KA BAM! The door to my son’s room slammed behind him as he bolted in to burrow under the sheets and blankets of his bed. I’d heard it was called “caving”---what some boys do when they are overwhelmed by emotion. I was left outside the closed door, exasperated. He’d lost his lunch box three times that week and I’d just discovered that he had, yet again, left his homework at school. Lately I’d been tearing my hair out over his behavior. He had me choosing his clothes in the morning, picking up after him, running his forgotten books to school and nagging him about chores and other tasks that he’d been doing on his own for a couple of years. He was interrupting me when I was in a conversation with someone else, but wouldn’t talk to me when I wanted to talk with him. Whenever he was criticized, which, I admit, was getting to be very regularly, he would run to his room and slam the door. I’d asked him what he thought was going on and what he was feeling, but he didn’t seem to have a clue. I knew how I was feeling though: exasperated, irritated, annoyed, worried.........and guilty that I wasn’t handling it well.
Parenting is a tough job. We didn’t have to get a license to become a parent and no children that I know of came with operating instructions. We tend to muddle through, using parenting strategies that come naturally to us which, of course, are the strategies that our parents used on us. When things are going well, we feel blessed to have such wonderful kids and we believe that we are doing a pretty fine job of parenting. But, when things get difficult and the strategies our parents used aren’t working, parenting can become a very emotional job. Our feelings can get the best of us: frustration, anger, worry, embarrassment, helplessness hopelessness, fear. We can feel challenged, threatened disappointed, disgusted, despairing and hurt. My kids haven’t even hit the teen years and I think at some point or another I’ve felt every one of these emotions in the twelve years I’ve had children. Mostly, I am confused about why my child is “misbehaving” and am desperate to try to find a solution.
Though I was brought up in a home where misbehavior was punished, through my learning and work as a teacher I was able to see that we don’t have to make children feel worse in order for them to do better. Think about it: if you’ve messed up at work do you feel inclined to do better if you’ve been shamed and punished? Or, are you more inclined to do better if someone supports you through figuring out what went wrong and why, and then being available to consult with you through the process of fixing the mistake? I know that in this way, children are no different. Children do best when they are encouraged....not punished, not pampered. As a parent, I was solution focused but didn’t know where to turn to figure out WHY my child was doing what he was doing, nor what I should try in order to help my son solve the problem and get the behavior to stop!
The most important piece of information I’ve received about parenting came from Positive Discipline parenting classes, based on Jane Nelsen’s book, Positive Discipline. Now, when I am feeling completely perplexed and am in some emotional chaos over the behavior of one of my children, I have a place to begin. It is called the Positive Discipline Mistaken Goal Chart.
Positive Discipline is based on the work of famous psychiatrists from the past century, Alfred Adler and Rudolph Dreikurs, who proposed the idea that human beings are goal driven and that as human beings our top two goals are to feel significant (that we matter) and to feel a sense of belonging. We act in order to achieve our goals. In other words, much of our behavior is driven, often subconsciously of course, by the need to feel both important, and an integral part of something cohesive and larger than ourselves. Sometimes our kids have mistaken ideas about how to feel significant and how to get that sense of belonging, which leads them to do things that look like misbehavior to us. Our children’s perplexing misbehavior truly does make sense when looked at with this understanding.
Rudolph Dreikurs saw 4 mistaken perceptions that children sometimes have about significance and belonging. Children may feel that:
1. They belong or are significant only if they are getting special service and special attention from others.
2. They belong or are important only if they are the boss and are running the show.
3. They don’t belong and are not significant, and as a result they feel angry and hurt want to make everyone else feel as badly as they do.
4. They don’t belong and are not significant, see no way to belong or become significant, and so they have given up.
Rudolph Dreikurs called these mistaken understandings, the mistaken goals of: UNDUE ATTENTION, MISGUIDED POWER, REVENGE, and ASSUMED INADEQUACY.
Every child is different. My daughter is my first born. When she was going through a difficult phase we would sit down and talk about it. She would explain how she was feeling and would be able to work on the “why” question as well. Together we would problem solve and plan. I was feeling pretty smug. This was a piece of cake! Then my son hit school age. Talking to my friends , I was able to understand that my son was not alone in having no idea what he was feeling, why he was feeling it and what to do about it. He was lost in the midst of the whirlpool of his behavior and emotion. The relief is, in order to successfully use the Mistaken Goal Chart you don’t have to know what your child is feeling, you only need to know how YOU’RE feeling! You are able to use those less-than-desirable emotions to get you on the right track. Using the Mistaken Goal Chart enables you to find out what mistaken belief is behind your child’s misbehavior. Try to see the message underlying this belief emblazoned across your child somehow, on a T-shirt or on the front of a hat. Keep this image alive as you begin to work with your children, because understanding their discouraged, mistaken thinking will help you to have more empathy and patience as you support them moving through this phase.
Left in the hall outside the closed door to my son’s room, I sighed with frustration and wandered back into the living room to sit down. AARRRGGH! I was awash in my own chaos of emotions until I remembered that instead of feeling overwhelmed and humiliated by this maternal storm of feeling, I could use it productively. Out came the Mistaken Goal Chart and rather quickly the storm cleared allowing a great deal more clarity. Using the chart, I saw that what I was feeling and how I was reacting pointed toward my son having the mistaken goal of “Undue Attention”. It let me know that my son had the mistaken belief that unless he was getting me to do things for him or was the center of my attention, he didn’t belong and was not important. His coded message (hidden from both of us until I used the Mistaken Goal Chart) was, “Notice me! Involve me usefully!”
I started by looking at the calendar, and carved out some time in both of our days to spend time together. This would give him the message that he was significant enough to spend uninterrupted time with and that we belonged together. I wrote the time on the calendar for each week so it would be visibly posted. When he had calmed down and had come out of his room, my son sat down with me and we created a chart to help him get ready in the morning. I explained that it upset me a lot to nag, and so we would have to find other reminders other than my voice to do chores and piano practice. He suggested the timer on the stove and we figured out specific times each day when chores and piano practice would be done. We also created some non-verbal signals I could use.
As the rest of the week progressed, I was careful to notice any time that he was successfully using his new strategies and doing things with no reminders at all. I shared these with him quietly at night when I tucked him in and was sure to ask him how HE felt about his successes and how he was doing keeping himself better organized. He was very excited about our “date” time and had a list of ideas for activities he wanted to do together. When we were both feeling closer and were cuddled up together one day that week, I shared with him how I felt when he ran off and slammed the door when I was trying to talk with him about something difficult. We brainstormed other ways (and wrote them down), that he could let me know that he was frustrated or angry and even ways that he could tell me that he needed to have some time alone right then, but would come out and talk to me about it when he’d had some cool down time. He suggested that if I didn’t follow him to his room, he would retreat without slamming the door. He also asked me to write down the phrases he could use to announce his need to spend some time alone and we tacked them up on his bulletin board.
Knowing that my son needed to find other ways to see himself as significant, I gave him a choice of three new ways he could help our family (significance AND belonging). He chose,” mowing the lawn”. My husband and I took time to train him how to safely use the mower and worked with him the first several times he mowed the lawn. He felt very good about this contribution he was now making. Finally things began to turn around. He became more assured of the many ways in which he had significance and belonging. I was more patient and understanding when he slipped. He still forgets his lunch box at school occasionally, but he knows that when he does, he has to take his lunch in a paper bag until he brings home his lunch box and then must clean out the lunch box himself to prepare it for the next day’s lunch. I don’t nag about it, and he doesn’t complain about it.
In the past, I used to feel overwrought and ashamed by the strength of the negative emotions I felt when confronted with my child’s misbehavior. Now I tune into them and use them proactively. I am able to sit down with the Mistaken Goal Chart, find myself there and know that I will be able to see where my child is, too. My emotions steer me toward solutions that I would not have otherwise seen, give me specific strategies to use and allow me to better understand the world that my children are experiencing. The ironic thing is, now that I understand how important and useful these negative feelings are, they don’t seem nearly as intense or as overwhelming! They are a merely a new set of tools!