Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Listening and Discipline Formula

We love Love and Logic. It has saved our family a thousand times over, especially when Grace was diagnosed. It really helps figuring out how to make parenting and consequences fair and simple and prepares children for the realities of growing up. But it lacks how to really listen to and sympathize with your kids. So recently we've also been reading Dealing with Disappointment.  It's a little dry as it's more a text book than a fun read, but it's brilliant and has filled in the gaps for us as parents.

We were starting to realize that our kids were often tantruming because they haven't the skills of self-calming or they just couldn't communicating the real problem. Often after a giant tantrum we gave them a calm and fair consequence (time-out) for their screaming fit but afterwards we were left with kids just as frustrated as before. We hadn't dealt with the real problem, only the most obvious behavior.

Our new formula, derived from the Dealing with Disappointment book, acknowledges the child's feelings, even mid-tantrum. I want to point out that acknowledges doesn't mean agrees with. You don't have to agree with how they feel about the problem. Acknowledging their feelings helps them feel understood and safe. Often their feelings are so intense that they can be frightening for a young child.  Acknowledging helps kids feel like their not against these intense feelings by themselves. 

And remember, there's no such thing as "you don't/shouldn't feel that." Emotions are 100% individual and can't be argued against, so don't bother. Telling a toddler, "you shouldn't feel sad because your cup spilled," won't ever work. Ever. But watch how "I can tell you feel sad because your cup spilled" works. 

When Luke started jumping into hysterics the other day because Grace knocked down his block tower, just saying, "I can see you're very angry," stopped his tantrum mid track. Grace then was able to make her wrong right by rebuilding it for him. Some days recognizing the feeling isn't enough to stop the tantrum. Then we note what action (screaming) isn't ok in our house and ask him what he can do to calm down.

Grace prefers to talk it out. Luke responds to deep breaths and jumping jacks best. Then we try to figure out what the real problem is and what he can do about it. Often we have to go back to calming techniques mid-talk until he's calm enough to work it out.

The other day after using this formula we found out that his tantrum was over the basketball hoop being too high. One he was calm the solution was as simple as lowering the hoop. He wasn't trying to be bad, he was just overwhelmed with frustration and lacked the skill to communicate it. Some days (like all day yesterday) Luke picked his tantrum spot as his calming technique by default when he refused to calm down. Once he had gotten some screaming out in his room we went through the formula again. 

As Chad and I have been trying out this formula it made us realize WE don't know how to have feelings. We both stuff them inside. So we went to our therapist Teri loaded with questions, because how can we teach our kids it's ok to feel if we don't allow ourselves to?

What she said was so simple, but so groundbreaking for me. She said feelings are safe. Feelings are meant to be signals to help you understand a situation. After you listen to their input you then decide what action you will take. The feelings don't dictate the action, nor do they control you. They are simply markers, or informers. The action that comes after is a choice that we make ourselves.

I had always assumed emotions drove actions. I was afraid to hurt the people I love. That's why I have learned to control my feelings so completely that I stopped myself from feeling them at all. I was afraid that if my feelings were out of control then my actions would be out of my control too. 

Chad said he felt he couldn't feel negative feelings such as anger because he believed it was sinful. I've certainly felt that too, that feeling sad or scared or angry was the same as being faithless. After Teri's simple explanation of the role of feelings we realized we could allow them into our lives and into our family.

We also got these Feeling Cards to help the kids learn words for their feelings. Most children have sad, mad and happy figured out. But disappointed, frustrated, anxious take some practice to define. 

We use these cards during dinner. We used to ask Grace how her day was and got the customary "good." Now she searches through the cards, holds one up and says "I felt left out when no one played with me at recess." Wow. What a difference. It really has given us more to talk about and we all take turns with our card. Again, Luke is a little young for this, but he loves trying and he's learning new words every day that he uses to tell us what his life looks like to him.

These were also the cards we used for Grace when she was diagnosed (at four, the same age Luke is now) to help her communicate her feelings about cancer and her treatment. It made a big difference trying to comfort Grace if we knew she was crying because she was anxious. If she was crying from frustration we could comfort her differently. These cards were instrumental in bridging that communication gap.

I just want to add that having feelings isn't the whole solution, just as only consequences isn't the total solution. It's that balance of feelings and actions that needs to happen for a person to be whole and healthy. So while we're glad that Grace and Luke are able to have feelings, we also keep them accountable to their actions with fair and calm consequences. 

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