I often write and talk about the value of “knowing your child” when deciding how to deal with a specific concern or problem that has arisen. But what does it mean to “know” your child, and how can that impact parenting? Ask a parent to talk about their child and they can instantly give you a detailed list of all their child’s attributes that would put any recommendation letter to shame. What they like, what they don’t like, what their latest developmental stride has been. We spend so much time watching our children in amazement that it’s hard to imagine NOT knowing our children inside and out.
But in the heat of the moment, when we are at our wits’ end, we rarely rely on this information to help us empathize with our child or create options and opportunities that can effectively help them negotiate a tricky situation. It is easy to get lost in the situation, and, in doing so, we can lose not only ourselves, but our kids as well. We get too focused on the intervention, what “should” work or what works for our friends. We get too focused on what we want or expect the outcome to be and become frustrated when we can’t seem to “make” that outcome happen.
We become solution focused. We turn to the books and the experts and our friends to tell us the “right” answer to make bedtime easier, to stop little brother from pulling hair or big sister from slamming doors. And when the books and experts and friendly advice fail, we assume something is wrong with our kids or us as parents.
But maybe it isn’t about the solution at all. Maybe, parenting is about the process. And the process is, in essence, the child’s experience with the world. That is what this little person is trying to negotiate and understand and master. That is what all their fuss is about. It’s a rough task, it’s a big task and they are a little person. Our task as parents is to help them through this process. When we focus only on the solution, we risk completely neglecting the child and their experience.
Hence the question, “who is your child?” What you already know about them can give you valuable insight into what they are experiencing and how you can help them. For example, distraction is often discussed as a method to help a child redirect themselves during a tantrum, offering them other things to think about or do. But if I know that my child is the type of child who has less stress tolerance if he is hungry, and I know he hasn’t eaten, then I may be able to help him identify hunger as a basic need in that moment and offer him food. If his emotional dysregulation is a result of low blood sugar, then no amount of distraction will help us negotiate the problem.
In doing this, I am challenging myself to be empathic with my child. To walk in his shoes. To try to understand where he is coming from. To do this, I have to put away my idea of the “solution” and be present with him. I have to draw on what I know about him, what I know about the circumstances and try to understand how he must be feeling. Easier said than done when I am frustrated, tired and at my wits’ end. But when I am empathic and connected with my child first, and when I decide what direction to help him move in based on that, I find that we are usually both more successful. Those interactions feel more meaningful, and often I find that the results seem to make sense not just to me, but to them as well. For example, when I figure out, based on my empathic understanding of my child, that hunger causes meltdowns, and I help him understand this about himself, he can then start to communicate his hunger and get his own needs met. It makes sense to him and he has learned something about his experience with the world. On the other hand, if I repeatedly try time out or distraction, because that is what works for another kid, the child feels frustrated because the core issue isn’t changing. His experience of the world doesn’t make sense and he probably feels like I just don’t understand. Maybe next time he will yell louder.
So how do we do this more consistently?
In quiet moments, think about all the things you already know about your child. Things like: How social are they? How much alone time do they need? What is their relationship with food? Who is their “go to” person? What makes them smile? What do they think is funny? What makes them angry? What situations are likely to make them nervous? What situations are likely to make them feel most secure? If they could choose to do anything, what would it be?
You get the picture.
Then, the next time you have a situation, take a moment to just observe them. Make an intentional effort to really see what is happening with them. Ask yourself: What might they be feeling right now? What are the circumstances at play? What is my child trying to tell me? What things have worked for them in the past?
Really try to walk in their shoes. Sit on the floor or get down at their level and see the world through their eyes for just a minute. Then see what you think. Sometimes, that is all it takes. You may be surprised at what you already know. You may be surprised when you let go of the solution and focus on the process. You may be surprised at the way the experience looks when you see it through their eyes. And you may be surprised at how effectively you might be able to help your little one through a tricky situation when you trust yourself, and your kiddo, as the real expert.