By Kassandra Brown, API volunteer, Rutledge, Missouri
Thank you to Attachment Parenting International for contributing this article. Find more articles and resources on their website.
Your baby is crying at 3 a.m. It’s not the first time tonight you’ve gotten out of bed to answer her call and offer her your comforting arms and milk. You know she needs you and get up willingly, albeit groggily. You’re confident in Attachment Parenting and know you want to form a strong bond with your baby.
A few years later, you’re in the grocery store and your now preschool child is sprawled on the floor, screaming that she wants a candy bar. When you sit down beside her and try to comfort her, she screams louder and shrinks away, yelling, “Don’t touch me!” Your tools don’t seem to be working. You feel angry, embarrassed, confused and ashamed. Even worse, you notice an urge within you to slap her or yell at her to get her to stop. What went wrong?
Many parents, including me, have been in this situation. I know I had some illusions that if I just parented “right” and focused on good bonding behaviors to form secure attachments, then parenting would always be smooth sailing.
I had some ideas like:
If I wear my baby, I can take her anywhere with me and continue my pre-baby life.
My children won’t need to melt down, hit, scream or even cry because I’ll be so in tune with their needs.
My children will listen respectfully to each other and to me.
I will never yell.
Weaning will happen easily and naturally in a rhythm that works well for the whole family.
A secure attachment means I won’t have to set or maintain clear boundaries, because my children and I will be kind and cooperative all the time.
Crying is a sign that I’m doing something wrong or that I’m not a good parent.
Attachment Parenting will make raising children easy.
Do any of these sound familiar? Yet the real world of parenting has not worked out that way for me or other parents. At first I wondered why not—doesn’t Attachment Parenting work?
While grappling with these questions, I learned a few things about my own expectations for parenting and my emotional reactions to conflict. I’d like to share some tips that have made parenting a lot easier for me. I hope they inspire you, too.
Does Attachment Parenting Work?
Attachment Parenting is an overarching approach about treating children with love, compassion and respect. Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting are wonderful tools that help guide parents in caring for their children. When difficult parenting moments arise, it is not a failure of these principles. Attachment Parenting is not a recipe for turning out angelic kids, but rather one for nurturing relationships.
When we ask the question “Does it work?” we need to define what we mean by “working.” If “working” means that kids and parents behave perfectly, as in the bullet points above, then no, it doesn’t work—sf and neither does anything else in the real world. Relating to other human beings is hard, no matter what.
If “working” means building the strong foundations upon which loving relationships can be created, then yes, it works. If working means creating an environment in which children are listened to, respected and guided with unconditional love, then yes, it works.
Why Do I Lose It With My Kids?
We lose it with our kids for so many reasons: We care so much about them. We feel responsible for them. They remind us of ourselves when we were children. We fear what their attitudes and behaviors may mean for their future. We are sensitive to what other parents think about us and our children. We are sometimes stressed or ill ourselves.
Things that felt overwhelming to us as children will come up again. Children help us develop more self-awareness, compassion, tolerance and strength. Many times they do this by triggering our anger, aggression, shame, sadness, insecurity, fear and intolerance. When these emotions arise, we have two main options: repress the emotions or examine them.
How Many Beach Balls Are You Trying to Submerge?
Repressing a strong emotion can be a useful strategy, especially in emergencies. Imagine your child in a swimming pool. She’s just gotten into water over her head but doesn’t know how to swim. You don’t want to sit beside the pool talking to your friend about how you feel scared and nervous or what you think might happen. You want to put your own fear on hold while you jump in to save your child. In this instance, repressing your own fear is a useful and appropriate strategy that allows you to act now and feel later.
However, we get into trouble when we use repression as our “everyday” coping strategy. Trying to repress emotions over the long term is like trying to submerge a beach ball and keep it under water. It takes a lot of energy, balance and concentration. Then just when you think you’ve got the hang of it and let your energy shift to something else, the ball gets away from you and pops up anyway.
Like a beach ball that wants to float, emotions want to come to the surface. Even when we repress them, they often emerge when we least want them to. Multiply that by several different emotions and the different situations that trigger them, and its clear why suppressing emotions is a recipe for both exhaustion and failure.
Most of us want more for ourselves and our children.
Here are some ideas for working with anger and other challenging emotions:
Cool down—In the heat of the moment, it’s almost impossible to resist the urge to fight, flee or freeze unless you can soothe your stress response. Cooling off will help you more closely align your actions with your values. Consider these 10 tips for cooling down
- Take 10 deep breaths and make a wordless sound on the exhale.
- Resist the urge to rationalize. Let yourself feel exactly what you are feeling without trying to make it better or worse and without trying to justify yourself. Admit out loud that right now you are angry, upset, sad, frustrated, incensed or whatever else you are feeling. Breathe through your feelings and let them pass. For help in identifying your needs and feelings, visit the Center for Nonviolent Communication at www.cnvc.org.
- Remove distractions. Turn off the devices (TV, computer, music), stop multi-tasking and focus on your child. Both of you will feel better when you’re not distracted or fighting for each other’s attention.
- If you can safely leave the room for a few minutes, let your child know when you’ll be back and take a parent time-out. (This may or may not be appropriate based on your child’s age, developmental stage and the presence of another caregiver.)
- If you are shopping, leave the shopping cart and go outside. You can cool off together in the car, do jumping jacks on the sidewalk, or run around a grassy space.
- Move your body. Exercise is a great way to discharge energy without hurting anyone.
- Change the scenery. Just walking into a different room or outside can help.
- Look through your child’s eyes. Bend down or sit at his level. Look in the direction he is looking. Notice what the world is like from this point of view.
- Write or draw in a journal to express how you feel, what you are thinking, what you want, and any blocks you see to getting what you want. Give your child paper and markers to join you and call this an “art time-out.” At a time when you are calm, make a list of ways to cool off, and post it in a visible place in your house. When stress is creeping up on you, look at your list and do something from it.
Listen—Every moment of upset is an opportunity to parent in alignment with your values. Listen to what your child is saying. Then put yourself in her shoes and listen to what you are saying. Your child is small, dependent and not sure of how the world works. What do you want to say to her? To support your listening skills, try this visualization exercise:
- Take a quiet moment at the start of the day.
- Listen to your breath for 10 breaths. This will help you settle into your body and feel calm.
- Then imagine a situation with your child that really bothers you. Imagine how you usually respond.
- Then imagine how you’d like to respond. Allow this new response to become very vivid; try to connect with the love and compassion you feel for your child. Taking the quiet time in your own mind to rehearse how you want to respond makes it more likely that you will respond that way in the future.
Stop the Blame Game—Taking ownership of your own needs and feelings allows you to stop blaming your child for why things are not going right. The situation then becomes an opportunity for self-reflection and adjustment rather than a sign of failure. Listening for needs and feelings can be like learning a new language. It takes time, but it’s worth it as a way to de-escalate conflict and establish connection. It’s worked with inner city gangs, and it can work in your family. A couple communication tips:
- Ask yourself: What am I feeling? What do I need right now. What was I thinking right before I got upset? Are my expectations reasonable?
- Then you can communicate in age-appropriate ways how you feel and what you need.
- If you practice using “I” statements, it’s easier for others to hear you. For example: “I feel angry and sad. I want to live in a clean and peaceful home where everyone helps out. I’d like to hear what you want and how you feel. Then I’d like to brainstorm about ways we can both get our needs met.” This is more respectful and effective than saying “I’m mad at you, because you didn’t wash the dishes. You never wash the dishes. You’re so ungrateful.”
Reframe the Conflict—This step is also a good starting point for next time. When you can examine the conflict with an open heart and the intent to learn and be changed, you set the basis for a new and more powerful way to live your life and parent your children. Conflict happens. The question is, what are you going to do with it? Consider these four tips to open your heart after a conflict:
- Assume good intent. When you choose to assume your child is doing the best he can to meet a valid need with the tools he has, you respond differently than when you assume your child is a manipulative, ungrateful or lazy. Try it and see.
- Tell yourself you are an awesome parent. Imagine that it’s true. It is.
- Look for the gifts. What can you take away that will help you next time? Conflict can be a way to gain more understanding of the needs you share with your child.
- Let the conflict be a way of creating more teamwork and shared problem solving with your child. Brainstorm about ways for both of you to have your needs met. Examples include time in nature, rest, good food and loving attention.
Forgive Yourself—Taking the time to work with the intense, challenging or disappointing moments is hard. Your own high expectations make it harder. Do you expect yourself to be perfect, and feel guilty or angry when you’re not? Just as punishment won’t help kids learn and grow, treating yourself harshly won’t lead to positive changes. A forgiveness tip:
- Forgive yourself for your breakdowns, tantrums and less-than-desirable behavior. When you are gentle with yourself, you model self-kindness to your children. Taking time to admit your mistakes and apologize to your children is also good modelling and a way to build connection.
What’s the Payoff?
Using conflict as an opportunity to wake up, grow and heal will change your life. Viewing conflict in terms of people clashing over different strategies for getting their needs met is very empowering. This work can offer big rewards in the quality of your parenting and your enjoyment of time with your children. The strong bonds that Attachment Parenting help you form make it easier. I know this has made a big difference in my life, and I hope you will find it valuable as well.
Image by Mothering member Jynuine.