Parenting is the hardest job in the world. You’ve heard this time and time again, and if you are a parent reading this – you know it to be true. No manual or training and you’re on the job 24/7. Let’s talk about two common struggles – when kids don’t listen and the anger that can cause. How can this child I love so much cause me to have such anger? The single handed thing that unites parents the most is how to get kids to listen! Do any of these questions sound familiar? How do I get my child to listen? I don’t want to get angry but what can I do?
Anger and the Brain
When we talk about anger- where it comes from and why- we need to talk about the brain. We’ll discuss the brain by its three main parts.
The lower brain is the alarm center. Its job is to survive. It tells us when we are hungry, controls our breathing, and it’s where we get our fight or flight instinct. The middle area of the brain is the emotional brain. It holds our amygdala- where are feelings are. Children 0 to 7 live in the middle brain; their behaviors are a reflection of them “acting their age.” The third area is the front part of the brain- the frontal lobes- where we use rational thought, problem solving, and empathy. The front part of our brain isn’t fully developed until we reach adulthood, in our mid 20s.
This information about our brain is important when we talk about parenting for many reasons, but here are two facts:
Meltdowns (at any age) occur when we are in the middle brain state. We can’t reason well when we are in that state. Adults or kids. One day I lost it on my kids for not picking up their toys. Did my yelling help? No. I couldn’t be calm and reasonable because I had moved from my higher brain to my middle brain. Think about a child’s meltdown as her way to get a need met. Not an external need, but something more basic- attention, affection, empathy, or a space for her feelings. Knowing this, you may be able to see how things can get from bad to worse when we try to parent when we, and the kids, are in an emotional brain state. How can we get calm and back to the best version of ourselves?
Staying Calm While Getting Kids to Listen
- Recognize your own needs. This is easier to do when you aren’t in front of your kids and can a moment of reflection. Let’s face it- your child not listening to you is emotionally draining. You may feel like you’re not a good parent; you may get mad at yourself; you may think others will judge you. All of these statements threaten your personal needs. Do you need more sleep, self care, appreciation, support?
- Show your child empathy. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We don’t try to change how they feel or judge them. When you show empathy to your child, you are showing them you understand what they are feeling in that moment. When your child is understood, they are going to come to you instead of away from you. This does not mean you agree with the, or that you agree with the behavior they are demonstrating.
- Make a connection with your child. Have you ever asked them to do something from the other room? It doesn’t work as well as being right in front of them and calmly letting them know what you need them to do. But start with a connection before making the request. “Hey, I see you are upset right now.” It’s ok if you need to share your own stress – “I had a hard day today so I need your help.”
- Practice the Pause. We react too quickly sometimes. The homework is still on the counter and not packed up? If you just walked in the door can it wait an hour? Can you go to your child’s room to greet them and ask them about their day, and then guide them to the counter? If the issue you need to address with them can’t wait, at least make the pause a minute to calm your mind and prepare your words.
- Reinforce the good. One thing I hear in my work is parents tell me how punishments stopped working. And they’re right. You can ground your kids and take away video games for only so long, and then it loses its effectiveness. Why? The more you rely on punishments, the less influence you’ll have on the kids. It’s a distraction from the issue at hand. If they become mad at you for taking away what they lost, they aren’t focusing on what they did wrong. And if they shrug it off, they also aren’t focusing on that. The result is disconnection. Kids thrive on connection. Praising them when you like what you see will get you there. Privileges can be earned when we get accomplished what we need to accomplish. Establish house rules that they can repeat back.
Finally, I invite you to let go of the image of the parent you thought you would be. There is peace in accepting who you are as a parent, the kids that you have, and the road that you are on.
We are all a work in progress. There are always new challenges that lie ahead. Be kind to yourself. If we only focus on what didn’t go right, we miss the moments in front of us. (Yes, there are those moments we want to forget.) But finding and holding onto the memorable moments is the key to happiness along the way.