Three ways to become a more empathetic + patient parent
I am almost nine years into this parenting gig, and it is true what they say: I was a much better parent before I had my own kids.
My own children have taught me more than I paid to learn in university. Kids are constantly teaching us, we just have to be quiet and listen.
When parenting children with challenging behaviour, I have found it easy to slide into anger, frustration, pity parties, and yelling. In the book “The Explosive Child” by clinical child psychologist Dr. Ross Greene, he talks about making a “lens change”. Our lenses are the beliefs we hold about our children’s behaviour and our role as a parent. They work equally well if you are a teacher. I used to teach before I had children; oh my gosh, I would be SUCH a different teacher now. But that’s a topic for a whole other blog post ;)
I love that Dr. Greene acknowledges that our lenses are not fixed and that we can choose to switch them out for ones that are more productive. It isn’t easy, and similar to adjusting to new eyeglasses it can feel uncomfortable when you’re trying to get used to a new pair of lenses.
There are three parenting shifts that I have found help me be a more empathetic and patient parent.
Lens Change #1: From “Children with challenging behaviour are manipulative and attention-seeking” to “Kids do well when they can”
Commonly held parenting equations go like this:
Child isn’t listening = a Lazy Kid
Child is being challenging/defiant = a Bad Kid
Child is throwing a “tantrum” = a Manipulative Kid
Do you see a pattern here?
Oftentimes, we fall into the belief that “kids do well if they want to.” Which means that when kids aren’t meeting expectations, it’s because they don’t WANT to. This makes the parent/teacher’s job to MAKE the child want to. Enter: sticker charts, rewards, punishments, harsher punishments, even harsher punishments… And for some children, these actions change their behaviour (though many argue it is not the BEST way to change behaviour long-term and preserve relationships…) However, I happen to have a child about whom my husband and I have said with exasperation, “NO amount of consequences work on this kid!” And you might have one of these challenging kids as well.
Dr. Greene suggests changing your lens to: “kids do well if they can.” This shifts the focus from parents/teachers needing to find ways to motivate a child, to becoming problem solvers WITH the child to find out what is in the way of them meeting expectations. Dr. Greene says that the difference between challenging kids and non-challenging kids is something he calls lagging skills or unsolved problems. What stressors, skill deficits, environmental challenges, unmet emotional needs, internal beliefs, fears, etc., are contributing to this child’s behaviour?
[graphic from the Self-Reg resource library: https://self-reg.ca/resource-library/]
Children do well when they can, and if they can’t, it is up to us to help them figure out what is getting in their way.
Lens Change #2: From “I need to control my child’s behaviour” to “I cannot control my child’s behaviour, I can only control my own”
So much of behavioural science is based on controlling and changing children’s behaviour. Rewards, punishments, sticker charts, time outs - these are the common suggestions for having Well Behaved Children.
I am not saying that you cannot parent with those strategies; every family and child is different, and maybe those are working for you. We do use a reward system on and off to recognize very specific behaviours; but we have structured it so that it is not ALL that we rely on, and it does not create more stress for the family.
However, I have found that the biggest changes in my children’s behaviour have come as a result of changes I have made to my own behaviour. When I am calmer; when I prioritize self care (movement, nutrition, stress management, down time); when I work on my lens changes; these all make me less reactive and more compassionate, which has a trickle down effect on my children. It is not instant, but it models positive habits and behaviours, and eventually makes the whole house calmer.
Lens Change #3: From “My child is giving me a hard time” to “My child is having a hard time”
This one shifts the focus from how hard all of this is for YOU (and believe me, I know parenting a challenging kid is no walk in the park many days) to how hard all of this is for THEM.
For example, psychiatrist and author William W. Dodson, MD has estimated that by age 12 children with ADHD receive 20,000 more negative messages (from parents, teachers, other adults) than children without ADHD. That is a STAGGERING difference, and I imagine it is similar for other children (usually with neurodiversities) who struggle to meet expectations. It is one of the statistics that inspired my book, “Strong, Smart, Kind and Brave.”
When we can begin to imagine how difficult it is for our children to constantly be reminded of their shortcomings and failures, we can begin to meet them with empathy and compassion, and work as a team to help reconnect and solve problems.
It isn’t always easy, since some of these new lenses go against commonly held parenting beliefs. I am not perfect, and the old, more common lenses are more comfortable and easier to wear. They’re better accepted by Society at Large.
However, any time I find myself slipping those old lenses back on I make an effort to switch them to the newer ones. Do these new lenses make me a “perfect” parent? Not even close, that is something I stopped striving for years ago. But I do find that they help me feel calmer, more centered, and they help make my connection to my children stronger and deeper.
You can find out more about Dr. Greene's work over at Lives in Balance.
If you are in “the pit” of parenting, if everything seems hopeless and dark and you’re struggling, I encourage you to try on some of these new lenses. They have made a huge impact on my own parenting journey and they just might be what your family needs to find calm and connection.