I was on a plane last weekend when a child sitting directly in front of me apparently rolled his eyes as his mom was talking to him from across the aisle. He looked to be about seven years old and had been well-behaved (as best I could tell) during the entire five-hour flight. And though I didn’t see the eyeroll, I couldn’t help but notice what happened next: the child’s father, seated two seats away, erupted, reached over his older son seated in the middle, and forcefully grabbed the youngster by his shirt. Dad then proceeded to berate his younger son telling him that he had had enough, that he had no idea how serious his offense was, and that they were *this* close to sending the child “away.” As tears streamed down this young boy’s face, his father angrily explained to him that he was the sole reason their family was always in chaos and that no one enjoyed him or being with him. Countless other things were said that I can’t recall now, but I was struck by the interaction and saddened for both the child and his father; neither of them were able to show up as their best selves in that moment.
Now, I know that traveling induces stress for many people, and I acknowledge that I have no understanding of this family’s history, Dad’s normal style of parenting, or knowledge of any past transgressions by this young boy. I also acknowledge that we all have our breaking point and that EVERY SINGLE ONE of us have had parenting moments that we are not proud of. I’ve seen similar interactions like this countless times—in my local grocery store, at Disney World, and even from people I know and love. Many of us have been there and know just how that dad was feeling. I’m not here to judge—that serves no one and only induces shame for those who can see themselves in Dad’s behavior; grace is far more useful in moments like these.
That said, I’m not sure this father’s parenting in that moment, whether characteristic of his general approach or not, was the most effective it could be, and I find myself wondering about the message he sent to his child with his words and body language. Was it one of unconditional love? I’m guessing not.
For those of us, like me, who can relate to the father in this scenario, and who have found ourselves about to lose it, or with our children pushing our very last button, what can we do? How can we start to shift the dynamic? Below, I offer a few suggestions, courtesy of the positive discipline philosophy:
1. Identify your body’s physical reaction to stress. It seems obvious, and you’ve probably heard it before, but if we are not calm, cool, and confident as we parent through misbehavior, we are giving up control of the proverbial ship. Because of that, the first thing we have to do as we feel our temperature rise is to STOP and recognize the changes in our own bodies. Is our heart pounding? Is our stomach upset? Do we feel hot or cold? Has our throat tightened up? Do our muscles feel tight? We all have different physical reactions to stress, but until we start to recognize them for what they are, we can’t find effective ways to address them. And without effective ways to address our own physical responses to stress, we will always be on the losing end of any parenting power struggle.
2. Connection, connection, connection. Remind yourself that the root of everything good in a parent child relationship is based on connection and ask, “how could I address this behavior in the most connected way possible?” Note that this does not mean allowing a child to walk all over you or “get away with” all negative behavior, but it does mean leaning in and working to stay positively connected as you address any issue. Remember that in the absence of connection, a child will settle for attention, even if it is negative. Can you eliminate the negative behavior simply by reestablishing or deepening connection? You might be surprised at how often my clients report that this works!
3. Remind yourself that a misbehaving child is a frustrated child. Step back and analyze what is going on—what is causing your child to feel frustrated? In the example above, maybe the child’s ears were hurting on descent and was he frustrated that his mom was trying to talk to him right then. Maybe he had thoughts or opinions about what she was telling him and felt like she wasn’t willing to listen. Maybe he was right in the middle of an important scene in the book he was reading and felt like he was interrupted without an opportunity to even finish the sentence. Maybe, maybe, maybe…there are so many possibilities! In the end, only we can dive in and try to figure out the root of any frustration our child is feeling. Once we do this, we may view their misbehavior through a slightly different lens and be able to more effectively parent through it. After all, viewing out child as frustrated as opposed to naughty, disrespectful, or “bad” changes the dynamic in and of itself.
Positive Discipline offers many other perspective shifting ideas that can completely change the dynamic and struggle within a family. In the case of the child on the airplane, how might the scene have unfolded differently if, when Dad saw his son roll his eyes at Mom, he had held up the time out sign and then leaned toward his son and calmly said, “I just watched as you rolled your eyes at your mom. That feels very disrespectful, which is not in line with our family values. Your mom didn’t deserve that so I’m wondering what’s going on that has you feeling so frustrated?” The lines of communication are now open, Dad is calm, confident, and in control, and Dad has reached out to son with connection rather than condemnation; son now has a chance to explain how he’s feeling and to make the necessary repairs with Mom.
A dynamic like this admittedly doesn’t happen overnight—it takes a consistent and calm shift in both perspective and approach on the part of Mom and Dad—but having seen this kind of transformation take place in my own family, I know how amazing it can be when it happens. And the best part? The message of unconditional love comes shining through.
For a deeper dive into positive discipline, The Heartful Parent will be offering a comprehensive and fun 6-week course starting October 16 at the Redmond Community Center; for more information and to register, click here! I also offer transformative, private one-on-one coaching. And to go right to the original source, you can check out the book Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen (the founder of the modern movement).