Kids love rules. We think they don’t, but they do – even if they don’t know it! Confused? Think for a minute about times when your kids have shown signs of anxiety (nail biting, teeth grinding, ‘meltdowns’, controlling behaviours and clinginess can sometimes indicate feelings of anxiety). What was going on environmentally at that time? Sometimes, a lack of boundaries, rules or expectations can leave kids wondering “who is really in charge here?”, which can lead to less sophisticated versions of these kinds of thoughts: “if my caregivers aren’t able to stick to rules or set consistent boundaries, how can they protect me and keep me safe?”. This can create some pretty big feelings for kiddos, often feelings they can’t label which causes further uneasiness. When we as adults feel uneasy or anxious, we often try to reduce these feelings by increasing our sense of control. The same kind of thing happens with our kiddos who might show a need to gain some control over their environment in an attempt to get rid of their “yucky” feelings. Enter tricky behaviours that are rooted in ‘control’.
To steal a phrase from the Circle of Security founders, we need to be “bigger, stronger, wiser and kind” as caregivers if we are going to create secure little beings. Sometimes we need to make ‘grown-up’ decisions and be the parent even when our inner-child is screaming out to join in and have a laugh with our kiddo at 3 am when they are being funny and refusing to go back to bed. Because, chances are, tomorrow night we won’t be in the mood to have a laugh and what kind of message are we sending if one night we are happy to engage in frivolity in the dead of night but the next night we are not? Our kids can’t read our minds.
To be proactive, we need to be comfortable ‘taking charge’ and being the adult while balancing this with being kind. We need to be clear in our own minds about the rules we value and how we are going to communicate these to our children – and what the consequences will be for when these rules are broken. Often consequences are natural and logical, like when my daughter didn’t follow the “we look after our belongings” rule and her hoola hoop broke. In these instances, I don’t need to apply another consequence because this was really meaningful for her, and she understood the sequence of events that lead to her devastation thanks to the hoola-that-is-no-longer-a-hoop!
But how do we respond in the moment when we have tricky control-based behaviours? We need to welcome our children when they come to us with big feelings. We need to provide support for our kiddos to help them organise their feelings. What does that look like? It’s about labelling their feelings and acknowledging that all feelings are valid and worthwhile. And while we do this, we need to show them how to make themselves feel better. This might be about working together initially to take some deep breaths, or offering space, or giving a pillow to scream into or punch, or grabbing out some sensory toys if there are some biting or scratching behaviours going on.
Our job as parents is to provide the scaffolding for our kiddos to be able to self-regulate. The aim is not for independence, but for children to come to us for help and feel comfortable expressing their emotions in a safe and supported way.
If you’re keen to get ideas on how exactly you can set clear and consistent boundaries, stay tuned for our posts about reward charts and house rules to help get you started.
Amanda Abel – Paediatric Psychologist MAPS