When our children are doing something that’s creating a problem, it’s not always obvious how to help, but it’s hard to do nothing. When we’re at a loss about what to do for our children, we naturally feel anxious and frustrated. We want to say, “Don’t do that”, “Don’t be that way”.
Traditionally, criticism has been one of the most common expressions of love and caring and one we’ve seen modeled a lot. We tend to be most critical of those who are most important to us. You won’t lose much sleep over how your banker lives his life. We care what happens concerning our children. We correct them, when there’s a problem.
Children like approval, so that may work. Still, there’s a lot of correcting to be done and it may start to seem to the child, that your role is to criticize them, to be dissatisfied with who they are now. You may start to see this as your role too, thinking it’s unpleasant but necessary. We mostly know that this system doesn’t work that well, it comes across as if you were saying, “You’re not OK”, or “You’re not acceptable as you are”. This is made even worse when there’s anger or frustration in our voice, caused by our concern. Children might feel like our love is conditional on learning the next lesson. So this thing we do, out of caring, can look like proof that we don’t care.
We both feel unappreciated. This situation becomes an impasse. We can’t stop caring about our children’s behaviour and our best efforts may be making things worse. So what can we do? Wanting the best for your child and wanting them to get along with people isn’t wrong, so how can you work on this, more effectively?
Criticism can sound like you’re saying, the person you are talking to has a problem and you’re telling them about themselves. They get busy defending themselves, and presto they’re not listening. Sometimes it’s more useful to own the problem ourselves and ask for their help with it. Then we are talking about our problem, our needs, our feelings, and ourselves.
We ask for what we want from others, to take care of ourselves, without the need to discuss anyone being wrong. For example, if your child is speaking disrespectfully to you, you might explain your problem this way. I want to be treated fairly and with respect. When I’m spoken to in this way (give one specific example, without blame, judgment or you always) then I don’t feel that I’m treated fairly or respectfully. I feel (angry, hurt or whatever is the case). What I want from you is… (Be specific and non-judgmental).
When not busy being right or wrong, people may listen rather than defend themselves. Two essential points are: to talk about yourself, and to take responsibility for your own feelings. The moment they are to blame for your feelings, then we’re back to defending and we’ll be adversaries. The focus is not on whose wrong but on what people want from each other to take care of themselves.
Another difficulty is that we sometimes confuse a punishment with a reward. Kids are strongly motivated to get your undivided attention. Children may not always be clear on how to get that attention, especially when parents are busy, and parents are busy a lot.
A parent will often stop to correct some misbehaviour even when they are busy. Negative attention may sound like the booby prize, but kids will often settle for this, because just like parents, they may not always know how to get what they really want. You could be inadvertently rewarding the very behaviours that you’re correcting by correcting them.
Talk about a vicious circle! If this sounds like your situation, then there’s a different counselling strategy you could try. Imagine all the time, energy and attention that you can devote to your child as a budget. There is only so much you have to spend, only so much of you to go around. Now consistently devote as much of this budget as possible, to positive interaction. Reward the interactions and behaviours you want with the attention. Notice what you appreciate and enjoy, comment on that. Share activities. As much as possible, reward what you want to see and make misbehaviour “unrewarding”. This sounds strange because our usual habit is to pay more attention to what needs fixing.
Finally, when in conflict, rather than blaming one another, we could look to the huge and exasperating nature of the task. Parents and children are learning how to get along while simultaneously one is learning to be a child and the other is learning to be a parent. This is one of the most challenging undertakings any of us will ever take on. We began to learn to parent when we were the child, in our first family.
That seems long ago and it is tempting for both parent and child to fall into the illusion that parents know all this stuff and just need to put it into practice. Learning to parent is an ongoing adventure. It takes some of the pressure off us to recognize that it is normal and expected, not to know what to do next. In fact knowing that you don’t know can be your greatest strength. This open-minded exploration is what makes it possible for you to become a better parent than you’ve ever been or seen.