Transitioning from Controlling Parenting: Focusing on Connection

As a young single mother I modeled the parenting of those around me that seemed to know what they were doing. I was never directly mean or neglectful to my child but I did use discipline techniques like time-outs and even spanking when I felt there were no options left. It didn’t even occur to me there might be a gentler, more helpful way of approaching what I identified as “bad” behavior. I couldn’t see beyond aiming toward compliance with what I understood to be appropriate rules for a child. Likewise, I was often complimented on being such as amazing mother because my son listened so well. In fact, he did mind the rules and restrictions I enforced, because he didn’t want to be isolated in a time-out or physically punished with a spanking. It’s true that the way I was parenting was shaping an obedient child which at the time, I believed to be part of my “job description”.

Transitioning from Controlling Parenting: Focusing on Connection

My oldest son and I

Now my oldest son is soon going to be 12, while my second child is four and has a very different personality. When my youngest was much smaller, I still wasn’t able to entirely wrap my mind around peaceful and attachment parenting, even though I had been introduced to these philosophies. The conditioning surrounding my ideas about how to mother had deep roots; the concept that children must behave and parents are expected to make them do so, still held strong on many levels for me. I did know that the old ideas I had about parenting no longer made as much sense and went against what I felt intuitively to be supportive of my children’s needs. There were times, early on, that I would feel very overwhelmed and again resort to using time-outs as punishment; this approach only amplified the situation and was always met with extreme resistance. Plus I could see that the message I was sending was a negative one: what you are going through and how you are behaving is unacceptable, so you must deal with it alone until you are ready to act in a way that is easier for me (or others) to handle. I knew this was not the message I wanted to send my children.

Dropping the old parenting “tools” that no longer felt right for me, without a clear picture of what would replace them, was scary and confusing. I would come to understand that most of the changes I eventually made were centered around a simple shift in my thinking: moving my focus from control to connection. In the beginning, I spent a lot of time practicing not reacting to everything or taking my child’s behavior personal, and reminding myself that small children often experience big emotions but lack the ability to discharge them without guidance and support.

Instead of time-outs, I started trying to simply hold space for my son when his big emotions were taking over. It wasn’t uncommon for these episodes to become very explosive, involving kicking, hitting and saying terribly hurtful things at times. I would clearly and lovingly set boundaries: hitting or saying hurtful things I could not allow – but he was free to yell, hit his pillow, roll around on the floor or cry as much as he needed as long as his expression of these big feelings did not harm himself or anyone else. If he continued to hit, I would block the blows and calmly repeat these gentle reminders – being sure to never make him feel bad for his feelings, rather redirecting and focusing on connection. I also reassured him that I would not leave until I was certain he was okay, continuing to remind him that he was in a safe space and I was ready with hugs and kisses as soon as he was open to receiving them.

At first this new approach seemed to just make him angrier and his emotional reactions felt even bigger. This sometimes made me doubt myself but soon I could see progress; he would move closer to me and allow me to hold him while he screamed and cried and flailed, eventually collapsing into my hug and quieting down until he would tell me he was all done. He even started explaining (without any persuasion) how he felt sorry for the mean things he said or did and thanked me for helping him calm down. These were the moments that reinforced the fact that what I was doing was helping, that this gentler approach was what my child needed to feel safe and secure during difficult emotional times. It was clearly more natural and healthy for us all.

Transitioning from Controlling Parenting: Focusing on Connection

My youngest son and I

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this new routine had a positive impact on our closeness and his willingness to listen; even when there was no upset I could see a change. I became aware of how fighting and resistance lifted when I chose to slow down and listen rather than just handing out orders or punishment like I used to. What I once considered “bad” behavior became signals that my child was struggling and needed my help; I no longer saw any of it as a personal attack.

What’s more, through my new understanding of how my toddler processed and discharged his emotions, I became more sensitive to my older son’s feelings and needs. I started to identify where I was not allowing space for my oldest child to experience and release his important feelings, even at 11; I also began to see how the way I raised my first was not as respectful on a lot of levels, which had negatively affected his ability to feel safe expressing himself honestly and openly. I continue to work on building a stronger bond of trust and security with him as it takes time to create a new dynamic; through honest conversation and stopping to start over when things are falling into old patterns, we are making progress.

I am thankful for this new way of thinking especially now, having stepchildren that are teenagers! Raising kids who feel free to speak their minds and express themselves without fear is a beautiful thing. There are times I don’t like what they have to say but I practice putting myself in their position and consider how I would feel if someone spoke to or treated me the same way. I apologize when I am wrong and take responsibility for my own “bad” behavior; allowing room for mistakes along the way and remembering to be gentle with myself because parenting is a wild and confusing journey!

Here are ten tips I have found to be helpful in letting go of old conditioning and finding a more peaceful parenting mindset:

1. Remember your child needs guidance and support from you to deal with their big emotions.

2. Ask yourself, “How would I feel if another adult treated me the way I am treating my child?”

3. Slow down before you react.

4. Consider the fact that their behavior is not an attack on you; try not to take it personal.

5. Create a safe environment for them to discharge their feelings without judgment.

6. Respect their space but stay close; be available with hugs when they are ready.

7. Encourage them to talk about their feelings; acknowledge their emotions even if it seems dramatic or disproportionate to you at the time.

8. If you say or do something out of anger, be kind to yourself and apologize honestly when you have calmed down and had time to reflect.

9. Remember that you can start over whenever you need to; remind your children that they can too.

10. Ask yourself, “Am I being tolerant, respectful and helpful?”

These shifts in thinking have transformed me as a parent; I have learned that I don’t want compliant children as much as I want to foster connection to help shape healthy, happy and free-thinking human beings! I still struggle some days with breaking down the barriers my old ideas about mothering built up in my relationship with my children; but today I have a much deeper level of patience and tolerance and most importantly: I have a huge amount of respect for children – they are our future and deserve the same amount of kindness and compassion we would offer to any adult.

Transitioning from Controlling Parenting: Focusing on Connection

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Categories: Nicole

Author:Nicole Donald

Hello MotherWise! My name is Nicole; I’m 30 and a Scorpio. I am a licensed hair stylist, photographer, prenatal Doula and Placenta Encapsulation Specialist. My husband and I have 5 children; three of them are my step children. We are currently trying for a sixth child :) In our home we practice peaceful parenting and gentle discipline. My family and I do our best to only eat organic food and avoid GMOs. We have a raised bed, organic vegetable garden too! My husband and I brew our own kombucha and make kimchi regularly – we love fermented foods. We are a fairly natural household. I continue to do research and replace products with more “clean” and healthier alternatives all the time. I consider myself an Intactivist. I regret having had my two sons circumcised with all my heart; my youngest child almost died from the procedure because I was misinformed and mislead by medical professionals into giving consent. I know better now and do everything I can to help make the truth about circumcision available to other parents.

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9 Comments on “Transitioning from Controlling Parenting: Focusing on Connection”

  1. Brie
    January 1, 2014 at 11:10 am #

    I love this article! I have two daughters (4&6), and am currently expecting #3 in 3 months. I have been a controlling parent, and for the past couple months, I have really been trying to change my parenting approach. The hardest sell is with my husband, because he has absolutely no patience for the antics of small children. It’s so nice knowing that it’s a truly GRADUAL process, and not something that can just be changed overnight. I love how you admit your faults to your kids when you do stumble- I think that helps them see you as a fellow human being. Thank you for the wonderful advice!

  2. Gloria
    January 2, 2014 at 8:39 am #

    Thank you!! I thought for 3 years that because I didn’t spank, I was using gentle parenting. But I’ve recently realized that using time-outs and punishment are not gentle. I also just realized after reading a parenting book that the goal of parenting is NOT to control and get compliance out of my child, it is to teach them that life is about making choices and living with those choices. This is most powerful explanation of parenting I’ve ever heard. It has changed my outlook on parenting from controlling to helping. Thank you for sharing your journey as well. It helps me to know I’m not the only one struggling on this difficult journey of parenthood.

  3. alexis
    January 2, 2014 at 9:27 pm #

    LOVE THIS!! I’m working so hard on making these changes in my mind. I feel like I can handle big emotions & reaction….where I struggle with how to react is when my 2 yr old continues to do things I ask Jim not to. “Please stop taking food off your sisters plate”, “please stop throwing my clean clothes in the air”. How do I approach these kind of things….any advice??? Thank you!!! :)

    • January 2, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

      Thank you Alexis! :)
      With my 4 year old, there are times where I run into the same type of scenario: I’m folding laundry and he just wants to roll in it or throw it all around (probably because it’s fun, haha); it was frustrating but I decided to give him the job of folding washcloths and surprisingly – he is great at it!

      Now I ask him if he would like that job every time he feels compelled to be involved with my laundry chore and he is very enthusiastic about it!

      If my son wanted to take food from his sibling’s plates I would probably invite him to share with me from my plate or place another dish near us with food on it and explain he is welcome to grab from that one if he wants. Redirecting works well when I do it from a place of understanding and tolerance.

      Thanks so much for reaching out! I love all the supportive comments and shares; this is the first time I have written about this subject so it’s lovely to read the comments from other parents who can relate. <3

  4. Marie
    January 8, 2014 at 9:05 pm #

    I’m so glad I came upon this read. I’ve been trying to transition with my 2.5 year old. She has a very strong-willed personality and I’ve been resorting to time-outs and thought that maybe it wasn’t the best choice being that when I left her alone she would just continually call for me! It broke my heart. We tend to have less tantrums and more just simple defiance, meaning she will say no and just walk away from me so giving her a “safe space”, although is great in some circumstances, isn’t what she needs in others. I guess I need to research more but I am 100% certain that physically forcing her to do anything is not the best approach…….still trying new ideas!! =)

  5. Michelle Parente
    January 24, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

    I love this and will include this in my parenting skills material to give to parents.

  6. Gramma
    February 2, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    I am so happy that young (read: newer at) parents are able to learn, teach and adapt your parenting approach to be gentler, while your children are young. Many of us older parents learned to do this with the grand kids. I LOVE the easier interaction and the chance to see the world through the eyes of a child. All I have to do is look. And I appreciate my grown kids letting me try to start over with them, when they do.

  7. Marge
    March 1, 2014 at 6:07 am #

    I am sorry. I dont agree at all. Children need boundaries and tbeyneed to learn to respect. Allowing -and encouaraging- fits and throwing punches at random objects to me seems ridiculuos. I dont agree with or practice spanking. Time outs have been studied and are recommended by psychologists and psychiatrists. What is your educational
    Background?

    • March 2, 2014 at 10:19 am #

      First off, I never once implied that I encourage my child to punch random objects. You see, I don’t believe it is my responsibility to control how he releases his big emotions; you are missing the point. If something he is doing seems like it may be harmful to him or someone else — I would step in and redirect. What I wrote was: “…but he was free to yell, hit his pillow, roll around on the floor or cry as much as he needed as long as his expression of these big feelings did not harm himself or anyone else.” I do not tell him directly to do these things but would NOT stop him if this was the outlet he chose; hitting a pillow does not cause harm in any way.

      One thing I find interesting is your confrontational reaction to my blog. Does this article trigger things for you from your childhood? Does it bring up guilt for you as a parent? You may want to examine that. This happens to be my personal experience where I have seen real-life, positive results when I let go of the mindset that I must control my children and instead began creating a safe space for them to process their emotions in a healthy way.

      On some level, I do agree with this point you made though: "Children need boundaries and tbeyneed to learn to respect." So true! BUT the difference here is I understand the reality that, in order for our children to learn respect — they must be respected; we must model the behavior we expect from our kids. Practicing peaceful parenting still includes setting reasonable boundaries; that is actually very important. One issue I have with the mainstream parenting mindset is that often times, the boundaries are unrealistic which only sets our children up to fall short; many parents then perceive this as a point where more control should be imposed. This cycle ignores the importance of connection, which I have learned is far more valuable than compliance.

      As far as your claim: "Time outs have been studied and are recommended by psychologists and psychiatrists." Yes, there are many well intentioned psychologists and psychiatrists who promote the use of timeouts, but while they may "work" temporarily, the parent-child connection is damaged and the long term impacts on the children are not worth it. There are many respected psychologists and psychiatrists who strongly oppose timeouts also (see links below).

      My educational background consists of many years of personal experience parenting children from both the mainstream mindset and then transitioning to peaceful parenting. I have seen the changes in my 5 children first hand. I read on this subject daily. I discuss this topic regularly and share information on it with struggling parents who reach out on our community of over 30,000 fans. We get tons of messages in our inbox all the time from parents who have put into practice techniques similar to those I outlined above, who have seen very real positive changes in their families as a result.

      I suggest you take the time to research further. Maybe ask yourself why you passionately support a parenting practice that many psychologists and psychiatrists strongly oppose, why this subject brings up such strong feelings within you to the point that you feel compelled to write a confrontational, rude comment on a blog sharing peaceful approaches to parenting from a woman's personal experience. Timeouts may work to a degree but there are many other, more peaceful, kind and positive approaches that work just as well, if not better but without the negative effects. Why not consider this with an open mind?

      Links (*please note* some of these links are dated back a few years but I included them because they are written by reputable professional psychologists and psychiatrists):
      http://therapyintoronto.com/time-out-and-parenting-the-danger-of-isolating-children-when-they-need-us-most/
      http://www.naturalchild.org/guest/peter_haiman.html
      http://www.aaimhi.org/inewsfiles/Position%20Paper%203.pdf
      http://www.awareparenting.com/timeout.htm
      http://transformativeparenting.com/the-trouble-with-time-outs/
      http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/timeouts

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