What Not to Do (parenting)

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Although in my profession I provide adoption education and information about what I believe to be overall good parenting, I truly try to turn off the work stuff when I’m not working.  This is tough given that I live what I work since I am parenting two kids.  It’s also tough because it’s not like you can get away from other people who are parenting–at least not in the places I am likely to frequent with my own child/ren in tow.

Anyway, I really do try to just live my life and not obsess on parenting technique but something happened in Target earlier this week that made me cringe, sigh and want to immediately provide a free, live seminar in the middle of the store!  LOL

As I am browsing the book section I start becoming aware of a child crying in an adjoining aisle.  I think he had been crying for awhile, but the intensity had ratcheted up to a level that went beyond mad an into distressed which made me tune in to what was going on.  He sounded so distressed that I actually walked to the end of the aisle I was in to make sure he was okay.

Well, he wasn’t being kidnapped but what I saw made me feel upset for him and with him.  This little guy was approximately 3 years old, was sitting on the floor curled up in a little ball, rocking back and forth and just wailing.  Red faced, tears and crying out a mix of sad and mad–totally out of control.  What made me feel upset for and with him was that his mother was standing over him, hand on her hip, coolly explaining to anyone who made eye contact that he didn’t get his way, that he was just going to have to pull himself together, that he was okay….  In between these statements, she would in a very challenging way say to her child, “You might as well give it up. ”  Or,  “We’re not going anywhere until you straighten up.”

The big problem is not that he was crying, but that he had moved beyond the point of mad and beyond sad and was firmly in the realm of unable to regulate himself.   I mean, he was having a true and literal meltdown and this mom was unable to see that his behavior had moved past a bad choice and was out of his control–literally.  It was one of the most blatant examples of a parent NOT being attuned to their child that I’ve seen in a long time.  And, I think what was particularly disturbing to me was that this mom probably believed she was doing a good job and that she was showing competence.

Parental competence is extremely important–maybe one of THE most important things we can provide to our children.  And yet, sometimes parents confuse competency with bulldozing over a child’s feelings.  I’m not going to get into a huge explanation of how we can maintain boundaries with challenging kids or during challenging stages/times because we have a course on that called Managing Your Child’s Bid for Power–watch a preview here.  (I honestly believe it is a very worthwhile course for any parent–I remind myself of pieces of it in my own daily parenting!)

I do, however, want to take just a moment to think about how the situation might have felt to this child:

  1. scared–because he really couldn’t get himself together
  2. scared–because Mom is not only not helping, but is almost gloating over the fact that he is in emotional pain
  3. angry–because Mom is not only not helping, but is almost gloating over the fact that he is in emotional pain
  4. helpless–(see numbers 1, 2 and 3)

It reminded me of a formula that my MSW field instructor, Grey Endres, used that was something like this:

Fear/Anger/Sadness + Helplessness + Hopelessness = (fill in the blank with undesirable behavior)

Remembering this ended up making me feel really sad not only for the little boy, but also for the mom who I think was doing the best she could given her own emotional state and the knowledge she had.  I felt sad and sorry because what this mom didn’t realize is that her response to whatever her child did that began this episode was really just fulfilling the formula above and creating a vicious circle of:

“bad behavior” –>  poor parenting response –> formula fulfilled –> more “bad behavior”

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