Defiance is always a relationship problem. If your child does not accept your direction (‘I don’t care what you say, you can’t make me!’), it’s always an indication that the relationship is not strong enough to support the teaching. This happens to all of us from time to time. At that point, stop and think about how to strengthen the relationship, not how to make the child ‘mind.’ – Laura Markham, Aha Parenting
When the brain is no longer in survival mode, it has the opportunity to come up out of the storm cellar and assess the damage. A weekend of nourishing activities and a few days of rest have calmed the skies. Climbing up into daylight, I can see the havoc this two-year typhoon has wrought on Bug’s and my relationship. It is hard to believe the thing is still structurally sound. It is even harder to face my own role in wrecking the place during my mad dash to get us to safety. Survival-mode parenting may keep the roof from blowing off, but it does not do much to help a kid learn to learn how to build anything solid.
This is not just guilt talking. A raw empathy for Bug also surges through me when I survey the scene. I want to be able to go back to the beginning and throw myself around him. He is too little to face so many of the events unfolding around him, and I wish I could protect him not only from the storm but from my own botched reaction to it. Alas, no one has yet perfected a time machine. Bug and I will have to pull what we can from the wreckage and start rebuilding right here.
As an earlier post described, my kid is struggling hard to manage life in two homes. Transition times yield the most resistance, but explosions occur at bedtime, in the morning, and during any activity involving additional people. Strong feelings seem to flood Bug all in a rush, and he acts before he has a chance to find his footing. It is normal to look for a causal relationship between a child’s behavior problems and a single, identifiable event. The conventional approach is to wonder if his new teacher, the long commutes, a split home or a food allergy might be to blame. In my gut, I know better. I know that displacing my child’s distress onto circumstances beyond us has been a way for me to manage my own sense of being overwhelmed.
I also know better because I was a child once. The difficult situations around me were never the real challenge. The challenge was in not knowing how to make sense of my feelings about difficult situations. We all have painful childhood memories; for me, the ones with deepest imprint have nothing to do with the precipitating event and everything to do with fearing the fallout from my responses. Somehow, I was supposed to get my act together, yet I had no idea how to go about doing this. A sense of indistinct danger hung over my tangled feelings. The memory of distress is so vivid that even as I write about it from the safe distance of three decades, my heart begins to gallop.
A kid’s emotional vocabulary is rudimentary at best. I am guessing my childhood home was not the only one unacquainted with the “I statement.” I remember how very difficult it was to know how to behave when I was feeling sad, scared, angry, or disappointed. This is not an indictment on my parents or any family culture. The language of loving guidance is a foreign tongue to most of us. Feelings are strange and slippery things, and they can seem even more perilous when we attempt to face them. Even as an adult, it is tough to gain composure, think clearly, speak rationally, and act well when the pressure is on. Who wouldn’t duck back down into the cellar and pull the hatch closed?
When I am feeling anxious or upset, I want someone to remind me that I am safe. That I am loved. That the world does not hinge on this one decision, that it is okay to take my time to sort it out, and that I have help if I need it. When I do not have these things, I become more prone to burst. Why would things be any different for Bug? In Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, Becky Bailey suggests,
When your children are having a hard time obeying you, they need to believe that you have faith in them. They need to sense that you have confidence in them before they can develop confidence in themselves.
Yet, when my son is acting with aggression, what do I do? Increase the pressure by threatening “consequences.” If he does not put his toys away and put on his jammies now,he will lose books at bedtime. If he does not stop saying “shut up,” he will go straight into time out. I take away his ability to gain confidence in his own decision-making, and he loses trust both in himself and in me.
I understand the argument that children need some form of punishment in order to learn to behave appropriately. I understand it, and I do not agree with it. I have been attempting that approach for months because my own stressed brain has not been able to come up with anything better. However, the more I attempt to will Bug into compliance, the wider the rift between us grows. Sure, he may hop to it if I threaten to pour the hot cocoa down the drain, but he only grows more tightly coiled as the day rolls on. Against this survival parenting, my heart and mind have been gently, insistently reminding me that my own intense and stressful responses to my son are exacerbating his defiant behavior. My child has been begging for help in learning how to face a tough situation. Because I have been so very tired, I have largely left him to twist in the wind.
What is the alternative? As I squint into the new daylight, this is about as much as I can discern: I need to mend what is torn between Bug and me. Laura Markham suggests that “the most effective discipline strategy is having a close bond with your child.” This is what my heart tells me to do. It is also what practice has been reinforcing. No matter how aggressive Bug’s behavior, I remind him that I love him and that I am on his team. “It seems like you are having some big feelings, buddy. Let’s see if we can figure out what to do.” I try not to snap. I know what it’s like to have someone get angry at me when I do something I know is wrong. It only makes me feel more hopeless. Suggesting my kid has to “get it together” before he is allowed to be in my company or in the company of others sends the message that only his proper, polished-up self is invited to the party. I want to reverse course, and provide affection and support to the messy, work-in-progress my son truly is, as all of us truly are.
I am practicing staying with him. I am learning to let him cry or blow up a little or say what he needs to say. Afterwards, we can talk it out. Maybe we will have a do-over or experiment with something altogether new. I try to remember to use just one scale to measure an approach before I take it: does this choice strengthen or weaken my relationship with Bug? I do not always get it right, but as I breathe through my own confusion, I remember that the thing my son needs more than anything right now is me, loving him.
Now that I have clocked a few good nights’ sleep and opened up the cellar door, I can see the debris strewn around. The gift of this perspective is that the sun shines under the broken places and reveals treasures I never knew existed. Where structures once stood, rich soil, long fallow, offers itself up to us. Here and now, my son and me. We begin.
Bailey, Becky. Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.