|Bribe Kids Behavior, Not their Emotions|
|Posted on February 1, 2011|
Well, maybe bribe is a strong word, yet I find that many parents are ethically opposed to using a bribe (you could also say incentive, carrot, or reward) to change behavior, yet all the time are bribing emotions. If you are feeling a bit confused reading this, take a deep breath and I will explain.
“It is okay, don’t feel sad, they are not nice friends anyway.” “Do you want your favorite snack, and your favorite video, that will make you feel better.” “Let’s get some ice-cream, okay, 2 scoops.” “I’ll fix it, we can get new jeans.”
There is nothing wrong with comforting kids; however it is best to listen and show empathy, rather than to fix or change their emotions. When parents feel that their child’s emotions fall into their department to manage, kids will conveniently allocate any upset to their parents to fix. When parents don’t fix an emotion adequately or to their child’s liking, kids feel they have the right to get mad at their parents and blame them for the problem.
A disagreeable dinner, a broken video game, a plan with a friend that falls through, these may seem like they fall into the “fixable” category. However parents are side-stepping a critical piece of their child’s emotional maturation: allowing kids to feel and learning to manage their own emotions including sadness, disappointment and anger. These emotions are part of life, so instead of parents making a new dinner, buying a new game or calling a new friend to come over, parents can listen and validate their children’s emotions. “Can you tell me what you are feeling about dinner?” “You sound really frustrated that your game broke.” “You seem sad and disappointed that Greg can’t come over.” We need to let children have their emotions and even go a step further and validate these feelings. “It is frustrating.” “That is disappointing.” Instead of “It is okay, don’t worry, I’ll fix it.”
It should be noted that parents also feel undercurrents of their own annoyance, despair and pain when their kids have negative emotions, because at a core place they feel that it is their job to fix or solve again. It is best to just let kids have their feelings.
Furthermore, many items do not come anywhere near fixable: rejection from a peer, social anxiety, depression, substance abuse, insomnia. When parents feel that these emotional struggles also fall into their domain, it provokes an extremely powerless feeling. Yet many parents simply try harder to help, monitor, manage, praise, and bolster their child while adding in other supports, extra tutors, coaches and specialists to try to keep their child moving forward.
Children come into the world equipped with innate ways of processing feelings – parents need to let kids tap into their own problem-solving. Instead of attempting to remove struggle, parents can attune to what their child is feeling. This is called mirroring. When parents allow children to have their feelings and even join in by validating their child’s highs and lows, parents are trusting their child’s natural self-regulatory system. When children feel heard and validated by others, it provides relief and most are ready to move on and solve their own problem. If not, parents can wait until they ask for help, rather than just jumping in and fixing.
Yet, the parental responses for soothing, fixing, shushing and placating seem to be hard-wired into all of us parents. I find these programmed responses coming out of my mouth and I have to keep treading into this new territory to employ what I teach. However, when I do respond in an intentional – rather than automatic – way, I am literally and truly shocked by how well it works. I’ll give 2 examples. Last night my daughter was counting and gluing beads for a math/art assignment. When her younger sister knocked over all the beads, my older daughter lost count of her beads and had to not only clean up the spill, but also start the project all over. As my older daughter got more and more upset, I felt a strong urge to go in and fix, solve and encourage. Since it was an assignment for her whole school (K-6), my urge amplified to get in there and keep her moving forward on her project. However I refrained; I held myself back in my cooking area and simply said, “That is really frustrating and disappointing, would you like help?” She replied sternly, “No.” So I asked her younger sister to stay over near me and continued on with my cooking.
My older daughter pulled herself together, cleaned up and redid her project. She soon came beaming over to me. Again, I was tempted to add my interpretation and praise her, but instead I let her be in charge: “How does it feel to finish?” (Since I normally say “Great Job!” and she says “thanks,” this seemed like the first time I heard her own joy spilling out of her.) She exalted, “I feel great (with a yelp), I am so proud of myself!” When we let kids have their positive and negative emotions; they are more likely to feel in-charge and invested in their own lives.
A second example happened in the car. My older daughter had a small role in The Nutcracker, and although she was nervous to be on a big stage, she really wanted to do it. Going to rehearsals she described strange feelings in her stomach – which we identified as nerves or butterflies. She began to say more openly, “I am afraid.” Although mirroring and validating has become more imprinted in my parenting, and I would say to her, “It is scary;” I still sneaked in the fix, “you’ll do great.” This time in the car going to rehearsal she brought up her worries again, which included falling, freezing and forgetting what to do or banging into someone with her headpiece. So I took a risk by letting her be in charge of the problem and said: “It does sound scary, what do you think you will do?” She hesitated and then said assuredly, “I guess I am just going to have to be brave.” I slightly shook my head, wondering if I actually heard her correctly, and as I glanced over to her, there was a big smile on her face. She solved her own problem.
When we let kids be in charge of their own emotions, we are teaching them to solve their own problems – a critical step in the emotional maturation process.
On the other hand, giving kids an incentive to examine their problem behaviors to make healthy choices can also foster the maturation process. For example, everybody knows the trimmings of an anger outburst: yelling, screaming, threats and slammed doors. Yet, how many parents strategically say, “I feel powerless when you become so angry. I am not sure what to do. What if I rewarded you for learning how to control it on your own. You are still entitled to your angry feelings; you just can’t express it in a destructive way. If you can consecutively and appropriately manage your anger for a whole week, I will give you $10 for your favorite candy store (or other appropriate incentive). It is just an idea; you tell me what you think? If you mess up, we’ll start the week again, if you want to try again.”
Although many parents might scoff at this idea – of giving a child an incentive to do something he does not want to do: look at his anger. Yet, many kids would jump on this, “Okay, I want to try that.” Even if a child is managing his anger for the wrong reasons (i.e. candy) he is trying on a new behavior: self-control. This new behavior rewires the brain, as now a new signal is associated with anger….breathing and calming down. These are hugely enormous positive things for a child with an anger problem to do. After a parent spends, $10, $20 or perhaps $30 on candy for solid weeks without anger, that is money well spent. This does not need to continue forever. After a while a parent can say, “You’ve really shown me that you know how to manage your anger. Moving forward we are not going to reward you with candy anymore, but I now have faith that you know how to get into control yourself. Now the reward is a newfound maturity, and hopefully more self-control.”
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