Being a parent is hard. It’s the most difficult setting on the most difficult game you have ever played. The only way to succeed is to get in there, get your hands dirty, and be willing to learn.
You go and go and go until you feel like you cannot go anymore (and then you go more anyway). You go and go so much that your children are probably to blame for your caffeine dependence and your excruciating headache. In the midst of all this chaos there are principles that can make our lives a whole lot easier.
- Have developmentally appropriate expectations.
Have you ever been really upset because your 2- or 3-year-old child is just mean to other kids? Have you ever felt frustrated because your 5-year-old cannot grasp the concept of five minutes? Children are not just tiny adults. Their brains are constantly developing. Some cognitive skills just won’t be there until a certain age.
Are you frustrated because your 3-year-old is selfish? They are supposed to be selfish. It’s OK. They won’t really understand empathy and others’ feelings until they’re at least 7 years old. It’s not that they don’t want to understand — they can’t.
Sure, you might teach them to share. Most parents are able to get some compliance in this area. They are sharing because they are scared of being punished, not because they care about others’ feelings. They just don’t understand that and won’t for a few years. Kids from birth until about age 7 have trouble thinking abstractly and cannot understand others’ feelings. Again, this is normal. Your child is not narcissistic or a developing sociopath who will one day be depicted on a true crime TV show, despite what the Internet may tell you.
- They are always using social sonar.
Social sonar is how kids, and even some adults, learn what behaviors are and aren’t acceptable or need-fulfilling.
For instance, your sweet little 2-year-old boy has just lied to your face for the first time. Why would a child lie? To get what he wants and fulfill a need. You could laugh about it, ignore it, punish them, or speak with them about how lying is wrong. Your reaction determines the child’s perception of whether the behavior is acceptable. This goes for everything they do in the first five years. They are literally learning right from wrong by doing things and gauging others’ reactions. Whose reactions are most important? Yours.
- They are always watching.
How do you treat your spouse? What do you do when you’re mad? You are instilling a piece of you in your kids with every bit of time you spend together. Are you proud of that?
- Check the basics.
Are they hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? These are all crucial factors that influence everyone’s behaviors. Try to help them get nine hours of sleep, five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, two hours or fewer of screen time, one hour of physical exercise, and zero sugary drinks.
- They have the same needs you do.
Kids need love. They need to feel like they belong. They need a sense of control over their own lives. They need some independence. They need to survive. They need fun. All behavior is an attempt to fulfill one of these needs or protect one from extinction.
Guess what that means? All behavior is purposeful. They might not be able to vocalize or even understand what that purpose is, but everything they do is done for a reason and makes sense to them. Make it easier on them. Love them. Help them fit in with others. Give them choices (dinner options, clothing options, choices in an activity). Let them have some privacy. By all means, make sure your kids have the opportunity for fun.
When your child does something incredibly irrational or frustrating (and they will), look for the underlying message. The content is the behaviors, what you can see on the surface. The process is much more important. Why did they do that? What are they trying to communicate? How can I help them?
Angry child photo available from Shutterstock