Does it feel like your child is “out of sorts” but you can’t understand why? Do things seem much more difficult for one of your kids than the others? It might simply be that your child struggles with sensory sensitivities: either sensory-seeking, sensory-avoidant, or a combination of the two.
Have you said any of the following?
- “Loud. It’s my son’s only volume level. It’s really draining.”
- “Dressing is always an ordeal for my daughter. No tags, and sometimes no socks, because the seams drive her crazy.”
- “Transitions are so hard. When my son is locked onto his toys, getting him pried away and out to the car is soooo difficult.”
- “My daughter’s mood swings are extreme and sometimes very sudden. The littlest things can set her off. Talk about intense! Her meltdowns wear me out.”
- “My child is easily overstimulated and anxious. Large groups of kids, crowded places or busy stores are usually a prescription for trouble.”
- “Mealtimes are insane with the noise, squirming, rocking and even falling off chairs.”
As a recovering perfectionist and now a parent coach, I am all too familiar with how perfectionism chokes out the joy and connection in families. Perfectionism is like a measuring stick that grows taller the closer we stand to it. The taller it gets, the higher the standards. This leads to increasing discouragement and shame.
If this is our norm, then the morphing measuring stick multiplies into a measuring stick for each of our children. And, perhaps, even our spouse! A parent who feels they can never measure up almost always raises children who feel like they themselves can never measure up.
Perfectionism isn’t just an emotional issue, it’s a deeply spiritual issue. The Apostle Paul patiently corrected messed up, even immoral, believers. His angriest words, however, were to those in Galatia who were hooked on “getting it right” – attaining righteousness by perfectly following rules.
In our role as parent coaches and educators, we hear it all the time: “One of my kids just doesn’t seem to get it!” Parents go on to describe the child in their home who frequently resists and escapes chores and assigned tasks in spite of all the clear instructions. They then tell us that, in contrast, the other kids in their family seem to be mostly compliant.
Resentment builds as these kids become increasingly aware of the comparison between themselves and (what they perceive to be) their favored siblings. Discouragement settles in as distraction, resistance, and conflict grow.
What recent brain science is helping us understand more clearly is that often the kids who fit the above description are not naturally more rebellious, defiant, or disobedient. Rather, they naturally have lower levels of the neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine. This predisposes them to more intensely chase pleasurable distractions of all kinds. Their need for this chemical is what’s often behind their distraction, and when you call them back to routine chores they cry, “I don’t wanna do it!”. (Read more about dopamine’s role in ADHD)
WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
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!”