This weekend something came up…once again…with one of our sons. It was an incident related to the way he treats one of his brothers, and honestly–we’re all pretty fed up with this particular issue.
I was in the other room as I heard my husband begin to handle things. He has been super frustrated with this character issue, and really wants to get rid of it.
There was irritation in his voice: “We’ve been over this how many times?”
“I’m going to keep on this until you get the point and you quit doing it.”
My husband was right. The behavior is bad, and it wears down the family and tears apart the brothers. It needs to change.
But my mom-heart also knew that there was much more to this.
So with a deep breath, I entered the scene. (I’m not always good at this…) I sat down with the two of them and just listened. The point had been made, and my son looked mostly defeated.
I asked if we could all talk just a minute more.
Then I began to simply ask questions. I was not taking away anything that my husband had addressed, but I wanted to get to the root of the problem.
I wanted to hear this son’s heart.
What are you FEELING when you treat your brother like that? What is going on inside of you? I asked.
He looked down and hesitated. I could tell that he didn’t feel safe.
After all–He was in trouble. How would we receive an honest reply? Would we jump all over him if he told us the truth? Call him selfish? Criticize him?
Now I know that Dave and I don’t represent all parents in our roles, but I do think that we are pretty typical in that the man is focused on behavior and obedience, and mom sometimes sees through things to the heart, feeling a bit more compassion. I suppose this is how God designed us, and when we work together, it can really be a good mix. But it doesn’t always go so smooth, so I turned to my husband, and asked permission: “Please Dave, can we offer a safe place to just get some feelings out? I’m not excusing his behavior, but if he shares some of the stuff inside of him, we can help work things out.”
Dave nodded, and looked at our son patiently.
And then..there were still no words. But the tears began to flow.
My heart ached.
I knew there was more inside of him, and I was pretty sure that I had a good idea just what the more was. (Moms are good like that.)
But I held back. I wanted him to name it.
Our son struggled with words, frustrated to say things so that they would come out just right.
“You are safe,” I offered.
“Just say whatever you feel. Really–it’s OK. We’re just going to listen.”
Finally, I knew that he was still struggling to get his feelings out, so I offered him a few words that might just represent his feelings. Now sometimes when I do this, my husband suggests that I am speaking for my boys, feeding them feelings that they may not have. Perhaps I have errored on that side before, but I’m really working on this, because I think it’s a super helpful tool in parenting.
I offered a variety of simple, but real words: “Maybe when you act this way, it is because you feel jealous…or hurt….angry…ignored….?” I told him that there were no wrong answers.
Then his words began to flow as he connected a few of my words with a few of his own to express what he’s been wrestling with. We listened and didn’t react. As if someone was peeling away layers of expectations, and performance-based approval, he was free to talk.
Dave and I affirmed our son’s feelings, and understood his heart. We asked for some ways we might communicate our love and appreciation of him better. We talked about a few practical things. We made sure he knew he was heard.
I could see his shoulders relax as the tension he was holding released, and I believe that he truly felt that we were for him, not against him.
Finally, he smiled and said “I think that covers it,” which was our cue to be done.
He thanked us for taking the time to talk to him. He even told us he knew we took the time because of our love for him.
I looked at the clock and maybe fifteen minutes had gone by.
But those might have been the most important fifteen minutes of our week.
So this is what I’m realizing: It is easy to see our kids’ flaws, and jump right into discipline–to focus on behavior and performance, and our expectations in everything. We are busy, and we want to see things corrected. Fixed. Changed.
But when we do this, we often forget the heart behind what is going on.
If there is some area that seems to be a recurring issue for your child, then I encourage you to take fifteen minutes to dig a little deeper. Do not overlook an offense, or compromise your standards, but do give your child permission to be very real with you. Ask questions. Let them know that there are no wrong answers, and that your love for them is unconditional.
And if they have trouble finding the words, try offering a few to choose from. Give them real words that allow them to open up honestly. Then follow through by listening without judging. Allow the doors of communication to open and your relationship will deepen.
If you’re looking for lasting behavior change in your child, you’ll be wise to begin with a heart-change. And part of a healthy heart-change is working through some raw feelings–as ugly or sinful, or UN-family-friendly as they might sound, and working through them with the people who love them the most.
Fifteen minutes may save your relationship.
Hope this encourages someone out there, and thanks for walking through this parenting thing with me!
PS To be fair: The kid in the above photos is not the actual kid in the story above. And yes, I realize that the kid in the photo hardly even looks like a kid since he is nearly as big as his father now! (When did THAT happen!?)
PPS Two related posts: Character qualities for Exceptional Children, and
What a Middle Children need most from their parents.