It sure would have been nice had I realized how easy the baby phase was. It seemed so hard at the time! (really. i’m not whining.)
We can’t do the same things with our pre-teens and tweens as with our babies and toddlers. While we can just pick up those little ones and cart them away if their behaviour is truly heinous, dragging a 13 year old away from the arcade would be unheard of. Or we can take their little toddler hand in ours and just say “Hands are not for hitting” and then we continue on. Lesson reinforced. “Mouths are not for swearing” just doesn’t seem to reinforce the lesson as well in an 11 year old.
One similarity between the age groups is that we want their struggles to be, well, not-a-struggle. From the time they are little, we want to mitigate the tough spots, make it less of a challenge… We want math to come easy to them. We want them to just tie their shoes. Sleeping, it would be a true gift for them to self-soothe at any time. Fine motor skills (scissors! knife-and-fork rhythms! pulling apart lego!) are cause for frustration as it hinders the real goal.
In a two-parent family, there is often a code – when one parent just can’t do *any* more soothing, or cutting, or explaining number lines, the other parent is tagged in. As you can imagine (or maybe because you live it) a different approach is needed when there is no one on the ropes ready to jump in while you catch your breath (or swipe a kleenex over your frustrated tears) and help the kiddo in their struggle with renewed patience and gentle guidance.
So what’s a solo-parent to do?
Really? Well, sometimes we do it for them. Okay, maybe most of the time.*
In the middle of the struggle, this works wonderfully. Kids are able to glue their picture together now that the pesky business of snipping the image is done. French toast can be gleefully dipped in maple syrup, in perfect mum-cut squares. And I’d wager that it seems wonderful for years.
Until it’s not.
For any number of reasons, the kiddo needs to learn how to self soothe. How to use their cutlery. How to deal with frustrations. How to be sad.
By inadvertently doing for our kiddos, they’ve missed some important [albeit small-scale] lessons on handling big emotions. And until those small scale lessons become larger, we don’t even notice that there’s a problem.
My oldest, angry and frustrated that he couldn’t do something he felt he should be able to do, told me to back-off when I swooped in to try and make it right for him. “Don’t help me unless I’ve asked for it! I want to try and do it for myself. I’m not a little kid!”
Oh. Right. Well.
It was a big parenting moment for me.
And I wondered whether other parents were experiencing similar moments in their relationships with their 8-14 year olds. And guess what – they were.
So, in no particular order, some points from my experiences on how not to just swoop in and do for your older kids (and foster their capacity to do for themselves):
In the moment of struggle:
- Take a breath (a breath to send clean green patience to your heart and brain and centre your love for your kiddo)
- Ask before helping.
- Wiggle your toes if you’re feeling triggered (sometimes it helps to climb out down out of your brain’s chatter into your grounded feet)
- Describe what you see that makes you think they need help and then ask what’s up
- Be a “feeling detective” with your kiddo and ask what’s next (sometimes it’s a hug, or a break, or an ice cream – but that switch can be the clean green patience they need to re-engage with the struggle)
During more calm moments:
- Listen for dismissive words you use and your tone of voice
- Talk about your big emotions, and talk through what you’re going to do to come back into yourself – even if it seems they aren’t listening. And even if it feels clunky and weird. It’s important.
- Let kiddo screw up (safely!) and be present with them while they sort it out – but make sure you have the time and the heart space to make it happen in a non-judgmental way
- Listen to their viewpoints. Respect what’s happened to bring them to this idea. Even when you disagree. They’ll figure things out.
- You make mistakes (I mean, you must, right?). Be gentle with yourself, and model what you can do next.
- Comment on what you see, especially related to feelings detective stuff – they can connect when they are calm and progressing vs upset and stuck
As parents, we put out the fires that are blazing in and around our kids – timelines are tight! We can’t have a kid losing his cool over a button when we’re already 6 minutes off schedule! So we just do it for him.
And as a single mum, I know that sometimes I just need peace and harmony in the house because I am too tired/sick/stressed so I ‘fix’ their issues because I can’t afford the issue to get any bigger because I’m. already. at. my. edge!
In either case, we haven’t taught our kids how to recognize the sparks of the fire and be confident they can tackle them- on their own but within the reach of support from their parent(s).
I say it’s not too late. So, to wit: It feels wiggly in my belly, and my ears are kind of getting hot. I’m worried I’ll run out of time or create a kid-who-talks-to-himself. But the more I
force encourage trio to do it, means that they are doing it, and they’ll continue to do it into teenager-hood and maybe, just maybe, they’ll come to me with their big teenage emotions and mistakes and we’ll talk it out together.
And they will feel they can tackle it, on their own but within reach of support from me.
*Unless we don’t do it for them because we’re not able to – for any number of reasons we may not be present (emotionally or physically) to do for them. I still believe that doing very little and letting kiddo figure it all out is the other side to the same coin as doing very much and not letting kiddo figure out much of anything.