“Dr. Laura, I love your examples with three year olds. I wish I had known about you when my kids were that age. So what about older kids? Who should know better by now, but maybe weren’t parented so perfectly so far…?!” — Annie
There’s no such thing as parenting perfectly. We’re all doing the best we can with the resources we have in that moment. True, if we use a positive parenting approach when our children are toddlers, they’re easier when they’re older. But you can start peaceful parenting any time, and you’ll see a difference in your child’s behavior very quickly.
So what does peaceful parenting look like with kids in the elementary school years? Regardless of the situation, here are the steps.
- Regulate your own emotions.This is your #1 parenting responsibility. No one can be peaceful all the time, but the key to improving our ratio is self-regulation.
- Re-connect with your child. The only reason for her to cooperate is her connection with you. If she’s acting out, she’s feeling disconnected.
- Coach your child instead of punishing. That means you set limits as necessary, but you see it from his point of view and you allow emotions. That helps kids stay connected so they want to cooperate. And it helps them “befriend” their emotions so they get better at regulating them. Once they can regulate emotions, they can regulate behavior.
Your seven year old keeps interrupting you while you’re working at home. He can’t seem to play by himself. You start to snap at him, then realize that your reaction is a signal to take a deep breath and a second look. You realize he’s feeling disconnected and needs some refueling from you. You tell your colleague you’ll call back in an hour. You hang up and say: “You’ve been trying to get my attention all afternoon….I’m closing my computer and turning off my cell phone. You have my undivided attention for twenty minutes. We’ll set a timer. What should we do?”
Your eight year old is walloping his little brothers every chance he gets. You set clear limits (“No hitting! Hitting hurts!”) but instead of punishing him, you realize that he needs to feel connected with you. “You seem out of sorts lately. I miss our special times together, since our family has gotten so busy with everyone’s schedules. Let’s have twenty minutes of special time for just you and me every single evening after the little ones are in bed.”
Your nine year old is driving you crazy begging for permission to do something. You feel like snapping at her, but that’s your signal to Stop, Drop (whatever you were doing) and Breathe.
Upon reflection, you realize that your irritation is because she just keeps pushing your limits. You consider that maybe all this pushing comes from her need to feel more independent. You remember that you can always find a win win solution. But tempers are definitely flaring, and you want to calm down before you over-react. So you defer the conversation until everyone is calmer. You empathize, and then reschedule:
“I hear you’re angry I won’t let you stay up later. I want to focus on our discussion, and I can’t while I’m trying to get everyone into bed at night. Can we make a date to talk about this after school tomorrow?” Then, you don’t forget. You initiate the discussion and look for a win-win solution in good faith.
Your ten year old screams “You never understand! I hate you!” Instead of taking it personally, you realize that this isn’t about you, it’s about her — her tangled up feelings, difficulty controlling herself, newly raging hormones, frontal cortex that’s starting to rewire, and immature ability to understand and express her emotions. You take a deep breath, remind yourself that your child does in fact love you but can’t get in touch with it at the moment, and consciously lower your voice: “Ouch! I see how upset you are. I know you’re not usually hurtful, and we don’t treat each other that way in this house. You must be really miserable to act like this. I’m so sorry that I’m not understanding. I love you and I’m sorry you’re hurting. I’m here with a hug when you’re ready.”
Your child will be deeply grateful, even if she can’t acknowledge it at the moment. Later, you can give her a hug and tell her that you don’t yell at her and you don’t want her yelling at you. But in the moment of heightened emotions, focus on those. This isn’t about rules, it’s about damaging a relationship you both value.
Your eleven year old keeps coming out of her bedroom and telling you she can’t sleep. You’re desperate to get the laundry done so you can go to bed yourself, but you realize she’s telling you she needs you. You hug her and say “This often happens with kids your age. There’s a lot going on — starting middle school, your body changing, your friendships shifting, school getting harder. Even I must seem different — I’m still trying to figure out how to be a good parent for a kid who’s growing up so fast but is still my little girl…Can I lie down with you for a bit at bedtime every night so we can chat for awhile and stay connected?”