“The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well” — Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
We all know that every child deserves unconditional love from his or her parents. So the question is, when we’re disappointed in our kids, when we’re angry at them, do we withdraw our love? Most parents would say “Of course not! They know I love them. I’m just mad right now! How will they know I’m serious if I don’t get angry?”
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But ask any kid, and they’ll tell you that when Mom or Dad is angry, the child fears he’s no longer loved. If this happens often enough, the child cooperates less and less, hardens her heart to the parent, and eventually looks to the peer group instead of the parents for love. Not what any of us want for our children.
But parents are human. When kids act out, we often get angry! So how do we insure that our child still feels our unconditional love? The secret is managing our anger so we stay connected with our child while we set limits. When you think about it, that’s the only way to guide your child without punishing, because connection is what helps children WANT to cooperate.
Not easy, right? But do-able. And it gets easier with practice. Here are your three strategies to stay connected while you set limits.
1. Set limits before you lose your temper, so you can keep your sense of humor. Remember that it’s your kid’s job to test the limits. That’s nothing to get irritated about. It’s your job to lovingly hold your limit so you give your child what they need, not necessarily what they want — without making them feel like a bad person. You don’t have to be angry to set limits. In fact, your child is more likely to develop self-discipline if you set limits with a lighter touch, because he’s more likely to “own” your limit instead of rebelling against it. (That’s the “self” in self-discipline.)
2. Look for solutions rather than blame. If your first response is to figure out whose fault it is, kids will always find reasons why it wasn’t their fault. If you don’t care about fault but instead look for solutions that work for everyone, your child will become an expert in finding win-win solutions. She’ll be more likely to take responsibility, too.
3. Choose compassion and repair over revenge when something goes wrong. And yes, punishment is partly about revenge for the parent.
Instead, start by empathizing with your child about why they behaved badly. Yes, really! They had a reason. Then, once they feel understood, tell them that you understand AND that behavior is off-limits AND they’ll need to make a repair. Like this:
Point out the cost of her actions, being careful not to shame or blame. “When you said that to your sister, it really hurt her feelings….I wonder if it made her feel not as close to you.”
Ask your child what she can do to repair the damage. “I wonder what you could you do to make things better with your sister?
Resist the urge to punish or force an apology. Instead, empower your child to see that she can repair her mistakes. “You know we always clean up our own messes, right, like spilled milk? This is just a different kind of mess. I know you’ll think of just the right thing to make things better with your sister….I can’t wait to see what it is.”
Just remember that while a repair is required, it’s her choice what to do. That removes the element of shame and helps her become the hero in her story, instead of the bad kid. Just as with matter-of-factly cleaning up the spilled milk, the process of cleaning up her messes will teach her that she doesn’t want to cause those hurts to begin with.
Of course, you have to be able to manage your own anger to pull this off. That’s why we so often focus on parental self-regulation in these posts. To start, why not forgive yourself for being human and give yourself some of that unconditional love? You deserve it as much as your child does.