Q: I need a quick way to explain to my parents (who will be visiting during the holidays) what is meant by "Parenting Beyond Consequences." They don't seem to understand the way I'm parenting and are quite critical of me. They aren't interested in the neuroscience or the brain research. They're simply coming from the old school of the basics, so any help you have would be appreciated!
A: Beyond Consequences can be a difficult concept to understand and to "wrap your brain around" when you've been living in a more traditional mindset for years, even generations. Love is about meeting people where they are and respecting their perspectives. Understanding that your parents are looking through the lens of the "old school" is the first place to start. From such a point of reference, this model is sometimes interpreted as if you're coddling or babying your child. The following explanation is written in more general terms in order to help a grandparent, relative, or anyone, begin to make a shift. Remember to be patient with them; you're shifting an entire paradigm and framework of interpretation.
Children need unconditional love and unconditional acceptance from their parents; we all know this and believe this. However, do we ever stop to consider how so many of the traditional parenting techniques accepted in our culture work contrary to this primal goal? Traditional parenting techniques that involve consequences, controlling directives, and punishment are fear-based and fear-driven. They have the ability to undermine the parent-child relationship and because they are tied into behavior, children easily interpret these actions to mean, "If I'm not good, I am not lovable." Thus, children often build a subconscious foundation that says that love and approval is based off of performance.
Parenting from a love-based paradigm means going beyond our children's behavior and beyond consequences to first see that negative behavior is a form of communication and that negative behavior is a response to stress. If we see the kicking and screaming child as one who is having difficulty regulating due to an overflow of feelings and stress, we can learn to stay present with the child in order to help him modulate these overwhelming feelings and overabundance of stress and thus, help him to build his regulatory system. This is a child who has been "emotionally hijacked." Emotions are not logical or rational; this negative acting-out is the body's natural fear reaction gone awry.
Allowing a child emotional space to safely dissipate this energy will then allow him to calm down. As we provide reassurance, unconditional love, and emotional presence for our children, the need to act-out will disappear. Many times our children act-out simply because they do not feel that they are being listened to nor do they feel as if they have been heard. Staying present and reassuring a child that you really are listening to him, can sometimes be enough to help him begin to regulate. The life lesson that the bad behavior is inappropriate does indeed need to be taught and reinforced. However, this life lesson can only happen once the child is fully regulated (when the child is calm) and his cognitive thinking is intact. This is also the time to present alternatives to the negative acting-out behavior. This is how we teach our children instead of punishing them. The definition of discipline is to teach.
The more we can stay focused on the relationship with our children and strengthening this relationship instead of controlling it through consequences, logic, and control, the more we will be helping our children learn to work through their stress appropriately. Below are four pointers to going beyond consequences:
1. Just Be Happy!-But I'm not! Did anyone ever tell you, "Just think happy thoughts and it will be okay."? Did it really work? Probably not. Emotions do not simply disappear. If feelings are not acknowledged and released, they are stored and become part of our physical make-up. Research has convincingly shown that being able to express feelings like anger and grief can improve survival rates in cancer patients. With our children, feelings that become stored and "stuffed" become activators for negative behaviors.
2. ALL Feelings are Good Feelings - As parents, it is important for us to understand the necessity of emotional expression, both in teaching it to our children and in modeling it to them. Blocked feelings can inhibit growth, learning, and the building of a trusting relationship between the parent and child. The first step to take is to recognize that ALL emotions are healthy. In our culture, feelings such as joy, peace, and courage are seen as good feelings, yet feelings such as sad, mad, and scared are seen as negative feelings. We must rethink our interpretion so this: Negative feelings don't create acting-out behaviors; it is the lack of expression of the negative feelings that creates the acting out.
3. Get to the Core of the Behavior - When children are acting out and being defiant, we need to begin to understand that their behaviors are simply a communication of an dysregulated state that is driving these behaviors. If we simply address the behavior, we miss the opportunity to help children express and understand themselves from a deeper regulatory and emotional level. We need to help our children build their emotional intelligence. Start by modeling basic feeling words to your child. Keep it simple and teach the five basic feeling words: sad, mad, bad, scared, and happy. Even the youngest of children can learn to say, "I'm mad!" When the toddler is throwing his toys or the teenager is having his version of a tantrum, encourage him at that moment to get to the core of the behavior through emotional expression. Remember: it really isn't about the behavior. They really do know better than to do these things.
4. Responding vs. Reacting - So the next time your child becomes defiant, talks back, or is simply "ugly" to you, work to be in a place not to react to the behavior, but respond to your child. Respond to your child in an open way-open to meeting him in his heart and helping him understand the overload of feelings that are driving the behaviors. He doesn't need a consequence or another parental directive at that moment; he just needs you to be present with him (this does not mean you agree with the behavior, it means you are not correlating his behavior with your acceptance of him as a person). As your child learns to respond back to you positively through the parent-child relationship, he won't have the need to communicate through negative behaviors anymore. You'll both have more energy for each other, building a relationship that will last a lifetime and more energy to learn how to do it differently the next time.
For more parenting tips, check out some of my videos on Youtube:
1.) Sibling Rivalry
2.) The Missing Piece
3.) The Parent's Stress
Happy hoidays and remember, it's not a behavioral problem; it's a regulatory problem!
|Heather T. Forbes, LCSW|
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.