I met up with an old friend a few days ago for a chat about her two boys, 4 and 7. My friend Jess was trying to understand why her 4 year old son wasn’t listening. I asked her to give me some examples so I could understand better what was happening. The first was about a pair of gardening shears Jack had been asked not to touch, but which were too tempting not to. The second about how he had been asked not to smash open a ball (containing a pokemon) on the floor inside the house, and to do it outside. For both examples Jack didn't listen to the requests and kept on doing the activities. Jess talked about how she and her husband handled this. They both handled it the same way. First, they would ask him nicely once, wait, and then escalate each time they weren't being heard. Eventually they would be yelling with frustration. Jess had noticed now how the two boys were using the same pattern when they were frustrated with each other. Ask nicely, then more aggressively, and then yell if you don’t get the outcome you were looking for.
We talked through a new way to view what was going on:
- Reframe: Jess and her husband's perception in these examples is that Jack isn't listening. Which is true. But it is not the whole story. The broader truth comes from recognising that Jack cannot hear, because his inner need for mastery is louder than tuning in to be asked to stop using something. As such, his internal need is louder than anything else.
- Be a detective: Follow the child's inner need to the source of the problem. 'Not listening' is a symptom. In Jack's case, find a pair of scissors that can be used to cut grass/plants alongside dad so he can master the task that is being completed in the garden. Or, in the case of the pokemon balls, Jack doesn't have the dexterity to open them the way his older brother can. So in frustration and desperation he throws them on the floor to open them. Jess needs to acknowledge how frustrating it is for him to not be able to open the pokemon balls the way his brother and parents can do it.
- Redirect into a positive outcome: Suggest to Jack to go outside together to the 'pokemon smash station' and open the balls until he has opened them successfully enough times, to create a sense of mastery. And created a new habit.
- Empathise: Always try to remember how it felt as a little kid when you were misunderstood. If Jess can go with Jack, she creates more trust between them. Jess gets to share and experience something with Jack together, and crucially, the connection between parent and child isn’t broken by yelling. There are exceptions to this, for example if you couldn’t be sure that Jack would be safe and if other circumstances didn’t permit you to ‘follow’ them.
The great thing about changing your approach is that you build a bank of trust and connection. This means when you need cooperation or listening later, the bank is full enough that the child usually complies willingly.
When the boys rough-housing gets out of hand: The other issue Jess was facing was the two boys play fighting every day. We clarified that this fighting was often within the boundaries of appropriate and normal. In those situations, she didn't need to do anything differently. Boys in particular let off steam using their bodies and physicality. The problem she was trying to navigate was that these boys would sometimes push each other too far and it would end in tears. They also weren’t listening to her asking them to stop when she could sense it was getting out of hand.
- Walk over to where the limbs are flying and the emotions escalating - being physically present automatically changes the dynamic.
- Safely get down at their level and gently but firmly place some pressure on the upper arm of one of the boys.
- With lightness in her voice, Jess was to gently talk about what a big wrestle was going on, and how she wanted to join in. She was then to gently tug out the boy she had her hand on and use her body to snuggle in on top of him (gently but firmly). Now of course this is a boisterous moment, so she needs to pick her target well and use her body to start to calm and support.
- The boys couldn't 'hear' her, because their need to discharge their emotions was greater than being compliant. Jess needs to allow the emotions to complete their cycle in a safe way that allows everyone to stay connected.
- Complete the 'Vigorous Snuggle' - Once she had one on her lap, she was going to do what Hand in Hand parenting call the ‘vigorous snuggle’. This, like the firm hand on the upper arm used in step 1, provides deep tissue sensory input to the reptilian brain, which signals safety to the nervous system. This begins to calm the body down. Then with the snuggle completed, she safely plops one child on the ground away from the other, and goes after the second one. Back and forth between the two she goes, as a referee of sorts, until the energy has completed it’s cycle and the boys are quiet(er) and back to homeostasis.
These two approaches work well together to maintain a connection and support throughout times where connections are generally broken because things get out of hand. Whilst we can always repair a broken connection, it’s certainly a lovely feeling to be able to navigate these daily parenting challenges and keep those connections going.
How do you stay connected in your house?