I heard the shrill screaming before I saw the heap on the floor, formerly known as my son. I wasn’t sure what had happened but I could feel the emotions of him and my husband swirling like a storm cloud overhead.
Before I could ask, my husband blurted out, “He’s upset because I wouldn’t let him lock me out of the house!”
My toddler looked up to meet my gaze … then so too did my husband.
My initial response was to let out a little snort (I mean, it was a smidge comical from my view), but I suppressed my laughter because it was transparent that neither was in a laughing mood.
My husband was becoming increasingly more agitated (I think I saw lightning bolts shooting from his eyes) and my son was melting further into the floor (any further and he would descend into the basement).
While my husband was busy laying on the logic to our three-year-old, I could feel my impulse to control the situation - I wanted to take over and mediate.
But no one was listening to me, and I could feel my playful mood being drowned out by the chaos of the moment. I was starting to feel frustrated, and eventually, super annoyed. I could tell I was about to flip my lid, and my impulse was to dismiss this circus as insanity.
But then, I did the best thing I could have possibly done - nothing. I did nothing and everything all at once.
I paused and silently asked myself one simple question (a question I learned from one of my mentors, Kathryn Kvols, creator of Redirecting Children's Behavior). The one question that kept me from reacting to my husband, my son, and the situation as a whole.
Am I trying to be right, to control, or to connect?
The thing is, if I am trying to be right, then that means someone else is wrong, and since parenting (marriage, any relationship) is relational, if someone is right and someone is wrong, that means no one really wins. My rightness is only to the point of my own perception, because beyond that is someone’s truth about what is happening. I have realized that we often see the world or a situation as we are, not as it really is, so instead of making someone right and someone wrong, I can pause, communicate clearly, and let others be heard with compassion.
If I have the goal to control others or the situation, it ultimately leads to a power struggle. No one likes to be dominated and told what they have to, need to, or should do. This disempowering form of communication is a sure-fire way to elicit a strong defense mechanism in others. The only thing I truly have control of is my thoughts, words, and actions. How can I empower myself, my husband, and my son in this moment?
What action can I take? The answer for me is often connection.
Connection allows for the validation of all emotions and everyone’s views. Even in moments that require redirection, we can always first lead with connection, meeting our children and partners where they are, and being with the thoughts and emotions underneath the behaviors surfacing.
And that is the action I chose … connection. I became compassionate to my husband’s frustration and curious about my son’s behavior. And while on the surface it appeared that our son was giving us a hard time, he was actually having a hard time. His misbehavior was an unmet need. It was this shift in perception that changed the way I sat with what was happening.
I got low - below my son’s eye level - to communicate to him that he was safe, and I drew him in close. He cried in my arms until his sobs turned to sniffles. Then, I said, “You seem upset. You really wanted to lock daddy outside.”
My son nodded. My husband stayed quiet.
While I didn’t agree with my son’s behavior (and we would address that eventually), I listened and accepted his feelings.
And as I watched his brain shift from his reflexive brainstem to his emotional limbic brain, I uncovered his unmet need. In a time where his life feels different and uncertain (#stayinghome #socialdistancing #newbrother), he was clinging to some control wherever he could get it … even if it was in a way that seemed ridiculous and defiant to my husband and me.
My son began to open up to myself and my husband, who was now kneeling beside us. My husband embraced my son, and I watched my boys cradle one another, standing in their power and vulnerability all at once … hearing and understanding one another as they shared their feelings.
As parents, we may not agree with the behavior we are seeing, but we can always validate the emotion behind it. And when we lead with connection, this empathetic movement is possible.
Now, if you are reading this and thinking that we were a push-over in the situation, the story doesn’t end there. Once our son’s brain was regulated and he was better able to hear and receive the lesson we wanted to teach, we talked about what happened and different ways he could manage his body when feeling these big feelings.
That moment of connection gave us a platform to set a family agreement about locking people out of the house, to make amends, and move on with our day feeling closer together, instead of further apart.
One simple question transformed a challenging moment into a teachable one where all felt seen, heard, and loved. I feel grateful for this learning opportunity and thankful for the power of a pause.
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Author Ashley Patek is a mama to three children; two boys and a daughter born to Heaven. She is a graduate of the GENM Positive Parenting Course, an occupational therapist, parent educator, and Chief Storyteller with Generation Mindful.
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