I’m a parent and I know I have been guilty of making mistakes. Many mistakes. That’s part of the parenting process. We are all fallible human beings, yet hopefully we are sincerely trying to do our best. Part of doing our best is being open to learning how to improve. Two of the biggest mistakes many parents tend to make is knowing how to listen to children and knowing what to control.
The first mistake is when parents cross boundaries and become controlling and overly intrusive in a child’s life (telling them what they think or what to feel, confiding in them like a friend, not respecting their bodies and personal space).
The other mistake is not controlling a child’s behavior.
Go ahead and re-read the previous two paragraphs to see if you can genuinely discern the difference. Some of you can. Some of you may have a hard time understanding the difference. That’s okay. You might have been raised that way or simply never learned. So, let’s give a clearer example.
Imagine your child doesn’t want to go to bed. You tell them it’s bedtime and they become physically squirmy and cry out with a whining high-pitched voice, that hurts your ears like nails dragging across a chalkboard, “I don’t want to go to bed.”
How do you respond?
It’s important to recognize that a child is conveying their feelings. Many parents bypass the child’s feelings and go straight into a battle of wills. Recognizing the difference between expressions of feelings and actions is one of the biggest causes of conflict between people (of all ages). If I tell you how I feel and you tell me not to feel that feeling, my defenses creep up. It’s a natural human response. I no longer feel safe and heard—and unfortunately very few people can genuinely listen when they are in a defensive/guarded state.
Let’s circle back to the child’s response. Is it at all possible, you (as the parent) feel triggered into a defensive stance when you hear any sense of perceived opposition to your authority?
While I’m going to share the lesson about listening and offer dialogue tips, the real key to the parent-child dynamic comes from a parent’s own defensive and fearful stance. Parents want to do well and can get afraid when their child doesn’t appear to listen. Some parents respond to that inner fear by becoming even more authoritative (aka bullyish to abusive) or they give in and falsely believe that leniency is love (aka neglect). Believe it or not, children thrive with clear rules and immovable boundaries. It provides a needed sense of safety.
To combat this fear, parents might need to do some inner work to cultivate calm confidence and consistency in the boundaries they employ. Parents can also benefit from learning how to listen (to children, to their own inner voice, and to other people). So, let’s go back to the child’s statement that they don’t want to go to bed.
Listen for the feeling. Try to empathize with their perspective for a moment. Of course, they don’t want to go to bed when everyone else is up. They might miss out on something important. They may even feel lonely and like they’re being banished into solitary confinement (especially if going to bed has habitually been precipitated with an argument…which sets up larger power struggles in the future). Once you’ve accessed their expressed desire or feeling, REPEAT IT to them so they feel heard.
“I understand you want to stay awake with us.”
Now, with confidence, remember you are their parent. You are in charge of their behavior. Not their feelings. Respond with the rule. (If you have been battling over this for quite some time, it will take a bit of time to re-establish a new norm—yet it will surprisingly go a lot faster when the child senses you are taking real authority without hurting, dismissing, or giving in to them.)
“It’s 8:00 and it’s your bedtime. Let’s go wash up.”
Note that it helps to create bedtime rituals where you join them in washing up and reading them a bedtime book. They feel less lonely and it helps positive bonding while fostering trust and future resilience. If they fall asleep before the book is over, okay. Yet, try not to get in the habit of waiting for them to fall asleep. One book or X min of reading as a consistent rule. If they are still awake, kiss them on the forehead and then leave the room.
If you’ve struggled for a while, hang in there. Be consistent. Be kind. Be fair. Be strong. LISTEN. Don’t confuse feelings and expressions of desire with action. REPEAT the feeling or desire you heard so people feel understood. Then appropriately reinforce a consistent rule. Respect their boundaries and feelings. Practice this with others. (Knowing that you don’t control other people’s actions, yet you do teach people how to treat you…more about that in a future post.)