Excerpted and adapted from What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children
How do we practice emotionally intelligent parenting? First, we have to look at what we are doing with a skeptical eye. Are we using threats and bribes? Are we shaming our kids? How do we respond to their emotions? Then we can ask, what’s working and what could I be doing differently?
It’s a common belief that threats and bribes are must-have tools for parents—the staples of child rearing! These methods are popular because they can work. Threats manipulate a child through fear—of a certain punishment or withdrawal of something cherished. Bribes are typically snacks, treats, and toys, and they send the message that you don’t have faith that a child can succeed without extra incentive. Threats cause him or her to fear you. Influencing behavior in these ways is not only unnecessary, it is ultimately harmful. The bottom line: When we use these methods, we think we have to coerce and control children. Sometimes what we’re trying to control are their feelings.
If kids are offered bribes to elicit good behavior or a new achievement, this establishes an unwise precedent. Bribes detract from the natural satisfaction that children gain from their accomplishments. A child’s ultimate payoff should be mastery of something, whether it’s a behavior like sharing toys, or a new skill such as learning to swim. When you want a child to do (or not do) a certain thing, it’s more productive in the long run to simply say what you want, then give positive recognition (or not) when the result occurs.
Sometimes “misbehavior” is a child signaling their need for help with some big feelings. You might get a big emotional offload from a child (aka a tantrum—this is actually a good thing) if you move in close and say, “You are hitting your sister so I’m going to stop you and stay right here with you.” Tone is so important in this scenario—aim for both warm and firm. In this situation it helps to know that all aggression stems from fear.
If you hold the limit, and don’t allow a child to hurt another while staying connected, close, and kind, he or she will get to the bottom of whatever the big feelings are. (You can’t fake this! Gritting your teeth while you pretend to be accepting just won’t work.) This natural process is how we humans reset our equilibrium. Crying is actually a scientific healing process—tears detoxify by ridding our bodies of stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline.
The intense emotional lives of children can be challenging. Because of our varying degrees of comfort with emotion, our first reaction to a child’s moodiness or strong outbursts is often an attempt to moderate them. Without considering the impact of our words, we encourage children to push aside what they are feeling. How often have you said, “Calm down,” “Stop crying,” or, “You are just fine!”? These kinds of comments set the stage for children to start ignoring or hiding their feelings—and keeping all that stress bottled up inside.
Rather than discount their emotional states, help young children learn to pay attention to them, and to express themselves in acceptable ways. Control, via threats, bribes, or other means, such as shame, should not be your goal when it comes to feelings. As hard as it may be, listening and holding space for expression are much more useful tools. But they are tools we must develop—as it is likely we were not taught them ourselves when we were young.
Try to remember that a child is doing their best in any given situation with the tools (and still not fully functioning brain!) they have. Also, keep in mind that is it perfectly okay (and likely) for a child to have strong feelings about a limit that is set. It’s a great idea to maintain self-care for yourself so you have the wherewithal to weather the storm of those emotions in a calm and loving way.
Children are actually very wise in their use of emotional release for restoring a regulated state. The question is: Are the grown-ups emotionally regulated enough to guide them?
[author image=”http://kidzedge.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Sarah-MacLaughlin.jpg” ]Sarah MacLaughlin is a social worker and author of the award-winning, Amazon bestseller, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, and the blog Balancing Act. She considers it her life’s work to promote happy, well adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today.[/author]
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