Do you make this critical parenting mistake?

This weekend, I asked my daughter to clean her room because she wanted to earn some extra screen time and you would have thought I had asked her to eat a spider! An explosion of anger and yelling ensued from her little body, while she claimed, “I don’t want to clean my room! This isn’t fair! I don’t care how messy it is!”

So I did what I usually do when she acts out and I remained calm (thank you life coaching!). My next tactic was to disagree with her stance that cleaning her room was hard. I suggested some of my strategies to motivate myself to do something I don’t feel like doing. I launched into ideas like, “Cleaning your room can be fun!” and “We can chose to think about cleaning our room anyway we want to.” etc. Nothing…so when offering new thoughts didn’t work, I told her that she was welcome to be angry about cleaning her room, but if she wanted my help, she could let me know when she was ready to calm down and I would help her.

To my dismay, she continued to yell and cry.

A few minutes into her tirade, I decided maybe she was overwhelmed with the task and needed me to jump in and help her know where to start, so we broke up the job into smaller pieces. I proposed that she hand me the clothes that were clean and I would fold them, while she put the ones that were dirty into the hamper. This division of labor seemed to help for a bit as she begrudgingly worked, but her anger and frustration remained. We managed to finish the task, but with my daughter in no better emotional state once it was completed. I knew I had missed the mark somehow and hadn’t helped her learn how to manage her emotions effectively. But where did I go wrong? A few hours later I figured it out – 

I didn’t label and validate her feelings FIRST.

What I should have done was said, “Honey, you seem to be overwhelmed and frustrated with the task of cleaning your room. Being overwhelmed means you feel like there is too much to do and you don’t know where to start, does that sound right? I get overwhelmed a lot when I have a big task in front of me, and it just feels like too much. It’s totally understandable that you would feel that way. You’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s all. Let’s take a moment and just let ourselves feel overwhelmed and frustrated.” Then I would help her to process her feelings before I made suggestions on how to breakdown the task.

When I remember to do this first, my daughter usually is able to process the negative emotions and calm down. I could have validated her feelings and let her know it was okay to feel them. Then she may have felt like it was as if I gave her permission to feel her feelings and then let them go and not fight them.

As I emphasized in my last blog post, letting our children know that feeling negative emotions is normal and okay is one of the most important tools we can give them in life.

Once they can be ok with feeling a certain way and allow themselves to process it, they won’t be tempted to resist the feeling and this also helps them to not react in an inappropriate way, like with yelling and crying. The goal is to help our children have the words to communicate what’s happening with their emotions, to label them, and to be aware of why they are acting a certain way.

My daughter is not yelling at me because I asked her to clean her room. She is yelling at me because whatever she is thinking about my request has caused her to feel overwhelmed and frustrated and as a result she is yelling and crying, resulting in her inability to clean her room.

Let’s look at her possible “thought model”:

Circumstance: Mom asked me to clean my room

Thought: (possibly) It’s too difficult to clean my room. I don’t know where to start.

Feeling: overwhelm

Action: yelling and crying

Result: I don’t clean my room because it’s too hard.

As you can see, her thoughts about her room are what’s leading her to not clean her room and to act poorly, not the task itself. She could equally as likely just thought “I don’t really like cleaning my room, but I know it’s something I need to do.” and then could have acted from that thought which caused a feeling of confidence and acceptance. Or she could have thought “Hmm…my room’s pretty messy and I really don’t know where to start. Maybe I could ask my mom for more guidance so that I can get to work quickly.” This thought would lead her action to be different since she is acting from the more positive feelings of acceptance and awareness instead of overwhelm.

My daughter’s new thought model:

Circumstance: Mom asked me to clean my room

Thought: Hmm…my room’s pretty messy and I really don’t know where to start. Maybe I could ask my mom for more guidance so that I can get to work quickly.

Feeling: acceptance and awareness

Action: Asking for help

Result: Getting help and cleaning room more calmly

This new model requires her to have a slightly higher emotional awareness then the old model did. Younger children aren’t as quick to operate from the new model because they don’t have the impulse control like older children and adults do, so what that means is that we need to guide them to understand and use these tools with our help. And knowing that it’s normal for our children to have low impulse control can help us to remain calm and loving in these situations, which will help us to access our own emotion impulse control so that we are able to patiently teach these tools to our kids.

We are giving them the vocabulary and techniques to help them move from an emotional state to a more logical one.

Once our children are adept at working with labeling and having awareness of their emotions, then we can work on helping our children become aware of how “sentences in their brains” (thoughts) are causing them to feel a certain way. From there, we help them to realize that they can choose what they want to feel and how to choose certain sentences in their brains that help them get there.

The reason I write out a thought model like this for my daughter is because it helps me to not get involved in her drama or take anything she does personally. I can see clearly with the model that she is feeling a certain way because of her thoughts, and not because of something I did. Then I can parent from a place of empathy, understanding, and patience, while focusing on helping her to learn how to manage her emotions and understand herself better. And I am showing her unconditional love by not abandoning her in her emotional moment or when she needs help just because she is yelling at me. We will also be hopefully getting the task completed together, which in turn can give her more confident thoughts about the next time I ask her to clean her room, or do another chore.

What is critical to realize though is that it is MY THOUGHTS that are the most important thing in how I dealt with my daughter.

Let’s look at my two thought models:

Circumstance: I asked my daughter to clean her room

Thought: Wow, she shouldn’t be yelling at me in anger over this request!

Feeling: irritation

Action: Instructing her on how to clean and raising my voice with threats

Result: She’s still yelling at me

As you can see, the result and the thought are the same. This is what happens when you aren’t conscious of what thoughts you are having when your child acts out.

You create the exact result you don’t want.

Here’s my new model:

Circumstance: I asked my daughter to clean her room

Thought: Of course she’s yelling at me, maybe she’s overwhelmed with the request

Feeling: understanding, empathy

Action: Validating and processing her emotions and then helping her break down the task

Result: I showed up as the parent I wanted to be. 

When I look at my thoughts first and choose ones that cause me to not react in defense and instead and choose understanding and acceptance, my actions are more in line with how I want to parent. I can get curious about her strong reaction and work to help her process it and figure out how to help her instead of yelling back, punishing or separating her from me for having normal feelings. By taking responsibility for how I show up as a parent, I can then better model how to behave when emotions are strong.

Listen, this stuff is hard. It’s hard to take a close look at what’s happening in your brain, and it’s hard to show up like the calm, patient, loving parent all the time. I get it. I live it. And that’s why a helping hand can be the difference between being who you want to be and just letting life happen to you. Let me help you get there.

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Photo credit: Dinko Mitic

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