With three children under age five and 1,440 minutes in a day, I felt like I spent most of those minutes either yelling, lecturing, or bargaining with my children.
Like a broken record, my requests would echo as I stood by, silently praying that this time they would cooperate without me needing to yell. Can't they see me? Can't they hear me?!
After years of this, my husband and I arrived at one simple conclusion - our children do not listen. With the arrival of our third child, we were feeling extra exhausted, fed-up and like we were in a near-constant battle with a trio of tiny humans that we loved so much.
Was it too much to expect for them to listen without our needing to yell or to repeat ourselves what always felt like five times?
The complete lack of listening that existed in our family was brought into 20/20 focus for me the morning I decided to tackle the grocery store with all three kids in tow instead of waiting for the weekend. Wearing our youngest, with my middle child in the cart and our eldest holding onto the side of the cart, we walked in and I was feeling good. I’ve got this.
It took all of about three minutes for things to head south.
My oldest son saw the sample station and darted off. I called after him to stop. He didn’t.
Picking up my pace to catch him, I nearly took out a display with my cart. Once at the food station, I told him that he could take just one sample, and then we were all done. It was like he grew additional arms as he started shuffling cheese puffs into his mouth. I heard myself say again, “No more cheese puffs. We're all done.”
My son persisted to shovel the snacks into his mouth. Now feeling both ignored and out of control, I yelled, "Just STOP!" in a voice so loud and full of rage I nearly scared myself.
By the time I was able to get my son away from the food tray, both he and my 5-month-old son were crying and my middle child was throwing items from the snack aisle into our cart.
I felt like I'd landed in a game of parenting Jumanji.
Wrangling my middle child into the cart while attempting to console my youngest and to get my older child to stay by my side, I left the store without buying a thing, with a fire burning inside me so bright I felt like I might explode.
When my husband came home that night, I crumbled. I felt angry. I felt guilty. But more than anything, I felt like a failure and I could not stop crying.
This shopping incident was not an isolated incident but more of an example of the THEY DO NOT LISTEN TO ME feeling I'd been dealing with what felt like all day every day.
Playtime. Mealtime. Bedtime. Cleanup-time. It never stopped.
I was tired of yelling because, frankly, yelling didn't feel good. It was exhausting and it wasn't helping my kids learn to listen.
I felt broken, or like maybe our kids were broken? I wasn't sure, but I knew something had to change. Our family couldn’t continue like this.
Tired of feeling like I was living inside a boxing match, I was motivated to find a solution, and this is when a friend of mine recommended a positive parenting course that she'd just taken. I clicked through to read about it and saw that the class had a 100% money-back guarantee. "Good," I thought, "So when I fail this thing, I can get my money back."
I read a little further and the phrase "tools you can start to use day one" in the course description caught my attention. "Parenting tools," what a concept.
Just reading the words had me feeling just a tiny bit hopeful because, when I looked down at the toolbelt I was supposed to be wearing, I wasn't seeing much. I remember thinking, "What the heck, things can't get much worse," and so my husband and I signed up for the class that night.
We got the kids to bed, crawled into bed ourselves with our laptop, and five minutes later we were watching the first class together.
About ten minutes into the 75-minute class, the instructor shared the idea that "parenting makes our own lives a-parent". At first, this idea left my husband and me scratching our heads, but by the time we'd completed the first handout/exercise, we were beginning to understand what the instructor was saying, namely, that this parenting thing has as much to do with us, the adults in the room, as it does our kids.
Class one had two big takeaways for us:
- "What are our parenting triggers?" It turns out that my husband and I share the same trigger --- yep, you might be able to guess it --- it's "not listening". This completely knocks us "off our center" as the instructor called it, leaving us triggered and reacting instead of responding. Every. Time.
- "How do we react when we are triggered?" It turns out that my husband and I react to feeling not listened to in a similar way as well --- we yell. And when our children resist our yelling? We yell louder. This typically ends with one or both of us overpowering our kids, them crying, and us feeling guilty.
As I dug a little further into my feelings, I realized that my trigger of “not listening” stemmed from a deeper seed - that of control (or lack thereof in this case). When my children don't listen, I feel like I have no control, and it turns out that this is a hard pill for my type-A personality to swallow. When this happens, I revert to doing things that were modeled for me growing up, aka I yell. It turns out that tension and stress were hijacking the more logical parts of my brain - the same parts I needed if I wanted to respond instead of react to my kids when they were not listening to me.
I sat with this for a week and began to feel more and more hopeful. It occurred to me that instead of changing my kids, I could work on changing myself --- and that if my husband and I could become more aware of ourselves, change might actually be possible. This awareness was like a crack in the door. I could see some light making its way in and I wanted to open that door wide open.
Over the next few weeks, I began to realize that parenting is fluid. The way we show up and the tools we use depend greatly on who we are that day and who our children are that day, too. The idea of parenting as a relationship, something we share with our children instead of something we do to them, was introduced to my husband and me in class, and this was rocking my world.
I realized that my more controlling "do what I say" approach to parenting had taught my kids to meet my demands of them with their own defense mechanisms in place, resulting in the locking of the horns feeling we had been dealing with for months/years.
But if I could shift from control to connection, so could my children.
If I could feel powerful in noticing, naming, and taming my emotions, so too could my children.
By about week five out of the six-week class, I found myself coming at motherhood from an entirely new place. Rather than asking, “How can I get my children to listen to me?” I began to ask, “How am I feeling? How is my child feeling?" and "Why?" and this shift in my thinking changed everything.
Instead of feeling defensive when my child got upset or didn't listen, I found myself staying curious, asking questions, and using the tools we talked about in class.
When I realized that it was not my job to stop the hard moments from happening but rather, to manage my emotions and to guide my children when they do --- everything changed.
Since graduating from the class, my husband and I have made connection rather than control our goal.
We're making an effort to accept our children for who they are - complete with all of their strengths and all their struggles, and in doing so, we are finding it easier to accept ourselves as well.
We're working on noticing and, at times, canceling the goals we've created for our children, the ones robbing us of our power to respond instead of reacting, the ones robbing us of our joy.
We are setting boundaries without using the words "should" or "need to".
And we now look for the unmet need under any misbehavior we see, and we remind ourselves to "connect before we correct".
Parenting in a way that I myself was not parented isn't always easy. Sometimes it feels unnatural and it definitely takes practice, but starting day one, we could both feel and see the difference this approach was having. Not only in our children, but in the way it left us feeling at the end of the day.
More than anything, I've learned that my family - me, my kids, my husband - we are not broken. We are learning and growing every day, and though life still happens and I still feel stressed and overwhelmed on nearly a daily basis, that's okay. We have found our joy again, and that is everything I had hoped for.
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