Daniel and Aviva are in constant power struggles with their 3 year old, Gracie. They give her a choice about whether she wants Mommy or Daddy to read books to her. She chooses Mommy, but the second Aviva starts reading, Gracie insists, “No, Daddy reads books!” Aviva calls for Daniel, but — shocker — Gracie has changed her mind again and wants Mommy. At breakfast, Gracie asks for toast but insists on a whole new piece because Aviva cut it on the wrong diagonal. When Aviva tries to convince Gracie to accept the toast because it’s the same piece of bread regardless of how it looks, Gracie tells Aviva that she “doesn’t know anything about food” and that she wants daddy to make her toast the “right” way.
Daniel and Aviva are exasperated. They don’t know how to get Gracie to cope with not getting her way or having things done exactly as she expects.
I work every day with parents like Daniel and Aviva who are struggling to manage typical child-rearing challenges: power struggles, tantrums, sleep, mealtime, and potty struggles, to name a few. They hate resorting to yelling, bribery and threats, but they struggle to stay in charge in a positive way during these difficult moments when their children are testing or melting down.
Guiding parents through these frustrating situations has led me to identify eight faulty parental mindsets that can get in the way of responding in a calm way during moments of challenging behavior.
When parents become aware of these mindsets, they are able to think about these frustrating situations in a new way. By making key mindshifts, parents are empowered to change their reactions in a way that reduces challenging behaviors and creates more positive connections. It allows them to set the loving limits and boundaries that they know their children need to thrive.
Here are the mindsets that were at play for Daniel and Aviva, and the mindshifts they made to help Gracie.
Mindset: Gracie is “misbehaving” on purpose. She should be able to accept limits and exhibit greater self-control.
Mindshift: Gracie isn’t purposefully trying to drive us crazy or “misbehave” on purpose. The part of her brain that is responsible for managing impulses is just in the early stages of development. Her reactive brain takes over when she can’t have something she wants, when she wants it. She is a little girl struggling to manage her big emotions.
Mindset: We can control and change Gracie’s feelings and behavior.
Mindshift: We have no control over what Gracie does with her words or body. Only she controls that. (One of the most humbling things about parenting that no one warns you about!) What we can control is how we respond in tough moments. That is what will shape Gracie’s behavior.
Mindset: It is mean and rejecting not to give Gracie what she says she wants and needs. The tantrums that follow when she doesn’t get what she wants are detrimental to her.
Mindshift: What Gracie wants is not necessarily what she needs. And the distress she experiences when things don’t go her way is not damaging to her. Sticking to important limits will help her become more flexible and resilient.
Making these mindshifts enables Daniel and Aviva to stop fearing the tantrum and start seeing that limits are loving, even when Gracie doesn’t like them. And that, in fact, by trying to accommodate all of Gracie’s demands and make her “happy,” they have been creating more distress for everyone and fewer moments of joy and positive connection.
They set limits that take Gracie’s needs into account but that keep them in charge in a positive way. Accordingly, they decide that a loving plan would be to let Gracie choose which parent reads books and which does cuddle time each night, and then hold that boundary to avoid the spiral into a power struggle.
As expected, the first night Daniel and Aviva implement the new plan, Gracie tests. She chooses Aviva to read. But as soon as Aviva begins the book, she wants Daddy. Mustering every ounce of self-control, Aviva calmly acknowledges that Gracie wants Daddy but is clear that she is going to stick to the plan. She tells Gracie that it’s up to her to decide whether she wants to listen. Gracie responds: “Mommy, you are a bad reader” and hides under the covers. Aviva reminds herself that Gracie’s big emotions have taken over and reacting won’t help. Aviva proceeds to read the book with a lot of animation to show Gracie that she isn’t angry or hurt, and is going to be her rock. After several nights of sticking to the plan, Gracie adapts.
When it comes to breakfast time, Daniel and Aviva tell Gracie she has two great choices: She can eat her breakfast as is and fill her belly up, or, she can decide not to eat it. If she chooses option two, she can take it with her to school in case she changes her mind.
When Gracie sees that mom and dad are sticking to the limits, Gracie protests less and starts to become more flexible. Overall, the whole family now experiences a lot less stress and a lot more joy.