Consistency is not vital
Can you believe this? This nugget of wisdom is perhaps the most important thing that I learned when I first came across Hand in Hand Parenting.
So much of the advice about how to handle a range of parenting challenges, and about limit setting in general, suggests that it’s super important to “hold the line” and remain consistent in the limits we set. And when we can’t manage this, we often feel bad about our parenting.
The importance of being “seen”
In reality, we change our minds, and our plans, more often than we realise. Probably several times a day. Our children are watching, and they know this, and in general they can make sense of it. It’s when we are emotionally inconsistent that they get confused.
What is definitely needed, for things to go well, is your consistent warmth, approval and connection with your child. Difficulties arise where a child can’t count on a deep sense of connection with, and being “seen” by, their parent (or other primary caregiver). It is this which allows a child to work through the big and the small challenges that life throws at them, giving them resilience and flexibility.
And limit setting, too, does not go well when a sense of connection is absent, or is ruptured, or running low in your relationship with your child.
You aren’t trying to teach
We parents worry! In particular, we worry that our children will “get the wrong idea”. Or we assume that the problem is that they don’t understand what is necessary. So we start to explain, instruct, and teach.
However, our children are incredibly good at learning – they are almost learning machines. They learn to speak – sometimes in several languages – to walk, to interact socially, mostly without explicit instruction. Most of the rules of life, and of your family – the things which are important to you – they have already learned by closely watching how you function. Your child already knows most of the things that you think you need to “teach” her.
Emotional tensions (feelings) get in the way
Why then are our children unable to act on the basis of what they already know. How come they can’t find workable solutions to the problems they encounter? It’s not because they don’t understand (mostly).
It is because they have accumulated emotional tensions. Feelings get in the way of them connecting with their understanding. Feelings get in the way of remembering what is important. Even if your child does remember, feelings will prevent them from caring.
“Off-track” behaviours are a sign of this. These are the times when our child is having trouble with a transition, or is resisting something which needs to be done, or is being hurtful to others, or is insisting rigidly that something be done, or not be done, a certain way. These are the ways that our child tells us that they are in trouble – emotional trouble.[i]
At these times it is important that we respond to our children. Ignoring the “unwanted behaviour” isn’t going to help them much. It leaves them alone with the problem which they’ve already told you, via their behaviour, that they are unable to resolve.
The “cognitive framework”
When we respond, we often respond from a “cognitive framework” for understanding the difficulty. We assume that the reason our child is off-track is because they don’t understand. So we respond with an appeal to their “thinking mind” – with words, concepts, explanations and descriptions of principles (“We don’t hit each other in our family.”, “things go better if you share”, “you need to eat vegetables to stay healthy”, “if you don’t clean your teeth they will rot”).
Unfortunately, our children’s “off-track” behaviour has already shown us that they are not in their “thinking mind”. Words don’t work so well when someone is not thinking. The problem is not cognitive, it’s emotional. They are in their “feeling mind”.
Reach, not teach
When our child has shown us, by their behaviour, that they are “off track” and in trouble, we need to reach for our child, to reconnect. Sometimes, a warm offer of connection will “jump” our child onto a different track, and their resistance melts into co-operation. The more playfully you can do this, the better. Playfulness is deeply connecting, and is an antidote to the weary, tense tone that we adults often adopt when course-correcting our child.
The ”emotional framework”
When we bring a limit with warmth and gentleness, we are offering connection. If the warmth we bring isn’t enough to resolve the difficulty, then a firmer (but still warm) limit may work to bring feelings to the surface. Remember, these feelings are the emotional tensions that are driving our child’s off-track behaviour, and they will be better off without them.
Reaching for our children in this way, we are using an “emotional framework” for understanding the difficulty and how to respond.
Off-track: The challenges of everyday life
Our children’s off-track behaviour tends to present in two broad categories.
The first is to do with the challenges of daily life. These can be as small as your child not wanting to put on their socks, or as large and important as your child not wanting to be buckled into their car seat. It’s safe to assume that there is usually some kind of emotional tension causing, or contributing to, the snarl in the routine, power struggle, or the safety issue.
In addition, other feelings (possibly about things which are not directly related) can “piggy back” on the difficulty. Humans don’t like to be carrying emotional tension, as it fouls up our functioning. So we are always looking for opportunities to offload those tensions – almost any excuse will do. The teacher was mean in class? Then homework, or chores, or sharing, might become difficult. Mummy was working late last night and missed the bed-time routine? Then getting dressed the next morning or eating breakfast might turn into a struggle, or being unable to play co-operatively, or hitting other children,.
Off-track: Keeping feelings at bay
The other “driver” of unworkable behaviours will be strategies which your child has adopted to squash down hard feelings. We all do it – when you feel upset or agitated, what do you reach for? My go-to is caffeine, which I’m pretty sure I was consuming in significant quantities in the womb! These are the things we do to avoid feelings – watching TV when we should be doing something else, eating, even exercising can be a way for some people to avoid feelings.
These strategies also extend to things we avoid, and things we must have. So your child won’t happily turn off the light at night because he is scared of the dark, or doesn’t want to visit a friend because she’s scared of the cat, or won’t join the swimming class because she’s scared of the water. As for “must haves” many a parent has developed sophisticated work-arounds to make sure that thing is always available – purchasing two teddies, in case one gets lost, or washing and drying blankie while our child is at day care, because bedtime is impossible without it.
We try to “tamp down” feelings because no-one was able to listen to us about them when they first got laid in by some stressful experience. So for a child, sucking on the pacifier (or dummy as we call it here in Australia) may work to keep feelings at bay. Extending the bedtime routine may be an attempt to put off the feelings of separation which come up for many children when they finally have to sleep.
These strategies probably come in handy when there’s no-one to listen to us, but unfortunately the feelings don’t go away, they just go underground. There, they tend to accumulate, and it gets harder to stop them from bubbling up. So the bedtime routine gets longer and longer, or your child seems to be unable to function unless they have their special soft toy with them. In general, we tend to accommodate or work around these “preferences” and “needs” in the interests of keeping the routine moving along. But, more often than not, at some point, the workaround gets to be harder than dealing with the underlying upset.
Upsets are part of the process
It turns out that if we interrupt our child’s “off-track” behaviours, there’s a reasonable chance that feelings will erupt (and so might ours, but that is another article!). The good news is that in this “emotional framework”, upsets are often the pathway to co-operation and not a sign of something bad. Tears release grief; sweating, shaking and angry words release fears; and laughter releases lighter fears and embarrassments. Your child will be able to make more workable decisions after they have had a chance to offload these feelings with a good listener. They will be able to think better.
Setting Limits brings up feelings
When there is a safety issue (in the category of everyday challenges) , or when you’ve got sick of the drama that ensues when blankie is lost (in category of feeling-squashers), or when the bedtime routine is exhausting you (could be either category of problem), it’s time to set a limit. The limit works, effectively, to drive the feelings to the surface, where they can be offloaded. The real purpose and power of the limit is to bring those feelings to the surface by placing a kind of road-block in the way of the behaviour. An upset is a sign that a limit is doing exactly what it is designed to do.
It depends on the circumstances
Knowing this, you can make a judgement call. Are you ready to listen when you’ve brought the limit? Or do you have the energy to divert the difficulty more gently with play? Or do you leave things as they are – a bit off-track for the time being – because you know you can’t handle the upset right now. Perhaps you are tired and worn out. Or grandma is over for dinner and she finds big upsets distressing. It makes sense to be flexible about this sort of thing.
However, if you are always putting off the upset, then you are probably not doing your child, or yourself, a favour. The feelings which are driving your child’s off-track behaviour today are probably giving them trouble in other areas of their functioning. And sometimes the load of feelings is so great that they can’t be tamped down, soothed away or distracted from, or the off-track behaviour is a genuine question of safety. At these times, you don’t have the choice but to bring a limit and then listen as best you can.
Flexibility is important
Let’s think about the challenge of getting your child to sleep in their own bed[ii]. Perhaps your child is adamant that they should sleep with you. If you propose that they sleep alone, it will likely bring up big feelings for your child. Those feelings are probably about separation, but could be about anything. Feelings of sadness, frustration, boredom or grief may “piggyback” along for the ride. Any limit may serve to bring those feelings up to the surface, to be offloaded and left behind.
In this process, you are not trying to “teach them to sleep” (which might require consistency), but instead you are aiming to drain away the feelings which stop them from sleeping. Every little bit of draining you can do will help. The feelings which erupt are exactly the feelings which have been making it difficult for them to get to sleep, or stay asleep. Listening to these feelings as they offload is the key to progress.
It is important that you approach this project at a pace that is manageable for you and your child, and at a pace that maintains your child’s trust in you and sense of connection with you.[iii]
Maybe you have listened for a while and can listen no longer. Or you now need to get to sleep yourself. Or you can tell that you are beginning to lose patience and are getting irritated, or worse. Then it’s OK to bring the child back to your bed, or give them back their dummy. They will probably stop crying, and you, and they, may be able to get some sleep.
You are unlikely to have completely drained the bucket of fears that are keeping them awake. But I’d bet money that if your child has not finished, and still has a load of feelings in their emotional backpack, they will give you another chance, sooner rather than later, to set a limit and listen to them until they are done.
Consistent connection…not taking a “hard-line”
Focussing on consistency has your attention on the wrong solution (teaching/instruction/information and advice-giving) based on an incorrect (or at least insufficient) understanding of the problem (that the root of the problem is cognitive).
In a way, a focus on consistency simply does not give you enough room to move.
The “ emotional framework” puts your focus on connection with your child, and on taking opportunities to set limits when your child is off-track, in order to pull up, and release the feelings which are getting in the way of good thinking and co-operation.
Chances are, to keep doing that well, you’ll need to find someone who can listen to you – after all, your child isn’t the only one with feelings!
Go well, stay connected, and pace yourselves. Parenting is a long-term project.
Not sure where to start with applying HandinHand in your family? Tried something and it didn’t seem to work? Madeleine loves to help: why not book a Free 20 Minute Consultation, and she can direct you to the best resources and support.
[i] In talking about limit setting, I am assuming that what you are asking of your child is reasonable and workable. We need to check – with our Listening Partners, or with someone with whom we can talk about the details and challenges of parenting. Ask “Is my limit reasonable?” and “Am I going to be able to hold this limit (i.e. enforce it)”. Expecting a two year old to get through the supermarket without touching anything, for instance, is not reasonable or workable. Insisting on an early bedtime with an older toddler when they napped for several hours in the day may not be reasonable or workable. Expecting your older child not to scroll on his phone at night may not be reasonable or workable, given how addictive digital devices can be.
[ii] Just to be clear, I don’t have a “position” on sleeping arrangements. I’m a fan of “musical beds” – such that everyone is sleeping in a bed big enough for them to sleep there reasonably comfortably with someone else if necessary. Who sleeps where depends on what is going on in your household at any particular point in time. That said, if your child’s insistence on sleeping with you is wearing you out, then it might be time to embark on the emotional project of helping them relax about where and who they sleep with. On the other side of the project, they may, or may not, sometimes sleep here, and other times sleep there, depending on what works best for everyone, but the choice won’t be rigid.
[iii] To bolster your child’s sense of connection with you, especially when you notice that you are having to set lots of limits, it’s good to make sure that you are doing plenty of Special Time with your child. This is the Listening Tool that gives your child a deep sense that you are on their side. They will “borrow” from this when you set a limit – at which time they are probably convinced that you are not on their side!