Using our patience and ingenuity to overcome difficult moments of confrontation into positive moments for learning. Moments can be transformed for the worse, like when our downstairs brain shifts into overdrive and a routine like, bedtime turns into a fierce battle of the wills, complete with crying, wailing, and gnashing of teeth for all involved. And on the other hand, we can transform moments of conflict for the good of ourselves and our children, so that an ordinary, everyday parenting challenge is converted into an opportunity for growth, connection, and relationship. Difficult as this many situations maybe, it is most important for you to practice the STOP. BREATHE. REFLECT. THINK POSITIVITY. ACT.
Creativity allows us to transform a potential battle of wills into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. Doing this doesn’t always work but gives you a chance to transform the moments we’re given.
Case Story: On turning difficulty confrontation into opportunity for learning. by Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
For example, while eating at one of our favorite Mexican food restaurants, I noticed that my four-year-old had left the table and was standing behind a pillar about ten feet away. As much as I love him, and as adorable as he is most of the time, when I saw his angry, defiant face coupled with his repeated tongue-thrusting aimed at our table, “adorable” wasn’t the word that came to my mind. A few diners at surrounding tables noticed and looked at my husband and me to see how we were going to handle the situation. In that moment, Scott and I felt the pressure and judgment of those watching and expecting us to lay down the law about manners at a restaurant.
There are many ways to respond in moments like these. But in this moment, two choices popped into my mind as I walked over and crouched down eye-level with my son. Option #1: I could go the traditional “Command and Demand” route and open with a clichéd threat uttered in a stern tone: “Stop making faces. Go sit down and eat your lunch or you won’t get any dessert.”
Knowing my little guy, this verbal and non-verbal confrontation would have triggered all kinds of reactive emotions in his downstairs brain—the part scientists call the reptilian brain—and he would have fought back like a reptile under attack. The situation would just escalate with this approach.
Or, Option #2: I could tap into his upstairs brain in an effort to get more of a thinking—as opposed to a fighting/reacting—response.
Now, I make plenty of mistakes as I parent my boys (as they’ll freely tell you). But just the day before, I had given a lecture to a group of parents about the upstairs and downstairs brain, and about using everyday challenges—the survival moments—as opportunities to help our kids thrive. So, luckily for my son, all of that was fresh in my mind. I went with Option #2.
I started with an observation: “You look like you feel angry. Is that right?” (Remember, always connect before you redirect.) He scrunched up his face in ferocity, stuck out his tongue again, and loudly proclaimed, “YES!” I was actually relieved that he stopped there; it wouldn’t have been at all unlike him to add his latest favorite insult and call me “Fart-face Jones.” (I swear I don’t know where they learn this stuff.)
I asked him what he felt angry about and discovered that he was furious that Scott had told him he needed to eat at least half of his quesadilla before he could have dessert. I explained that I could see why that would be disappointing, and I said, “Well, Daddy’s really good at negotiating. Decide what you think would be a fair amount to eat, and then go talk to him about it. Let me know if you need help coming up with your plan.” I tousled his hair, returned to the table, and watched his once-again adorable face show evidence of doing some hard thinking. His upstairs brain was definitely engaged. In fact, it was at war with his downstairs brain. So far we had avoided a blow-up, but it still felt like a dangerous fuse might be burning within him.
Within fifteen seconds or so, my son returned and approached Scott with an angry tone of voice: “Dad, I don’t want to eat half of my quesadilla. AND I want dessert.” Scott’s response perfectly dovetailed with my own: “Well, what do you think would be a fair amount?”
The answer came with slow, firm resolve: “I’ve got one word for you: Ten bites.”
What makes this un-mathematical response even funnier is that ten bites meant that he would eat well over half the quesadilla. So Scott accepted the counter-offer, my son happily gobbled down ten bites and then his dessert, and the whole family (as well as the restaurant’s other patrons) got to enjoy our meals with no further incidents. My son’s downstairs brain never fully took over, which, lucky for us, meant that his upstairs brain had won the day.
Again, Option #1 would have not only escalated things, but it also would have missed an opportunity. My son would have missed a chance to see that relationships are about connection, communication, and compromise. He would have missed a chance to feel empowered that he can make choices, affect his environment, and solve problems. In short, he would have missed an opportunity to exercise and develop his upstairs brain.
And I hasten to point out that even though I chose Option #2, Scott and I still wanted to address his behavior. Once our son was more in control of himself, and could actually be receptive to what we had to say, we discussed the importance of being respectful and using good manners in a restaurant, even when he’s unhappy.”
Yes maybe Dr.Tina got lucky, and this situation seems to be ahead for more drama until she turned it around by listening and re-framing the situation as a fairness issue. In addition she empower her son to offer a solution rather than forcing her will or power on him. This was a creative and timely solution that would not have turned around without active listening, patience, inclusion and creative problem solving.
So as parents, we need to understand that taking time to sort out the issue rather than just reacting can keep the peace and that trying to force our will or show who is in charge doesn’t usually work. In a situation like this parent’s have an opportunity to teach our children how to handle their frustration by communicating rather than acting out. This is an excellent example of how important your first step or request needs to model positive behavior and clear and inclusive communication rather than just using power to show who the boss is.
Of course it’s great to take them to the play ground, museum, walk the dog or other entertaining activities like swimming or going to see a baseball game. But we also want to pay attention to the crucial, minute-by-minute opportunities to model appropriate behavior. We’re given these moments often but as busy stressed adults we most of time miss them. What this requires—and there are plenty of times when I’m not very good at doing it—is that we take ourselves off of auto-pilot and look at each moment with fresh eyes. And though it isn’t easy by any stretch given our busy schedules; and realize that being in the moment and calmly reacting to the situation at hand. And really, that’s just about the most we can hope for as parents. We can work hard to remain watchful for moments—hundreds of moments, large and small, throughout the day—and transform them, and allow them to be opportunities for teaching important life lessons for us and our kids as well.