Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Simple Shift in the Parent-Child Dance

My son bared his teeth and moved his head in toward mine so that our foreheads nearly touched. For a split second, I thought he was going to bang into my head. With that realization dawning, I decided he was being playful and just moving in to kiss me. I reached toward him and kissed him. He then smiled and told me how much he loved me. A few minutes later, after he had gone back off to the other room to play, it occurred to me how differently that situation would have gone if I had decided that his action was a threat to me. How many times do our interpretations of our child’s behavior lead us down the path to more disconnection? Or toward connection?
            We interpret our child’s behaviors hundreds of times per day, mostly unconsciously. If things are generally going well with our child and with us, we’re more likely to have the patience and the wherewithal to interpret our child’s behaviors in a positive light. If we’re feeling overwhelmed for any reason, or if our relationship with our child is generally not going so well, we’re more likely to interpret our child’s behaviors in a negative light, regardless of the intention of the child. I’m not saying that our children are always completely innocent or that they don’t need to learn to communicate with us effectively to get their needs met. Rather, I’m pointing out that sometimes just a simple shift in our interpretation of what our child is saying or doing can make things go in a positive direction.
What do you think of when you see this picture? What words do you associate with the expression on his face? While some may see a child who is scared, others may see an angry child. Others might see someone who is playful. And this is all just from a two-dimensional image.
We are constantly making observations, judging behaviors, and then interpreting what our children do—all in the blink of an eye. Many of these judgments and interpretations are based upon previous circumstances and how things worked out for us (or our loved ones) in the past. The primitive part of the brain is responsible for screening all things happening around us for possible threats. If I had allowed my amygdala (the primitive part of my brain responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response) to take over in the situation with my son above, I would have fought back, run away, or frozen. Because I was aware of myself and realized that my five-year-old wasn’t really a threat, I was able to interpret his behavior in a different way that had a positive outcome.
            “My daughter is manipulating me!” “He did that to me on purpose just to make me mad!” “I’m the parent, and he needs to listen to what I say!” Phrases like these are common among parents, and they are remnants of another age in which we did not fully understand brain development and what is really going on in the minds of our young children. We often overlay adult thinking onto what we are seeing from our children, even when they are not capable of this kind of complex thought. These kinds of phrases only create more disconnection in relationships because the interpretation is a judgment that the child is wrong or bad. But what if we asked ourselves what is the best possible interpretation for what our child just did? When we start to shift our interpretations and change our language to give our children the benefit of the doubt, there is then the possibility of change!
            Our children are always doing the best they can do at any given time. This statement is not always readily agreed with when I say it to parents. But let me ask you this: Are you always doing the best you can in any given situation? (Not that you always handle things perfectly, but do you have good intentions?) Do you set out to do a lousy job and make everyone around you upset? I’d be surprised if you said yes. Our children want to please us, even if it doesn’t look like it sometimes. They need us to hold the higher consciousness for them, to know and feel that they are doing their best. They need our support and our guidance, not harsh words and criticism. 

Excerpted from Consciously Parenting: Creating, Nurturing and Repairing Relationships
Chapter 6: How We Interpret Our Children's Behavior, Publication date Spring 2012

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