Friday, May 13, 2011

Mommy Hugs

Things have been very difficult with Big A for the past few weeks.
I continue to get unsolicited positive feedback about her from teachers and parents. She seems to be caring and empathetic with other kids and helpful and respectful towards authority figures. But at home it is a different story. She has been acting out and seemingly trying to break Adam and I.

Well, this week she did break me, she broke my heart.

Perhaps I deserve it. I wonder if I have broken her heart too. Is that fair? No. I am the adult and I know better.

Wednesday evening Little A asked me to read them Mommy Hugs during story time. If you are not familiar with this book, you can peak at it here:

In the middle, Big A pointed to the mommy in the book and turned to me and said, “I wish that was my mother”.
“What?” I asked, “You want a different mother?”
“Well, I wish you did those things with me.”

I took this to mean hugged her more and spent more time having fun together.
As heartbroken as I felt, what bothered me even more was that I was not surprised she felt this way.

During most of our time together, I am trying to get her and Little A either in the house or home from being elsewhere. Or I am trying to get them dressed. Or I am trying to get them fed. Or I am trying to get them to clean up a mess. So I am stressed, exasperated, and frustrated.
Even when Big A is not being defiant, we end up clashing. Why? Because she dawdles, goofs around, wants constant attention and tends to be very sulky and sucky. And I am impatient and task oriented.

I know I have acknowledged in the past that I need to slow down and do a better job of giving Big A my undivided attention but I have not been successful so far.
So after her comment about the mommy in the book, I wondered, “Am I the source of the problem?” If I were a different person and had different parenting techniques, would that solve everything?

Not likely. I went back and looked at research that a fellow student and I did on discipline for a project at school. According to the research, child conduct, like most aspects of human behaviour, is the result of a complex interplay between biology, genetics and environment. In other words, to some extent, yes, Big A’s behaviour is affected by my own, but it is also affected by aspects of her personality that are genetically based. Children’s behaviour also shapes parents’ behaviour because of the negative emotions they can illicit from us. Nevertheless, my behaviour does have SOME impact and it is something I CAN change.

Yesterday morning I made a huge effort to remain calm all morning, regardless of the fact that she was dawdling and we were running late. Although she no longer refuses to get dressed every morning like she did before the parenting consultants visited, she still takes 20-30 minutes to get her clothes on simply because she is horsing around and getting distracted. I end up nagging and nagging until I am ready to tear my hair out, and this is usually our first interaction of the day.
But I remained calm and didn’t resort to yelling or threats.

Unfortunately, things still went south. She was trying to do her hair and was getting frustrated. I offered to help and she repeatedly yelled at me that she did not want my help. Finally, she changed her mind. The minute I touched her head she started yelling at me that I wrecked it. She took our her hair clip (mine actually) and threw it on the floor.
was so upset I nearly burst into tears. When I finally had the girls outside and walking to school, instead of telling her how angry I was, I told her she had really made me sad. Immediately this seemed to have an impact on her and she apologized.

Problem solved? Ha! Hardly!

After lots of thought last night, I decided to try and start things off on a different foot this morning. I decided to see what happens if I don’t nag her at all about getting ready for school…since the nagging doesn’t work anyways.
The answer? She ended up getting dressed in the same amount of time that it usually takes her. And we were both still in a good mood by the time she was in her clothes and sitting to watch Max and Ruby with her bowl of oatmeal.
But once again, things went downhill after that.

She was playing with her new swim goggles and yoyo (birthday presents) in the kitchen while I ate my breakfast and read the paper and Little A sat in the living room watching Caillou and eating her oatmeal. When Caillou ended, Big A started yelling that she wanted to watch Caillou. I told her she would have to wait until it is on again tomorrow morning and ignored her yelling and sulking. She moved on to asking for more oatmeal and she went to eat with Little A in the living room. I came in later to clean up the mess Little A had made (how does she get food on her socks all the time??). That’s when Big A decided to dump her oatmeal over her head.
I stayed very calm, but explained that this was not appropriate behaviour and we needed to rinse her hair under the tap. She refused and grabbed a dish towel, rubbing the oatmeal into her braids. When she realized this was not an effective way to get it out, she started having a fit and demanded I help her get it out…without any water. After I did so (as best I could), she demanded I make her a new braid. The minute I finished the braid she said she wanted a ponytail instead. I told her that it was too late and we needed to get going to school.

A few moments later Big A started screaming at me to get a tissue. I was trying to get Little A’s shoes on so I told her she could go upstairs and get one herself from the bathroom (she can’t reach the ones on top of the fridge). She screamed that she needed one NOW. I came to the kitchen to see that she had purposely blown her nose out onto her face (i.e. tons of snot dribbling down everywhere), something she often does during tantrums. I handed her a tissue but she insisted I wipe her nose.

I went upstairs to brush my teeth and told her that she needed to get her shoes on so we could go. When I got back, her shoes were still not on. At that point, I calmly told her that if she didn’t put her shoes on immediately, I was carrying her and her shoes out to the front porch and we were all leaving the house. Little A and I would start walking, and she would be responsible for putting her shoes on and catching up with us. She started screaming, “No, no”. Finally the shoes went on.
Once outside, Big A finally snapped out of it and we had an uneventful walk to school.

This was the first time that she has worked so hard to push my buttons and I have not lost my cool. I didn’t yell, I didn’t threaten, I didn’t even talk through clenched teeth or grab a hold of her shirt collar while I was talking to her.
And here is what I realized.

When I get angry with her and explode it is because I am seeking revenge. When I lose it and yell and scream and say mean things, it is because I am feeling hurt and I want to hurt her back. Yes, I want to hurt her back.

This is a fairly natural human reaction but it has nothing but negative consequences . This has no positive effect on her obviously, and while it may give me some sense of satisfaction or relief in the moment, I feel lousy afterwards. I feel guilty, out of control, and immature.

After I dropped Big A off at school today, I felt confident, in control and proud of myself for keeping my cool. Why? Because I am the adult and I SHOULD have the insight, maturity and self-control to avoid sinking to her level.
Ironically, as I sat down to read the information on positive parenting that my research partner collected for our project at school, I realized that this may be my biggest “Ah ha” parenting moment yet.

If you are interested, here is more info on positive parenting (Source: Nelson, Jane. (2006). Positive Discipline. Ballantine Books: New York):

The Four Criteria for Effective Discipline
1. Is it kind and firm at the same time? (Respectful and encouraging).
2. Does it help children feel a sense of belonging and significance? (Connection).
3. Is it effective long-term? (Punishment works in the short term, but has negative long-term results).
4. Does it teach valuable social and life skills for good character? (Respect, concern for others, problem solving, accountability, contribution, cooperation).

1. Children Are Social Beings
2. Behaviour is Goal Oriented
3. A Child’s Primary Goal Is to Belong and to Feel Significant
4. A Misbehaving Child Is a Discouraged Child
5. Social Responsibility or Community Feeling
6. Equality
7. Mistakes Are Wonderful Opportunities to Learn
8. Make Sure the Message of Love Gets Through

The Four Mistaken Beliefs and Mistaken Goals of Behavior

1. Undue Attention – the mistaken belief: I belong only when I have your attention.
2. Misguided Power – The mistaken belief: I belong only when I’m the boss, or at least when I don’t let you boss me.
3. Revenge – The mistaken belief: I don’t belong, but at least I can hurt back.
4. Assumed Inadequacy – the mistaken belief: It is impossible to belong. I give up.

There are two clues adults can use to help them identify the mistaken goal.

Clue Number One
The adult’s feeling reaction to the behavior. This may seem strange at first. You may wonder why your feelings let you know the child’s mistaken goal. Practice noticing your feelings and you’ll catch on to how this works….When asked for their feeling reactions to behavior, many adults respond with the words anger and frustration, which are both secondary responses to a primary feeling reaction. There is a good reason for this. Feeling threatened, hurt, or inadequate are such helpless feelings that we quickly cover them with the secondary response of anger….If you cover your primary feelings with anger, instead of validating the child’s feelings, you are likely to become involved in a revenge cycle.

You need to ask yourself, “what is underneath my anger or frustration? Am I feeling hurt, defeated, threatened, scared?”

Clue Number Two
The child’s response when you tell him or her to stop the behaviour.

See Mistaken Goal Chart:

Since children are not aware of their mistaken goals, goal disclosure is one way to help them become aware of their mistaken belief….Since objectivity and friendliness are essential, goal disclosure should not be done at the time of conflict. It is best to talk to the child alone when you are learning this procedure….First ask the child if she knows why she is engaging in a certain behaviour. You should name the behavior specifically….Even if they give some reason, it is not the real reason.

If they give a reason, you say, “iI have some other ideas. Would it be okay with you if I guess? You can tell me if I’m right or wrong.”

If they say they don’t know, ask if you can guess as above. If you manner is objective and friendly, the child will be intrigued to have you guess. Then ask…”could it be” questions, waiting for the child to respond to each question.

• “Could it be that the reason you wander around the room is to get my attention and keep me busy with you? (Undue Attention)
•“Could it be that the reason you wander around the room is to show me you can do whatever you want?” (Misguided Power)
•“Could it be that the reason you wander around the room is because you feel hurt and want to get even with me or someone else?” (Revenge)
•“Could it be that you wander around the room because you don’t feel you can succeed so you don’t even want to try?” (Assumed Inadequacy)

There are two responses that will let you know if your guess is correct and the child has become aware of her goal. The first is a recognition reflex. This means that the child involuntarily smiles, even while saying no. If the answer is no, without the recognition reflex, go on to the next question. However, the recognition reflex (a spontaneous smile while saying no) tells you your guess is correct. The other response is a simple yes. Once you have a recognition reflex or an affirmative response there is no need to go on to another question. You can then engage the child in a discussion of other ways to feel belonging and significance….Goal disclosure can be your third clue to identifying the mistaken goal…Once you know the goal, you can use it as a basis for discussion and problem solving.


  1. I have to commend you for working so hard to improve your relationship with your daughter.

    I do think that you seem very concerned with the social outcomes of your and their behaviors, and I think that removing this stimuli or concern from your problem solving may help. Maybe the best option for your daughter may be to have her go to school with oatmeal in her hair, so she can experience the social outcome of her behaviors, and come back to understand the options that you are presenting. Or maybe you could just talk about this outcome before leaving, and if she stil refuses, she walks out the door to feel the reprocussions of her decisions.

  2. Good point doc! My strong suit is not thinking of the best resolution in the heat of the moment...