Thursday, January 24, 2013

Connection, Empathy And Respect. Parenting The "Challenging" Child

Sometimes you need to adjust your methods
when dealing with two very different temperaments.
There are many strategies recommended by "experts", pediatricians, family and friends for shaping children's behaviors. We have all been told to try reasoning, redirecting, reassuring, maybe even ignoring, rewarding or punishing. Some of these methods work some of the time. Others work as long as the threat (or promised reward) is present. 

Along the way I fortunately found mentors and friends who taught me that empathy, respect and connection were the keys to peace and happiness in my home. But as my children neared the end of preschool, I realized it wasn't working as well with our daughter as it was with our son. 

My husband, frustrated by our daughter's hour-long tantrums over seemingly insignificant disappointments, her increasingly aggressive behavior toward me when she was raging, her extreme anxiety over separating from me, and what he saw as rude and obstinate behavior, began to worry that "this empathy thing" wasn't working.

In my heart, I knew his sense that what she might need was for us to be more firm, to put our foot down, just wasn't right. He didn't insist on it, but her challenging behavior was getting worse and was taking all of our time and energy. 

I knew what she needed was compassion, but I also knew things couldn't go on like this. So much of what worked with our son, or with my clients' children, wasn't working with her. I started doubting myself and doubting the way I had been parenting.

Connection-based parenting works like a dream with our son. He and I have an wonderfully connected relationship. Of course he occasionally does stuff that makes me nutty, but I can talk to him about his behavior, I can explain how it affects other people, and he (most of the time) can change his behavior or help me to understand something he needs in the moment that's causing him to act out. He feels totally at ease about telling me when I have hurt his feelings and will ask for what he needs from me to do a repair. Connection, empathy, respect. It works. 

Except when you need more. 

She has endless capacity for generosity
and, at the flip of a switch, total
inability to empathize when she doesn't
get her way. 
Our daughter is often a world of difference from her brother. My connection with her is deep and warm and wonderful. But at around age 3 and a half, I noticed it had taken on a clingy and desperate feel. Where he is outgoing, comfortable in social situations and makes friends easily, she can be anxious, shy and rigid. It's not merely a tendency toward introversion, which I have myself. I think it often goes beyond that to a state of real agitation. On top of it, I began to realize that she was not making friends on her own and I began to wonder about her social skills.

What do you do when you have a child who isn't developing in the usual way and has extreme difficulty handling transitions or shifting from one thing to another? What about when your child has no ability to take a broader perspective about their behavior or can't fully grasp that the way they act affects those around them? What about a child who has intense difficulty beging flexible or seeing multiple solutions to a problem? When you have a child like this, do the usual methods of parenting work?

Well, yes. And no.  

In the last couple of months I had what amounted to a revelation about our daughter. Having spent countless hours pouring over articles, researching methods, visiting specialists, consulting psychologists and changing diets in an effort to help her, I suddenly realized that what I was, in fact, doing was trying to change her. 

The thought struck me one afternoon, "What if she is always this way?"

All along I have been trying to do all of these things because I thought if I hit on the right combination she would be "fixed". She would be more like her brother. She would be easy. But maybe this is just who she is. Maybe what she needs is not to be fixed, but just to be understood and to be accepted. Maybe what I needed to be doing was to find ways to make life easier for her, not me.

This change of thought along with realizing that my daughter wasn't just being willful, wasn't just being obstinate, but actually had lagging skills in certain areas completely shifted my perspective. I no longer had the same frustration when she lost control when we didn't have a particular food she wanted or when she would blow her top when I asked her to stop drawing because it was time to leave the house. I understood...really understood...she couldn't help it. 
"Kids [like this] do not choose to explode any more than a child would choose to have a reading disability. These kids lack crucial skills required for handling life's challenges. There's a big difference between viewing these kids' explosions as the result of a failure to progress developmentally and interpreting them as planned, intentional and purposeful" ~ Ross W. Greene, Ph. D.
A game changer for us
Dr. Greene's book, The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children has been such an eye opener for me. Whereas before I saw her behavior as being willful or obstinate or rude, now I understand that she actually doesn't always have the skills to meet her needs. Things like problem solving or being flexible, which I totally take for granted in her brother, just aren't so simple when it comes to her. She's not being inflexible on purpose. She just doesn't have the developmental skill to do it yet.

It's been extremely challenging to work on this because up until now it's nothing I had ever had any knowledge of. If a child misbehaved, I just assumed more connection and more empathy was needed. But sometimes there is more to it. I knew children could have speech and motor delays, but I just didn't realize the sort of behaviors she had trouble with fell into the category of developmental delays.

And what about outsiders? When they see her screaming at me or melting down, they may think I am too permissive a parent and that my daughter is spoiled and throwing a temper tantrum because of that. It's bad enough to feel I am being judged as a mom, but I can take it. Knowing that my daughter is also being judged is another story. 

This journey has made me exquisitely aware of how everyone has things that they struggle with. For some, the struggles are obvious and perhaps that makes it easier for us to have empathy for those people. Sometimes the struggles are commonplace and we feel some comfort in knowing "it's just a stage". But for others, the struggle is internal, invisible, less obvious from the outside. When the struggle results in behaviors society deems unacceptable, what are we to do?

All I know is that I will continue to parent with connection, empathy and respect. It just turns out that our daughter needs it in an even deeper way than I thought.
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