Parenting can be exhausting, both physically and mentally.
From day to day it’s an incredibly tough job. But, in the end, every parent wants to have a good relationship with their child. So, why then do we communicate with our children in a way that drives us apart?
Sure, kids are resilient. We’ve seen the Harlow studies showing that primate offspring keep coming back (Slater, 2004), even when parents treat them badly. But we want better than that. Most modern parents want good relationships with their children and ways to set bounderies.
How can we get more of what we want from our children?
Kids have a knack for putting parents in awkward positions that can be frustrating and appear to have no good solution. Making sound decisions can be challenging, especially when you’re tired, under time constraints, or when your child is being…unreasonable.
On one hand you want to do what is quick and logical to your adult brain. But that may cost you a meltdown and likely waste more of your time. On the other hand, you can just give your child what he or she wants, potentially creating a kid with no flexibility or ability to consider the needs of others. Balancing these opposing ideas is what makes parenting so difficult. We’re going to discuss three quick steps to help you consistently and confidently make good parenting decisions even in the heat of a tantrum or power struggle.
The answer lies in assertive communication.
Assertive communication balances the needs of two people and develops solutions that meet both parties’ needs (Alberti & Emmons, 2008). The term can be a bit confusing. It’s often mistaken for aggressive communication, where you make demands of others, force them to do as you wish, and spend a lot of time punishing.
But punishment rarely ends well. It results in resentment, avoidance, retaliation, secrecy and we quickly learn to avoid our punisher. Passive parenting, on the other hand, is taking a back seat and letting your kids drive. We, as parents, are the experienced, responsible caretakers. We do our children a disservice by not guiding them.
Assertiveness is about equality.
It is valuing the needs of others, regardless of whether we believe them to be right or wrong. It is also about caring about your own needs and having the confidence to communicate them fairly. So, in essence, an assertive parent is open to suggestion, willing to entertain some piece of the crazy thing that their child wants to do, and a quick thinker who can creatively develop solutions that may meet the needs of both parties.
Well, you may say, that sounds impossible. Impossible? No. Difficult and seemingly time consuming? In the beginning. Punishing OR submitting to your child takes less mental effort when that’s your routine. But it simply leads to more of the same. An assertive approach to a stressful parenting situation requires a deep breath and a little bit of creativity, but the benefit is a calm and constructive conversation. It’s also an investment in your relationship because your children learn to work things out with you.
How might you start doing this with your family?
You can get started by counting how many times you’ve said no. Think about how you’d feel if someone said “no” to you that many times. Now consider the numerous options on the spectrum in between your child’s “yes” and your “no”. It’s not a black and white world; there are many possibilities between yes and no. The trick is to clearly discuss and explore what you and your child want without things reaching crisis proportions.
For example, a child wants ice cream. You don’t want the child to have ice cream because it’s very late. Time to brain-storm and discuss. Wow, you really want ice cream? Would you like ice cream tomorrow? “No, I want it now!”, the child insists.
An assertive parent could calmly say “I don’t want you to have ice cream now, because it may keep you up too late. There’s a lot of sugar in ice cream. But it sounds like you want to have some ice cream now. What can we do? Any ideas?”
The ideas can come from either of you, as long as they take both parties’ needs into consideration. A parent may say, “How about one good spoonful now and then we go to bed? What do you think?” Depending on the child’s age, they may surprise you. A four year old might respond with something like, “How about two spoonfuls and then we go to bed?”
Would you be ok with your child having two spoonfuls of ice cream? At least it’s not a big bowl and at least he’s not kicking and screaming in his bed keeping you up all night. It’s a simple example, but the idea is to stop saying no, start expressing your own concerns and listening to the child’s, and begin finding creative solutions.
There are three steps.
1. Get to the root of what you want from your child.
Be sure to reduce your need to it’s most basic form and state it calmly to the child. Provide an explanation of why this is important to you.
2. Find out what the child wants in its most basic form.
Ask questions like, who, what, where, why, when, and how for clarification.
3. Now it’s time for the final step. What is the solution?
The answer is somewhere between your needs and their needs. Or maybe it’s something totally different. You can invent options for mutual gain (Fisher & Ury, 2011). Is that exactly what the parent wanted? No. Is it exactly what the child wanted? No. But does it work for parent and child? Yes. Coaching, communicating, and negotiating can lead to much better outcomes than giving in or flipping out. How do you want to handle your next difficult situation?
Jason Heymer, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor and former President of the New Jersey Counseling Association. He has offices in Sussex and Morris Counties in New Jersey. He specializes in helping people find their own creative solutions to relational problems using his own unique and practical One Two Solution method.
Alberti, R. E., Emmons, M. (2008). Your Perfect Right. San Luis Obispo, CA. Impact Publishing.
Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B. (2011). Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York, NY. Penguin.
Pantalon, M. V., (2011). Instant Influence. New York, NY. Hatchette Book Group.
Slater, L. (2004). Monkey Love. The Boston Globe.