Each unique parent has a one-of-a-kind child and this makes universal parenting advice tricky, if not impossible. However, when I talk to parents about their struggles, the same few things come up again and again. It’s clear that, while we all have our own special journeys, there are some common threads here. When it comes to parenting little ones, three things keep popping up - meltdowns, not listening, and talking back.
It is our perception that meltdowns are naughty, bratty, or manipulative behavior that triggers us. The truth is that, for young children, a meltdown is the result of an overwhelmed nervous system. It’s a way for the body and brain to offload emotions that became too difficult to handle. If we can change our perception of meltdowns from defiance to a call for help, we can approach this behavior in a way that is both helpful to the child and strengthens the parent-child relationship.
This is where child development comes in. A little research uncovers that children have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates emotion and social behavior. What happens is that your child feels a strong emotion, such as frustration or anger or sadness, and, not knowing what to do with this strong emotion, her brain goes into panic mode known as fight, flight, or freeze. We've all had this happen. It is a physiological response that they have no control over in the moment.
Conventional parenting advice says to ignore the child during a meltdown. This is a sad tragedy. It sends the message that we aren't there for them when they're upset, or worse, that we only accept them and want them around when they show the feelings we like. No one wants to be ignored when they feel distressed. Humans are social beings wired to connect, so ignoring only alarms the brain more. Hold her in your arms while she offloads all those unpleasant emotions.
If you're worried this will "reward" the meltdown, think about a time you were extremely upset and a partner or friend empathized with your upset or held you while you cried. Did it make you want to feel upset again? Of course not. No one likes to feel out of control. Empathizing with children during a meltdown is not rewarding behavior; it's meeting a need, the need for connection and understanding. As a bonus, when we are calm and help them to become calm during these emotional storms, they learn how to calm themselves through a process called co-regulation.
You can begin teaching your child social-emotional skills around the age of two, but this will take years to sink in as the brain develops. She may be able to use her regulation skill one day and not the next simply because of how her neurons are firing as she grows. The Time-In ToolKit has everything you need to teach your child about their emotions and calming strategies that will help her brain wire for calm and connection.
All children will occasionally challenge their parents. This is a normal part of development. By using positive parenting and having a respectful and connected relationship with your child, you greatly reduce your chances of this turning into a chronic behavior problem.
During early childhood, children are only beginning to learn to separate from their parents and assert themselves. What many parents consider as back talk is simply an expression of the child's need for autonomy. Positive parents respect this need and teach appropriate, respectful ways to communicate.
Young children think in literal terms, so if you ask, "Will you put away your toys?," the child will interpret it to mean there is a choice. Instead say, "It is now time to put away your toys." If your request is met with "no" or "I don't feel like it," remember she's asserting herself and learning to voice her opinion. This doesn't mean you take no for an answer and pick up her toys for her, but it means you understand it isn't about defying you so that this doesn't trigger your frustration.
It helps to be playful with little kids. You can make a game to beat the timer for young children. For older kids, use when/then statements such as, "When your toys are picked up, then you can go outside to play."
For times when your child keeps arguing with you about a limit you have set, resist bickering back and forth. You do not have to attend every argument you are invited to. Acknowledge what your child is wanting, validate his feelings, explain your reasoning once, and then use a short and respectful statement to disengage from the argument such as, "I've already answered that" or "I won't be arguing about this" or “I am all done talking about this right now.”
It’s about validating their feelings so they feel heard and valued (loving) while still holding to your limits (firm). This, as with most things, requires the parent’s emotional regulation.
When parents say, "My child doesn't LISTEN", what they usually mean is, "My child doesn't do what I say when I say it." In my experience, children are almost always listening (try whispering something random when you think they're not). However, they may not respond, or as quickly as you may like, and that's frustrating. We want our children to cooperate without having to ask them five times, so what can we do to make that happen?
Ironically, the way we usually try and gain cooperation from our children actually causes them to tune us out. Nagging, lecturing, counting, and demanding don’t foster cooperation. Punishments or the threat of punishments may compel a child to act, but that isn't real cooperation.
Children have busy minds. It helps to get their attention before you ask them to do something, otherwise, it may go in one ear and out the other. Get close, make eye contact, then state your request.
Look through their eyes. Imagine you’re immersed in a task and your boss tells you to stop what you’re doing and go help a coworker. Ugh. Nobody wants to stop what they're doing to fulfill someone else’s agenda. If you can use empathy and understanding, you’re more likely to gain cooperation. “I see that you’re working hard on that Lego build, and I hate to interrupt, but I really need you to…” It’s always nice to be acknowledged.
Give choices when possible to help meet your child’s need for autonomy and use routines as much as possible so that what needs to be done daily simply becomes an ingrained habit.
Positive parenting relies heavily on connection and the parent’s own emotional regulation skills. When children feel seen and valued and trust their parents, parenting becomes easier. When parents can keep from becoming triggered by their child’s emotions, they can show up with both the kindness and firmness that is authoritative parenting.