An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:
I am a mom of two lovely children, 5 years old and 3 years old. I desperately need help! I no longer know what to do. My 5-year-old boy is completely out of control. He is always shouting and screaming, making big scenes, calling us stupid and other unpleasant names, being ungrateful when he receives gifts or treats, or not accepting no for an answer. Nothing I do is working with him. I just feel like crying. Being a mom is all I ever dreamed about. It is what I most love in my life and I want to have more children, but I have a big problem that I don’t know how to solve.
My husband was raised with a lot of austerity, “laws”, physical punishments, and no fun at all. Now he is acting like that as a father. He is also stressed by work and doesn’t look for help to deal with it. He is driving me insane and I am now losing my patience and acting unfairly to my children, but I have already sought medical assistance to help me control my stress and my emotions.
How can I reach my son and make him the calm and peaceful child that I know he is? I feel that he is so sad. I can see it in his eyes. I hate being this mom, but I cannot reach him because he already went through so much with his father and our discussions.
What should I do?
Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:
Parenting is a tough job, especially when we grew up with parents who used punitive means. We also live in a society that reinforces a belief that children be treated as “less than.” It sounds as though your entire family is in a really hard place right now, with each person feeling disconnected and disrespected and subsequently reacting to everyone and lashing out. This is an even more difficult situation due to additional outside stress, although such instances often cause the initial problem. It is more difficult to act in a responsive, loving matter when we are stressed and not having our needs met.
First, take a deep breath. You love your family, and you can help them come back to a place of connection and responsive interactions. It will take some time and some work. When everyone is negatively reacting to everyone else, it can take a bit for change to start showing. Luckily, it just takes one person to start the process. You can help yourself, your children, and your partner begin making changes.
You may have heard the phrase Connect Before You Correct. For others to be receptive to listening to our words, they need to feel connected to us. They need to feel heard. Non-violent communication is a great way to do this. Use active listening to clarify what you are hearing and let the other person understand that they are being heard. Use non-judging statements to describe situations and mediate between family members by helping them see the other point of view. Often during times of conflict, both parties really want the same thing but are just going about it differently.
Try to simplify things as much as possible during this stage in order to give your family time to reconnect. When other factors add to our stress, we need to let something else go in order to continue meeting needs. Try not to take things personally during this time. It can be difficult to be the calm in the midst of an emotional storm, but sometimes one person needs to be that calm in order to help everyone else find their own center. People act the best way they can, given their current needs, support, and knowledge. We just need to ask ourselves why a certain behavior is occurring and what is needed in order to help the person respond in appropriate ways.
If you are looking for books that can help you as you help your family navigate this period, check out the following: Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon, Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. Ginott, and No-Drama Discipline by Daniel J. Siegel. The first two are my favorite parenting books; each one contains concrete suggestions on how to help your family live in a consensual manner. The third is one I am currently reading and think I will be recommending to many families. Beginning in February, Natural Parent Network Volunteers will be leading a round table discussion of this book and the techniques and thoughts presented.
Go hug your family, tell them you love them, and ask everyone to work together to make your home a more peaceful place.
I remember when my oldest child was five years old. My sweet, empathetic-from-birth boy became such a challenge that I thought to myself, “I can’t wait for him to turn 6; then it can all be fart jokes and wanting to be a big boy and a helper.” Five is a hard age (of course, this might hit kids a little earlier or later)! They are no longer a toddler, generally have a well-developed vocabulary capable of meeting their needs, and can do so many things for themselves, but they still have almost no real control in their lives and still crave to feel safe and loved in your arms. There are a few things that we tried to do in our house to support our whole family during this phase.
The first, which it sounds like you are already doing, was to work on ourselves. When our stresses are managed, we are better able to respond in a way we want rather than the way the behavior triggers us to respond. We know that it doesn’t make sense that the child is acting out just to be at odds with us. You even point out that you can see in his eyes that this isn’t him, and that is the spark to focus on. By seeing the behavior as something that just IS, not a personal attack on us (even if it sounds that way), is the most important and most difficult part.
Along with supporting your emotions surrounding the actions of your child, find the trigger for the behavior. Have there been any changes with school, childcare, or parental work hours? It could even be something we see as silly, such as rearranging a room. It doesn’t always have to be an external thing, but looking for the trigger is a key point in deciding what step to take to support the changes or adjust for needs.
Most important of all is refreshing your knowledge on child development. Children do not do better when made to feel worse. No matter how he behaves, he is still your little boy and needs all the love you can give him. That love might be shown by giving him a safe place to release his feelings, hearing him with sympathy as best as you can, and upholding the limits you set with compassion for how much he doesn’t like it. You don’t have to give in, just hear the upset and remember that he has as much right to his feelings of anger as he does to feelings of glee. They are all part of our emotional arc, and we all need someone with whom we feel safe to feel those emotions. Children learn appropriate ways to express those emotions by what we model. If the adults around the child respond to his or her upsets with anger, yelling, or other outbursts, the child will learn that such responses are acceptable. Continue to aim for respectful responses, even in the face of unaltered expectations, and he will eventually do the same.
It can be quite challenging when parents are not on the same page when it comes to parenting practices, especially discipline and daily interactions. I would bet you both love your children very much and want them to grow up to become healthy, capable, and happy adults. I wonder what would happen if you could find a moment to talk to your husband, just the two of you, and briefly discuss this together. You could start from the stance that you know both of you love your children and that you realize you will not always agree on parenting practices. Could you invite your husband to listen to your ideas, letting him know that while you respect his ways, you really think your son would value and benefit from having his father as a positive role model of how to treat others with respect and kindness? Perhaps ask your husband to imagine himself in your son’s shoes for just a moment. It might sound something like, “How do you think you might feel if you were five years old and your father yelled at you? What if, instead, your father showed you the way to do things, taking the time to teach you? I think our son would really like that from you. I think you have so much you could teach him.”
In addition to talking to your husband, I think it’s important here to remember that children do well when they feel safe and secure in their home. That security comes from a loving, trusting relationship. Children also behave well when they are welcomed to participate in their daily activities and given a chance to right their own mistakes. If your son is doing something that is unwanted or unacceptable, offer him alternatives that are appropriate. At age five, children need to have a certain measure of control, just over small things, like what color shirt to wear or what story book they wish to listen to. Giving a child choices at the right moments means they are more willing to cooperate when they can’t make a choice. For instance, “It’s time to get ready for sleep [not a choice]. You can brush teeth or put on pajamas; which do you choose to do first [small choice that gives the child some positive sense of capability]?” Additionally, learning to set boundaries in a clear and calm manner is very important when raising children. Decide what is important and acceptable to you and make those expectations clear. As long as the expectations are age appropriate, your children will be able to follow your guidance.
Finally, if you find your husband is being harsh to you as well, it is important that you choose to set healthy boundaries. Our children are watching us, and they learn how to treat others by observation and experimentation. If your son is living with respect, kindness, and cooperation, he will be more likely to express himself in this way as well. Conflict between spouses often means children will act out with aggression, yelling, and non-cooperation. This happens because they feel insecure and afraid, and this is their mistaken way of letting you know how they feel. In working to have a positive dynamic with your husband, you will also be modeling a positive way to communicate for your children. Everyone deserves respect. If setting boundaries is difficult, I strongly recommend you seek out the help of a family counselor or coach. You don’t have to go through this on your own.