At the dinner table, Sophie sits, whining about the chicken and broccoli casserole the rest of us are already eating.
“It’s yucky,” she drawls. “I don’t want to eat iiiiiiiiiit.”
“One bite to try it again, then you can make yourself a peanut butter sandwich,” I say, trying my best to keep my building irritation disguised in the tone and volume of my voice.
“Sophie, the rule is that you take one bite of what’s offered to try it again. Then you are welcome to make yourself a peanut butter sandwich if you prefer.” My husband sees that I’m looking at my plate with my jaw locked, taking deep breaths. “But you cannot whine about it because you need to be polite.”
The whining stops.
Her legs start to move with agitation, and she moves the tiny spoonful (literally 1 x 1 inch square of casserole) around, separating a piece of chicken from the rest. She wipes the chicken on the lip of the plate, removing traces of sauce and a green particle of broccoli, then lifts the fork to mouth-level. Her face twists in anxiety and anguish. Then the convulsions begin. Her little body rivets and jerks, but the fork stays in the same place.
“Put the fork in your mouth, Sophie,” I say. My voice is no longer disguising my resentment and irritation. I have worked a full day at the office, then picked up the kids from school, been present in the home for after-school hours, and made a casserole from scratch. Who is this kid … not appreciating the food that’s on the table in front of her? Not following the rule that’s been in place at our table since she started solid foods?
Every. Single. Night.
As parents, it’s so hard to be on the receiving end of a tantrum, refusal and what seems like willful disobedience.
Our bodies naturally give us the resources to survive a stressful moment: the amygdala, a small almond-shaped organ in the limbic system of our brain (right behind the nasal area), is a threat sensor. The amygdala activates a set of neurochemical reactions that help us survive. If a tiger is chasing us in the jungle, our child is beneath a burning car, a rapist is attacking us at night in a park, we produce the stress hormone cortisol, as well as a handful of neurotransmitters (dopamine, glutamate, adrenaline, noradrenaline) that make our hearts pump, eyes dilate, stomach and reproductive systems slow/stop, and we can act with superhuman strength and speed!
On this night, I could feel the chemicals coursing through my veins as Sophie sat there convulsing over a bite of chicken.
But what if you’re a kid or teen, and the reason you’re feeling the impulse to refuse a rule, yell at your parents, hit the kid that took your toy, or run away is that you feel a sense of injustice, loneliness, or misunderstanding? What if the texture of Sophie’s bite of casserole is threatening to her? Her brain responds the same way, first with anxiety manifested in whines, then avoidance manifested in the physical desire to move away from the food.
Often, parents misinterpret the three f-words – fight, flight and freeze behaviors – in their children as willful disobedience. A teen screams back at a parent when an argument ensues over a cell phone, a curfew, or a poor decision. A child runs away from them in a public place because they don’t want to do something that’s asked of them. A child stops speaking or answering questions, sometimes even smiling out of discomfort, and the parent becomes angry that the child is smiling. Sometimes, a child even lies to avoid getting in trouble for something (ironically, many parents tell me it’s not the original offense that bothers them so much as the lying).
When we dig in and become more rigid, attempting to force or coerce a child to do what they’re told, the reaction we get may result in a counter rigidity from the child. Think of your muscles. When a muscle is massaged to get it to relax, it takes just the right amount of pressure to get relaxation. If a masseuse pushes too hard, the muscle will actually tense defensively. If you ride a horse, you pull back on the reins to get the horse to stop, but if you pull too hard, the horse will begin to back up. Too much pressure can sabotage the effort parents make to get relaxed, no-drama compliance from their kids. Entirely too much pressure such as spanking (which forces compliance effectively) can scare a child into submission, rather than getting relaxed cooperation. When a child’s brain is in fight, flight, or freeze mode (what author Daniel Seigel, PhD calls the “downstairs brain”), s/he cannot operate with empathy, rational thinking or logic. Those parts of the brain go off-line when survival strategies are activated. Often, the parenting strategies for managing misbehavior (physical punishment, isolation/time-out, verbal reprimand/lecture, negative consequences) push a child into further fighting and fleeing, rather than teaching empathy and encouraging communication. Dr. Karyn Purvis at the TCU Institute for Child Development calls the use of these strategies “going after a mosquito with an elephant gun.”
So, consider these three points the next time you feel your blood boil because of non-compliance:
1. Consider what your child needs emotionally in the moment.
The three basic human emotional needs are protection, comfort, and acceptance. Misbehavior is nothing more than a dysfunctional, or maladaptive, strategy for meeting one of these needs. In the case of Sophie and the casserole, tasting something new is uncomfortable! Sophie needed comfort. After I took a few deep breaths to control my own anger and let my husband handle it, we reminded her that her water cup was sitting next to her plate and was available to sip (or gulp) immediately after tasting her sliver of chicken. We named the feeling of discomfort, but we did not allow non-verbal or verbal expressions of disrespect. Ask the question, “What need is my child’s behavior is attempting to fill?” No matter how belligerent, hateful, or power-hungry a child may behave, there is a vulnerable need that drives the behavior.
2. Verbalize and model appropriate ways to ask for needs to be met.
Protection, comfort and acceptance – the three basic emotional needs – are rarely off-putting when they are asked for with respect. Consider the difference:
“Mom, I can’t eaaaaat this … it’s so groooosss.”
“Mom, the texture of casserole is really not my preference, but it smells good. Could I compromise and take my one bite, then make a peanut butter sandwich?”
The difference is respect. As a parent, I can ask for the latter, or I can berate the former. If I had responded to Sophie’s refusal to eat her bite of chicken with the fight I felt on the inside (think angry bull with nostrils flaring and steam coming out of my ears), berating her disrespect, we would have had further tears, protest behavior and Sophie may have dug in her heels in a power struggle.
3. Ask yourself whether you are respecting your child.
When you find things spiraling out of control, do you feel empathy? When parents and children alike are in fight/flight mode, the parts of the brain in the prefrontal cortex that consider our effect on other people goes off-line like a modem that’s lost internet connection. If you want your child to be compassionate, considerate and respectful, he or she must have experiences of a parent being compassionate, considerate and respectful of him or her! Your child has to be relaxed, non-stressed and using the higher-functioning parts of the brain to learn new behaviors and be respectful – not just the survival parts.