Parents: Trapped by Our Fears

Contributed by Jody McVittie

I was contacted recently by a writer who was responding to an incident in her community. A parent had called the media’s attention to her two children (ages 12 and 10) who were going to be standing on a corner for 5 days wearing signs saying, “I’m a thief.” Apparently the mom was mum about what was stolen but she wanted to teach her children by making a big deal about their mistake. Not surprisingly this has divided the community. There are adults in the community who condone this action believing that this is an appropriate punishment for a serious problem. There are other adults ready to blame, and yes, publicly humiliate the mom for what they consider unreasonable humiliation of children. This may end up doing to the mom what the mom has done to her children (shame, blame, and humiliate) but somehow that irony seems to be lost in the mix.

The real question for all of us is: What invites us to respond in drastic ways to our childrens’ misbehavior and mistakes? My hunch is that is fear. Many of the parents I work with are afraid when their children lie, steal, are mean to their siblings, swear, wear sexually provocative clothing, investigate pornography online, start cutting, text or sext at all hours of day or night, smoke pot…etc.

Fear is normal. Often appropriate. It wakes us up. It invites us into a c t i o n. Unfortunately, sometimes we leave our thinking brains behind when we begin to act. Here are some thoughts about acting when afraid:

• It is normal to be afraid but unless your child is in immediate danger (about to get run over by a car, fall out of a 2nd story window in the next 30 seconds) don’t act right away. Your first job is to calm yourself so you can get in your thinking brain.

• Take some time to learn about your fear. Is there a reason you might be extra afraid? Did your brother’s children get addicted to cocaine after trying pot – and you are really worried your children will follow the same path? Were you assaulted as a teen and worried that your own daughter’s clothing might lead her into the same horrible place?

• Separate your child’s action from your judgment about yourself as a parent. (This is surprisingly difficult.) Your child’s mistake does not make you a “bad” parent. It might even be an opportunity to get to know your child better and solve a serious problem together.

• Ask for help. This might mean getting more information, talking to a parenting expert or someone who knows more about the problem than you do. You might ask your best friend to listen without judgment.

• Know your child. Before you take action, take stock of who you know your child to be. Start with a list of their strengths. Most children really don’t want to put themselves in danger, at risk or hurt others when they are in their thinking brains. Think about what strengths your child could use to solve this problem. Do you need to learn more about what is going on? Stick with “What and How” questions. (Why questions put kids on the defensive.)

• Aim for solutions. When you are ready to take action, think about what needs to be fixed. Is there a way to begin to repair the mistake? Is it trust that needs to be rebuilt? Model the thinking and problem solving skills you wish your child had used before getting into this mess.

Join us for a short parenting talk Sept. 26th: Beyond Breakfast & Bedtime Battles: 5 Tips for Peace at Home Sound Discipline is hosting the evening to share, celebrate and support our work in schools. We hope you can join us at the Phinney Center. 6:30 PM Suggested donation $10.

Sound Discipline is a 501(c)(3) non-profit.