Have you ever asked this question after your child has done something that seemed to be firmly outside the realm of logic and common sense?
Your son dumped all of the hand soap on the carpet outside the bathroom. “What was he thinking?”
Your daughter started to cry because she wanted the red cup rather than the green one. “What was she thinking?”
Your son walked up to a playmate and hit him for seemingly no reason. “What was he thinking?”
Your child started to whine, to tantrum, or do anything that didn’t fit comfortably within our neat little “grown up” world. “What in the world were they thinking?”
If you haven’t said it out loud, chances are you have at least thought it. Truth is that when we state “what was he thinking” in the context of our children’s “inconvenient” behaviors, the real meaning of this question is not an inquiry at all but rather an accusation that we feel they were not actually thinking at all. We assign assumptions about their intentions and try to make them “think about what they have done.” When our kid’s behavior really bothers us we often times find ourselves trying to force change upon them only to get push back. Since we don’t know what they were thinking or make inaccurate assumptions our “discipline” backfires. Rather than changing in a positive way we find the very behavior we were seeking to change spirals downward and worsens.
It’s important to remember that what we initially see a “bad” behavior is just our kids way of reaching out for help or simply not knowing what to do. We can change this perception of “bad behavior” and genuinely help them learn and grow when we seek to understand the behavior and our child’s needs and then acting accordingly.
So, how do we help our kids to change behaviors that are not appropriate? How can we help them to want to change and to actually make the positive changes they need?
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A Personal Lesson About How People Change
When I started out as a therapist I often tried to “fix” things. I thought, “People are coming to see me to meet goals and make progress so let’s get the show on the road and make some things happen!” Week after week I would give homework assignments and week after week clients would return and report that they hadn’t done their homework. Parents and children alike would reluctantly accept their assignments and halfheartedly state that nothing was changing. Self righteously I would think, “If you would actually do the things we talked about, things would change but I was seriously missing something.
Almost by accident I stumbled upon the main reason the mothers, the fathers, the kids and families were not making the progress they genuinely wanted. The reason was that most people want to be understood more than they want to change. When they truly feel understood they naturally start to change.
When I finally had this epiphany, I drastically changed my approach. At first it was insanely difficult to just listen and ask questions instead of advise but as I did so amazing things started to happen. I started to get it. I started to understand not just their problems and immediate situations but their needs, their motivations and what they really wanted. I gave guidance less and asked questions more. As they began to feel understood 3 incredible things started to happen…
They started to find their own solutions to the very same problems they seemed powerless to overcome before. OR
They asked for suggestions, techniques and practices to help them and then they collaborated and absorbed these collaborative insights we identified together.
Most importantly, they started to apply new skills and their lives began to change for the better!
So, What Does This Have To Do With Your Parenting?
I have found this same principle to be true with my own children. “They want to be understood more than they want to change but when they truly feel understood they naturally start to change and grow!”
It may be helpful to take a step back and think about what some of those behaviors are that you have been huffing the phrase, “What was he thinking?” Identify some of the things your kids do that just drive you nuts, the ones that you are so desperately trying to change. Then ask yourself, “Do I really understand and does my child know that I understand?” The following 5 principles can dramatically improve our genuine empathy and understanding in any situation and ultimately lead to greater positive change.
Be quiet and listen. I know it’s hard but simply talk less. Try to honestly listen.
See their side of things from their perspective. Create an argument from their perspective in your head. Remember what it’s like to be little.
Ask more questions than you give orders. Again, talk less. Ask questions that are hard to hear the honest answers to and be ready to just listen without immediate judgment.
Restate and make sure what you think you understand is actually accurate. Sometimes we think we get it when we really don’t. The only way to be sure that we understand and to let them know we understand is to ask if our interpretation is accurate.
Validate how they must feel. You don’t have to tell them their actions were right but we can let them know that we’ve been angry like that before too or that you understand how they could be sad about something.
When we do these things we will actually know what our kids were thinking and our kids will appreciate that you understand what they were thinking. Understanding leads to incredible connection and trust. That trust will open opportunities for teaching during the good time new ways of dealing to conflict or problems in their lives. They will start to find their own solutions and will actually apply the things they are learning. So, when you are desperately wanting your child to change, understand first then watch the magic happen!
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