Picture this: You’re driving along the highway when another car cuts into your lane causing you to slam on your brakes. You think to yourself, “What a @#$%!” You honk your horn, make some obscene hand gestures and maybe even tailgate the other car while maniacally flashing your lights. Not your finest moment, but you’ve been there, right? Now, what if I told you that the anger you were expressing in that moment didn’t come from what the other driver did, but rather from the conversation you were having inside your head ABOUT what he did?
Think about it.
If, instead of criticism and blame, the conversation in your head sounded more like this: “I bet his wife is in labor and he’s on his way to the hospital,” think of how different your reaction would be. Chances are you’d be a lot more understanding of his driving errors. Maybe you’d even go out of your way to make room for that driver, just as you would for an ambulance. But that’s not what we do when we’ve been cut off, because that’s not the conversation we’re having about it. We take offense to the other driver’s behavior, and it makes us angry. Our standards and expectations of safe driving were not met. That driver shouldn’t have cut you off, he shouldn’t even have a license, and people should be more careful! Even if it’s just in our heads, we’re “should-ing” all over the place!
And that’s exactly what we do to our children. We should all over them.
As a Psychologist and Parent Coach, I’m frequently asked by parents how they can stay calm when disciplining their child, especially when they are feeling deeply frustrated by the child’s behavior. Exasperated parents tell me, “I know I’m supposed to be calm, but I just want to scream, ‘Stop it already! Why won’t you just listen and do as your told?!’” That’s the moment we need to take note, because…
Frustration is the first sign of a “should” coming on.
My child should listen. My child should respect me. I shouldn’t have to repeat myself. My child should know better! Or maybe you’re should-ing on yourself, too. I should be able to stay calm. I should be able to control my child. All of these “shoulds,” which are nothing more than made up rules and unrealistic expectations, live in the back of your mind waiting to be activated. When your child talks back, or pushes a limit or tests authority, your arbitrary expectations are not met, which causes frustration, resentment and anger. But responding by spouting a bunch of “shoulds” all over your kids won’t accomplish anything.
So, what if we changed the conversation?
In order to change the conversation, we must first recognize that we invented those “shoulds” in the first place. There is no actual rule that children should listen. In fact, as children explore their world, it is only natural that they test limits and push boundaries. Think of them as little scientists. It’s through exploration and experimentation that they learn where the boundaries are. It’s a child’s job to explore, and it’s a parent’s job to teach. Do you really want a child who always does what he’s told? What will they do when there’s no one there to tell them what to do?
Another point to consider: When we believe our children “should” be a certain way, but they’re not that way, then we leave them with a feeling of being not good enough. The message is “there’s something wrong with you and I disapprove.” This can only serve to frustrate or disempower your child. On the other hand, if you encourage your child to learn through her experiences that choices have consequences, and that she can take responsibility for those choices, and clean up her own mistakes, then she will have gained useful tools and understanding that will serve her well into her future. And these lessons take place only in an environment of love and limits, not arbitrary rules and “shoulds.”
Are you ready to change your conversation yet?
Before you go thinking, “Darn, I shouldn’t be “should-ing”, let’s stop a moment. Check yourself. Recognize what your autopilot is doing and break the cycle by choosing to give up some of those pesky “shoulds”. Doing so will leave a lot of space for you to fill with new, more positive conversations. So, the next time your child acts up and your reflex is to start “should-ing” on him, try this internal dialogue instead: “Here’s a perfect opportunity to teach my son something of value!” Or tell yourself, “I can’t wait until my daughter tests limits so I can show her how calm I can stay!” You’ll be amazed at what a difference it can make.
(If you’d like to read more about how to respond to common misbehaviors, stay tuned for future articles from the Parent Coach)