Guest post by Clémentine Malta-Bey
If you’re reading this blog, I’d be willing to wager that almost everything you ask your child to do is for the benefit of his or her growth and well-being. As a parent, your role involves a delicate balancing act of offering nurturance, setting healthy boundaries, and providing appropriate challenges to support your child’s development. You are doing the hardest job on earth, and chances are good that you are working your tail off at it.
Which is why I totally understand how unnerving it is when your child does not comply with your very sensible, and often very altruistic requests.
After all, it was your child who expressed a desire to go play in the snow. Your instruction that she put on her boots was solely intended to help her get what she wants, safely and comfortably.
But instead of recognizing this positive, selfless intention and complying accordingly, your child refused to put on her boots and resisted your attempts to calmly reason with her about the importance of weather-appropriate footwear.
I get it: Who wants to argue with a four year old? As your frustration mounted, you thought, “Have I moved to Crazytown? What is the big deal and why is this so HARD?” After arguing with your child for what felt like the longest ten minutes of your life, you finally lost it and spanked her.
For many parents, non-compliance inevitably leads to a frustrating power struggle that can end up triggering parents to spank or yell in an effort to re-establish his or her role as the authority. However, spanking and yelling can undermine the safety and trust in your relationship, and models problem-solving based on domination and violence, which is, of course, problematic. But you already know that. That’s why you’re here!
So, if the chain of events looks like this: Request => Resistance => Power struggle => Spanking
The million dollar question is, how can we prevent spanking from being the inevitable outcome?
The key is to intercept the chain of events at the source—in the resistance phase—and shift our state of mind from one of opposition to one of curiosity.
We’re all familiar with resistance, not only inter-personally, as in the example above, but also intra-personally. Have you ever committed to a new year’s resolution, only to find your resolve fizzle after a few months? That’s intra-personal resistance. Some part of you (that may be beyond your conscious awareness) wasn’t having it.
Most of the time, we frame this resistance as a failure, and chalk it up to a character defect within us or others. For example, “I failed at my resolution because I am lazy and have no follow-through.” But what if something deeper and more meaningful were going on?
The truth is, there IS something deeper and more meaningful going on! And a big part of leading a more peaceful, positive life not only as a parent, but as a human being, involves developing the skill of embracing resistance.
Rather than getting hooked into an oppositional dynamic, we can accept the resistance and treat it as an opportunity to obtain valuable information that can guide us towards wisdom and wellness.
Let’s apply this to the winter-boots scenario with our child. When we feel ourselves getting frustrated or angry that she isn’t complying, we can:
Consciously disengage from what we are currently doing/ thinking/ feeling;
Take a deep, cleansing breath; and
Pause for a moment to think calmly and deeply about why our child is in a state of resistance. (If you are very activated, I recommend giving yourself a time out first so that you can step away from the triggering situation and do what you need to do to regulate or soothe yourself. You will then be able to engage with the inquiry with a more centered and effective perspective).
As you begin the inquiry into your child’s resistance, keep in mind that the answers that most immediately pop into our minds—especially when we are still in a state of frustration or anger—tend to be simplistic, dismissive, stigmatizing, and lacking in understanding of child development.
For example, “My child is being defiant/ lazy/ stubborn…”
We may not really believe these assessments about our children because these negative labels are usually temporary and unique to the situation at hand. Nonetheless, thinking in this way is relationally damaging. It shuts down empathy and leads to a disconnect in the relationship. And by reducing resistance to a character flaw, our curiosity gets shut down as well. After all, why look deeper when we’ve already got it pegged?
To avoid a “system shut-down” and keep the lines of communication, curiosity, and connection open, we have to look deeper. This process involves getting out of our heads and into our hearts; out of our thoughts and judgments and into our feelings.
Resistance says, “No. I don’t want to.” And behind that resistance lies an emotion that says, “Because I feel ____.”
When we are able to identify the feeling at the core of the resistance, the resistance—and the conflict—begin to melt away.
While children are naturally very in touch with their emotions, they are still developing the self-awareness and vocabulary necessary to identify and communicate those emotions. As a result, children tend to express their emotions behaviorally. At any given time, your child may be trying to tell you how she feels in the form of aggression, play, withdrawal, and, yes, resistance!
As parents, it is our job to help our children develop emotional self-awareness and self-expression so that they evolve into emotionally competent adults. We can accomplish this seemingly lofty goal simply by helping our child identify her underlying emotional experience.
How do we go about doing this?
- Get on her level. Lowering yourself to eye level with your child feels much less threatening to her and fosters calm, collaborative communication.
- State your intention. Let your child know that you want to understand how she feels. This sets the tone for a positive dialogue.
- Point out behavioral clues. For example, “I see you are frowning your face/ holding your breath/ clenching your fists/ tightening your muscles.”
- Link the behavioral clues to an emotional state. “When you frown your face, it looks to me like you are very upset.”
- Cross-check with your child. “Are you feeling upset right now?”
- Express empathy. “I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time honey.” To be clear: you are not apologizing for your child’s feelings; rather, you are letting her know that you value her emotional experience.
- Play detective. We all have what I like to call “empathic imagination”, which is essentially the capacity to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and feel what they might be feeling. Use your empathic imagination to guess what your child might be feeling in connection to the situation. For example, “I wonder if maybe you have outgrown your boots? Is that why you don’t want to put them on, because they’re uncomfortable?” If, after cross-checking with your child, this guess proves not to be accurate, keep trying. Turn it into a guessing game for the two of you to share.
- Listen with total acceptance. In my experience, when you start playing emotional detective, children are quick to “help” you by clarifying which of your guesses resonate as true to them, and which don’t. It’s important in this stage to listen with respect and without judgment. For example, your child might respond, “I’m mad because you always tell me what to do.” This might at first seem preposterous. Your inner voice might respond with something like, “Well, DUH! That’s my job! I’m your parent—I’m supposed to tell you what to do! Next thing I know you’re going to tell me that you’re mad because the sky is blue!” Try to suspend judgment about your child’s statement and instead view it as what it is: her attempt to reveal herself to you. All people need to feel they have some control over their lives, and children are no different. Perhaps your child is letting you know that she has a leadership personality and needs a more collaborative communication style from you.
- Use reflective listening. When your child expresses herself, make a point to paraphrase what you heard her say. For example, “It sounds like it makes you angry when I give you instructions.”
The nine steps listed above can and should be used interchangeably throughout the dialogue with your child until the two of you feel satisfied that you have gotten to the heart of her emotional experience. You may find that once your child feels heard and understood emotionally, any and all resistance disappears. Sometimes all a feeling needs is to be acknowledged in order to be on its way. If there is a residual need to be addressed after the emotion has been identified, you can do so much more effectively from this place of deep awareness.
By now you have created a new chain of events that looks like this:
Request => Resistance => Curiosity => Emotional Awareness => Resolution
This process takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it, you will find that it is incredibly rewarding for both you and your child. It will decrease conflict; strengthen trust and understanding; teach your child important emotional skills; and deepen your connection to and enjoyment of each other. And bonus: you can use this process in ALL your relationships (including the one you have with yourself) to increase your overall quality of life. No more trips to Crazytown for you!
Clémentine Malta-Bey is an intuitive psychotherapist and television co-host who is passionate about engaging mental health from a holistic, empowering, and positive perspective. Clémentine began her career in Chicago, Illinois in 2008 helping traumatized children and their families heal and develop secure attachment bonds. She is currently in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia, where she enjoys providing therapeutic services to children, adults, couples, and families who are seeking to expand the purpose, authenticity, connection, and joy in their lives. You can connect with Clémentine at WisdomAwakening.org, or watch her on “The Circle” by tuning in to AIBTV (check aibtv.com/thecircle for airtime’s). You can learn more about her practice on her website: WisdomAwakening.org