My daughter has discovered the power of yelling ”stop!” whenever the grown-ups are talking. It started a few days ago, before we travelled back to the UK to spend time with family. Now there is a lot of grown-up conversation and sometimes it doesn’t involve her as much as she’d like.
This kind of behaviour can be really triggering for us, particularly when we’re in company. Our lovely, charming children, are suddenly being irritating, and we can begin to wonder what people will think of us, our children and our parenting!! It doesn’t help to use rational or reasoning, saying ”mummy will finish talking in a minute,” or ”I just need to finish explaining to Daddy this important thing blah blah blah”. When a child starts behaving in an off-track way, they are really signalling that they can’t think. That their pre-frontal cortex has gone off line, and they need us to engage with their ‘feeling’ limbic brain. They need to feel our love, and our warmth again.
We could try just telling them to stop themselves, that their behaviour is ”not acceptable” but this doesn’t work to deal with the feelings that cause the behaviour in the first place. Over time if we do this our children wind up feeling more disconnected, and behaving in a variety of more off-track ways, or their behaviour goes underground, they stop showing us or telling us how they feel, and they grow up distanced from us. If we can offer connection even when our child’s behaviour is challenging, then we maintain closeness with them.
Because of the way we were parented, we get irritated when our children ask for connection in these kinds of ways. After all, what would our parents have done if we started yelling ”stop!” in a public place like a restaurant? It takes a big leap to be able to give our children connection at all times, even when their behaviour really pushes our buttons.
Listening partnerships really help the most, or having a trusted friend that we can chat to about how embarrassed we were when our child started acting out in public. Having someone who can help us release tension so we don’t feel so irritated. It can also help to say some of the things we feel like saying at the moment to our child, but try not to! And to reflect back and tell the story of our childhood. What would have had happened to us, when we acted out in public? Telling our story to someone we trust allows us no longer be ‘living’ our story in the present, reducing our compulsion to act it out and repeat what happened to us with our own children.
Anyway, back to the dinner table. As my daughter was yelling stop. I had the idea to get under the table, and then to pop up either side of her and surprise her by making her laugh. It worked, she started giggling, and we got to have our conversation again. But I was a little more mindful now to include her, reminding myself that when our children behave in off-track ways, they’re not being ‘bad’ or ‘unreasonable.’ They are only asking for the connection they need to grow and thrive. And if we offer that connection as much as we can, even when it feels challenging, if we can let go of the voices in our head that might be telling us that our child just shouldn’t be behaving in this way, then they don’t need to challenge us with their behaviour.
Since this ”stop!!’ game has been happening a lot these past few days. I know I need to take make some effort, have a mini holiday ”connection plan”. As we visit relatives who give her attention, I’m also using the time to go and catch up on some work. But it’s a reminder that my daughter still needs connection with me. So starting today, I’ve decided to start the day with 5 minutes of special time. This is a great thing to do when we are travelling, because it can happen before we get busy doing activities and outings with the family. I love this anecdote written by a working mum about how just a short dose of special time can make a big difference. I’ll also try to do a longer special time later in the day, and have lots of playlistening as well. And most importantly I’ll make some time for some listening for myself! When I can clear our my old feelings of tiredness and irritation, I discover the spark of creativity that I need to enjoy play.