Connection and collaboration is the key
I have been saying ‘If you see a relationship as adversarial, it will be’ for most of my professional life. From the families on my caseload for children’s services, to parents of young people I was supporting in any of the projects I managed. I have said it to teenagers and to retirees, and all the ages in between. It sounds so obvious when you’re not in the situation, but in family life and in relationships we can often get stuck in our roles and ‘play’ the same script regardless of the situation. I now mainly deliver training to professionals who work with children, in schools and workshops for parents so i’m going to comment on the situations that pop up time and time again.
“I just need to be strong and not let them win”
I’ll be upfront about my value base and professional influences. I am firmly in the conscious / attachment / gentle parenting and trauma informed camp. My heart sinks when I hear this.
It often starts when discussing babies and talking about sleep training. I don’t know exactly when it happened but it is now endemic, the belief that babies are somehow broken if they wake during the night, and are capable of such complex thought patterns that they are able to understand a parent’s motivations to the extent that they can then manipulate them. Let’s clear this up right now, they’re not broken and they’re not capable of being manipulative.
Seeing their behaviour as something to overcome and to beat, will only set you up for perceiving their behaviour as negative. In this example, arming yourself with the knowledge of what is biologically normal, and understanding that responding to their needs (at any time of the day) will only strengthen your connection. That will then make parenting a more enjoyable experience all round. Perception really is the key mindset shift that will help.
As you can see the idea of winning starts early and this sets us up to continue this way of thinking and behaving. Without realising it, it means that we then venture into the rest of our parenting journey believing we are on different teams to our children.
Let’s be on the same team and work on our fails together and celebrate the successes together too.
“I just know they’re not going to listen”
Expecting a fight usually leads to having a fight. Whether we realise it or not, when we steel ourselves for conflict out bodies prepare us in the same way as if we are in real physical danger. Adrenalin is pumped around our bodies and our heart rate quickens. We respond quickly and, in some cases disproportionately as we are reacting as if we are in danger.
It gets even more complex than that. We are social beings and have adapted to respond to other people’s danger responses. So the children, who we are preparing ourselves to tell them to get dressed / do their homework / tidy their toys or room, then also have a danger response and get into the same fight or flight response. You can see how this all leads to further conflict. When we are in fight or flight response we cannot think clearly. Our prefrontal cortex is no longer in control, which is a shame as this is the area of our brain that controls our emotions.
Instead the amygdala is in control and this part only focuses on survival. It doesn’t end there, when we feel threatened by situations we see the threat more readily. We effectively train ourselves to see them as triggers for danger.
The best way forward is to rewrite the narrative we have about these situations. See them as opportunities to make positive connections. Be practical about how you deal with them rather than emotional, and wherever possible find the fun.
Depending on the child’s age, make games out of the activities you want them to complete; talk respectfully and be clear in your instructions and most importantly, do everything you can to set the situation up to succeed and not to fail.
When we frame any situation as competitive or about gaining power or control we think about it in terms of winning. Winning by its very nature is not a collaborative activity with your opponent. Yet parenting works best when the relationship we have with our children is collaborative and based on trust and connection.
We have survived as a species because we inherently want to trust our caregivers. Seeing the parent / child relationship as adversarial will make it so.
That’s all well and good, but you need to get out of the door on time in the morning, yeah?
I recommend doing a few keys things to help with this…
Do as much as you can the night before. I have outfits sorted, towels in the bathroom, I even get my cup out of the cupboard and the water in the kettle. Why? I know that with the best of intentions I am not efficient in the morning. This helps me to be significantly more efficient. I think, in the most part it is because I do not have to *think* and as a result my mental load feels less on the days that ‘evening mummy’ has prepped things for ‘morning mummy’!
The same principle applies to all trigger points of the day. Prepare and plan and it will make you feel more in control as well as BE more in control.
Some of the behaviours that trigger responses in us that are argumentative are from our own childhoods or because we are expecting more from our children than they are capable of.
For instance, a child may be able to dress themselves, but they will not be at the stage of brain development to understand the concept of time and the consequences of leaving 5 / 10 / 15 mins late. I know that traffic changes depending on the time of day. My child cannot possibly know what my work diary is looking like, nor the roads I need to travel on to get there. By changing how you see their behaviour and framing it as a way of showing you they want to connect with you, also helps the situation.
If my fiercely independent son asks me to help him get dressed in the morning or for bed, I know what he really wants is undivided time and physical touch. So not only do I get him dressed, I do it with a smile and I pretend to mess it up or eat his arm or turn him upside down. As when we are laughing together, we get connection and that gets us working together; and most crucially quicker. Which leads me to the next tip…
You have a finite amount of energy you can easily give each day. I call it your ‘interaction quota’. My perspective is that you can use your interaction quota for positive interactions or for negative ones to garner the same result.
One leaves you feeling in control and calmer, the other like you have had a fight. Let’s use our energy for the most positive interactions we can. It isn’t always easy, but overall it is easier on our emotional health; their emotional health and on our perception of the day, and on your relationship with your child.
I am about to publish an in-depth blog on this topic, so come back to read it!
Leaving aside children for a moment, how we frame any interaction alters how we act and how we react. We may have natural anxiety points during the day or at certain events or situations; or we may worry about other people view us if we are not seen to be in charge of our children.