Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Child’s Mind and the Seven Dwarfs - Seven seemingly simple disciplining lessons that make a big difference

The first post of the new year is by our guest author, Ms. Garima, a Psychologist with special interest in childcare issues. Enjoy !
There is no short cut to disciplining children. One must be willing to spend a lot of time with them to understand their mental landscape. Children do not just see the world from eyes that are placed lower in height than the average adult. Their understanding of cause and effect, of motivation, and their own place in the hugely confusing world of adults is different from ours in a very basic sense. For one, kids place themselves in the centre of the universe. This works fine as long as their world is full of attention, laughter and play. But they continue to see themselves in the centre (and as a cause) of all the shouting, seething or helplessness too, if that is what their little world is made up of.
Secondly, children have vast stores of highly active imagination. One cutesy mark of this is when they see ghosts in flying curtains or monsters in the dust balls under the bed. But this also means that they may feel cheated, rejected, even hated at seemingly commonplace life events like birth of a sibling or relocation. Such emotions can get amplified by a third tendency of kids, which is to see everything in black and white mixed with plenty of exaggeration for good measure. Say you are nursing a new baby when your 5 year old returns from school. Immediately he/ she asks to rest in your lap. Lovingly you ask him to wait his turn so the baby can finish his milk. This sequence is enough to trigger a fit of rage, sea of jealousy and extreme pangs of rejection and sorrow in a child if he is already facing adjustment difficulties.
Now imagine a scenario wherein you are still nursing the baby. The older child returns from school, seeks out his younger sibling and kisses him, puts away his bag and settles down for lunch. Dream sequence? Yes! But believe it or not dream sequences are acted out in your own home every day. Only they are taken for granted, not focussed on or appreciated, and all attention gets diverted to “problem areas”. In actual fact your child may be displaying behaviours that are a dream for another family but since you never faced a problem in that, you just presume it is nothing special while you fret about what is missing.
So how do you bring up a happy, healthy child without making yourself miserable and obliterating all non-parenting pleasures from your own life? It is both simple and tough. The simplicity is that children are really forgiving, loving and adaptable, which means they respond quickly to changes in their environment. It is tough because short cuts don’t work. You have got to walk the mile, and then the extra mile. But results are achieved and often provide a lifetime of happiness, contentment and support. And of course, oodles of love! Once you have taken care of a child’s hunger, tiredness and boredom, here is what you need to focus on.
A few pointers which should help avoid the most common pitfalls in bringing up children.
1.         Shower the gift of understanding. Kids presume guilt and shame where none exists. They also imagine fears and exaggerate simple refusals to mean the worst. So it is necessary to develop the ability to scratch the surface of your child’s uncalled for reactions and find the real issue that is bothering him. Only then will u be able to handle tricky situations or mould his behaviour. If he is fussy, is he afraid? If he is yelling, does he need positive attention? If he is rebelling, does he feel unappreciated? Rather than getting caught up in the emotion of the moment your interests will be better served if you can take a step back to reach the root cause. If all your child’s bad behaviours are met with “I don’t know why she always does this”, it is time for introspection or analysis.
2.         All for Attention. Nearly half of a child’s misdemeanours can be attributed to this. Remember that what your child values the most is your attention. More than the gifts, the treats, the trip to the gaming arcade, what your child loves is your attention. Knowing how to use this is crucial to changing undesirable behaviour. There is a fundamental difference between punishment and denying attention. When you deny attention (by giving time out, or sending the child to his room, or simply ignoring) you increase the chance of stopping bad behaviour manifold. But in many cases yelling at the child may be acting as a reinforcer in itself. So a child who is feeling deprived of positive attention or praise will repeatedly enact bad behaviour because he gets your attention that way, even if it means having to bear your anger. As a fundamental rule, being yelled at is more desirable to a child than feeling ignored; punishment is better than no attention at all. So as parents your job is to catch them “being good”. If they did their homework without whining, or shared a toy with a friend, or just put away their dinner plate without being told, pay attention immediately and show your appreciation. Something simple like “that was nice” will suffice. Once you start to see when a child’s bad behaviour is just his solution to feeling attention deprived, you can help him and also regain sanity in your own life.
3.         Count your blessings. This means focussing on the positive aspects of your child’s personality and behaviour. May be your child is madly jealous of the new sibling but is excellent in taking initiative? May be your child is socially shy to the point of shame but excels at creative problem solving? May be he cannot sit still even for a count of ten but can lead a gang of energetic toddlers to play as he wills? Focusing on strengths will make you feel more positive towards your child and it will immensely build his own self esteem and confidence. Children with high self esteem tend to take more initiative, be leaders and act responsibly.
4.         Eyes on the future. Bringing up a child is about preparing him or her for the life ahead. It is like teaching him to swim before you leave him alone in the ocean. Short term solutions may make your life easy in the moment, but will not provide the necessary skills and training to the child to adapt happily to the grown up world in the future. So whether you are answering “Why do I have to go to school” or handling an “I don’t want to take a bath”, “Can I have one more candy” or “But he beat me first”, always bear in mind what skills will help this child cope with situations in the future. What values do you want him to grow up with? Choose your responses carefully in accordance with the longer term goals.
5.         Be reliable- no lying. When your child is late from school do you want to hear the truth or just a really smart excuse? Children will pick up what you do more than what you preach. Do you routinely skip certain commitments and cover up with an excuse? Be the first one to admit a mistake. Know that it takes courage to speak the truth and to be ready to face the consequences. Children “get” more than what you explain. So don’t make a false pretence for missing his football match. Lying will hurt your relationship with your child in two ways. One, he will subconsciously pick up on this habit, finding it easier to give a clever excuse than fess up. This can mean you will not know what is going on in his life until he is in big trouble. The second danger is that there will be no trust in the relationship. Promises like “I will take you there tomorrow” will mean nothing and you can expect a barrage of manipulation, temper tantrums and resentment from the child. So say what you mean and mean it.
6.         Have a schedule for the major chunk of daily activities. When kids know what to expect they are more relaxed. A predictable routine, especially for younger children, keeps them calm in the face of life changes. So in case you are integrating the presence of a new baby in the family, if the older one knows what he has to do when he returns from school, that you will be nursing the baby for another 15 mins, that once the baby is asleep you two will be sharing the news of the day for an hour etc., it can help him cope with the unfamiliar feelings he may be experiencing. A routine shows him what to do, and also when it is time share you with someone else and when he gets to be your top priority again. Believe it or not, if you have a routine you can actually claim a couple of hours for yourself everyday as long as the child knows when he gets to have you to himself again.
7.         Give but also take. One of the biggest gifts you can give your child is to teach him gratitude. The biggest predictor of happiness is not wealth, health, education, success or relationships but an attitude of gratitude. And this attitude can be taught by making them work hard and appreciate the hard work of others. Let them see you be grateful for the bounty before you cook and teach them to appreciate your effort when they eat what you have made. Make them help you in the daily chores and take weekly breaks from certain duties like folding the laundry when only the kids do the task. Not only will you be more rested and feel appreciated, your children will feel important and more positive about themselves. Win-win!
While parenting can be a roller coaster ride of emotions it is also your biggest opportunity for getting out of your comfort zone and really growing. Enjoy the ride while it lasts!

Garima is a practicing Psychologist and Life Coach. Her special interests are parenting, mind-body connection and wellness. She lives in Pune with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at info@manodasha.com, website www.manodasha.com