In this series about setting emotional boundaries, I’ve been encouraging parents to express their emotions to their children in a productive way. If we verbalize how our kids’ words and actions are affecting us, we can then set boundaries and preserve our own sanity, which in turn makes us better parents. In my previous post I gave three tips: Address, don’t suppress; Be kind; and Teach, don’t trip.
Below are four final suggestions for your parenting tool bag.
1. Acknowledge the positive. If you grew up reading Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, you may remember his poem “Helping.”
My kids like to be helpful. My Little Red is the self-appointed clock watcher and time keeper for our family. He used to frustrate me when we were trying to leave for school, church, or an appointment. I’d be racing around like a multi-tasking champ, trying to brush my teeth while I gathered up jackets, filled water bottles, and tossed a baggie of snacks in my purse. Little Red would follow me around saying, “Mom, it’s 10:44. You said we need to leave by 10:45…” and a couple minutes later: “Now it’s 10:46. We’re late, Mom.” This was DEFINITELY the kind of help that I could do without. It was adding to my stress and making me grumpier.
So I said, “Honey, I know you want to be helpful. But when you follow me around and keep telling me the time, it frustrates me. I’m hurrying as fast as I can. It would actually help me more if you wouldn’t do that.” I had to give him the same speech several times, but we eventually broke the habit.
Be aware that some of the annoying things kids do, they do because they love you. They want to help you. But you shouldn’t feel guilty putting a stop to those things. Just make sure to acknowledge and praise their good motives when explaining your point of view.
And speaking of time…
2. Later is better than never. Perhaps your child did something this morning that irritated you. Perhaps you were vaguely aware of the annoyance, but couldn’t really explain what was annoying you or why. Take time to think about it. Whatever process you use to dissect your emotions, do it. Talk to your partner or friend about it. Write in your journal. Say it out loud when you’re alone.
When you’re ready, take time to sit down with your child and revisit the problem. “Pal, remember this morning when you…?” This tip is effective with older children who can easily distinguish between this morning, yesterday, last week, etc. If your younger child hasn’t yet mastered the concept of time, try the next tip instead.
3. Have your script ready. Chances are, that annoying behavior will happen again. (If it doesn’t, hooray!) You may not have said anything last time, but next time, you will be ready. Mentally prepare your script, place it on your proverbial shelf, and be ready to pull it out when The Next Big Event occurs.
4. Request and expect an apology. It is entirely appropriate to ask your child to apologize (and by ask, I mean demand.) Little kids – or older kids who aren’t used to apologizing – may need some instruction. I remember telling my little ones, “Can you say, ‘I’m sorry for yelling’?” Older kids may write an apology letter. However, you must acknowledge through conversation that you’ve received the letter and accept their apology. If they write a letter and never have to talk to you about it again, their accountability is diminished. Instead, they need to look you in the eye, see that they are forgiven, and know that you have taken control of the situation.
Frankly, when I tell my children to apologize, I’m not sure that they always ARE sorry. But when I ask for an apology, I am letting them know that I won’t tolerate those words or that behavior. As they get older, they are getting progressively better at saying sorry without being told. To me, this is an indicator that they respect boundaries that have been set in the past.
The benefits to productively expressing your emotions are pretty awesome. First, children who respect their parents’ boundaries are more fun to be around. You can enjoy parenting more when you don’t feel like you’re constantly being run over by your kids. Second, children who have seen emotions expressed in healthy ways will be able to do the same for themselves. They will be better equipped to voice their problems, concerns, questions, joys, and triumphs. And they will be more comfortable sharing those things with you, because you have shared a bit of yourself with them. Finally, with a strong vocabulary and full repertoire of skills, their future relationships look promising. Less fighting, more talking. Less abuse, more assertiveness. Less anger, more joy.
Happy and healthy parenting!