When Positive Parenting Becomes Desperate Doctoring

When Positive Parenting Becomes Desperate Doctoring

As I sat in the pediatrician’s office, teary-eyed and defeated, I thought back to the first day I brought my son here.  He was such a happy baby and I was in love with him.  Regardless of his restless energy and frequent squirming, I knew he was going to surpass all fears I had of being a mother.  Fast forward eight years, and we were back to discuss yet another medication for his ADHD.  There was no chocolate, drink, drug or amount of sleep that could relieve this weight on my shoulders. 

In the beginning, I had seen myself as a positive and educated woman.  However, at some point within this journey, I found myself without answers, feeling helpless and frightened.  My “Mom of the Year” award had officially been revoked.

Through my studies of psychology, I began understanding the neurological development processes that do make sense — and have nothing to do with my parenting abilities.  What a relief!  That said, I also found several opportunities I had missed that would have helped my child’s confidence and self-acceptance.  Ironically, it was him who pointed that out, and not in a way I expected.

During childcare and his early years in elementary school, the teachers provided consistent feedback on my son’s behavior – too busy, won’t sit still, social butterfly, blurts out, can’t control himself, and so on.  At the time, I became consumed in my mission to “get him fixed”.  This became the reason for one of many opportunities I missed as a new parent. 

Love your children for who they are.  

At the time, it seemed I was being the best parent by finding the right person to help him.  As a result, my son tried one thing after another and nothing fit.  He was taken to the pediatrician, the psychologist, a few counselors, several kinds of therapy groups, and back full circle, while also being fed 13 various medications that would magically help him focus and stop talking too much.

I became so focused on finding a way to change this negative feedback about my son that I forgot to let him know I loved him for all of those energetic, happy and spontaneous behaviors that made him unique and lovable.  How did I miss that?  Think of a shopping day when you tried on one pair of pants after another, finally resigning yourself to the fact that something was just wrong with how you were made.  After repeated failures, human beings become what they know to be real, and begin fulfilling their new role of existing as The Issue or The Failure.

On that particular day, as we left the pediatrician’s office and got back into the car, I got in the driver’s seat and did not move. After all of the effort his father and I were putting forth, and all of the discipline changes we had tried, nothing had worked.  As I leaned forward to put the key in the ignition, I heard a small voice from the back seat calmly ask, “Mommy, do they know what’s wrong with me yet?”, and I turned to see big blue eyes looking hopefully at me.  I am not sure how, but I somehow managed to climb into the backseat and hold my baby boy close.  My sunshine.  My life.  My heartbeat.

Sometimes, and even with the best intentions, we forget to enjoy our children because we are so busy responding to the problems we have been focused on.  In her research, Dr. Gwen Dewar explained that parental stress is natural because of our cognitive reflex to search for patterns that could be threatening to or for our children.  As we see or hear something negative, we automatically begin looking for it to happen again and our role shifts from nurturer to fixer.

My grandmother, who, by all accounts, was the inspiration that molded me into the woman I am, never seemed frustrated or intolerant of my brother and I.  I believed I would maintain the same temperament as a mother one day, yet found that it was much harder than I had realized.  I have since learned that positive parenting is not about faking a smile all the time or gritting your teeth to avoid slamming your fist on the table or yelling.  No, no, no!  It’s about looking at the little person you have before you, knowing he or she is adapting to this big world and needing your help to navigate through it.  When people tell you that opportunities only come once, they aren’t joking.

The three things that help me most are also the things that have improved my relationships with others who are important to me.

Listen. 

No, really.  Stop talking!  And stop thinking of that one thing you have to say in order to make your point in the conversation.  Children are not born to know and understand their feelings.  Let them voice what is important in their little minds and hearts.  They need to learn how to express themselves, and see the importance of listening to the thoughts of others.  Do you really want to teach them to be the loudest or get the last word in a discussion?  If so, don’t be upset with them when they begin showing disrespect and become argumentative.

Smile. 

In the brain’s process of storing memories, remember the right things your children do, too.  The science proves we are apt to hold on to the negative far more tightly than the positive, so take the time to focus on the good.  Make a list of what he or she does that meets your expectations each day.  Celebrate the number of times the toilet seat is put down or the toys end up in the right bin.  Don’t fake it, shake it.  Lose those bad vibes, or you will find yourself being down and irritated. 

Touch.  

Be affectionate.  And no, that does not always mean physical interaction.  If your child’s diagnosis makes physical touch difficult, find another way!  Make a box and draw a heart to put in your child’s box each day.  When it’s a down day, open it and remind this special little one of all the ways he or she is so lovable.  Give a fist bump or slap flip-flops to give them a tangible confirmation of how much they are appreciated.  Put your pride aside, this is a life-changer!


In all of the overwhelming moments, keep this in mind.  Your child is yours.  He or she is looking to you for directions on how to navigate these curious waters.  Opportunities should be seized to teach them how to view situations and respond to life’s many changes.  Instead of searching for the next dreadful day of uncontrollable actions, show them the actions you expect to see. 


About the Author: Shannon Jones

Shannon writes to encourage others through the journeys of parenthood, marriage, and other life stages, while offering insight into the sources of behavioral and communicative issues. She and her husband are founders of The GRACE Project, a non-profit organization that focuses on awareness and prevention of human trafficking, which provides free services to victims of abuse and single mothers.  Grounded in her faith, Shannon sings and reads, smiling through life’s lessons and embracing each day with enthusiasm.

In her goal to educate others, she studies published journals and medical reviews that offer evidence-based solutions through experimental research and case studies. Shannon is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the field of psychology, with specializations in behavior and neuroscience.

3 Comments

SL

Thanks for the article.

I do not know where to start. This is going to be a long one as I am really at my wit’s end with my toddler and things are so bad that I have started anxiety medications because of her behaviour.

I am a mother to a super strong-willed, not-at-all-easy toddler- she is 2.5 years old. From the age of 15 months to around 2 years, she was extremely clingy to me, did not play on her own at all and was overall not well adjusted in social gatherings such as a wedding ceremony where she made me cry with her clingy and stubborn behaviour. But by the time her second birthday came, she showed remarkable change, her clinginess subsided and she started playing on her own. Also she became easy to handle as she would listen to us, cooperate and was becoming a thriving kid.

Since last one month she has gone back to square one. I first took it as just a phase but now its driving me crazy. Its like I am going through the same torturous experience once again and for what! Her day starts with whining. It takes all of my patience to get her out of bed. Then breakfast has become a joke as she throws her food, cries, demands for things she cannot have like icecreams and cookies and cries some more. She was doing okay at school but after a 15 day vacation, she is resisting like anything and cries that she doesnt want to go to school at all. My major concern is that she has COMPLETELY LOST her ability to play alone. She keeps on saying I cannot do this, I cannot do that, mummaaaaa my toys fell, mammmma my balloon is not going high up enough! Trust me I am not exaggerating when I say that she cries every 5 minutes for something or the other. NOTHING pleases her. Also, lately she has started asking for things she cannot have- ice cubes to play with, real food to cook, tea to drink (which she knows is not allowed), bucket full of water with soap and all that hoopla for her dolls to take bath, real knives to cut food, real burning candles to that she can pretend to pray. Basically she does not want to do pretend play at all. And whatever toy she plays with, she will find a way to get frustrated with it in mere 5 minutes (or less). Also she has become super clingy just like her earlier self. No matter how calmly and firmly I tell her that I need to do xyz (go to washroom, cook dinner, chat with friend on phone), she howls and follows me. If I am out of her sight even for 2 seconds, she screams for me.

She has also started opposing me and her dad for almost everything- we say get dressed, she says no. We say wear pink, she says she wants yellow. We give her two options, she goes for the third one. We ask her to eat, she spits her food. We tell her its bedtime, she goes crying on floor hitting her head. We tell her pick her toys, she throws them even further, then spits on them and laughs. Her public tantrums have become epic. Almost every time there is a guest at home (and we have lots), she creates a scene by yanking their stuff, asking them for sweets, crying on the floor for no reason, biting us in front of them!
I am not able to identify with this girl!

I am trying to be really patient, firmly setting boundaries. Trust me I really am! But when it happens every second of every day, it becomes impossible to deal with her. My blood pressure shoots up by the end of the day and as I said, I have started taking anxiety meds. NONE of the practiced calm techniques are helping. We set boundaries, sometime it works but most of the time it doesnt! WHAT DO I DO?! I feel like a big failure. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE reply. PLEASE. I am very desperate.

P.S. I work fulltime and she goes to school at 12 pm to 6 pm (including daycare). Recently for her vacation, she was at her granparent’s fro 15 days (she has been staying with them in the past for a week or so and it helped her be more independent from me). But this time it has seems to have backfired. She showed signs of regression before her vacation and now after coming back, it has grown into full-fledged clinginess and other problems I discussed earlier. I know my self-dependent, thriving girl is down there somewhere, but I am uanble to get her back. Need help.

Reply
Karen Young

Nothing you are describing about your daughter sounds out of the ordinary. Tantrums are very normal at this age as she is struggling with wanting to feel independent, but not feeling ready. She is experimenting with where the line is, and although that can be difficult to deal with, it’s a normal, healthy part of her discovering who she is in the world when she is not attached to you. As to the other behaviour you describe, if she is wanting to do everything with you, it’s because she wants to feel connected to you. Independence and resilience NEED relationship. As parents we need to support their reach into the world, and encourage brave behaviour, but at 2.5, she is still getting used to how the world works and who she is when she isn’t with you. It’s confusing time – she will oppose you because she is experimenting with her independence, but she is still looking for the security and safety of being close and connected to you. It’s a balancing act and it isn’t easy. She is young and still learning how to use her words to effectively get her needs met. Be patient – learning how to navigate the world takes time. Here are some articles that might help:
https://www.heysigmund.com/how-to-build-influence-with-kids-and-teens/; and
https://www.heysigmund.com/developmental-stage/

Reply
Ann

Amazing article! All parents should be made to read this!!
Love what you are doing for others Shannon.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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