For those of you that know me, you know that I’ve been trying, and mostly failing, to ‘fix’ a tough kid for quite some time. For many years now, one of my daughters has been calling me names, having major temper tantrums when she doesn’t get her own way, bullying her sisters, hitting me, biting me, occasionally threatening me with a knife, and for a while was telling me she wanted to kill me. The death threats were so frequent that I began thinking about Princess Bride-“I’ll most likely kill you in the morning,” the Dread Pirate Roberts would tell Wesley every night-whenever she would make them. They were mostly amusing because she was pretty young. I don’t think I would have been laughing if she was 16.
Like any good (and desperate) parent, I began looking for help. I went to classes about dealing with “strong willed” children. I read books recommended to me by the instructors of the class, books recommended by special ed teachers, and other books that sounded like they would apply to my situation. I started her in counseling. I was in counseling. I finally took her to be psychologically tested. Intermittent Explosive Disorder was what they diagnosed her with. That’s right. IED. Seemed appropriate. After all, she would often go off like an Improvised Explosive Device.
So now I had a diagnosis and recommendations. They included family counseling. Already doing that. Getting her into sports or other activities she likes to help her boost her self-esteem. Check. And a few other things I can’t remember off the bat, but I did them all. Things continued to escalate. In case you don’t know, I’m a single mom of three daughters ages 7, 8, and almost 10. Things get a bit hairy around the house on the best of days. When she would ‘explode’ things got downright scary.
To give you a picture of what things were like, things would usually heat up in the mornings. For whatever reason “A” (I’ll call her A because all of my girls’ names start with an A) would refuse to get dressed, eat breakfast, or whatever. I would insist. She would yell at me. I would yell back at her. She would then lunge at me or run away and I would chase her down and make her do whatever it was she wasn’t doing. I would inevitably get called a name, a sister would most likely get screamed at, and maybe hit by her, and once I got her out the door for school, I would spend 30 minutes crying or tearing my hair out because of how miserable the morning was.
One low point came when I told A she couldn’t take her phone to school the next day. She yelled at me and I yelled back. She yelled some more. I told her the windows were open and the neighbors would hear us. Didn’t matter. The yelling continued. On this occasion it was mostly her. Everyone calms down and gets ready for bed. About 30 minutes later, there’s pounding at the front door. It’s the police. My first thought is there’s a criminal on the loose and they’re warning the neighborhood. Nope. Somebody called in a domestic disturbance because they thought a man was yelling at a woman. Not sure who the man in the scenario was supposed to be. They saw that I was fine. Talked to A for a few minutes and then left. That night was also memorable because it was my birthday. (That’s one of the reasons I’m determined to go to Maui for my birthday this year. I need a re-do!)
After we started on a second counselor and things were still not improving, I decided to go the medication route. The counselor wholeheartedly agreed. I took A to a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. She recommended genetic testing, which we did. It revealed a few things such as the fact that A is kind of opposite of ADHD. She gets hyper focused on things. I can see that because she obsesses about something new about every week. She had a few other things going on that gave the PNP enough info that she was able to give a somewhat tepid recommendation for a medication. I said “Let’s try it!” Anything was welcome at this point. So we started her on a low dose.
Right around this time, I posted on Facebook asking friends what they did to not take things their children said in anger personally. (Part of my problem was that I have a history of being verbally abused by a few people in my past, which mostly included being called names. This would make it very difficult for me to handle it when A called me names. I was seeing a counselor to help me deal with this, but it was still a huge problem for me.)
There were some great responses to my Facebook post. One was to read a book called ‘The Anatomy of Peace’ by The Arbinger Institute. This was a fabulous book that teaches you how to see other people as people and not just impediments. Another friend recommended an article on www.ahaparenting.com entitled ‘Getting Strong-Willed Kids to Cooperate without Punishment.’ There was quite a bit of good information in this article and the author, Dr. Laura Markham, recommended her book ‘Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids,’ for more information. I wanted more information! So I ordered the book.
That book was a game changer. I read it and began implementing her recommendations and the drama in the house has gone down significantly! So much so that I backed A off of her medication (which had never been up to a therapeutic dose and so probably wasn’t making a difference) and when I told the PNP what I was doing with A and why, she told me that most parents take years or never get to the point where I was at with my parenting and that I should teach seminars because I explained it so well. I showed her the book. She recommended that we back A off of the medication and see how it goes. She told me that medication is a last ditch effort and that what I was doing was far superior. Yay me!
So what am I doing? Well, I changed my parenting radically. The book talks about ‘The Three Big Ideas.’ I call them the three Cs. I’m going to lay them out for you and explain how they helped me. I am also going to vlog about this for those that like video. But I highly recommend that you buy and read the book. Mark it up, take notes. Make it your parenting bible. (And no, I don’t get a cut of the sales or anything. I just love the book and want everyone to have the success I’ve had!)
The Three C’s
The first C is Calm. Or Regulating Yourself. This means that when we are parenting, we stay calm because we regulate our own emotions. Kids will push our buttons. They are particularly skilled and qualified to do this. As Dr. Markham says, if you have buttons that are being pushed you need to excavate them. You need to develop mindfulness. This means being able to feel an emotion without acting on it. Not only does this allow us to keep things from escalating when kids misbehave, but it also models to our children how to handle their emotions.
There is a lot of great specific advice in the book on how to learn to regulate your emotions. Like not taking action when you’re triggered. And nurturing ourselves. We all come into parenting with childhood issues. We need to notice when we’re triggered and why. We need to talk ourselves through those emotions instead of acting on them.
As I mentioned, I was being triggered by A calling me names. The book taught me not to take that personally as it had nothing to do with me. It was A’s way of showing that she wasn’t getting some need met. I learned to stay calm when she exploded and to walk away when I couldn’t stay calm. I did a lot of inner work on myself and addressed some old childhood issues that came popping up. I began nurturing myself. The book says, “You deserve all the tenderness you would shower on a newborn baby. Giving that love to ourselves transforms our parenting—and our lives.” In other words, we need to parent ourselves. If we didn’t feel unconditional love growing up, we need to offer that love to ourselves now.
Another great point Dr. Markham makes is that every decision we make in life is based on love or fear. We need to make every decision—especially parenting decision—from love. Love for ourselves and love for our kids.
So I now stay calm most of the time when A explodes. I mess up occasionally like we all do, but I apologize, forgive myself and move on. The calmness keeps things from escalating. A temper tantrum that would’ve lasted 10 minutes and included yelling and maybe getting physical, now lasts less than a minute and doesn’t include me yelling or anyone getting physical. (She still yells, but I allow her to get it off her chest and she gets over it quickly and moves on.)
The second C is Connection. This means that you are connecting with your child on a meaningful basis daily so that she knows that you love her unconditionally, big emotions and all. The idea behind this is that if your child knows that you adore her and think the world of her, she will want to behave. She will want to please you, emulate you, and be close to you. If you think about it, don’t we all want that? Don’t we all deserve and yearn to have someone that loves us no matter what and believes that we are the greatest thing since sliced bread?
(I feel like the parent that this book helps us to become is the ideal parent that any of us would have loved to have! For those who watch ‘This is Us,’ this parent resembles Jack. As you read about the three C’s you can picture a loving, kind, helpful, supportive parent that rarely loses their cool and is always there with a kind word and gentle course correction. Maybe some of you had that or are already intuitively that kind of parent. If so, congratulations! If not, we can do our best to give that gift to our own kids.)
One of the best ways to connect with our kids is through what Dr. Markham calls Special Time. This is where you spend 15 minutes of one-on-one time with your child doing what they want to do. You turn off your phone and focus solely on this child. Play is a great way to spend this time. This lets the child know that they are important to you and gives them a chance to express themselves to you. This is a great bonding time and something children hunger for. I started doing this with all three of my girls, though they usually get 10 minutes since there are three of them and time is usually short.
Another way to connect is through frequent hugs. My youngest child used to sing “Four hugs a day, that’s the minimum,” in kindergarten. I found out from reading this book that there was a study which showed that people need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs a day for maintenance, and twelve hugs a day to thrive. So I make sure I am hugging them as often as I can. They love it. And I love it. It’s a win-win. Often when A begins a meltdown, I will grab her and put her on my lap and hug her. This will usually get a positive response. One of the things the book mentions is that when kids ‘misbehave’ it’s because they are not feeling connected to you.
The Third C is Coaching, not Controlling. If you’ve ever read any parenting books where they break down parenting style into four types, you’ve heard of Neglectful, Authoritarian, Permissive, and Authoritative. Dr. Markham points out that Authoritative is the best way. Or as she calls it ‘loving guidance.’ This means not trying to make your children behave. That includes not using punishment.
It’s a hard concept, but one that totally rings true to me. As your children get bigger, you can no longer pick them up and carry them into timeout. (Unless you want to risk injuring yourself or your kid.) The more you try to punish, the bigger the stick you need. Or if you’re using rewards, the bigger the carrot. Coaching, on the other hand, allows you to set empathetic limits. If you are staying calm and connected, the child will want to behave for you. They are motivated to please you. This motivation comes from the inside rather than from an external force (i.e. you) making them do something.
There is a section in the book that lists all of the reasons that punishment doesn’t work, and actually makes the child less likely to behave. One thing that punishment ignores is that children are ‘misbehaving’ because they aren’t getting something they need (like connection with you), or they are feeling some big scary emotions they don’t know how to deal with. The book teaches how to ‘emotion coach’ our kids. This allows us to help them deal with their emotions so they can regulate themselves instead of continuing to act out. Regulating their emotions is a big step towards having emotional intelligence, or resilience, which is the foundation that will help your child succeed in life. (The book spends a lot of time on emotional intelligence and how to teach it to our children.)
So if we emotion coach our children instead of punishing them, we teach them to regulate themselves over the long run. This makes them easier to parent. I find this to really apply to difficult kids. A does much better when I allow her a lot of latitude. I give her as much control over her life as I can. When she acts out, I help her deal with her emotions. I do this in a few ways. The book goes into detail on emotion coaching, but a few ways are: helping your child giggle or cry. Both allow her to release a lot of tension. Giggling can be done with playful roughhousing, tickling, etc. Helping her to get past her anger to tears can be done by holding the child and looking at her with empathy while setting limits. (I really recommend reading about this in detail in the book.)
Tears release stress. Seven minutes of crying reduces stress by 40 percent. I can attest to this from my own experience! Usually you can catch your kid early enough to produce giggles, but if they’re too rigid and unable to work with you at all, tears may be the best way to release the built up emotions. Either way, once the child has released the big emotions, they are done with misbehaving and ready to get back on an even keel.
I give A special time, lots of hugs, stay calm most of the time, and do my best to coach her through her tantrums. As you might have noticed, these actions were all taken by me to change my own behavior. I didn’t try to change A. I can’t change another person in a meaningful way. I can only change myself. Once I learned to regulate my own emotions and stay calm (probably the hardest C for me) things changed dramatically. A still has tantrums from time to time, but they are much less frequent and don’t escalate. We also have a closer relationship and a more peaceful home. (As peaceful as a home can be that has three children!)
This kind of parenting is a lot of work and takes a lot of time, but it is well worth it! After all, parenting is the most important thing we will do in this life. Its effects have eternal ramifications. And they affect the here and now. Not only are we raising children to become healthy, happy, self-fulfilled adults, but we are creating a happy, peaceful home now.
I hope you took something away from this and will pick up the book and give this method a try.
(Also Published on Meridian Magazine a https://ldsmag.com/how-i-turned-a-difficult-child-around-by-turning-myself-around/)
Here is my vlog on The Three Cs: