It doesn't matter what the situation is specifically. We have all been in situations as parents when we want something to change, probably our child's behavior or attitude. Perhaps it is a child who won't go off into the classroom at the start of the school day who comes to mind. Or a child who won't do as we ask. These situations are confusing and frustrating for parents who are working to parent from a relationship-focused place. We've never seen what it looks like to approach situations like this from any other way than bribery, threats, or force. ("I'll give you ____ if you go inside easily." Or "You won't be able to do ____ if you don't do it." Or "Here, just pull him off of me and put him into the classroom.")
Yesterday, this situation was in the forefront of my mind when I agreed to help a neighbor with her 4 year old daughter while her mother flew to her grandmother's funeral. There had already been numerous changes (her mother left, she was moved to several different places already, and now she was separating from the people she had stayed with last night and her sisters so that they could go to school) and she was clearly done with that! She had reached her window of stress tolerance. She made it nearly to the front door of my house before she turned around and went the other direction. In a corner near the garage, she stayed and cried while her sisters and another neighbor tried to reason with her.
We do this sort of thing all the time: try to reason with those who are not in a place where reason is effective. I watched as bribery, threats, and the question of force all came up, though none of it was working. She still was in the corner by the garage and clearly had no intention of leaving. What to do?
When we're upset- or in any sort of emotional state- reason and logic do not work. We need someone to validate our feelings, to connect with how we're feeling. But many of us are afraid to do that. We don't want the feelings to grow stronger. We want them to stop. But we don't recognize that the feelings will stop if we can work our way through them. The only way out is through, not shoving the feelings down and pretending that they don't exist.
I suggested that her sisters say goodbye to her because they were starting to get worried about being late to school, so they said goodbye and went on their way. I moved in closer to her and said, "I'm sorry this is so hard." No explanation of why. No bribes. No threats. And I felt it with her. I had experienced others leaving when I was a child and I know how that feels. She started crying harder. I stood nearby. I didn't try to make it stop. When she calmed a bit after about a minute, I said, "It is hard being away from your mom right now." She cried harder again for about half a minute, then visibly relaxed. I said, "When you're ready, I would love to have you come inside. I know you'll let me know when you're ready." I stood nearby for another minute before I moved away just a bit. She started playing with her dolls, still standing outside in the cold in front of the garage door. Within a few minutes, she headed into the house on her own.
What happened? When children (and adults, too!) are given some space for their feelings, to have someone just be there and listen, they are capable of working through things on their own. Bribes, threats, and force get in the way of children learning to do that on their own. The outside chatter seems to only muddle things more, rather than helping someone find more clarity so they can make a good decision. We want our children to make good decisions on their own, so we try to manipulate things outside of them to make that happen. It is only when we step aside a bit and allow their own process to unfold that they will truly learn to do this for themselves. When we use bribes, threats, and force, children make changes out of fear. When we keep the relationship in the forefront of our mind, amazing things can unfold.
Think of the last time you were upset. Did you need someone to validate you and connect with how you were feeling? Or did you need someone to try to fix it, or to reason with you? We all need connection. We just need to remember that in the moment.