The Myth of Nipping it in the Bud
You know that feeling of panic that shows up when your child does certain things? It’s that feeling that shouts at you, “You need to nip that in the bud!!” or “Don’t let him get away with that!”
When your little one lies, you envision her in jail, the next Martha Stewart. When your three-year-old hits, you have visions of your child’s eighth-grade principal calling you to let you know she’s just expelled your little bully. When your little one is bossy or whiny or tattle-taling, or cries every time they get the tiniest bump, you worry that your child will grow up, lonely and miserable, with no friends at all.
That paragraph probably made you laugh, and realize how ridiculous these thoughts are, but for most parents, the feelings in the moment are very real, and those thoughts and feelings tend to cause us to overreact and then question our choices about how we responded to the behaviour.
Once you understand where the thoughts come from, it will be easier to figure out how to respond peacefully to your child’s behaviour. Read on.
There are two main causes of this feeling of panic.
First, if you’re like most parents, you are pretty committed to sharing certain key values with your child, especially the ones you have built your life and your identity on. When your child does something that is out of alignment with these key values, it can shake us to the core. “Oh my God!” our mind shouts at us, “If you can’t even teach THIS basic thing to your child, what kind of parent are you?” This hits us right in our self-image, and so we desperately feel like we need to do something drastic, STOP the behaviour, and make sure it never happens again.
We can also be triggered by behaviours that remind us of our own painful experiences, and make us want to protect our children from the same experience. If we were bossy and friendless in junior high school, or if we learned some other lesson the hard way, we don’t want our child to hurt like we did, so we feel a desperate desire to protect them from the pain and to teach them the lesson ourselves – before they get hurt.
I get that certain behaviours are just so serious for us, as adults, that when our children do these behaviours, it feels pretty important to send a clear message and make sure it NEVER happens again. But the key here is that these behaviours are serious FOR ADULTS. Your child is still exploring boundaries, experimenting with what is acceptable, discovering her personality, learning the difference between reality and fantasy, and/or learning how to manage big feelings and act on them in ways that are helpful, not hurtful.
And he or she will learn all of these things more easily if your emotional reaction isn’t clouding your delivery of the message around that certain behaviour.
When we respond to our three-year-old as if he is an ax murderer in the making, with an intense emotional response, with punishment, or by otherwise getting really, really attached to eliminating the behaviour RIGHT NOW, we miss the opportunity to address the actual developmental process that is happening for our child, and we miss out on a lot of joy.
In truth, (good news ahead!) everything that your child does now is NOT a harbinger of impending disaster, failure, and misery, in your child’s future!
Parents ask me all the time, “Is this normal? Am I the only one whose child (hits, whines, lies, etc)? My answer, 98% of the time, is “YES!” 98% of the time it is, really and truly, just a phase. In fact, it is a very important phase that the child needs to experience in order to become the honest, responsible, non-violent adult with friends that you hope they will become!
Remember that children need to do exactly what they are doing right now in order to learn exactly what they need to learn in order to take next steps towards becoming the person they are meant to be. And how you respond to the behaviour makes it easier or harder for them to learn it.
If you can respond peacefully, addressing the child’s emotional issue, underlying problem, or developmental question, instead of focusing on simply eliminating the anti-social behaviour, your child will move through the emotion, problem, or developmental stage that is causing the behaviour much more quickly.
When you come at it with the idea of “nipping it in the bud,” most often what you’re nipping in the bud is not the behaviour, it’s the child’s learning process. In fact, if your child has tried out a new behaviour, he or she is much more likely to repeat that behaviour if YOU give the behaviour power by responding to it with a big emotional charge.
So, the first step is to take a step back, figure out whether it’s a values thing or a protection thing, and compassionately recognize what’s going on for you. For example:
“Honesty is an important value for me. I want to teach that to my child. This behaviour triggers me.”
“Wow. I was really bossy growing up and it didn’t go well for me. I’m scared that if I don’t handle this, my child will lose friends like I did.”
The second step is to reassure yourself.
“Lisa Kathleen said that there’s a good chance that lots of children do this behaviour and outgrow it. My child is going to be okay. I need to develop a strategy to address this behaviour effectively so that I can help my child to learn another way to address his/her emotion/problem/developmental need.”
The third step is to respond thoughtfully and unemotionally to the behaviour.
- Start by reflecting any apparent need or feeling that your child is demonstrating, or describing the situation.
“You really wanted another cookie, so you told me you didn’t have one yet. You really want it to be true that you didn’t have a cookie already!”
“You really want Suzy to be the little girl in your game! You want to be the mommy in your game!”
- If you can, state the value or the general truth that your child needs to know.
“Honesty is important so we can all trust each other’s words.”
“People don’t like being told what to do all the time. People like being invited to do something.”
- If you don’t know what to do or say, if no one’s getting hurt, and especially if it’s the first time you’ve seen the behaviour, you might even consider ignoring it. Chances are your child will give you another opportunity to address the behaviour, after you’ve had some time to figure out how you want to respond.
If you do this, instead of “nipping it in the bud”, you will give your child what he or she needs to blossom and grow. <3
Need some help figuring out what’s going on developmentally for your child, or how to shift your energy around your child’s trigger behaviours? Give me a call to ask about coaching! I’d love to help! 403-607-1463