Did you know you may inadvertently be dealing “drugs” to your children?
Dopamine has been called the brain’s “pleasure chemical.” It is released when pleasure is experienced. It creates healthy motivation to pursue various life-giving pleasures such as accomplishing a goal, taking on a new challenge, or connecting with others in meaningful ways.
According to Amy Banks MD, in an ideal world dopamine bursts would happen primarily through pursuit of healthy, life-giving activities – particularly through nurturing human connection. Unfortunately, we live in a world that has many of us seeking dopamine in all the wrong places, like overeating and obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, and consumerism.
Related to dynamics with our kids, it starts out innocently enough. When you smile and give your child that thing they are SO excited about and you get a big hug – Shazam! a dopamine feast for both of you! It felt so good. Let’s do it again. And you do it again. And they do it again.
And pretty soon contentment becomes dependent on dopamine bursts.
Entitlement. If we mention the “E-word” in one of our workshops there are audible groans and eye-rolling. Parents are overwhelmed by this complex problem which seems to be spiraling out of control.
Last year we surveyed parents about their top felt needs, and they were begging for help with the entitlement in their homes. Another indicator? Year after year, articles we’ve written about entitlement are consistently in the top five of highest page views.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed about how seemingly “entitled” your kids are, you are not alone!!
We responded to this need. As we were developing our newest online course on entitlement we surveyed our Insider’s Team. The results of this survey helped us identify the top causes for the growing problem of entitlement in homes and helped us shape our course.
Starting with number three….
3) Persistent kids that wear down parents with their demands.
Eat your broccoli, or there’s no dessert!
Nooooooo! It’s yucky!!
Then no dessert for you!
But I want ice creeeeeeeeam!
You’ve heard dozens of times that an important key to family connection is enjoying meals together. But what happens when those mealtimes turn stressful, anxious and anything but connective because parents and kids disagree about what kids should be eating? The power struggles that ensue can ruin everyone’s appetite and decrease the likelihood your child will grow up to be a healthy eater. We appreciate what Ellyn Satter said in her classic book How to Get Your Kids to Eat, but Not Too Much:
Parents are responsible for what is presented and the way it is presented. Children are responsible for how much and even whether they eat!
We share three important principles with a variety of practical ideas in this article to help bring peace to your family mealtimes. These come out of my professional training with children’s eating difficulties and coaching dozens of families through these struggles. Try one or two this week and let us know how it goes!
1) Create an ENJOYABLE MEALTIME environment
- Ditch the label “picky eater” if that’s what is in your mind and comes out of your mouth. (It’s in our title because it’s a frequently searched phrase.) A shift in perspective will help you all relax. No labels, just think – my child is anxious about food, my good intentions may have made that worse, but we can all learn and grow together.
- Have regular sit-down family meals, with positive conversation and atmosphere, and no screens or distractions. We encourage everyone (including parents!) to surrender phones during meal times.
- Refuse to engage in power struggles related to what or how much your child chooses to eat. The dinner table is not the time to “win” the battle. In some families, kids do well with a “Let’s all try a bite of everything” approach, but if this becomes a power struggle it is counter-productive.
- Pass food. When capable, children should be encouraged to pass food and place servings on their own plates. Resist the urge to comment on how much or how little they take when the serving bowl or plate passes by them.
- Allow messiness and play. For younger children allow some messiness and playful exploration of food, especially at snacks. Exploring and playing with food is an important part of development in which children learn about food and also learn to enjoy it. How high can they stack their crackers?
- Talk about the characteristics of the food. Describe the food’s size, color, shape, texture, smell, and taste. In a relaxed way, talk about why you enjoy it, and how it is similar to a food which your child accepts.
- Include children in food preparation when developmentally appropriate. When kids have a chance to help plan, shop for, and make a meal they are more excited to eat it!
Yelling. Screaming. Hurtful words. Sometimes even aggression. How did we get here?!
Not what you envisioned when you decided to have kids!
Many of the parents we coach are desperate to change the frequency and intensity of anger in their home, but they just don’t know how. We haven’t met a parent or child yet who says, “I just love getting angry. It makes me feel great.” Of course not. It’s stressful, discouraging, wreaks havoc in relationships… So WHY do people keep exploding?
Four “payoffs” that make anger really addictive!
Anger researcher Leon F. Seltzer Ph.D. identifies four addictive “payoffs,” (benefits), that build habitual, angry reactions.
1. Anger protects us from disclosing vulnerable emotions.
When kids (and adults) experience tangled and confusing emotions that are difficult to express, what often comes out is anger. It feels vulnerable to be anxious, ashamed, sad, embarrassed, disappointed, discouraged, overwhelmed, confused, hurt or rejected. A typical response is to self-protect by avoiding or hiding those emotions under a layer of anger.
I plopped down on the couch with a friend and lamented about my latest parenting challenge. “I just need to learn to calmly follow through with a clear consequence. I keep getting in this nagging cycle. I need to stop it!”
My statement was similar to a hundred others I’d made or have heard other parents make about parenting such as…
- “I need to be more patient.”
- “I need to learn to stand my ground when my kids start whining.”
- “I need to not let them push my buttons so much!”
My friend looked at me with a sly grin. “You need to learn that? Or do you want to learn that?”
“Huh? I dunno. I guess I want to,” dutifully picking the apparent right answer from her little multiple choice question. She relieved my obvious confusion by explaining that when we tell ourselves we need to change, it is rooted in anxiety and a shame-based belief: “I’m not okay as I am, so if I don’t change, I’ve failed.” This kind of thinking is a burden on our souls, weighed down by every new instance of failure that proves our defects.
You’re in the game aisle at the store, visualizing the wonderful memories you’ll create with your family during Game Night. You bring the game home and reality hits:
“I hate this game!”
“It’s not fair!”
“I’m not playing anymore!” Swish, and the game goes flying.
Hard to believe, but board games have great learning potential for kids. Depending on the game, kids can develop valuable skills: sequencing, planning, problem-solving, direction following, waiting/turn-taking/delay of gratification, teamwork, and resilience when things don’t go their way.
Do you have a bunch of rules for your kids? No hitting. No whining. No screens before homework is done. No messes in the living room. Having rules provides structure, and some basic ones are essential.
When your kids struggle with obeying the rules, do you ever try to regain control by making more rules or making the penalties for breaking them harsher? And even though your intentions may be good, do your kids get more resentful and rebellious? We’ve often heard parents say things like, “It doesn’t matter what I take away; this kid is just defiant!”
Parents love giving their kids good gifts. And kids love receiving them! As you’ll learn in our upcoming Entitlement Online Course, the gift-giving experience can be an exciting dopamine burst (our body’s reward/pleasure chemical) for everyone! It can be fun at first, but over time the joy can quickly give way to a sense of entitlement.
Add to the mix a highly sophisticated advertising industry aimed at shaping the values of kids in order to influence their buying habits. One study reported that children under 14 influenced as much as 47% of American household spending. It is estimated that advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year to reach the youth market and that children view more than 40,000 commercials each year. These figures represent dramatic increases over those from the 1970s. They communicate a subtle and troubling message: “You need this toy (or food) to be happy.” These advertisers gauge not only how to shape your kids’ buying habits, but their identity: “You’re the coolest when you have our product!”
Large family holiday gatherings can be tough for lots of reasons. Over-stimulated, over-sugared, over-excited and under-slept kids are simply going to struggle. But there may also be some relational dynamics that complicate things when you all get together. See if you relate to this pattern:
- You feel anxious around the watchful, possibly critical eye of parents or other relatives.
- You work harder to keep kids in line and are tougher on them than usual.
- Your kids (who are already extra stressed) sense your angst and act up more.
- Gramma or Grampa (or others) intervene to keep youngsters in line, with good intentions but unhelpful strategies.
- You feel embarrassed, undermined, and maybe frustrated or resentful.
- Kids watch the power struggle between the adults and are left feeling more stressed and insecure than ever.
Is the holiday stew smelling rotten yet? If so, this post is for you.
“So, kids, what are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?” you ask.
“My family, my house, my friends, my dog and Jesus.” (Same answers as last year….)
If you think your kids might be open to some deeper thinking this year, we’ve provided a handful of conversation starters about gratitude. We invite you try any or all of them and put a little bigger dose of gratitude in your Thanksgiving season: