Why do some adults talk to children as if their littleness is a sign of inferiority?
I guess you could say my “mama bear claws” came out last weekend.
My five-year-old was excited by the day's fun - a family BBQ, pool party, and bubbles. BUBBLES, for goodness sakes!
His energy was up, and he was running around as his whole, vibrant self. I always admire how children can be fiercely themselves - that is until someone tells them that who they are is too much or not enough- which triggers me because I remember being told both at various points throughout my life.
Waving the bubble wand a bit too close to a few family members, my son was grinning ear to ear. He wanted them to play. To say something. To notice him.
And they did …
“Stop it. Stop it now! What is wrong with you?”
Another chimes in.
“It is too much. Don’t you listen?”
And finally …
“How would you like it if I threw those damn bubbles in the street?!”
I was standing close enough to overhear but far enough away that I couldn’t step in before the lashing was over.
My son’s smile and playfulness faded. His shoulders slumped forward as he walked off to be by himself.
My heart felt like it was breaking. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that my power to protect my son lived not in keeping hard things like this moment from happening... but in supporting him through them.
When Family Is Disrespectful To Your Child
We have all been there. Family who doesn’t agree with our parenting style, who uses fear and shame to push obedience for their convenience … those who may or may not be willing to work with you in raising an emotionally healthy child.
Here’s how I handled this situation in five steps.
1. Meet The Hurt
I first went to my son. I bent down to his level and drew him in close. He accepted the closeness. I could feel his body melt into mine.
“Something about that didn’t feel good, did it?”
“No, mama. I wanted to play bubbles with them.”
“You wanted to play bubbles and they didn’t want you waving the wand in their face?”
My son nodded.
“Then what happened,” I asked.
With his eyes finding the ground again, he told me how he was yelled at and that it didn’t feel good. “I feel really sad, mama.”
2. Validate The Hurt
I hugged my son close and held space for him to feel how he felt. “That sounds hard. I can understand feeling sad.”
I paused to let my words land on his nervous system, and then I affirmed my affection for who he is. “I love who you are. I like who you are. I am here for you.”
He rested in my embrace for a bit before deciding to move to the next part of the day. I was prepared to sit there as long as it took for him to decide he was ready.
3. Set A Boundary With Kids
Once the initial hurt passed, I asked my son, “What would you like to do?”
“Play bubbles with you.” And we did.
But after some time, caught up in his excitement, my son ran back toward the same group of family members sitting at the table. My son was waving his bubble wand and it was moving near heads and bodies again.
Instead of lashing him with my tongue or humiliating him with my words, I decided to treat him like a human. I set up the environment so that I was now standing in front of my son.
“I see you want to play bubbles and I hear them say that they don’t like the wand near their faces. How can we come up with a solution here?”
I waited as my son considered my words until finally saying, “I will blow the bubbles over here so I have more space.” He did and it was a win-win for all.
4. Set A Boundary With Adults
Later in the evening, I asked permission to chat with my family.
I first validated them. “I understand you didn’t like Dax’s behavior earlier. I wouldn’t want a bubble wand waving in my face either.”
Then I shared my son’s feelings. “Dax said he felt really sad.”
I shared my feelings, too. “And I felt bothered by the tone used with him. I feel there is a way to put a limit in place while communicating it without shame or threats.”
Initially, I was met with resistance. “Well, he needed to learn a lesson!”
What I heard is he needs to learn to comply.
I continued and set a boundary. “I agree that a limit needed to be set. This is how he will learn the skills of behavioral and emotional regulation. At the same time, I want Dax to know that who he is, no matter his behavior, is good and enough. I feel the best way to do this is to connect with him and then redirect him. Would you be open to learning more about this? I would love it if we could work together. If you’re not interested, I would ask that you defer to my husband and me for the disciplining.”
5. Teach Skills
My son brought up the event when we got home, before bed, and again the next morning. Standing in my son’s shoes, I can only imagine how disheartening it may have felt to have adults talk to him like that. And it wasn’t just what was said but the tone in which it was delivered. The body language used. Imagine being that child for a moment.
It was then that I decided to teach my son the skill of sticking up for himself, even to an adult.
“You know buddy. You are powerful and you can use your powerful voice to respectfully tell someone when you don’t like something. Something they say or do to you. Even an adult.”
His eyes got wide. “Really?!”
“You betcha buddy. You matter. How you feel matters. Your body will tell you if something doesn’t feel good. You can always say, ‘Stop’ or ‘I don’t like to be talked to that way’ or ‘That doesn’t feel good to me.’ Does that make sense?”
After his nodding, I followed up with “and someone can always say that to you when they don’t like something you are saying and doing. I feel it is important to speak up and to also listen to what they are feeling, too.”
Our Words Matter
Our words as parents matter. They stick to the hearts of our children and become definitions of self-worth and self-acceptance. It also becomes a blueprint for how they treat others.
We don’t gain respect by demanding it. We gain it by modeling it.
We don’t get our children to listen by commanding obedience. We motivate our children to cooperate through connection.
This isn’t permissive parenting. Boundaries are essential, yet it is the delivery that communicates safety and connection vs fear and shame. Our children’s challenging behavior is often developmental, not outright defiance, and punishing this development leads to one of two things:
- Your child choosing attachment over authenticity, which means they will abandon who they are for the preferences of the adult. This approach fails to teach the executive functioning and emotional control of the cortex.
- Your child choosing authenticity over attachment, which means they will power struggle their way to the bitter end to fight you for control.
Both scenarios of shame and fear-based parenting keep our children in their lower, reactive brain. If we want them to express themselves fully, we must set empathetic boundaries, aka connect before we redirect. This is how we guide behavior.
And while we cannot bubble wrap our children and shield them from every foul word or interaction as they step out into the world, the stability of our love and support will help equip them with the knowing that they are never too much or too little for anyone.