Category Archives: Parenting

29Mar/13

What They Didn’t Tell Us About Parenting.

Does it sometimes feel like you are the only person who struggles with the whole parenthood thing?  Why don’t our miraculous ‘bundles of joy’ bring us the happiness we thought they would?  Why don’t other parents talk about how hard it is?

Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman felt the same way.  Below is their funny and honest TED Talk which ‘exposes 4 facts that parents never, ever admit — and why they should.’

I watched this about 18 months ago and after the laughter, let out a huge sigh of relief that someone else was talking about these things that I wanted parents to talk about.

Enjoy, and let me know what you think by commenting below.

Many Thanks,

Thea

http://ted.com/talks/view/id/1036
14Mar/13

I’m in Charge!

Do you ever say this to your children?

I'm in charge

Most of us grew up being told  ‘Because I said so!’  either in words, or in the tone and meaning behind the command.  I knew my parents – especially my Dad – were in charge.  Yes, I had arguments with him in my teens, where I tried to explain my point of view but in the end, what he said was adhered to most of the time by my brothers and I.

Over the last year or so, I’ve resorted to telling my children (sometimes in a loud voice, otherwise known as shouting)  explicitly that ‘I’m in charge.’   I tell them that they can talk about decisions and rules they don’t like with me at another appropriate time, but when I tell them to do something, they have to do it – because I’m in charge. It’s my job to look after them, and I know best, so do as I say. Now!

A few short years ago, I would have been shocked that I would ever use this approach.  I was all for explaining the situation, discussing their fears, opinions and emotions, taking their imput into family rules and decisions.  I still am.  But at the right time.  I’ve come to realise that at some moments (sibling arguments, doing chores, stressful, busy or dangerous situations, for example) talking and explaining are not appropriate.  Clear instructions and discipline is.

I don’t enjoy it. It feels wrong.  It upsets them, and it upsets me.  It makes me feel like a heartless dictator.  But just because something is hard and uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  So often the doing the ‘right’ thing is also the harder option.  Kids need boundaries and strong parents, and I believe within a loving, supportive and emotionally intelligent family, blind obedience is appropriate at some times. (Well I believe it mostly – part of me still questions that if I was a better parent would I need to do this?)

So anyway, I’m writing about this because I used this phrase this morning.  I’m tired and jetlagged and I probably went from zero to 60 too quickly, and I probably shouted to loudly and rudely, so there is a sour taste in my mouth.  I don’t feel good about it. I need to remember to be calmer next time.  But overall, I think it is something that my kids need to understand, and be reminded of occassionally.

What do you think?  Please comment below.

04Feb/13

Do You React like a Child?

I have realised that a lot of the discord in our house is made worse by my own reactions to it.

I can give up my food, lose my sleep, give my children my gloves and socks on a cold winter’s walk, let them choose games, films, where to sit, what to eat………all in a mature adult way. That’s what mums do.  We put our children first, trying to ease their discomfort, not minding if we don’t get to choose the cake first, or sit in the front of the car. Sometimes I do mind, but I can sacrifice these kind of things with equanimity.

What I can’t cope with are their expressions of negative emotion: the arguing, complaining, the anger and frustration. It makes me feel so uncomfortable and out of control that I react to them as a child would. Immediately.  Without pausing and thinking. Without empathising with them. Only thinking of myself, my emotions, and how I can get control of  the situation, and smooth things over again.

John Gottman, in his wonderful book, ‘Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child’ explains that how we react to our children’s emotions reflects how we respond to our own.  Sadly, I have had to admit that this is true in my case.  In some areas I am not emotionally intelligent in the slightest.  I hate being angry or upset and have spent my entire life resisting it, trying to eradicate it, believing myself and my life to be seriously flawed in those instances.  I realise now, that as a perfectionist, I needed to control it. Anger and sadness have no place in a perfect life, so they were obviously Very Bad Indeed.

Now, while I am trying to raise a happy family rather than a perfect one, I understand the value of negative emotions and the choices we have in responding to them.  I know of many better ways of acting and talking to myself and my children in these situations to validate the feelings, accept the situation, set limits on behaviour and come up with solutions if need be.  Unfortunately my emotional side is not with the programme yet.  It seems to be many years behind, and I worry whether it will ever catch up.  Knowing something intellectually and rationally is one thing.  Knowing it emotionally in the heat of the moment is another thing altogether.

What further confounds the problem is that I wear my heart on my sleeve. It is easy to tell what I’m feeling, without me having to spell it out.  I’ve always thought of it as a sign of being honest and just a part of being me.  Now it seems a lot like a lack of self control – call it stiff upper lip if you like.  When the emotional going gets tough I just can’t keep it together.  It all comes out – like a five year old – directed at the people closest to me.   It’s like I am stamping my feet and shouting ‘its’ not fair!’  Knowing intellectually what I need to change doesn’t help me react in the moment, and even makes it feel worse because I am aware that I could be behaving differently, but can’t. It can be very frustrating, especially when I behave in a way that I’m telling my children not to.

But another important thing I’ve learnt in the past 2 years is that in order to change this and improve my emotional reactions, I need first to accept that it’s ok not to be perfect at the moment. This means being mindful and kind to myself when it happens.   I also know that to change a habit I need to focus on the new habit and have a plan of action.

So, I have compiled a list of  ‘alternative parenting responses’ for myself and my husband to use in the heat of the moment when we  start to get frustrated about the kids being upset or misbehaving.  We have practiced noticing what triggers our annoyance, and then started using the new responses. It will take some hard work before it feels natural or becomes a habit, but we’ve seen some small green shoots of success already which spurs us on.

It seems I may be able to grow up after all.

16Jan/13

A Day in the Life of an Emotional Mum

reward chart

Zach still responds to reward charts…thankfully!

I’m feeling low. Tired and battle weary. And it is only 9.30am. Zach was up at 4.45 this morning and refused to go back to bed. I didn’t have the strength to fight him so since Chris was getting up anyway (I know – it’s crazy) I said he could sleep on Chris’ side IF he didn’t fidget. If he fidgets he goes back to his own bed. It’s been a long time since he has come into our bed during the night and so I was expecting some wriggling and chatting ending with me battling to take him to bed. I felt that I was just postponing the inevitable.

Surprisingly however, he stayed as still as a person can do. I think he moved twice until he got up at 7.19. He always tells me the exact time he wakes up. If I was taking the positive from the situation I could focus on how his self control has improved. When he got up the second thing he said to me when he came downstairs was ‘Mum, I tried my best and stayed very still.’ I praised him enthusiatically and said I was really impressed. This is progress, but I know it is only one side of his personality at the moment.

At breakfast – when he was showing signs of resuming his fight against the world – I told him that it was time for things to change. I said that he knows now that we love him, and that we still love him when he is naughty, or when we are telling him off, or when he hates us. He knows we love him whatever. [We’ve been telling him this for 6 weeks or so now so a lot of it has gone in. See previous post for more on this.] Now it’s time to stop fighting us. He has to do as he is told. I’ve done a chart for him to get ticks whenever he does as he’s told, when he accepts me saying ‘no’, and whenever he realises he’ s fighting us or pushing us away and stops doing it. It’s a big ask but the prize is going swimming with Daddy and/or using Dad’s telescope – if we can find it in the garage. I also told him that I would be making another chart for black marks. Whenever he doesn’t do as he’s told, or fights us, he will get a black mark. These will add up to him losing privileges like his ipod, TV, going to bed, pudding, treats doing activities with Chris at the weekend. I will decide what these are when I am calm (hopefully!!).  Part of me knows this will work for a while and then he will slip back into not caring, and hating us all. But the more optimistic part of me knows that I have to keep going. I have to keep the faith, even though it’s so hard to fight every day with someone you love.  I try not to fight but I have to provide the boundaries and he keeps choosing to fight them. This week I feel emotionally exhausted. I have no idea whether I am doing the right thing.

In the car on the way to school Jas chose the gratitude topic, and she said ‘Think of 4 things we love about Zach.’ Very intuitive of her, I thought. Even Harvey joined in the spirit of the exercise despite being very annoyed with Zach and his behaviour at the moment. I was very proud of both of them.

Harvey:  OK, let me see…mmmm…I love Zach because he’s really great to play with.

Zach: [a big smile on his face.]  I was hoping you would say that!

I think it helped. As I said goodbye to Zach at school I told him he had earned 2 ticks that morning for getting dressed when I asked him and for getting into the car nicely. He seemed proud so I said: ‘ Does your heart feel better when you are not fighting us?’ He said yes.

Now, back home, I am noticing that I need to be kind to myself today.  I need to build up my energy and resilience so I can cope with round 2 at pick up time.   It makes me sad that I find it all so emotional, and that it knocks me off-centre so much.  I’m sure that a lot of families experience similar problems everyday, and just get on with it without so much angst and emotional upheaval.  But I have to accept that this is who I am. This is how my brain has learnt to deal with emotions.  The positive is that I am gradually learning to be less emotionally involved and more calm in the difficult moments. So today I’m not going to beat myself up for allowing it all to wear me down.   I’m going to keep going, take things slowly and be kind to myself.

I feel low, tired and battle weary, but that’s ok. If I’m kind to myself, that’s ok.

11Jan/13

My 2013 Family Project

This year I am running a Family Project.*  I will be researching and creating ways to teach, model and coach my children about core values (kindness, respect, gratitude etc.) and life skills (setting meaningful goals, dealing with their emotions, taking responsibility etc.).  I am hoping that this will contribute to a more harmonious family life as well as setting my children up with the habits that will help them have a happy and successful life.

I know some of you may be thinking ‘Isn’t that what parents do anyway?’ And you’d be right. Most of us do.  Everyday we model and teach the values that are most important to us.  But I’ve found that in our busy lifestyle, I am not teaching my children about the most obvious things because I expect them to ‘know’ it already. Or sadly – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this – we say one thing and do another and our children get mixed messages.  How many times have you shouted at your children “Stop shouting! Show some respect!”  Another example: I was talking to my youngest son before Christmas about friendships and forgiveness. And I realised that this was the first time I’d ever mentioned it to him. He thought that when a friend was mean to him, that was the end of their friendship. He didn’t realise forgiveness was an option, and he took any friendship disputes very personally. Obviously we model forgiveness at home, and I say sorry a lot to my children (after one of my tantrums, or grumpy moods) but we’d never discussed the concept openly.

I also think that in my case, I am so busy looking after 3 children and establishing my own business, that teaching and focussing on the children gets over looked. It doesn’t seem urgent. We’ve got dinner to make, rooms to tidy, homework to do, clubs to go to, arguments to settle, emotions to deal with.  We can talk about forgiveness, or patience, or setting goals tomorrow, or when they are a bit older. But my eldest goes to secondary school in September – I’m running out of time to teach him everything I want to teach him to help him survive the harsh, cruel world of high school. ( I know, it will be great for him, but I’m also a bit scared.)  I’ve wanted to do this kind of parenting ever since I became a mum, but I’ve never made enough time for it. I’ve done bits and pieces here and there (family meetings, workbooks for the kids, my early attempt at a family project*) but I was never consistent enough.  This year, I am being brave and saying no to other things that have seemed more important.  I am saying no to some exciting plans for my business (they can wait til 2014) , I am saying no to taking the easy life (putting the telly on, not exercising, going to bed too late, putting it off til tomorrow), I am saying no to alcohol (in Jan only!) and saying no to my perfectionist need to be in control (as much as I can…). I am also saying no to acting like a child myself. It’s time I grew up and learned to control my own emotions and reactions like I’m expecting my children to.    These are very big no’s for me and I am sure to slip up time and time again. But this year I will keep focussed and keep going for the sake of my family.

The most important thing about parenting for me (after keeping them safe and well-fed) is to equip my children with knowledge, skills, practice and habits that will enable them to accept and deal with their and other people’s emotions in a mature way.  It is a hugely important idea to me.  It’s time I stopped thinking about it and just did it.

*Those of you with good memories will know that I started my family project in the summer of 2011, but it fizzled out so I’m resurrecting it again, and focussing on it for the whole of 2013.

FireworksFamilies

17Dec/12

The Best Parenting Tool Ever?

I imagine many of you, like me, are continuously searching for the holy grail of parenting, that one fail-safe technique that will solve the majority of your parenting troubles in one hit.  Even though rationally I realise this is unlikely, even impossible, a not-so-small part of me still hopes to stumble across a priceless gem of insight in a book, article or blog that will create such a massive ‘a-ha’ moment that it instantly changes my life.

Alas, this has never happened.  But I’ve had many near misses.  And the main reason that they are near-misses, rather than hitting the jackpot, is that they all involve me changing my behaviour, rather than focussing on my children changing theirs.  I know, how annoying is that?!  When you’ve got 40 years of habit and experience of thinking the way you think, and 10 years or so hard practice of mainstream (generally inefficient and counter-productive) parenting tools in the bag, you don’t really feel like changing the script, do you?  We’ve all invested so much in doing it the way we do it for so long that we don’t much feel like jumping ship now.  Not to mention the fact that it’s a very hard, long and frustrating journey changing our own ingrained behavioural habits.  And besides people might think we’ve gone soft on our kids. God forbid.

But the trouble is these near misses are the real deal, the treasure that we have been searching for. It is simply because we find it so hard to change our own behaviour that we discover our treasure is locked behind very thick iron bars.  Tantalisingly we can see the prize but can’t get to it. The only way to unlock it is to go on the long and arduous hero’s journey of personal change.

I’m sorry folks, but that’s the way it is.

The best parenting tool is changing how we think and act in order to change the way your children think and act.  This is a long term, investment-heavy journey which takes a lot of focus, practice and commitment.  But the prize is there; can’t you see it, glimmering in the twilight, waiting for us?

10Dec/12

Love Me When I Least Deserve It

Recently I have been talking with my kids about the need to show each other more love, not less, when one of us is tired, or grumpy or ‘misbehaving’.  I know this is counter-intuitive because our main instinct is to punish or cold-shoulder someone who is being rude or mean.  But, as we say in our family, when someone is behaving badly, there is a large chance that this is because ‘their heart is feeling bad’.

When our ‘hearts are feeling good’ – i.e. we are happy with ourselves, proud of our actions, feeling loved and a have a powerful sense of belonging and purpose – we find it easy to be kind, loving, happy and competent.  So therefore, even though we might not think that someone ‘deserves’ to be loved when they are acting badly, this is really when they need our love the most.  They need their heart to be repaired, or recharged, or just soothed, so they can recover their equilibrium and be themselves again.

While this all makes perfect sense to me, it is something that I find really difficult to practice.  I am, I have realised, somewhat grudgingly, someone who finds it hard to hide their emotions. I wear my heart on my sleeve, as they say, especially within the safe confines of my family. Therefore, my family knows exactly what mood I am in, at any particular time of the day, and often the reason behind it.  This is better than hiding everything, but I would prefer to reach the middle ground of being able to control some of my negative emotions when it would help those around me if I did.

This personality trait of mine makes it quite difficult for me to control my irritation, anger, frustration and resentment at other family members’ rudeness, anger and tantrums. (I know this is a double standard, but I’m working on it!)  Nearly 11 years of parenting has shown me that shaming, punishment and anger in response to a child’s ‘misbehaviour’ is ineffective not just in the long-term but the short-term too.  It just doesn’t work, not to mention the harm that it can cause. So I have to use this experience and evidence to remind myself to go the other way.  Sometimes (when my heart is feeling good) I can offer real love at those moments when my children need it, even though they often don’t accept it.  At other times (when I’m low on energy and resilience, AKA ‘my heart is feeling bad’) I have to force myself to offer words of forgiveness and love through gritted teeth.  I have been known to cuddle an angry child who is trying to calm down while simultaneously making angry faces that they can’t see just because I can’t control my own anger. I know! It’s really immature of me, but at least I’m going in the right direction.

So when I was Christmas shopping last week in Horsham and saw this (above), I had to buy it as an early present for my family.  It is now up in our kitchen to remind us all that this is what we are aiming for. We won’t ever be able to do this all the time, but by having it as one of the guiding principles of our family life, I am hoping we will learn to tolerate and help each other when we need it the most.

04Dec/12

What We Love About You

As I mentioned in my last post, my youngest son frequently thinks that the rest of the family hate him.  Somehow he has come to believe that whenever someone is mean to him, tells him off or even disagrees with him, then that must mean they hate him. And not just hate him in that moment, but pretty much forever.

To combat this I talked to my eldest children (aged 8 and 1o) about showing more love to Zach, especially when he is being grumpy and mean, and to spend the next 4 to 6 weeks trying to change this belief of his.  My daughter suggested we make a poster for him telling him how much we love him and making him feel more part of the family.  So we did, and below is our creation. It has lots of photos of Zach with us and some of his friends, and a letter from each of us telling him what we love about him.

It was a lovely moment when Harvey and Jasmine presented Zach with his poster, going through all the letters and photos and explaining what we had done.  The look of pride and amazement on his face was wonderful to see.  It really touched him.

The next morning he came into my bed at about 6.40 asking to go downstairs. When I asked him why, he said he wanted to go and look at his poster.  So I got up with him and we spent a good ten minutes looking at the poster, reading the letters and choosing our favourite photos.  It was clear how much this meant to him, and how much better it made him feel.  Later that day we put it in a picture frame and put it on his bedroom wall.  He is very happy with it, and maybe one step closer to believing we love him all the time, no matter what, with no conditions attached.

27Nov/12

“Everybody Hates Me!”

Zach with his bags packed ready to leave home.

Recently I’ve been having a bit of trouble with my youngest son, who is 5.  One minute he’s the most loving, thoughtful and happy little boy, and then suddenly he can change into a crazy ball of dynamite hurling punches, kicks and hateful words at anyone who is in the area. I know that all young children can switch their mood at what we adults think is the slightest upset, but he has always had more of a tendency to declare that he hates his family, is leaving home, and packing his bags, than my eldest two.

At first I put it down to his personality – he was just different, perhaps more independent, maybe more fiery, than his siblings. But then he started saying he didn’t want to go to school.  He would refuse to get in the car, or get out of the car at school, but I knew that he actually loved it when he was there.  He always talked about what he had done at school, he loved learning and ‘working’ in school more than many 5 year olds do, and the teachers said he seemed happy, and had many friends.  It was really hard to see him obviously upset about something, but not knowing what it was, and how to help him.  And then when he wrote to Santa and said ‘I rile need a noow famlee’, it broke my heart. We are a loving family and are always telling him we love him, and giving him cuddles, playing games with him, etc.  Why was he feeling like this?

Last week as he was telling me again that the reason he didn’t want to go to school was because there were bullies and he had no friends, it finally dawned on me what was happening.  I realised that he believed that whenever someone disagreed with him, or was mean to him, or told him off it meant that they hated him.  So when that happened he went into attack mode to protect himself.  After talking some more it became clear that where his friends at school were concerned, if they had been mean to him once then it meant that they hated him forever.  He now thinks that one of his best friends hates him because he pushed infront of him in the dinner line.

Given that this little 5-year-old spent most of his day with other 4, 5 and 6-year-olds at school, and then with two older bossy siblings at home, and a mum who is a control freak about behaviour, then there was no wonder that he wanted a new family and a new school.

So, since then, we’ve been talking to him about how friendships and families work. That we can get angry,or grumpy and do things that are a bit mean and selfish to our friends, or even do things by mistake, but that doesn’t mean we hate each other. It happens in all relationships – especially when young children are still learning about friendships and controlling their impulses. It’s difficult to know how much he is taking in because he is still focussing on a couple of ‘small’ incidents at school as evidence that other children hate him.  But I think if we keep telling him we love him (I also try to say this while I am telling him off or when I’m defending myself from his punches, but I don’t always manage it!), and not take his anger personally, we will in time help him to see disagreements and arguments as part and parcel of school and family life.   And maybe he’ll eventually stop packing his bags and leaving home quite so often!

25Sep/12

Other People Can’t Make You Happy…..and Vice Versa

I am reading Gretchen Rubin’s new book, Happier at Home, in which she embarks on her second happiness project focussing on creating a happier home.

She talks about how important her family is to her happiness, but that it’s also important not to rely on other people for your own happiness.  She says:

My family’s happiness matters so much to me; realistically, if they weren’t happy, it was very hard for me to be happy – but the truth was, I couldn’t make them happy, no matter how fervently I desired to, and they couldn’t make me happy, either.  We all have to find happiness for ourselves.”

Family life is very emotional.  Dramas of one kind or another seem to happen very regularly in our house.  As an emotional, expressive, heart on my sleeve kind of person these ups and downs of family life really affect my equilibrium and therefore my happiness. As a perfectionist, I have struggled to let go the desperate need I seem to have for every single moment of my family’s life to run smoothly.  I often rest my entire happiness on how other people are feeling, and how they behave.  Our family is very good at ‘catching’ emotions from each other like a nasty disease.

But it needn’t be that way. Recently, mainly as a result of my mindfulness study and meditation practice, I’ve come to realise that emotions are transcient (yes, I know that may be obvious to most of you, but it wasn’t to me) and that if I felt angry this moment, it didn’t mean that I would still feel angry in 5 minutes. Also, I’ve learnt that uncomfortable emotions are not necessarily bad and don’t constitute some kind of failure on my part.  Feeling bad, I’ve come to accept, does not mean that my whole life is wrong.

Being aware of this has enabled me to ride the family’s daily dramas much better.  When my children are upset, angry or frustrated, I can see it as a normal part of life rather than a huge problem that I need to fix, right now, perfectly, otherwise they will be doomed to misery for the rest of their lives.

Taking responsibility for our own emotional equilibrium and happiness is something that we are not taught how to do in school (if we were, the world would be a much calmer, happier place). Some of us might have been lucky enough to have parents who were able to model and teach this, but most of us need to learn as we go along, developing our own personal techniques over our lifetime.