Got “No!”? Two Doesn’t Have to be Terrible

Have you ever been in a situation where you were completely bewildered by what was happening – and then someone explained why?  And then the behavior  made a little more sense?

Last Fall I had just such an experience.  My middle school son showed up ready to head out the door to school in shorts.  He’d been wearing shorts since September. But lately the overnight temperatures had been consistently low.  On this particular morning, it was 42 degrees outside.

I told him it was cold and he needed long pants.  He insisted he would be fine. I insisted he needed to change.  As he dug in his heels, I responded with consequences if he didn’t go put on long pants.  Finally, relenting, I offered to let it go if he’d explain why he thought shorts were fine on this cold morning.

He sat sullenly on the couch, neither moving nor explaining.  After a few more motherly hysterics (yet maddenly powerless), he finally said quietly, “I can’t wear long pants to gym.”  “You can change into shorts in the locker room,” I replied. Even more quietly he responded, “I don’t want to have to change.”

My eyes were opened.  Here sat a newly minted adolescent – reluctant to undress in front of his peers.  It was suddenly crystal clear why he would rather be cold at the bus stop than change into long pants.  My heart swelled for him and the new territory he was navigating as he moved from child to young adult. (A topic for another blog post. Hint: 12 is 2 all over again.)

“Thank you for explaining,” I answered.  “Now that I understand where you are coming from, I won’t insist you change.”  I finished up with an apology. “I’m sorry – hope your day at school is better than the last 10 minutes have been.”  I hugged him and he trooped out the door. In shorts.

The bewilderment I experienced that morning will be familiar to parents of toddlers in the age of ‘No!”.  Where does this sudden refusal to cooperate come from?

A baby’s brain is one quarter of the size of an adult brain.  But in the first year of life it will double in size. By the time the child is three, their brain will be 80% of its adult size.  During that journey from birth to age three, the helpless, completely dependent newborn will transform into an autonomous young child.

Right in the middle of that transformation is the “terrible twos”.  That period of time when ‘no’ is their favorite word. Dr. Maria Montessori, a pioneer of experience-based early childhood education, called this stage of development a progression from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind.  “Unconscious” because they begin unaware of their own participation in the learning process, but as they become “conscious”, they arrive fully aware of themselves as independent, thinking, learning beings.

They discover they can have a thought about something that is different from their caregiver’s thoughts.  They can even have their own opinion – one that might be contrary to the adult’s opinion. They test their new understanding with practice.  Lots and lots of practice. Which means lots of “No!”.

Adults have been frustrated by this phase of child development for so long it bears the label “Terrible Twos”.  But understanding that the “No!” is coming from a new awareness of their own ability to choose can help. When parenting a child in this phase of development, encouraging the choosing can help encourage cooperation.

Maintain calm authority.  Children growing in awareness can also be uncertain.  Caregivers reassure them that they are safe and will be cared for by using a tone of voice that is confident and supportive.  Try to avoid sounding angry, even as they try your patience. Use your words to help them understand what you need them to do.  “Oh I see you are not happy about having to put your boots on now. We can’t leave until the boots are on.”

Offer them a choice between two things – but only 2 things.  More than two can overwhelm the child.  My favorite choice is: “Would you like to put the boots on all by yourself, or would you like me to help?”  Countless times I found that when offering the choice between doing it themselves or having my help, their desire to be independent spurred them to action.  They much preferred doing it themselves than having help. But be prepared to be patient and take the time to wait when they choose to do it themselves. Help with any hard part, but don’t rob them of the satisfaction of accomplishing the task independently.

Another option is the choice between first and next.   “Do you want your coat before your boots – or boots first?” also changes the request by providing the child the opportunity to decide.

Notice that we can give them an alternative to their assumption that the choice is “do it” or “don’t do it”.

Change the subject as you proceed to help them cooperate.  “Oh look, I found a fuzzy scarf in the closet.”  Handing them the scarf, begin putting boots on to their feet.  Calling their attention to something else helps them move past the defiance and onto a new emotion.

And finally, mission accomplished, be sure to begin a new conversation as you move onto the next activity.  “Now that we have our boots on, let’s go!  We are going to walk around the block – let’s look for birds as we walk.”

Sometimes you can choose from among these strategies.  Sometimes you will work your way through all of them in succession –  and still face opposition from your toddler. Once you’ve exhausted all efforts at cooperation, just remember you’re the parent.  Lovingly, but firmly, complete the task and move on.

In moments where no amount of encouragement succeeds, doing it for them without further comment on the matter helps the child disengage from the struggle.  With the child in my lap, and boot in hand, I would begin a conversation about something entirely unrelated to the boots. “Look, you have your green sweater on.  It matches your green raincoat.” More often than not, their attention is drawn onto the next thing by a change of subject. And the protest is forgotten.

Yes, they are now old enough to have their own opinion, but the ‘terrible two’ is also amazingly more verbal.  Listening, answering, and participating in a conversation will very often draw their attention away from the ‘no’.

And rest assured, this stage will not last forever.

 

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The Power of Attunement

I was sitting in the lobby as a parent was departing with their young child.  The parent stopped at the front desk, engaging in a conversation with the adult on the other side of the desk.  While they talked, the little girl noticed a slip of paper on the floor, across the room, not far from a waste basket.  As the parent continued in conversation, the child toddled over to the piece of paper and picked it up. She started toward the waste can just as the parent finished and turned their attention to the child.

“Come now, we need to go to the car,” the parent said striding over to the child and taking her  hand. The small child immediately wailed, resisting the pull toward the door. Unaware of the child’s intention to deposit the litter in the wastebasket, the parent proceeded to cajol the child, exasperated by their uncooperative behavior.

From my vantage point, it was easy to see why the child was being uncooperative.  But the parent had not seen the litter, or the little girl’s determination to “help”.  It was a perfect example of the importance of attunement.

Had the parent taken just a moment after completing their conversation to observe what the child was doing, they might have seen that the child was simply completing a small task they had independently begun.  Had the parent waited a few more seconds, just until that small piece of paper had been deposited into the trash can, I have no doubt the child would have happily walked out the door, all smiles and cooperation.

Attunement is the attention we give the mood and emotional needs of another human being.  Attunement parenting focuses on how well a parent recognizes and interprets their child’s needs, moods and emotions in order to respond appropriately.  Well attuned parents of infants are able to interpret their baby’s feelings and respond appropriately.

Attunement is facilitated by attention.  In order to accurately interpret another’s emotional or physical needs, one must first be paying attention.  If we are attuned to another person, we will have noticed what happened and be able to see the context within which that person’s need is being expressed.

Attunement requires our attention, but, as Nathalie Spencer observes, “Attunement is not simply undivided attention; it is both more and less than that.  It does not mean a parent giving in to every whim of a child. But it is the understanding of needs, and a response to those needs which ultimately help the other to regulate their emotions and arousal.  It is bringing someone up when they need some stimulation, and bringing them down when they need calming.”

Attunement is different from Attachment Parenting in that Attachment parenting uses continuous physical closeness and touch to promote the emotional engagement and connection between an infant and parent. Parents practicing attachment parenting carry their babies in a sling on their body as much as possible.  Often they co-sleep with their infants. The physical closeness of the infant to the parent supports the emotional attachment between the parent and child. Where attachment parenting focuses on physical closeness, attunement focuses on our attention to the emotions of the other.

It is easy to miss the cues about a child’s emotional needs when we are not paying attention.  This frequently leads to emotional disconnect and frustration, both ours and theirs. With so many things vying for our attention, it is easy to be unattuned to the people we are physically with.  Our mobile phones make us always accessible, so we push the stroller while handling the work call – with no opportunity to attune to the child who sees a plane in the sky and exclaims excitedly, “plane!”.

Neuroscience research has confirmed our brains are not wired for multi-tasking.  In fact, multi-tasking does not make us more efficient. Instead, it makes us worse at both of the things we are trying to accomplish.  Parents who try to multitask while in the company of their children do not give the children – or the other task – the full benefit of their time and attention.  Attunement suffers and often frustration ensues.

When choose to attend to one at a time, we stand a better chance of being attuned to our children’s emotional state.   And being better attuned – paying attention – gives us a better chance of meeting the needs or navigating the ‘no’. Attunement makes us better informed because we have observed and are paying attention.

 

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What if She Isn’t Like Me?

Today’s blog post is contributed by guest blogger, Esther Schiedel.  We hope you enjoy the read, and we appreciate Esther’s willingness to write for us!

I wrote a while ago about parenting a child who shared some of my characteristics that I wish were different. She’s Not Me  http://www.parentingsuccessnetwork.org/parenting_tips/2018/shes-not-me/

This is the flip side of that concern.

I worried from time to time, as many parents do, about my children’s behavior—comparing them with other children their age, wondering if they could meet the expectations of school, and of society in general. Unlike some children I knew, my middle daughter was cautious and reserved around most people, children and adults alike. This was especially true when these were people she did not know. And included relatives she saw only occasionally—which, since we did not live near family, was all of them. We used to joke that she wanted to see your resume and three references before talking to you.

And she and I had different ways of learning—my attempts at teaching her something often ended in frustration on both our parts. Fortunately, while discussing these concerns with my husband, we both realized that she is a lot like him. Those similarities did not always contribute positively to their relationship, but once he recognized them, it helped a lot.

Now I love and respect my husband and he is a competent adult. But what if he wasn’t? What if I didn’t like him?

What happens when a parent sees a behavior in their child which is like that of a relative who has problems functioning successfully? Or their relationship with that relative is not a positive one?

The relative might be the other parent, or might be a sibling, grandparent, or other relation. In such cases a parent might over-react to that behavior. Which does NOT help.

What does help?

* Identifying what our reaction is based on. Sometimes we react without knowing why. We may have simply forgotten or we may have repressed traumatic memories. It might take serious self-examination or the help of a therapist to recognize why we have a strong response to some behaviors.

* Increasing our awareness of temperamental traits. A trait is not a behavior but a reason behind a behavior. In my daughter’s case, the trait is termed First Reaction; it describes whether a child approaches or withdraws from a new situation. It’s also referred to as Leaper or Watchful. Neither of these reactions to new situations or people is good or bad, but each can lead to behaviors which could cause problems. When we understand temperament we can help a child learn to behave in socially acceptable and safe ways. Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka is a helpful resource for parents

* Paying attention to the whole child. Making an issue out of one trait or behavior exaggerates its importance and can make things worse. Your relationship with the child is more important.

* Reminding ourselves that similarities to another person do not indicate that a child will grow up to be just like that person. Many, many things contribute to children’s and adult’s personalities, abilities, and behavior.

Parenting classes can provide more information and perspective on child development and temperament. They offer lots of techniques for dealing with behaviors.

And by the way, my cautious daughter is still cautious. She’s also a competent and wonderful adult.

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A Chance Eating

Here’s another question that’s been coming up in my work with families:

Wh do you do if a kid just doesn’t want to eat?

I wish I had a ready answer, because it’s happening at home too. The seven year-old, now that she has (finally) been sleeping through the night again, has decided to eat only fruit (possibly from now on). And today, I hear, the 11 year-old has simply refused everything on offer. This from the girl who lists “eating” as both a personal and future professional pursuit. She just…ain’t havin’ it.

How do we deal with this as parents?

  • As usual, the first step is to ask some questions. Are they feeling okay? Any pains in the tummy or anywhere else? Do they just not like what’s on the menu, or are they not into food of any kind (watch at this step for the “only candy” loophole)?

You may not particularly want to hear their answers, but the point is that they’ll probably tell you something useful, even if by accident.  If they just don’t like your meatloaf, you can decide, ‘cuz you’re the grownup, whether to give them another option. Our newly minted fruitarian child recently went through a period of only wanting peanut butter and jelly. And I’m pretty sure you can live on that for a while, so we let it be an option at every meal. Now it’s fruit. As long as we have it, she can eat it, though we’ve pointed out she’ll need to eat a lot of it to get what she needs.

  • Ask yourself, how long has it been since they last ate? What was it?

I’m about to tell you something. It is this: if they ate at least some of their last meal, and they’re likely to eat at least some of their next, you can just…let it go. That’s right. As long as you are offering food every couple of hours, which is kind of your job, if they choose not to eat it they will be okay. Really. Because there will be food at the next meal, and they’ll probably be hungry.

  • Golly, what if they haven’t eaten in a while?

Then something is probably wrong and you need to take that kid to the doctor.

Also, what’s going on with them in general?

  • Like, are they gearing up for a growth spurt, or done with one? Are they gaining or losing teeth? What’s going on at school? What’s bothering them?

The natural default for children of all ages is to want to eat. If there is some interruption in that urge, it could be due to a variety of factors. This could be a good opportunity to problem-solve together.

Who knows? Maybe the answer is that you need to buy a new cookbook.

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She’s Not Me

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther.

I watched as my 2-year old daughter concentrated on building a tower of blocks. She paused for a moment and swiped her right hand from her eyebrow up above her hairline, brushing hair out of her eyes—except that she didn’t have any hair hanging in her eyes! No, she made that gesture because –since birth—she had seen me do it several times a day. That image has stuck with me as a powerful reminder of the unconscious impact we parents have on our children.

We certainly inherit many things from our parents—from genes to habits. We often find ourselves saying the things our parents said to us to our children, those “OMG I’m turning into my mother!” moments.

Sometimes we see behaviors in our children that we don’t like or that we think will cause problems for them. Sometimes this happens without us being aware that the child is simply imitating us. Usually, we are well aware that we are the source of the behavior. And well aware of the problems it can lead to. So we try to correct it in our child.

But that form of correction is not only ineffectual, I believe it is harmful. Why?

When I’m told not to do something that I am doing unconsciously it feels like an attack on me. And if I know of no way to stop doing it, then I feel stupid.

What can a parent do?

  1. Set a different example. If you want your child to do something—do it yourself. It won’t be easy—quite possibly you behave this way because that’s how your parents behaved. But change is possible.

Share your struggle and your strategies with your child. You may want to ask your child to help by reminding you or praising your progress.

  1. Be aware of your child’s environment and their viewpoint. Be curious (in a non-threatening way). Share your observations—especially of positive things your child does. Ask questions: What do they want do about something? What do they think will happen if they do that? What do they think they can do about a problem.
  2. Use your knowledge of yourself when thinking about your child’s behavior. Try to put yourself into your child’s situation—how would you react? What’s different? What is the same?

It may be helpful to increase your knowledge of yourself. Some behaviors are learned from our parents, but others result from our temperament. Temperamental traits are not good or bad, they are characteristics present from birth—such as sensitivity, activity level, persistence and many others.  A helpful way to think about these traits is to consider whether you are right or left-handed. Handedness is not learned and trying to change it can cause problems. But both right handed and left handed children can learn to write—they just need strategies that work for them. Often, particularly in the past, some traits were viewed as faults that needed correction. If that happened to you as a child, you probably found ways to cope but you still might see that trait as something that ought to be changed—and want to spare your child from the problems you encountered. A trait is NOT an excuse for bad behavior or for avoiding difficult situations, by the way. However, once we recognize a trait as the reason underlying a behavior, we have an easier time modifying our behavior and helping a child modify theirs. For example, a highly sensitive child can learn strategies that help them deal with the barrage of stimulation in school. Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka is an excellent source of information about temperament and strategies.

  1. Recognize that, despite the similarities, your child is a unique individual growing up under different circumstances. Behaviors and traits that caused problems for you, might not do the same for your child. The world is a different place from the world of your childhood. No matter how similar you and your child are they are NOT you.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

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Three Scenes

Sullen tee w/dad

Here’s a specific problem that has been coming up for me lately, at work and at home. I thought I’d find out more about it and share it with you.

Close your eyes and take a journey with me. You are in a room. A clean, well-lighted place. You are calm and relaxed. Take a few breaths in and out. Good. Now, open your eyes.

Before you is a child. Your child. The child is rolling her eyes in disbelief that you have just expected her to do something that you regard as perfectly reasonable. She intends to ignore you and go on with what she was doing before.

Close your eyes. Take another breath. Now open them.

Now your child is throwing his younger brother’s half-constructed Attack of the Clones Lego playset down the stairs. When you ask him why he has done this, he explains that his brother was being, and in fact is, a “butt.”

Close your eyes. Feel around for the ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet. Take two and be sure to drink a whole glass of water. Open your eyes.

Now your child, as you watch, is saying “$@%#.” You are positive that you have heard the word crisply and clearly and have watched the precise mouth movements required to form the word. When you ask the child to repeat the word, she insists that she was using the euphemistic spelling employed by Norman Mailer in his WWII novel The Naked and the Dead.  You do not believe her (though I also made a Hemingway reference in this post. Can you spot it?).

Oh, boy. We’re done. Come back to your body and shake yourself out.

These children are engaging in what is known by scientists as disrespectful behavior. Now, you might be asking, “Where did they learn this kind of thing?” The answer is a.) You, b.) Their peers, c.) Their uncle Steve, d.) YouTube, e.) It doesn’t matter. The answer is e.)

There are some definite do’s and don’ts in common to these scenes:

  • Stay calm. Do not respond with the kind of words or behavior they are presenting to you.
  • Ignore provocation. Do not be drawn into a power struggle, which is exactly what will happen if you attempt to assert your power right now. Walk away if you have to.
  • Speak your expectations clearly. “I don’t want to hear that kind of language.” “I expect you to listen when I give you a direction.” Stick to it but don’t feel you need to explain or defend it. Don’t negotiate.
  • Give encouragement when you see or hear things you like.
  • Spend some time with them. Let the relationship do the repairing.

Now. What was the child feeling? Probably frustration and a need for power. Now that everyone is calm, you can work with your child on ways to have (age-appropriate) input into rules and routines in order to feel more in control. Can you arrange for he and his brother to have separate play time? Can she choose when she does her chores, with the promise of an activity she enjoys at the end (or even while she does the work; music, an audiobook)? Can she practice deep breathing with you so she can learn to express her feelings appropriately?

Alright. Now close your eyes again. And have a nice long nap.

 

 

 

 

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Kids Hitting Kids

As you know, occasionally I like to delve into an internet search (well, it’s not really delving, per se, since it takes three microns of a second) on a parenting topic. This time it’s something that’s been coming up in my work with families: namely, siblings wailin’ on each other. Parents have been asking me what to do in this situation, and as all parties (including the kids) agreed that it wasn’t a good thing to hit each other, we were at a bit of an impasse.

So here goes. One of the first articles to come up, at least in my info bubble, was kinda preachy and alarmist: the title says it all. Aside from pointing out in no uncertain terms that it is bad for people to hit each other (we’re in! We bought a ticket!), we’d like to know how to get to the bottom of it. How do we help our kids to try something else next time?

This next one was very promising. It focuses on how to talk to siblings about hitting when one is able to express himself in words and the other is not. It was written by an extreme parenting genius with perfect recall of a 15-minute conversation (did the author transcribe it from tape? Does she have a dictation team?), and really it is totally worth reading. She makes sure both of the kids are able to talk, and able to listen to each other. Which is really what they wanted in the first place.

Because, say it with me: “all behavior is an unmet need.”

Which is one of the 31(!) tips featured in this list which turned out to be the winner of the parenting internet this week. Note the first one: “Remember that this is normal,” and note as well that this makes it the complete opposite of what the first article said. Maybe it’s useful to tease out the meaning here. By “normal,” I think we’re saying both that it’s “something that happens” and that “the world does not end when it does.” The children do not explode (unless they are actually attaching explosives to one another, in which case it’s a more serious problem than this post can address), and one presumes that the hitting is not so frequent and vicious as to spill over into something else, which is called abuse, no matter who’s doing it to whom. Again, different blog post.

The fact is, though, when children are siblings (or in the same classroom, or sharing playground equipment, etc etc), sometimes they whack each other. What does it mean? In almost every case, it’s frustration, or tiredness, or hunger, or some combination thereof (“It’s an unmet need.” Everybody, now).

What do we do about it? That’s where it gets tricky, and where the author is smart enough to not give a straight answer. Or at least, a single answer. What I like is that she wants us to mostly look at ourselves. Should we interfere? If we do, are we actually just performing for the other parents in the room? Are we bringing our frustration into it? Are we blaming (this time or every time) one child or the other?

One of the answers is “do nothing.” I love when people give that advice. What if they can work it out? Isn’t that a skill?

Another is “make sure they have their own toys.” If they have things that they don’t have to share, there are no grounds for disagreement. Also, “don’t make toddlers share.” Word.

Also, too, “take them outside.” In my work that sometimes means to literally take them outside (we have swings, and a lovely meadow), but more generally it means that we need to change the environment. Move to a new place, find a new activity, take the energy up or down. Make it different.

Who knew there were so many things we could do about it? Come on kids. Bring it on.

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Tell Me When to Panic

I keep coming across a study that makes a remarkable correlation. Namely, that drug use among teenagers has gone down across the board in the last few years, just as use of personal technology such as smartphones and tablets has gone up. According to a New York Times article about the study, “researchers are starting to ponder an intriguing question: Are teenagers using drugs less in part because they are constantly stimulated and entertained by their computers and phones?” The piece sort of stumbles around a bit, assuring us that correlation is not causation (it’s not) before suggesting, “it might be that gadgets simply absorb a lot of time that could be used for other pursuits, including partying.” Which is a sentence guaranteed to make teenagers laugh.

An interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Adam Alter, the author of a new book about the perils of media saturation called Irresistible, builds on this study to present a case for the increasing prevalence of addiction to devices that connect to the internet. Alter, who has done work in this field, makes the argument that online games and other content are “designed to be addictive and that the gratification it provides is similar to that of other addictive behaviors, such as drug abuse or gambling.”

So far, so alarming. This is not a post about how we should rip iPhones from the hands of our teen children (I’ve sort of done that already). I do think that we should consider not putting them in the hands of anyone under 10 (and definitely under two, no matter what doctors now say). If anything, I think the most important thing for us parents to consider is our own use of those devices. What sort of behavior are we modeling? What are we presenting as acceptable? Etc. You know, the old “walk the walk” line (just heard Johnny Cash as I typed that).

No, what I found really interesting was this article in Teen Vogue, which has been enjoying a reputation of late as the source of some astute, if unconventional, journalism. The short piece presents the correlation between the fall of teenage drug use and the rise of phone-and-tablet use, and finds…nothing alarming whatsoever. “So next time you’re at a party and passing on that drink, joint, or something far worse, don’t feel bad about looking down at your phone — playing a quick game of Words With Friends could be exactly what you need to stay sober and on track.”

Yeah, but. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we. What about. How can we not consider.

Oh, forget it. I’m packing it in. With a book. That doesn’t light up.

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The Gift of Validation

dadteachboy

I went to a memorial service for a friend today. He was a husband and father, and an exceptionally good one, on both counts. A lot of what I have learned about working with children came from his example. He was gifted in the art of validation: he would listen without agenda to a young person’s feelings and reflect them back, then help to come up with solutions that worked for everyone. In the four years that we worked together, in a residential facility with some of the most “difficult” and “troubled” children in the state, I never saw him lose his patience (perhaps because he also knew when it was time to walk away or to seek help).

Working in this field can give a lot of people the idea that maybe they don’t want children of their own. But it can also instill, or reinforce, the foundation from which a parent can bring these skills home, to the benefit of their own kids and to parents all around them. My friend was an example of the latter (I am fortunate to know others as well).

It can be difficult for a “parenting expert,” regardless of one’s knowledge of child development and strategies for turning conflict into cooperation, struggle into growth, to make these skills translate to their own parenting. I often say that I forget to take these skills home sometimes to my own kids, in my own home. This is why the cobbler’s children have no shoes.

When I am in these moments, I often think of what my friend has taught me about the virtue of really listening. He would sit with an escalated child, through minutes and sometimes hours of rage, confusion and hurt, and that child would come to know that he was there as a witness, validating his or her feelings and holding out quietly for the time when they would be able to move on together.

I try to do this. In some cases I am more successful than others. Sometimes I picture my friend next to me, helping me find the strength to lend to the child.

I’ll miss you, friend. But I’ve got that.

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“They Believed Me”

This week’s guest post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Esther.

Sullen tee w/dad

“They Believed Me.”

 

I recently heard the British journalist John McCarthy say these words. McCarthy was kidnapped and held

hostage for 5 years– some of it in solitary confinement. When asked how he recovered from this terrible

ordeal, he spoke about the help he had received from professionals and family and friends. He noted

how important it was that they knew and acknowledged what a terrible ordeal he had undergone.

McCarthy is now involved with Freedom from Torture, an organization that helps survivors of various

forms of torture and abuse. He explained that some survivors of abuse aren’t believed initially. He

stressed how important it was to have others believe him.

 

What in the world has this to do with parenting? A lot.

 

Our relationships with our children are filled with times when we choose to believe or choose to ignore

or choose to outright reject what they tell us.

 

Our children tell us daily how they feel: happy, frustrated, scared, confident, confused, excited, hurt.

They tell us what they think they can or cannot do. They tell us what they like. Sometimes they can

express these things in words, sometimes in frowns or smiles or body language. When we don’t listen,

or when we listen but don’t believe them, they may express themselves with fists or temper tantrums

or, as my son did on one memorable morning, by barricading himself in his room because he didn’t want

to go to kindergarten.

 

My son complained he was bored. I could understand why some of the kindergarten curriculum was

boring, but it wasn’t like he had mastered everything on it, the teacher seemed nice, and he was making

friends. It was hard to believe it was that difficult for him to go to school.

I know I’m not the only parent who has struggled with believing a child.

 

First of all, it is hard to actually listen to a child because of all the other things we have to do as

grownups: work, responsibilities, worries, self-care.

 

Then, it’s hard to believe a child when what they tell us doesn’t mesh with our own view of reality. Since

we know more about the world than they do, we assume our view is accurate and think the child must

be mistaken.

 

And it’s hard when we are afraid of what might be asked of us. We are afraid of the broader implications

for ourselves and others if we accept that the child is telling us the truth.

 

And, of course, sometimes children deliberately lie to us.

 

What can parents do overcome these barriers to believing our children?

 

  •  Establish times when we are available to listen to our children without other distractions. These

might be dinnertime conversations where each person shares something about their day. Or

bedtime routines. Or a weekly date with each child.

 

  •  Get to know your child. Learn about child development and temperamental differences. Get to

know your child’s world. Visit daycare and school. Talk to teachers and other parents. Talk to

your child’s friends.

 

tell us does not mean that we can or should do something. Believing and validating how a child

feels may be enough. Even when it isn’t enough, it conveys trust. Our trust allows a child to tell

us more about the problem. Trust can give us time and patience to investigate further and

explore options.

 

  • Even when we suspect a child is lying, it may be worthwhile to look at what is behind the lie. Is

the child afraid? Feeling helpless or overwhelmed? Dealing with some larger complicated issue?

 

  •  Don’t be afraid to seek outside help. Know that it may take time and effort on your part. If the

recommendations don’t make sense to you, keep looking for more information and help.

 

The Whole-Brain Child by Siegel and Bryson is an excellent resource for understanding how children

think and grow. It explains strategies parents can use to help children understand their emotions and

fears. And strategies to help children deal with those feelings.

 

And my son? After several conferences with teachers and staff we sought an evaluation from a child

psychologist. The psychologist told us, “he says he’s bored because he is bored.” We believed the

psychologist and so did the school. Some changes were made that helped. It wasn’t smooth sailing for

the rest of his childhood but we all survived. He now has a college degree and works as an engineer.

 

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

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