I recently had a day on our facebook page which focused (almost) exclusively on talking about punishment, discipline, and consequences. I admitted my own struggle with yelling and many people echoed similar sentiments. For many of us, we grew up with physical punishment, yelling, shaming, even full-on abuse. We so desperately want to change that cycle, but how? It can be unbelievably difficult to do. One mom asked if I could do a post on ways to change and work towards being the gentle parent we want to be. So here we are.
Let me say I’m no expert. I have moments as a parent I wish I could erase. I yell, I threaten to leave, I storm out of rooms. They aren’t often, but they aren’t pretty so it’s rather good they’re few and far between. But as one parent who struggles to change the trajectory for my family a bit more (my mom made the first huge change, which you can read about here), I can share some of the ideas that have worked for me and some of the pages that I draw inspiration from on a regular basis. And if you are willing and open to sharing your own successes in the comments, I’m sure other parents would love to read even more! Some of what I do has been modified from things I learned in my clinical training (I have an MA in Clinical Psychology) and some has been taken from ideas of change in other domains and modified to fit my parenting needs. And some is just me winging it.
Without further ado, here are the things that have been most helpful to me so far…
Don’t Expect Perfection
Like every other task we try to take on, we can’t expect perfection out of the gate. And yet time and again I’ve heard of parents (and have been that parent) who gets so down on themselves about their slip ups that they are almost ready to throw in the towel. More than that, some parents get even more frustrated and angry when they slip up which cycles into worse situations for parent and child. If you can set small goals for yourself and not beat yourself up when you do slip up, you have a far greater chance of succeeding with the longer-term changes that you’re aiming for.
I acknowledge that while this sounds nice and fluffy, it’s damn hard, especially when we’re talking about parenting. Why? Because our screw ups are magnified by the fact that we have just hurt someone we love immeasurably. How can we expect anything but perfection? The important thing to remember – as hard as it is – is that you will do more harm than good if you expect too much of yourself too soon. You are changing yourself. And most likely changing yourself from behaviours that have been a part of your life since you yourself were a child. That’s freaking hard. I’m sure some people can turn it off right away never to err again. Most of us aren’t them and we’ll encountered some really shitty bumps on the way and we have to learn to accept them, learn from them, and…
For some strange reason in our modern society, the idea of a parent apologizing to a child for a parental act isn’t too common. We apologize if we don’t give them ice cream, but if we yell? Well, we rationalize it away and say they deserved it, we were stressed, etc. and don’t think to apologize to the little person we harmed. But apologizing serves two primary roles that should be at the forefront of our mind when we’re working towards becoming gentle parents and a secondary role that we should all hope for.
First, apologizing works towards mending the relationship with our child. We have to be ready for our child to not accept our apology right away (you can read about that here) and to work through their own feelings, but it gives validation to their feelings of hurt which is so important to them not resenting us or feeling bad about themselves. Second, it can highlight to ourselves the reasons why our behaviour is wrong. So often we get caught up in rationalizations and excuses for our behaviour; apologizing is a way to own up to it without excusing it and doing it out loud means we own up to ourselves as well. The secondary role is that we also teach our children how to apologize and mean it. No forced apologies, but really showing them that it’s okay to be wrong sometimes but that when we are, we work to make amends.
Personally I have added to my apologies what I should have done instead which forces me to think about an alternate course of action which will hopefully stick in my brain the next time I encounter a similar situation. Let me be clear that vague “I should have”s don’t work very well (learned the hard way). Be as specific as you can so you can be ready. This brings me to…
Pay Attention to Your Triggers
You have to be willing to spend moments after you’ve screwed up and see what it was that triggered you. When I first committed to yell less or walk out of a room less I wasn’t very successful. I always apologized and even thought of different ways to handle it, but I soon discovered not a whole lot had changed. I had to accept that I just didn’t know what was triggering me so I was never prepared to handle my rising frustration levels and thus was never prepared to implement any different course of action.
I finally starting really taking note of when my frustration was getting the better of me. For me it’s nighttime before bed (only recently as she’s older and really wanting to stay up all night and play) and if we’re in a rush to get somewhere. That’s it. Every other time I can pretty much stay calm as a cucumber. Noting this meant I was finally able to start thinking about these times in advance and focusing my thoughts of alternatives to these specific situations instead of having to think of every possible scenario. But even knowing this doesn’t guarantee success because…
Not All Solutions Will Work
Don’t you wish you could come up with one magic solution and suddenly it fixes everything? Yeah, me too. However, it doesn’t really work that way, especially when another human being is included in the mix. You can come up with what you think is the most brilliant solution to you not losing your cool with your child and you’ll implement it and then find yourself yelling/spanking/etc. all over again.
Don’t give up.
The fact is, we won’t know what methods will work in our various situations unless we keep trying. This is where the resources at the end here may help; they are sites with all sorts of ideas to calming down and using consequences instead of punishment if that’s the problem. However, I will say that I’ve found it most useful to try for solutions that avoid the problem to begin with. A small anecdote if you will… Getting my daughter ready at night is our biggest frustration. I’m tired and she’s ready to play more and not wanting to get dressed into PJs, brush her teeth, etc. After a couple weeks of trying various techniques (none of which really helped), I landed on using a timer. We go upstairs to the bedroom and we set the timer for 5 minutes. Those first 5 minutes are hers to play and do what she wants before we start getting ready. I don’t bug her about getting ready, I just focus on getting ready myself. When the alarm goes off we set it for 5 minutes again and we have 5 minutes to do teeth; if teeth aren’t done at that time, fine, they don’t get done, but she knows it means absolutely no sugar the next day – including fruit, one of her favourites. If she’s done early, she has the rest of the time to play. Then we set it for another 5 minutes and that’s PJ time, and again, if she’s dressed early, she can play, but if she’s not dressed, she’ll go to sleep like that (which she doesn’t want to do). And then if I’m not ready yet, she gets another 5 minutes to play. So far, so good. Maybe it won’t last, but at the moment it’s been a life saver and I haven’t yelled or walked out of the room once since implementing it.
I’m not saying this exact thing will work for you, but just to highlight that you are limited only by your imagination when it comes to thinking of possible solutions. And you may have to put your imagination to good work! In that department, let me leave you with…
These are sites or posts that have great advice:
The Orange Rhino: One mom’s quest to stop yelling for a year. Spoiler: she’s successful!
Aha! Parenting: More for positive discipline alternatives from a clinical psychologist across all ages (something you don’t see often).
Our Muddy Boots’ Thirty Days to Positive Parenting: I love OMB on all topics, but this one is specific to the question at hand here.
Janet Lansbury: I actually don’t agree with all of RIE, but I like her section on child behaviour and discipline. Some good tips here.
And these are some books that might help (clicking on the title will take you to your local Amazon where a small portion of any purchase will be donated to EP to help us cover costs):