If we were all aware of our parenting style, and if we could always be conscious of our automated reactions to our children (and avoid/correct/respond more helpfully) – wouldn’t life be so much easier? Sigh.
Our brains are built to make mistakes, have realisations and then change our responses. And the neural pathways and patterns we use most often are the ones we tend to use during stress (getting out the door in the morning), and times of intense frustration (our child won’t/can’t complete homework, or piano practise, or chores, or toilet-training).
We aren’t perfect, which means there are always going to be times when we respond to our children without thinking. There is a parenting style which many consider to be Over-Protective. The people involved think that they are responsible and careful. What is rarely understood as that these people have a heightened sense of empathy. They feel what their child is feeling, but cannot turn off the emotional flooding. Their child has a tantrum – they will try to talk them around or bribe them rather than make a stand and endure the intensity of their child’s (non-consciously because it makes them uncomfortable and unable to manage their discomfort). They are also often the people who believe the marketers sell ing anti-bacterial soaps and safety nets for trampolines, because they non-consciously imagine all the over-whelming emotions they ‘would’ feel ‘if’…
These parents would never allow their children to use scissors or knives as toddlers. These are the parents who won’t let their children out of their sight. These are the parents who are sadly often faced with teenagers/adults who make out-of-character dangerous or foolish decisions (and they usually end REALLY badly) – because the children have little or no experience at measuring danger or risk. It could be the adult child who leaves a high-paying job on a whim – with a young family to support. Or a teenager who has a one off session of drinking too much booze in order to prove they are ‘cool’ and ends up getting their stomach pumped or worse.
The parents in this group will warn their children constantly of the worst case scenario –
“You’ll cut yourself.”
“You’ll drown/get run over.”
“You’ll get sick.”
Telling a child that they ‘will hurt themselves’ isn’t helpful. It also implies that being hurt is something they can’t manage. Often it isn’t even true – children can cut accurately without hurting themselves as toddlers; they can climb without falling; they can get a mouthful of wave or pool water and not drown; they can play out of sight and not get kidnapped – but of course sometimes these things do happen, and it is dreadful. They’re called accidents or crimes.
These warnings often don’t mean much to the children anyway. A toddler has no idea what drowning means. And do young children really need to have the concept of being taken from Mum and Dad in their head?
The alternative approach works well – simply use the phrase: “You could get a dreadful fright.” We prime this before hand – at times when they do slip or graze their knees with, “You got a fright.”
Young children can relate to words which name their emotions. They NEED to learn as many names to as many emotions as possible. They are more likely to learn from their ‘frights’ than from abstract possibilities – they learn to manage risk and danger much more efficiently. They become more self-assured, because they know they can manage and they know they can manage when things go wrong or make them feel uncomfortable.
Going into deep water without Dad, could give you a dreadful fright.
If you cut your finger, you could get a fright. (Or…say nothing at all!)
For the serious business of kidnapping we simply make a rule: No sweets from strangers; Don’t go with any adult unless Mum has told you to. (And with older children – you can go with safe adults we have perviously identified.) And…if someone does anything that makes you feel uncomfortable – leave.
This approach allows our children to learn, and us to share our concerns without interfering with their learning.
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