At this time of year life can get a little crazy. With stockings to fill and Christmas cards to write the attention we give our children can start to waver. And as we look down at our to-do list in horror we may find ourselves resorting to desperate measures to try and keep our child’s behaviour on track.
‘’Be good, or Santa Claus won’t come,’’ it can be tempting to say as your 3 year old runs off with the Christmas tree decorations, or starts whining because they don’t want to go to the supermarket. It can be as much to keep ourselves sane for a moment, than to teach our children about good behaviour. And why wouldn’t you say such things, you might ask. After all isn’t December the month where we can enjoy this handy trick to demand good behaviour out of our children?
This may be a bombshell to some of you, but Santa Claus could actually be making your parenting harder. Those threats, the bribes, the elf on the shelf staring down and watching your child’s every act, are not the ticket to a peaceful Christmas. They may actually be contributing to more whining, more meltdowns, more sibling squabbles, and generally a sense of unease. Here’s why.
It comes down to how your child’s brain works. Your child’s limbic system (the emotional part of the brain) is like a radar constantly scanning her environment to see who she can connect to. When she feels well connected to an adult around her, then the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for rational, reasonable behaviour) can function well. Then she can think well and behave well.
If your child feels disconnected, or if upset feelings are getting in the way of her feeling a warm connection with you even when you are right there with her, then her brain goes a bit haywire. The limbic system senses an emotional emergency, as it’s lost that deep sense of connection to another adult. Then the pre-frontal cortex can’t function well, so they can’t think through what is rational, reasonable behaviour for that moment.
This is when we start seeing misbehaviour. They may start whining or moaning, or doing all of the things they know deep down they shouldn’t do such as hitting a sibling, or refusing to do simple tasks like put on their shoes and coat.
This is when it can be tempting to use threats and bribes, and tell your child that Santa only comes to good children. It may appear to work in the short term as you child hurriedly dresses to go out the door with a terrified look on their face at the thought of not having Christmas presents.
But here’s what happens later. That sense of disconnection or those upset feelings your child was experiencing are still inside of them and will come out later. They’ll be a time when you child gets so overwhelmed by them that they won’t be able to hold them in any more no matter what you’ve threatened them with previously. Then will come a meltdown, or a full on sibling brawl that will be a combination all of the built up tension from each of the other little moments in which there have been threats or bribes.
Threats and bribes (of any kind, not just about Santa) are what I like to call the credit card system of parenting. Instant results. Instant success. But the downside is that overtime the cost you are paying is much higher. Your child is feeling bad for longer and as their emotional thermostat starts to rise it’s only going to be so long before a storm erupts.
Your child is good. Their inner nature is to be loving, and co-operative. They want to be good. It’s just that sometimes their hurt feelings get in the way. When we tell a child to ‘be good’ or shame them for their behaviour, we can add extra layers of hurt. We give children the wrong impression that our children are responsible for controlling their impulses and emotions. Actually brain science tell us that children can’t.
What we need to do as parents is actually to step in, and be there to help children with their behaviour and the emotions behind it. We need to reconnect with them. It can seem like a lot of work, compared to the quick fix of the Santa threats, but this is investment parenting, as opposed to the credit style kind. When we invest in connecting with our children, it’s us that get paid back in the future. We will have less meltdown, less sibling right, less non-co-operation when we start to think about investment rather than quick fixes.
So in the run up to Christmas here’s five simple things you can do when your child’s behaviour is going off-track and you’re feeling tempted to reach from some Christmas bribery.
1. Shift The Mood With Special Time – When your child is getting whiney and moany, add in some connection before the storm gets worse. Set a timer for 10 minutes and tell your child they can do anything they want together with you. As you play shower them with warm connection, lots of closeness and eye contact. As they soak up a warm sense of connection with you, they’ll be able to get their thinking back on track.
2. Try Some Giggles – When you are dealing with a child who is not co-operating try giggles. If you need to get out the door in the hurry, try dressing your toddler’s doll instead of them and then acting all confused by your mistake. Or try putting your child’s coat on instead of your own. This is what I call Giggle Parenting, a sure-fire way to laugh away disconnection. After a few giggles your child will feel better connected and more likely to co-operate with you. It’s scientifically proven!
3. Set Limits Quickly – When your child is acting off-track, and you sense they are getting whiney and moany, don’t wait for them to attack a sibling with a wooden block before you step in. Your children’s whines and moans are a sign that they need you to diffuse the situation. Stay close, and be ready to move in to set limits so that no-one gets hurt.
4. Stay With Your Child Through The Storms – At some point storms are going to happen. Your child is going to have a meltdown about something small and insignificant, just when you really need to have five minutes peace to wrap some presents. The most helpful thing you can do is be with your child. Stay close, offer warmth and empathy. And most importantly, don’t try to distract your child from their emotions, even if they seem about something small and petty. Crying is your child’s natural healing process, for letting go of all their upset feelings that have been getting in the way of feeling connected to you.
5. Get someone to listen to you – With Hand in Hand Parenting, we make sure parents get the emotional support they need to listen deeply to their children. As you make the shift away from threats and bribes you may find it brings up a lot of feelings in you, and that it’s hard to find the patience at first. That’s why we have a listening partnership scheme where parents can exchange time talking and listening so that they can de-stress and release tension too.
As your kids demand expensive presents, their behaviour is actually a call to you, calling for connection. This is what your child want more than anything this Christmas. Santa Claus, can’t compete with your ability to shower your children with love and connection. So lets make this Christmas about presence rather than presents.
These 5 tips are based on the 5 Hand in Hand Parenting tools. For more info about how to put these tools into practise check out my book Tears Heal: How to listen to our children