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”.
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.
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.