Getting my kids to listen is perhaps my least favorite part of parenting.
Of course, the problem isn’t me, it’s my kids, right? They're defective? And I'm actually eligible for a refund?
As soon as I imagine asking others for advice on how to manage uncooperative children – the nerve! – I realize that the problem is me. The problem is nagging.
I hate it that the problem is always me!
I know what I need to do. I need to stop asking multiple times. And I know I need to change how I ask.
So, for example, I want Amelie to get into her bathing suit (we were on vacation last week). I need to not yell instructions to her from a different room as I am busily packing the beach bag. Even though that feels a lot more convenient in the moment.
No. I need to stop what I am doing. Walk into the room where she is. Go over to her. Touch her if she’s distracted, and wait until I have her attention. I’ll know when I have it because I’ll have eye contact. (Pro-tip – turn off all electric screens before attempting this.)
Once I have Amelie’s attention, tell her, “Amelie I need to you to put on your bathing suit.”
If she says okay and gets to work, consider myself lucky.
If she says no, consider brokering a deal, “Okay, two more minutes and then you’ll put on your bathing suit?” If she accepts, set an audible timer and prepare to come back in two minutes to enforce the time limit.
If that fails, then I need to be the adult in the situation. I hate that.
So then I need to say, “Amelie, it looks like you need help getting your bathing suit on, so I am going to help you.”
Then I need to physically take charge of her body getting into her bathing suit, just like I would with an infant. It’s not her fault and it’s not a punishment. I shouldn’t be operating in anger. (A bit of frustration is okay!) Ideally, I can keep in my mind that her prefrontal cortex is not fully functional yet and so I am basically operating her underdeveloped frontal lobe for her right now.
The good news is that if I do this consistently – only asking ONCE, no nagging at all! – she will start to take me more seriously and is more likely to comply with my request in the first place.
Talking about this with a friend whose 9-year-old was frustratingly noncompliant, she argued with me, “but I don’t WANT to help her get ready. A nine-year-old should be able to get herself ready on her own!”
Yup. I hear you. Both these options suck. She should be able to get ready on her own.
But the fact is, she isn't.
Do you know that expression, "she isn't giving you a hard times, she's having a hard time?"
She’s showing you she isn’t, actually, able to right now, no matter how much she "should" be able to. No matter what her age. Kids show us what they are able to do. And their abilities change minute to minute, day by day. Arguing with reality – that she should be able to do something – is only going to make my friend more frustrated.
So we have a choice. We can nag or we can help get the job done. They both take energy.
The first choice might take less physical labor but it’s only teaching our children to ignore us until we get angry. Over time, this teaches them to ignore us and also chips away at our bonds.
The second choice takes more energy in the short term but it’s a lot less maddening – once we do our thought work and remind ourselves “she would do better if she could, so clearly she can’t” – and in the long run, is actually increasing our odds of cooperation the next time.
The choice seems obvious but it doesn’t mean it’s easy. Take it from me. I’ll report back in a few weeks on how it’s going in my house!
If you'd like help getting back on your parenting game -- let's face it, we all need a reset from time to time -- schedule a free consult. We can talk everything from sleep to feeding to positive discipline.
It’s not surprising that childhood trauma – not just the dramatic kind you see on TV, even much smaller microtraumas – affects our parenting, but with many of the families that work with me, not in the ways you would expect.
In most cases, my clients actually struggle to set boundaries because of inappropriate boundaries they experienced as children. They are actually too kind, too flexible, too democratic in their thinking. They are afraid of being "mean" and raising insecurely attached children.
This might sound like a good thing but it’s actually really not great for children.
Children need clear, consistent boundaries to feel safe. To have secure attachment. When parents are too accommodating, it actually creates more anxiety in children. Children need to know that their grown-ups are in charge, not themselves. The world is a big and scary place. Kids need to know their parents’ aren’t worried… and when parents change rules to avoid tantrums, that sends the message to children that their parents are less than confident.
Of course, children will never tell you that. In the short term, they absolutely want another cookie/more screen time/a later bedtime. But in the long run, parental flexibility on boundaries harms children.
Having boundaries isn’t mean. You don’t have to express them with anger. It’s actually important that you are not angry when you reinforce boundaries. You want children to know that going to bed on time, or limiting screen time, or wearing a seatbelt isn’t a punishment. It’s a boundary set with love, with the child’s best interests in mind. AND it’s perfectly fine if the child doesn’t like it. It’s not up for discussion, but it’s fine for the child to express all the negative emotion she feels.
Negative emotion is never a problem. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous or traumatic to say no.
A funny thing about parents who want to be “nice” is that they often end up yelling more often than parents who have no problem enforcing boundaries. That’s because these “nice” parents get pushed and pushed and pushed by their children until the parents feel resentful and end up snapping. It’s so much healthier if you can respond immediately when you feel your boundaries being crossed, before you snap. And children will, by definition, push boundaries, no matter how “kind” they are. That’s the job of children, to find limits in the world. And it’s the job of parents to keep the limits anyway.
I finally started seeing an EMDR therapist recently to help deal with childhood trauma of my own. I always thought my own childhood was "not that bad" and I should stop complaining but years of therapy hadn't really helped so I guess my minimizing wasn't helping.
And lo and behold, since I’ve been processing childhood trauma… I am yelling a lot less. I maintain boundaries more easily, more definitively, from the get go.
We all have so many good reasons to be angry… but they probably have very little to do with our children. They have to do with us needing to do our own emotional work.
EMDR has helped me realize that my yelling was due to my own unmet needs. Needs for space, for rest, for love, for compassion. And most of those needs had to be met by me. I have to heal myself (with the help of my EMDR therapist). And that starts with unconditional love for myself. And guess what? The more unconditional love and compassion I offer myself… the more I have for my children.
I still have limits with my kids but now I uphold them calmly. My daughter actually got angry at me the other day for NOT yelling at her – she was dysregulated and melting down and wanted me to yell to help her get regulated again.
Instead I left the situation – after trying patiently for 30 minutes – to be a responsive and sympathetic listener and not having her progress through the tantrum. It was leave or yell, and I really didn’t want to yell.
So I went into my office to read on the couch and ten minutes later, she came in and cuddled up next to me – she wouldn’t let me touch her before – and finally really talked to me. And it turned out that despite all her earlier complaints about my partner, her teacher, her sister, her schoolwork… the issue was really an uncomfortably loose tooth. And so I could just say, “oh, it’s hard being a kid, isn’t it?”
And she nodded appreciatively and melted into me and all was well.
And this would not have happened if I had allowed myself to yell back when she was yelling at me. It’s hard not to respond when someone is yelling at you!
But having compassion for myself and taking that time out to take care of myself allowed me to be there for her when she was ready. And indeed, my setting a limit – “I am not going to allow you to yell at me anymore – I am going to leave the room now” – actually helped her to get calm and re-regulated so that she could allow me to help comfort her. Staying and allowing her to yell at me, or worse, yelling back, would not have been healthy for me or for her.
Parents who work with me for sleep coaching tell me again and again that their children are so much happier, after a few hard days, of getting great sleep. Well-rested children are happy children. But they don’t know that ahead of time. They need their parents to make it happen. They might not thank you later but you will see how they are thriving when their bodies are getting the sleep they need.
If you are ready to help your children get the sleep they need to be their best, schedule a free consult and see how good life can be without sleep deprivation. We can work together to address your own childhood trauma so that the process is as peaceful as possible. Results guaranteed.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.