Over the past three years I have made an extraordinary effort to become a respectful parent for the sake of my children. This style of parenting does not come naturally to me and I have certainly had my fair share of slip ups and regressions as I tried and failed to get it right. But I recently figured out where I was going wrong.
To stay mindful in my interactions with my children, especially when I have felt like I was losing the plot, it has been helpful to put safeguards and strategies in place. These included:
- Taking care of my own needs,
- Being more organised with meals so I could be more present with my children,
- Practicing sportscasting,
- Reading inspiring books and blogs,
- Setting limits early before getting to the point of frustration… the list could go on.
What I hadn’t realised, though, is that whilst helpful, these strategies were like bandaid solutions to a much more complex issue.
Each strategy was like a plug filling only one hole of many in a sinking ship. With every hole that was filled, another crack appeared. It has been impossible to plug all the holes at once for any length of time. There always seemed to be one bursting open and keeping me vulnerable to losing my cool with my children.
I am now learning that the greatest threat to being able to remain peaceful and respectful with my children throughout all the bumps and hurdles of their childhood and beyond is my own perceptions, judgements, concerns and feelings.
The old adage that you can’t control someone else’s actions but you can control yours comes to mind when I say this. In other words, when we have true clarity about a situation AND we can let go of ownership of another’s actions, they cannot hurt or even impact us. When we choose to be affected or we have judgement based on past experiences and our own issues, we are much more likely to be triggered and react harshly in accordance.
This revelation is a big one for me but not new. This is something I have heard several times in trying to get to the bottom of some extreme and triggering behaviours from my children, in particular, their rivalry with each other.
I have written about sibling rivalry on and off for the past three years. It is what first led me to discovering RIE all those years ago. In previous posts I have discussed the importance of allowing children to be free to build their relationship without interference. I have advised ways, based on my own experiences and the advice of experts in RIE circles to help minimise rivalry in the early days and I have shared our experiences of just when and how to support our children through their conflicts. But in all that time and through all these posts, I missed something important – a close look at my perceptions.
It was first presented to me in an email conversation with Janet Lansbury over a year ago. I reached out to her for advice to help support my daughter with some strong interactions she was having with her sister. I was quietly hoping it would be something obvious and simple to implement but Janet responded with some advice that knocked a little wind from my sails.
I had written about a situation where Miss 4 was cutting up an apple at the kitchen bench when her younger sibling wanted to do the same right next to her. Miss 4 rejected Miss 3 strongly. I was jarred by this strong reaction and triggered because I did not feel her reaction was justified; it seemed unfair. I wondered why she would even care that her sister was doing her own as it didn’t directly impact her. I got Miss 3 her own step and set it up right next to Miss 4 to allow her to cut her apple in the same way.
When my eldest got aggressive and ran off screaming that I had ruined her whole life, I was confused and at my wits end. Janet explained:
What I’m sensing is that you are having difficulty understanding your Miss 4’s perspective and truly connecting with her empathically. You don’t seem to relate to her as you do her sister and, I imagine, she senses that as well. For example, placing myself in her shoes I cringed when you helped set Miss 3 up to cut the apple next to her. She had asked to do something special and then made it very clear that she did not want her sister at her side, joining her in this activity. Remember, your youngest is (and will always be) the rival who rocked your eldest’s world, so there’s going to be sensitivity around this issue that she needs you to understand… She needs you to see the pain in her “no!” I don’t want the adorable younger sister who stole you from me, next to me, doing what I’m doing.”
It might be helpful to consider how you are perceiving your children deep down, in your heart of hearts, and to be really honest with yourself. Then know that whatever these feelings are, both girls sense them… We can’t change our feelings, but we can work on altering our perspective and really understanding where our children are coming from and connecting with them. Miss 4, a sensitive, extremely aware girl, doesn’t seem to feel you “getting” her, and truly in her corner. And that is a very uncomfortable, scary and lonely place to be and, likely, the reason she explodes so easily.
So, in that particular instance with the apples, I would have said to Miss 3, “Name wants to do this activity on her own right now. Maybe you can cut an apple later (or somewhere else?).” I would have respected Miss 4’s wishes, recognizing and understanding that she wanted to have this experience on her own.
So, it took a long while for this advice of Janet’s to sink in and in fact, if i’m honest, I couldn’t let it fully sink in so blind I was to my daughters’ perspectives. It was true, I didn’t see it from my eldest’s point of view. I used judgements accumulated from my own childhood and found I could empathise more easily with my youngest. But, still, I struggled to internalise this advice.
Since then, I have had several more exchanges with Janet on this topic. I’m so glad she didn’t give up on me at this point because I am seriously the world’s slowest learner.
Recently I told her of a similar story involving a coconut that Miss 4 had asked if she could crack open following dinner one evening. After agreeing that she could, I invited Miss 3 to join us for the experience. This was fine until it got to the point where Miss 4 wanted to drink the coconut juice that both she and her sister had both initially rejected. Miss 3 suddenly decided she wanted to have some of the juice also but Miss 4 had no intention of handing it over.
I asked Miss 4 to save some for her sister and then became enraged as she quickly gulped it down whilst her sister collapsed in upset at her feet. I was triggered by her defiance as well as the injustice of her drinking all the juice and reacted accordingly.
In my mind, her action lacked care and thought. My judgement of her and her sister (based on my own feelings and experiences) triggered my own less-than-thoughtful reaction to the situation.
When I reflected in the aftermath of this experience, feeling dreadful for my response, I thought I needed to make myself stronger and recommit to being a peaceful parent by putting more strategies in place to prevent me being so reactive.
What Janet pointed out, however, was that it was my perception and critical judgement that was causing me to lose my cool in those moments, not my lack of strength or will power. It wasn’t about overriding my feelings and impulses, rather, I needed to really SEE them, understand where they were coming from and let them go.
She also helped me to recognise that these perceptions and judgements are coming from my past and the experiences I have had. Seeing these acts from my own children brings up all sorts of feelings in me from years of being punished for defiance and perceived selfishness from my own parents, school teachers and other significant adults in my life. It also reminded me of some painful experiences with sibling rivalry throughout my childhood where I had felt a sense of injustice.
In challenging me on this, Janet finally made me see that my daughter’s behaviour is really not the issue in any of these equations, nor can I truly show consistent respect to my children, no matter what strategies I put in place, until I work through my own feelings around my past experiences.
I need to be able to be truly accepting and understanding of her by releasing my own thoughts, judgements and perceptions of the situations. Only then, will I stop being triggered and find peace with my children’s behaviours.
This revelation has already helped me be a much more peaceful parent to my children. Not only do their testing and willful behaviours not make me despair anymore, but when the girls bait each other or are in other ways involved in conflict, I no longer feel tense. I come close to be a supportive presence for them but I truly trust them and do not own those feelings. Their feelings and thoughts are theirs and are different to mine.
To help me continue to heal my wounds from the past and ensure I am able to see with renewed perspective and clarity I will now ask myself these three questions when I feel like I am getting triggered or when I am reflecting on situations that have come up.
1. What is it about this behaviour that is bothering me the most?
This question will allow me to look at the bigger picture to determine whether or not my input or guidance is needed and if so, how it should look. If I am bothered because the behaviour is making unnecessary work for me (eg: dumping folded clothes out of drawers) I know I need to set a limit. If I am bothered because I am making a judgement of character, then I am projecting and I need to think more carefully about my perspective in the situation.
2. Where has my critical judgement of this behaviour come from?
By reflecting upon what it is about the behaviour that stirs something in me, I can recognise what wounds I need to heal or at least come to terms with. Once I have recognised the connection between my reactions to certain behaviours and past events or ingrained beliefs and values, I can distance myself from those feelings in relation to my children.
3. What is my child’s perspective? Am I being sensitive to that perspective?
When I am able to truly understand or ‘get’ my children’s behaviours and can see that it comes from their own place of need, it becomes much easier to accept and harder to be triggered by it. By asking myself to think about my child’s perspective it takes the focus away from MY feelings about the situation and allows more clarity around their’s.
Yesterday, Miss 4 came outside and wanted to help me hang the washing on the line by handing me the pegs. I hung the basket low for her to reach and we set about hanging washing together with me asking her for the number of pegs I needed for each item.
After a couple of minutes, her sister came outside and complained that she wanted to pass me the pegs. Miss 4 snapped, “No, I’m doing it!”
In the past, I would have thought it the fair thing to do to insist that the kids take turns at passing me the pegs, but that day, I did something different. I stopped to consider Miss 4’s perspective and at the same time helped Miss 3 to use her ‘social antenna’ ( a term coined by Janet) to read her sister’s signals to know when she is not wanted.
I told Miss 3 that her sister wanted to pass me the pegs on her own and explained that she could help me next time. I expected her to have strong feelings about this but was surprised when she simply got about exploring the rocks under our feet, seemingly completely accepting that this was some special time for Miss 4 and me.
Miss 4 happily completed her task and I thoroughly enjoyed her company.
I recognise that I still have a way to go and I know that I still have some healing to do before I can say I will never be triggered by my children’s behaviours but I can’t even describe what this change in perspective has done for me and my relationship with my children. I know now what I need to do to be a respectful parent and can’t wait to see how this impacts on our future.
You might also enjoy reading:
What Children Know and Might Hurt Them ~ Janet Lansbury (Janet Lansbury – Elevating Childcare)
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) ~ Magda Gerber
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury