Continued from yesterday’s “Parenting Without a Map, Part 1”
We found a great, attachment parenting-minded psychologist who assured us that my daughter didn’t have any huge mental health problems. She worked with us as a family and helped us to find practical ways to deal with some of our everyday challenges and the interaction of our own unique personalities. She helped us to rediscover some of the joy in our relationship with our daughter. At the time, it seemed like it took a ridiculously long time to see results. I wanted immediate improvement. While I did experience an immediate improvement in my attitude towards the situation, the improvements in my daughter’s behavior were incremental over a period of months.
Every day we had “special play time,” 10-15 minutes when I would set aside all other responsibilities and distractions, get down on the floor, and let my daughter guide our play. It was excruciatingly boring. I felt awful that I didn’t enjoy playing with my own child. Hadn’t we spent the first five years of her life doing just that? Why was it so hard now? Our therapist assured us that this was a normal reaction and that it would get better. She was right.
We practiced labeled praise, and I got into the habit of finding things that my daughter could do to help out so she could get some sense of control in her life. No matter how I felt, when she came into my room while the baby and I still slept, I would look at her and smile and hug her and tell her how happy I was to see her (in a very enthusiastic voice). It felt fake at first. Most days I was lying outright. I didn’t want to see her. I wanted her to sleep for another hour and let me and the baby sleep, too. I wanted to make some coffee before being on duty for the day. But after a few weeks of faking it, I found that I actually was happy to see her in the morning. It gave us a positive start to our day. Now my son and I both greet Big Sister with joy.
The therapist also gave us a modified “time out” routine. I am very, very leery of time-outs. It’s way too easy, in my opinion, to turn a time-out into punishing a child by withholding love. The message becomes, if you don’t do what I tell you to, I will put you by yourself and I will withhold my love from you until you obey me. That feels like a very scary place for me.
The kind of time-out I like is the kind that teaches a child how to calm down when she’s overwhelmed. This is the kind I want for myself, to keep me from boiling over. This is the kind of time-out the therapist offered us.
The time-out we practiced involved a calm-down chair, which was within our line of sight, and a calm-down room, which was my daughter’s bedroom. Throughout the entire process, we (the parents) were calm, used a minimum of words, and didn’t engage in debate.
At the end when we were all calm and quiet again, we agreed upon a remedy for the initial behavior. The focus throughout the process was on how she had not listened to mom/dad rather than on her behavior. So we would ask, for example, “Are you ready to listen to what Mommy/Daddy said and make things right with your brother?” If she had hurt her brother, say, she could choose to give him a hug or a kiss or to give him one of his favorite toys to make things right with their relationship. I don’t agree with forcing a child to apologize, so that was never a remedy unless she suggested it (which she sometimes did).
Then once we were all done and all calm, we would say, “Thank you for listening to me when I asked you to be gentle with your brother.”
All past wrongs were forgiven. And we moved on with our lives.
The therapist stressed that if, after the first couple of days, we were using this technique more than once a day, we were overusing it. It was strictly for when she couldn’t calm down without this type of intervention.
For the first few days, it was tough. Sometimes it took us 30 minutes or an hour for her to be calm for three minutes (we never used a timer. The therapist said the focus should be on the parents not on the clock). We used the technique multiple times in a day. I had visions of SuperNanny (a show I despise). And even when things between my daughter and I had improved, she had to go through the same process with my husband. (It really seemed like the work one of us did ought to transfer to the other, but that wasn’t how it worked.) It was awful, and my husband and I had serious doubts about the technique.
But after a week, we needed to use the technique maybe twice a week. Then it was every couple of weeks. Now we haven’t used it in months and the calm-down chair gathers dust in a corner. (That’s not true. The kids actually play on it quite a lot. I just thought it was more dramatic to say it was gathering dust.)
I’m still not 100% sure that this time-out technique follows totally with our parenting philosophy, but it did help us to keep from yelling, to intervene when a situation was getting dangerous, and it gave both my husband and I a consistent action to use (we’d been trying all different things before we agreed to try just the time-out technique). It also helped set the stage for teaching our daughter a less interventional means of calming down. Now when she starts to get worked up, I can say (if I remember), “OK, take a deep breath,” and she and I breathe together until we are both calm. Then we address the situation. (The therapist also gave us a progressive-relaxation technique to practice together that has helped defuse altercations, too.)
Along with finding techniques to work with my kids, I had to address my own needs, too. Some of that is included in this Happiness Project. I’ve blogged about it before, and I’ll likely blog about it again. For now, I’m just going to leave it at this: if I’m running on fumes, I can’t be present and patient with my children. Finding ways to meet my needs, while it felt (and still feels at times) selfish, has helped me to be a better mother.
We still have challenges every day. And now with my son getting further into toddlerhood, we’ve got that dynamic to challenge us, too. But I feel much more capable than I used to, and I feel much more joy in my interactions with my children than I used to.