Grace here. Vulnerability alert! Parenting can be really hard sometimes. Yup. Even for me, who literally helped create a class all about it. You can know what to do in your brain, but if you want to actually implement it, you still have to do the work.
Let me tell you a little story about how things were going in my house a few months ago. I have a 3 year old and a 3 month old (yeah… you haven’t heard from me lately because I’ve been on maternity leave but I’m baaaaaack!) and for the last few months of my pregnancy things had been...tough. Some days getting the toddler ready for bed was taking 45 minutes just for teeth and jammies, and don’t even get me started about dinnertime and nap time.
My last week of bump photos as our second son was born late that night. We don't post photos of our kids online so you'll have to take my word for it that he's a cutie!
During that time, I had a conversation with my husband in which he was feeling at a loss about what to do with our 3 year old’s behavior. I was telling him (again) about all the things we suggest in Strong Foundations and his response was “That’s what you always say but it doesn't work!” So of course, I had to step back and think about that for a bit because I know that it DOES work. But he was right. It seemed like they weren’t working at our house, so what the heck was going wrong???
I began to do a bit more self exploration around my parenting- both what I was doing and what I was feeling. And you know what? He was right. They weren’t working BECAUSE I WASN’T ACTUALLY WALKING MY TALK!
On the surface, I was saying all the right things and thinking about things all the right way, but I wasn’t noticing how my own stuff was getting in the way of follow through. I was protecting my son from his feelings and avoiding conflict in an effort to feel close with him and to minimize my own discomfort that I feel when other people are unhappy. Sure, I had good intentions but the result is that my son was desperately looking for the boundaries and he was acting out in his anxious search to find them.
And to top it off, every time I said “this is the last xyz” and then let it happen 3 more times, I wasn’t showing my son the consistency that he needed to know he was safe, or that I was indeed there in the ways that mattered. And let me tell you. The resulting power struggles we were having were unreal. The problem with power struggles is that, as the parent, you have to win them or the child can feel unsafe being in charge but it’s sometimes hard to win them without crushing the child. Finding a way to disengage where your way comes out on top is key but hard to do when it's gotten to extreme levels the way ours had. (See, my brain knows even if my actions don’t show it!)
Quiet time was lasting for 3 hours some days because he was coming out of his room every 30 seconds and per our rule, I was adding time every time he came out. This ended up feeling like a punishment instead of a consequence, which is not what I intended. Plus, it’s an unreasonable expectation for a 3 year old and made my afternoon into a nightmare. I was feeling so frustrated and out of control and more often than not I found myself unable to keep my cool. Whenever I came to the situation in an elevated state it would just amplify the situation and we would escalate and escalate and escalate until I had reached the end of what I was remotely comfortable with. I was so exhausted. I needed quiet time as a rest time for myself and as downtime for my brain. To say that neither of us were getting what we needed is putting it mildly. He was exhausted but pushing back and I was reactive and wishy washy.
Once I started actually enforcing the limits I was setting, he stopped pushing so hard.
My mom suggested I help him stay in his room instead of dealing with it when he was already out. She noted that this would allow him to do what he needed to do (internally rest and externally stay in his room) and by changing the parameters of our power struggle, maybe it would diffuse it all together. She noted that because I had let it go to such extremes, an extreme intervention might be needed since we had blown past all the earlier interventions in our power struggle escalations. She suggested I sit outside the door instead of being downstairs. When that didn’t work, she suggested I “help him stay in his room” by holding the door closed. But because we were coming to the interaction in the middle of a power struggle it became a power play for him to keep me holding the door. I was finally able to disengage from the power struggle when I bought a door monkey so that the monkey could help him have some quiet time and I wasn’t involved. Sure, I had to set and then hold the line about when the monkey would step in to give him a hand, but he wasn’t able to pull me back into the power struggle in the same way.
Luckily for me, he’s excited about packages and was actually excited to try it out when it came in the mail. The first day we used it he immediately relaxed into his audiobook and toys and didn’t even try to come out. I had to use it a few days at first and since then just a day or two here and there. There was one day where he cried and pulled on the door and I sat outside calmly repeating a few times that the monkey was going to help him stay in his room before announcing that I was going down to rest and doing just that. He stopped crying by the time I was down the stairs. Mostly once I started actually enforcing the limits I was setting, he stopped pushing so hard. It was such a relief for both of us.
*Please note that both the use of me holding the door shut and the door monkey were framed as us helping him have the rest time he needs. Neither were punishments and I remained available should he actually need to come out. Trust me when I say I never thought I would lock a child in their room but I was out of other options and needed to diffuse the situation that I had let escalate way too far.
I realized that my desire for things to be good for my son, combined with my conflict avoidance, were keeping me from following through the way I needed to. I didn’t want him to feel overpowered or isolated. To top it off, we were moving him into more independence and the distance growing between us was uncomfortable for me. I was accustomed to (and liked) him being in my ecosystem in the way a baby is. His ever increasing (and totally natural and healthy) separation from me is really painful for me. I didn’t want to give birth because I knew we’d never again be so close and as he grows I miss him! This feeling is natural and fairly common but acting from that feeling isn’t healthy for the child, who needs to grow and individuate. He needs me there making a safe space for him to grow into but my own discomfort was getting in the way.
Sure, I’d set a boundary but I wouldn’t keep it. If he was outreaching for love and connection I would meet that, even if it meant not holding to the line I had literally just set about staying in his bed or whatever else. Or other times I’d be so tired that I wouldn’t really track what I had said enough to follow through, I’d just say things instinctively without paying much attention (thank goodness I had good parenting modelled to me so what I’d say was usually fine, or at least would have been if I had followed through). I was also sometimes in the game of short term gain at the long term cost. I’d make the current moment easier at the expense of long term habits. But that’s probably a whole different blog post!
During this time of exploration, I spoke with my mom about our bedtime, nap/quiet time, and dinner struggles. Almost everything she suggested I KNEW in my head but my own “stuff” was getting in my own way. I wasn’t walking my talk and we were all suffering because of it. I wanted so badly to be close with my son that I was keeping him from growing into himself. He was looking to grow up but was also looking to make sure I was there with him. My lack of boundaries was showing him I wasn’t actually there in the way that mattered or that it wasn’t safe to become more independent. If I don’t follow through on what I say then who knows what else I’m not attending to. This feeds the power struggles. It is better for me to be uncomfortable holding the boundary and still do it than for me to shield us both from our feelings by being wishy washy and appeasing. The truth is that what I really want is for him to grow up into a healthy human and that means letting him leave not just the womb, but eventually the nest.
Of course once I started to change course there were a few tough days. However, WAY faster than I expected, my son was feeling better and pushing less and everything was running more smoothly in the house. I am feeling better on the parenting front and am working on allowing myself to feel uncomfortable when I do rather than trying to keep myself and my son from feeling our feelings. Although I’ll admit, I let dinner get a little out of hand today and the result was a messy bedtime for everyone so please know that this is still something I am actively (and compassionately) working on. No high horses here.
It has been a good reminder to me that knowing something intellectually isn’t the same thing as putting it into practice. I have been reminded of the importance of continuing to look at my own stuff and how it shows up to my parenting. And you know what? I have been able to make space for my son’s emotions without sacrificing follow through. And while I miss my son every day, it’s a good reminder to continue to allow our relationship to evolve as he grows. Plus, me modeling these ideas better and taking ownership over my blunders has allowed my husband (who is waaaaaay better than me at follow through) to be able to use these skills with greater confidence too. Who knew? This stuff actually DOES work!
Learn more about it at www.the7tools.com/strongfoundations
PS Quiet time is now a breeze and we have our afternoons back which allows for more swimming and other fun stuff! Most nights teeth and jammies are now taking 5 minutes which leaves waaaay more time for reading, cuddles, connection, and even some joy. You know. Now that we aren’t fighting all the time and all.