Three things happened in the last few days that have drawn my attention to one painful realization: I wish I could have a do-over with how I treated my children when they were toddlers.
I sometimes struggle with resolving the wish that I could have done more to be present with my children when they were younger. This feeling does harbour guilt but it has also been helpful because it pushed me to understand more about how to make parenting toddlers better, which I have now devoted my career to.
Thankfully three things recently came to my attention, which reminded me that parenting young ones can be very hard—I’ve probably done better than I think I have—and that the do-over can happen right now with one powerful word: noticing.
The first thing I became aware of wasn’t really a thing but rather a whom: Rachel Macy Stafford. One day as I felt badly about being too hard on my energetic young boys, a package arrived in the mail. In it was a review copy of Stafford’s new book Hands Free Life: 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better & Loving More along with a beautifully framed piece of artwork and a leather bracelet with the inscription “live hands free.”
I stared at the book introduction, focused on the words, “I’m keeping track of life,” which her daughter had said in the early hours of the morning one night. Stafford remarked that these words reminded her to make, “a conscious decision to focus on what really matters when a sea of insignificance tries to pull you away.” As I read through the book, I kept thinking about the word “noticing” and how much doing so significantly changes how we see the world—and our children.
This is a photo of Rachel and I at a bookstore presentation we did last fall.
The second thing was seeing this page from the book Little Boy by Alison McGhee and Peter H. Reynolds in our bedtime story. This page was an excellent reminder to put my attention on my children and not what I wanted to after they went to bed:
The third thing was to sit down after a day filled with tears to write in my journal, which I hadn’t done for a long time. Writing is an amazing tool to discovering what is at the heart of our big emotions. That journaling session ended with a renewed commitment to remind myself of what is going well and what I can be grateful for rather than focusing on what is hard.
My studies and experience have taught me that our parenting mindset has the power to influence our feelings and actions. When our children do the regular, often frustrating things that all children do, we can so easily be swept away by negative self-talk like “I can’t take this anymore” or “I’m too tired for this!” When we learn how to quiet that talk and notice what is happening from our children’s perspective, empathy and positive core beliefs grow.
This is how to use the art of “noticing” to increase the connection with our children:
Imagine that you are a commentator of what you see, hear, and feel. Say out loud or in your mind all the things you notice in a particular moment. I just came from getting my boys snuggled into bed, so I did my noticing as a list of what caught my attention. As I lay with them, instead of getting frustrated that they wanted more snuggle time, which I am prone to doing, I said things like this to myself, “I can feel his heart beating—it is slowing down”, “He is breathing on my face,” and “I’m clenching the right side of my jaw… I’ll stop that.” Actually, I noticed that my face and right shoulder were tensed when they didn’t need to be: I let those muscles relax.
“I see you…” statements are ones that help your child feel important, seen and heard. As often as we can, notice what our child is experiencing by saying a neutral statement something like this, “I see you trying to build that tower. That looks hard!” This is not praise: it is a statement that shows your child you are paying attention.
Here are other examples of those statements:
“I saw your brother take your truck. You stopped yourself from hitting him—I bet that was hard to do.”
“I see you just washed your hands without being reminded. Thank you for that!”
“Do I see that you are sad? I’d love to know why.”
When children are having big emotional reactions, remind yourself that they need you to be calm and supportive. It is so very easy to react harshly to our child’s upset. Even though what has occurred might seem ridiculous to us, it is not to our children. I find this is the best question to reeling in negative self-talk that can stop us from being empathetic and seeing how life looks through their eyes:
“What does my child need right now?”
Does our little one need time to adjust to a change? More sleep? Some food? To feel heard? To feel considered and respected? For us to use a clever phrase that will help inspire cooperation?
One of the most powerful negative core belief phrases that can inadvertently settle into a child’s mind is this: I am a bother—I am annoying. The way to stopping the development of this belief is to remind ourselves that we can adjust our mindset to not let things bother us (I know that isn’t always easy!) and to use neutral words.
When we are distracted or have an agenda like getting out of the house on time, we can sometimes inadvertently be hard on our little ones. Rather than saying something like, “Ugh! You spilled the milk again! Why do you keep doing that?” use neutral words like this, “Uh oh. The milk is spilled. The best way to avoid that is to put it on the other side of your plate. We have some cleaning to do.”
If you would like to read more about what positive and negative core beliefs are, I invite you to read my book Taming Tantrums. I have also included information on how to calm-down even when that is really hard to do. I also recommend Stafford’s Hands Free Life, which provides specific exercises and tools to noticing more and being distracted less.