“I recently discovered Aha! Parenting and am trying hard to change things at our house, but my kids seem to be acting out more. So I still lose it. And I feel so guilty about the past. What am I doing wrong?”
Shifting your parenting approach is a big transition, and you can expect some bumps as you and your whole family learn new patterns of relating.
Those bumps don’t mean that you’re doing anything wrong, even if your child sometimes “acts worse” than she ever would have before. In fact, what’s happening when your child acts out is that she’s showing you feelings from the past, from those times when you yelled or punished, and she felt so alone and misunderstood. It takes extra compassion from you, but your empathic response will heal those hurts so you can all move on.
You might think of it as healing old hurt feelings so they stop driving new bad behavior.
Many parents also find themselves feeling guilty for the way they acted before they discovered peaceful parenting. But feeling bad doesn’t help you act “good,” any more than it helps your child. So ditch that guilt. You’re paying the price, after all, and making amends now, by helping your child heal those old hurt feelings.
1. Start with yourself.
The “peace” in peaceful parenting comes from you. Specifically, from your commitment to regulate your own emotions. That means that when you feel upset, you Stop, Drop your agenda (temporarily), and Breathe. You notice the sensations in your body, which helps you stay more conscious, so you don’t get hijacked by anger. You refuse to act on that urgent “fight or flight” feeling that makes your child look like the enemy. Whenever possible, you delay taking action until you feel more calm.
This takes practice — both in those tough moments with your child, and in general, as you become more aware of your own thoughts and emotions. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s really, really, hard. Every time you do this, though, you’re building gray matter in your brain, which develops impulse control. And you’re excavating those triggers that make you lose it, so you don’t get upset so often.
2. Focus on Connecting.
Peaceful parenting doesn’t work without connection. So before you change anything else with your child, start building up your bond. Otherwise, you’ll drop your punishments, but your child still won’t feel motivated to “do right” and you’ll just see more testing behavior. Start spending at least 15 minutes connecting one-on-one with each child daily, just following his lead and pouring your love into him. You’ll be amazed at the difference in the way he responds to your requests.
3. Explain what’s happening.
Wait until you see more connection and cooperation. Then, initiate a discussion.
“You know how I used to yell at you and send you to your room when you broke the rules? Have you noticed that I’ve been yelling a lot less? I’m so sorry that I’ve gotten into a bad habit of yelling so much. I love you so much, and I know you try hard. You don’t deserve to be yelled at, no matter what. No one does.
We still have all the same rules. So it is never okay to lie or break promises or hit your brothers. But we think you’ll learn more from cleaning up your messes and repairing your mistakes than from being punished, don’t you? So when you damage something –including a relationship with someone in our family– we expect you to make a repair. We’ll always be there to help. And when you’re upset, we want to help you with whatever problem you’re having.
Let’s begin by having a family meeting about what household rules are important to us.”
4. Ask for cooperation.
“Our most important rule is that in this house we treat each other with kindness. I’m going to work very hard not to yell at you, and to really listen and be kind. Do you think you can work on this rule, too, and be kind to your sister?” You can count on your child losing control sometimes and breaking the kindness rule. Resist the temptation to use that to justify your own yelling — you’re the role model, after all.
5. Offer Support and Model Win-Win Solutions.
“I know your little sister gets on your nerves sometimes, and she always wants to play with your things. That’s really annoying to you. You deserve to be able to keep your treasures safe. But it isn’t okay to yell at your sister or hit her. Why don’t we work together to find a safe place for your treasures where your sister can’t get at them? And if you start getting annoyed at her, what can you do instead of yelling?”
6. Keep setting limits.
You become more flexible as you see it from your child’s point of view more often, and that’s a good thing. But you’ll still need to set plenty of limits. The key is to set the limit BEFORE you get angry, while you still have a sense of humor and can empathize with his perspective. “You wish you never had to stop playing and get ready for bed, don’t you? I bet when you grow up, you’ll play all night every night, won’t you?! And right now, it’s time for your bath.” Acknowledging your child’s perspective as you set the limit is what helps them cooperate with you.
7. Teach reparations.
If you’ve been punishing, you’ll feel unfinished if your child breaks a rule and you don’t punish him. So train yourself to think in terms of repair, instead.
After everyone has calmed down and is feeling reconnected, have a private discussion with your child about what happened. Be patient, listen, and really empathize. That’s what will help him past it. “You were pretty mad when he did that…I hear you.”
Resist the urge to teach until after your child has opened up to show you all that upset that caused him to act out. Then, point out the cost of his actions, being careful not to shame or blame. “When you said that to your brother, it really hurt his feelings….I wonder if it made him not feel as close to you.”
Ask your child if there is anything he can do to repair the damage. “I wonder what you could you do to repair things with your brother?
Resist the urge to punish or force an apology. Instead, empower your child to see that he can repair his mistakes. “You know we always clean up our own messes, right? This is just a different kind of mess, like spilled milk. I know you’ll think of just the right thing to make things better with your brother….I can’t wait to see what it is.”
Just as with matter-of-factly cleaning up the spilled milk, the process of cleaning up his messes will teach him that he doesn’t want to cause those hurts to begin with. Just remember that this isn’t a punishment. He does need to make a repair, and he needs to do it by the end of the day, but what he chooses to do to make things better with his sibling is his choice. Of course, if your child’s “repair” is seen by the sibling as not a sufficient repair for the infraction, then you will need to intervene again. The point of repair, after all, is to make things better with the person you’ve hurt.
What if your child resists making a repair? That means that he needs more help from you to heal his upset before he can move on to repair. Double-check to be sure you aren’t lecturing, and that you’re really seeing his perspective, so he feels heard and can work out those big feelings. If old resentments are creating a chip on his shoulder, then make a commitment to yourself to start the repair work today to melt those resentments.
8. Expect emotions.
When children are punished, they learn that those big emotions that drive them to misbehave get them into trouble, so they get in the habit of stuffing those “bad” feelings down. That doesn’t work, of course. The jealousy, frustration and need are still there in your child’s emotional backpack, popping out at the slightest provocation. The only reason your child keeps them under wraps is because she’s afraid. So once you stop punishing, those emotions are bound to bubble up to get healed.
So when you start punishing, you can expect to see more big emotions. If you can make it safe for your child to show you the more vulnerable feelings, you won’t see as much anger.
But you may see more acting out for a short time. When your child “acts out” she is acting out feelings that she can’t express in words. Like “All those times you yelled at me, and I was so scared…I acted like I didn’t care, but I was terrified inside….That fear is still inside me and it eats away at me and feels awful….So I lash out to keep those feelings down.” No child could tell you that, so she acts out.
Acting out is not a personal challenge to you. Emotions are never the problem; humans will always have big emotions. And, of course, that doesn’t give your child license to hurt anyone else. Train yourself to see misbehavior as a cry for help, and set limits calmly and patiently to guide behavior.
The key is to help your child work through the hurts and fears that are under her anger, so they no longer drive her behavior. The best way to do this is Connection, laughter and tears. For more guidance on how to do this: Preventive Maintenance for Kids.
9. Create Safety.
When your child shows you his upsets, stay calm. Don’t take it personally. The more you stay compassionate and accepting, the more he’ll feel safe enough to show you the woundedness behind his anger. (Anger is just the body’s fight response to those threatening feelings.)
Expressing those tears and fears is healing. Once he shares them with you — and he doesn’t even need to know what they’re about, or to use words — those upsetting feelings will evaporate, and he won’t need that chip on his shoulder to protect himself.
If your child is stuck in anger, create more safety by being as compassionate as you can about what’s upsetting him. If that isn’t enough to help him cry, and he stays angry, it’s a sign that he needs more daily empathy, and more daily laughing with you. Both build trust.
10. Help your child make sense of her experience with a story.
“When you were little, I was having a hard time… I yelled a lot… I didn’t know what else to do… That frightened you…. So you got very very mad sometimes… Nowadays I work really hard to be kind, and not to yell…. You don’t get so frightened…. And you are learning better ways to show me when you are sad or scared or mad….. We work together to solve problems in our family….. Everyone gets upset sometimes…. We try to listen to each other and be kind…. Then we always repair things between us…. There is always more love.”
All children benefit from using words and stories to understand their emotional life. Just be careful to empathize, not analyze — so she feels understood, not invaded or lectured.
11. Model apologies.
Expecting repair by the end of the day empowers your child to heal relationships, which works much better than forcing your child to apologize in the moment when they’re angry. That leads to resentment. But if you model apology yourself, your child will learn to follow your example. So when something goes wrong, take as much responsibility as you can, to model how to step up and take responsibility.
“I see two upset kids… I’m so sorry I wasn’t here to help you work this out before you both got so upset and started hitting… and then I got worried someone was getting hurt, so I started yelling, too… I’m so sorry…. Let’s all try a do-over…. I know you don’t want to hit each other, hitting hurts… And I hear how mad you are…. Let’s start over so you can tell each other what you need without attacking each other.”
Notice there is no blame or shame here, which makes it easier for everyone involved to consider how they might have contributed to the problem, and to acknowledge that.
12. Expect setbacks.
You’re human, so you aren’t perfect. The secret of making this transition is having compassion for yourself, just as you do for your child. Expect some days to be a huge struggle. Expect to make mistakes. Parenting is hard, and this kind of parenting is even harder when you start. But it gets easier, because you’re learning new skills that work better, and you’re rewiring your own brain. And even while it’s hard, you’re healing your child’s old wounds–and your own–so you’ll feel the difference. Quite simply, there’s less drama and more love.
13. Every morning, make the commitment.
“For me, this type of parenting is a daily choice. Every morning I have to make the commitment not to yell, to stay calm, to chose love. And there is something very empowering about that. I apologize to my kids when I make mistakes and slip – I see that when they accept my apology, they feel empowerment and generosity of spirit. This influences their behavior with each other – there are more kind words and gestures, more “I’m sorry” and more “Don’t worry, I know it wasn’t your fault” that they extend to each other, than before. There are days when things are a big struggle, but I really feel that something is changing deep within our hearts AND I feel us grow closer together when we choose love, and when in the middle of a tantrum I hug my child and genuinely tell him that I hear his pain and that I’ll help him work through it.”
You’re on a path now that leads to a happier, more peaceful family. Two steps forward, one step back still gets you where you want to go. Soon you’ll find yourself in a whole new landscape. Enjoy the journey.
Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.
Image courtesy of Bethany Beck.