget the most basic and simple parenting and relationship skills and my home quickly turns into a warzone...sometimes I'm the referee and sometimes I'm at war with my 4 and/or 2-year-old (that was painful to admit). I get stuck in the patterns that cause the negative attitudes among the 3 of us to persist and it feels awful, I'm quite certain, for everyone involved.
It seems like my frustrating times with parenting come in waves. I'll have such a handle on my kids and their behavior: there will be peace in the home and, most importantly, in me. I might even start thinking that the 20 courses of Human Growth and Development I've taught at the Master's level, my training through a family counseling program and in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy has paid off and I start to get....well....cocky. And then BAM!!! Somewhere between the 437 questions (the 4-year-old average) my daughter asks per day, the sibling bickering, my kids' sudden incredible ability to sense when I have something that must be done and then the thwarting of all attempts to get said thing done, and the new found dislike for a previously-loved meal, I'm sent over my parenting edge. ME! The person who has all the skills and training not to do such things. I half expect someone to come out from behind a curtain and yell, "HA! And you thought you had nothing more to learn! DIDN'T YOU!!?" [...]
Developmentally, toddlers are growing and changing so quickly that it's hard for us adults to keep up. It all started when my first child was an infant. I remember the relief that came when I thought I had figured out her sleep schedule, just for it to change the following week. Children are in a constant state of growing, learning, and changing and change is the only thing we can count on. Flexibility makes families resiliant.
I coach parents frequently regarding parenting and how to build a strong relationship with the child while also having firm and clear boundaries. This is what the research says is the recipe for good outcomes in parenting (it's called Authoritative Parenting Style if you want more info.) It's so much easier to see a situation clearly when it's not your own...when you're not emotionally attached. I love my job and how it keeps me on my toes and how facilitating healthy parent-child interactions with others reminds me and teaches me how to foster my own. I learn an extraordinary amount everyday from navigating situations that are not mine because I get a lot of practice.
When my children are acting out behaviorally I know that I may not have been the cause, but as a parent I can be the biggest part of the solution. Here are some empirically-supported strategies straight from Child Therapists to reset your toddlers when they get in a negative behavior pattern and to build strong parent-child relationships. The skills can be applied to all age levels, but the details of what follows is geared towards toddlers. I promise if you practice these skills for 5 minutes per day with each of your children your relationships and their attitudes will improve. They'll like you more and be more eager to please you which means you'll have to dicipline them less. Doesn't that sound good?
First, start by choosing about 5 activities for your toddler to choose from during the 5 minutes. Ideally these activities would have few rules. Toys like blocks, puzzles, tea sets, and make-believe play work well in setting up this positive interaction. This isn't a time for teaching or criticizing so if you forsee this occurring choose another activity. During this time follow your child's lead and do what your child wants to do. Announce to your child, "It's time for SPECIAL PLAYTIME." Below are the Do's and Don'ts of this relationship-building time.
- Praise: Praises work better when they're specific. Instead of, "Good!" say, "Good sharing!" Praising behavior causes the behavior to increase, lets the child know what you like, and adds warmth to the relationship.
- Reflect: Reflections are some of the most powerful communication skills. In fact, learning and using just this one skill has been proven to show improvement in marital satisfaction. Reflections include paraphrases of verbals or non-verbals. For instance, if the child says, "I made a star," the parent could say, "I see you drew a star." But if the parent sees the child frustrated at drawing the star the parent could say, "You look frustrated." Reflections help children (and adults) feel understood, validated, and accepted. Using reflections is a way to let the other person lead the conversation and to ensure you understand at a deep level. With children there is the added benefit of improving speech without criticism. The other night at bedtime my son and I had a 5-minute conversation about coconuts. It felt like we weren't on the same page so I turned on the light and asked him to show me the coconuts. He pointed to his blanket and said, "RIGHT DER! COCONUTS!!" Intead of criticizing by saying, "NO, those aren't coconuts! Those are polka-dots!" I reflected and said, "OH, right there! Polka-dots!!"
- Imitate: "Imitation is the sincerest (form) of flattery," right? It also lets the child lead and shows approval. My kids' smiles are huge when I say things like, "I'm going to draw a sun in my picture, TOO!"
- Describe: Describing appropriate behavior shows the child you're interested, teaches concepts, and holds the child's attention. "Wow! You're building a big tower!" and "You're coloring that shoe red," are great examples of descriptions.
- Enthusiasm!: I think this one is self-explanatory (imagine me saying this enthusiastically!).
- Ask Questions - This is one that's hard for most parents. Questions lead the conversation and many are commands in disguise. They can also make the child feel you're not listening.
- Criticize - Criticism doesn't work to decrease unwanted behaviors and often increases unwanted behaviors. They also may lower the child's self-esteem and make for an unpleasant interaction.
- Give Commands - This time is only for building warmth. Learning obedience strategies needed to give commands is a separate part of parenting. This special play time is intended to infuse the relationship with warmth and emotionally flip the child from a negative behavior pattern to a positive one. After this special time children are more likely to comply with commands because they want to work for the parents attention.
Also, ignore irritating or obnoxious behavior during special playtime and stop play if behavior becomes dangerous or destructive.
In Parent-Child Interaction Therapy mastery of these skills is considered 10 Labeled Praises, 10 Descriptions, and 10 Reflections in 5 minutes with no questions, commands, or criticisms. Sometimes I videotape myself with my kids and see how my skills are (HUGE nerd).
Please know that this is a VERY short version of what I offer parents and is in no way complete. Learning these skills can take months of practice and work.
Here's a link to a cheat-sheet you can use if you'd like to implement these skills.
PRIDE Skills Cheat-Sheet
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