Many have heard my story of how my son was hospitalized for depression. Depression and anxiety for my son didn’t show up as sadness, it was expressed as anger and lashing out. This looked like profanity, uttering threats, punching walls, and refusing to cooperate. He felt desperate inside which caused his outward behaviour. All I saw was a difficult child. When we took him to the hospital for threatening his life, the psychologist asked me, “What do you do when he throws these fits of rage?” I told her, “I send him to his room and tell him when he is going to be a good boy he can come out.”
She then said the one thing that has changed everything about my parenting. She said:
“You never send the hurting away from you, you bring them closer.”
For the next year I would sit beside my son or stay in the same room during his rages. I would tell him I’m here for him and that nothing would separate me from him. I watched him soften throughout the year, and now my son’s episodes are rare and when they do happen they are significantly short.
When I have shared this story, parents are moved to do the same, however, many have questions. Do you always bring them closer? What does that actually look like in the real waters of parenting?
Here’s what I have discovered. Bringing them closer still means there are boundaries. There was one day my son got so angry because he was overwhelmed about a task he had to complete. I had to put up a boundary stating, “In this house I will not be sworn at or hit. That will not be allowed.” In this particular episode I had to separate myself from him, but I did so expressing the reason for the separation. “I will not be treated this way.” The time to reason with your child is not when they are raging. Wait until they are calm, then connect and talk about what happened. I was able to explain to him once he was calm that I’m committed to walking alongside him as he journeys through tough emotions.
I have also discovered that bringing them close means coming to the middle of firm and kind. I find as a parent I’m either firm OR kind. The goal is to come to the middle where our children know we are kind but firm enough to stick to the expectations we set. Countless times I have empathized with both my boys when struggling with a consequence I’ve had to set by saying, “I know this is hard, but this is the decision.” One of my friends who is a social worker told me to stick to saying the same sentence over and over. Don’t add any words. Children will often try to engage us in more conversation so they can see us break from what we’ve said. How many times have I lost it when my child has pushed me?! Saying the same sentence over and over makes it easy for us to know how to respond while sticking to our decision calmly. Children actually want us to do this. It makes them feel secure in us as parents.
Bringing them closer also means making sure our children are clear on our expectations – which means we need to be clear about the expectations we have. Our children can’t be expected to just “know” what we are expecting from them, even if it seems obvious to us. We are there to guide our children. I remember a time when I was eight years old and my dad was selling one of our vehicles. I started to talk to him about it in front of one of my friends. My dad responded, “We will talk about this later because it’s none of your friends business.” I went away confused by what he meant. I tried rephrasing the conversation only to hear my father’s frustration rise with every attempt I made. I finally went into the kitchen and asked my mom, “What does ‘None of your business’ mean?” I didn’t know until she told me. My parents had an expectation of me not to talk about personal family matters in front of others. Once I understood that, I could abide by it. In the same way, we can’t expect our children just to know what we have learned over the years that have become second nature to us.
Once we are clear about what we expect from our children, we need to communicate it clearly, and in a way our children understand. It took me awhile to learn that verbal instructions do not compute with my son, but once I wrote it down it stuck with him. Find out how to best communicate with your children so you all set up for success.
Bringing them closer also means making sure there are plenty of good quality connection times between you and your children where you share moments of fun, play, and laughter. They need their cups filled up enough so that when you do need to put up a boundary, or deliver a consequence it’s not coming from an empty cup which damages their heart. When their cup is filled, they know that any discipline is rooted in love.
Parents can’t always be “loving”, but we can always bring them closer and see our children thrive.