A friend of ours said, “I am so competent at work and with friends. I’m on my game almost all the time. But when my kids act up, it’s like I lose the ‘real me!’ I become someone I don’t know or like.” Virtually every parent we’ve talked with in any depth admits, “I don’t like the ‘me’ that comes out when I discipline my kids.”
The tough truth to swallow is that whatever comes out of us IS the “real me.” Kids provoke us. And when we’re provoked, we tend to reveal what’s really inside us – especially when the provocateurs are our very own little children. What’s revealed is often not a pretty picture as stressed parents feel desperate, and use intimidation, manipulation and anger to regain a sense of control in the situation. Although this may work temporarily, it does so at the expense of the parent-child relationship.
When anger, anxiety and a need to control drive our discipline, we unintentionally communicate to our children that we are not emotionally safe. They will self-protect by closing their hearts to us.
The Heart’s Overflow
In Matthew 12:34, Jesus said, “…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” In other words, whatever “baggage” we have affects not only us, but it overflows to our children. When what’s in our heart is anger, anxiety, or a need to control, we can’t help but spill out messages to our children they perceive to mean:
- “You are a pain.”
- “You are a problem.”
- “You make me angry” (which puts the child in control of the parent’s emotions).
- “You are unloved when you act up.”
When children perceive these messages in our discipline, they most likely will resist our efforts. Even if kids comply to avoid rejection or punishment, these kind of messages won’t build values that motivate kids to do the right thing for good reasons. Nearly all parents occasionally react this way. But if it becomes the norm, kids will embrace those messages as their identity.
It is therefore very important for parents to learn to be emotionally safe by calming their hearts before discipline. Only then can they speak truth from a heart of God’s grace and peace rather than communicate false or hurtful messages from a heart of anger or control.
The Overflow of Grace
When we are emotionally safe for our children, their identity will be strengthened by messages like these, that they receive and internalize:
- “I am for you, not against you.”
- “You are safe with me. God gives me peace and wisdom.”
- “I love you no matter how you misbehave!”
- “You are capable of getting through this and resolving it.”
- “You are responsible and, even if your consequence is hard for you, I am here for you.”
These are messages of grace. They are the messages of love God demonstrates to us in our “misbehavior” (See Romans 5:8). When we can discipline in ways that communicate these messages, our children will open their hearts to our influence. But more important than that, they become more open to the very message of the Gospel.
Learning to receive God’s grace for ourselves, and then dispensing that grace to our kids, is the essence of becoming a safe parent. When we do this, we can focus more on caring for our children’s souls than on managing their misbehavior.
Practical steps to become a safer parent:
1) Remind yourself of grace-filled truth. Which of these stands out to you? You might even say your truth out loud:
- God loves my child and me in our messy state.
- The only person I can control is me.
- I don’t need to solve this immediately (…in most instances).
2) Take a few deep breaths and ask yourself, “What message do I want my child to get from this interaction?” Let the answer guide your response.
3) If you’re still stumped, say, “I don’t yet know what the wisest response to this situation is, so I’m going to consider this and let you know later.”
These simple steps will slow down the whole discipline effort so you can respond in an emotionally safe way. When you do, kids are much more likely to thoughtfully consider their own behavior instead of defend themselves, and maybe even learn some valuable life-lessons in the process as you model thoughtful self-control and respect!
Whatever small changes you make toward safety, celebrate! Even a small change is a big deal to your child.
To learn more about these concepts, request the ebook When Your Child Misbehaves: Four Strategies For Lasting Change