About Me

I am a parent coach. I received my MSW from Simmons School of Social Work and have been a licensed social worker practicing in the greater Boston area for over 20 years. My dream has always been to work with parents on the most important job in their lives. In my practice and in my blog I want parents to be heard, supported and informed in order to feel empowered to be effective as parents. I love helping parents find joy and mastery in their parenting.

"Stop trying to perfect your child, but keep trying to perfect your relationship with him" - Dr. Henker

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Misbehavior, Mistakes and Self Esteem

One dilemma that comes up in parenting is wanting to instill the drive for positive, productive, accomplished behavior, but not wanting to produce children that don’t have the skills to manage when they are not great at something, or when they try and fail.

Sometimes children make mistakes, and sometimes they misbehave.  When they make mistakes, we can provide an environment safe enough to admit the mistake.  We can encourage them to try to do something to correct it if possible or appropriate.  It is okay for children to feel upset that they did something wrong.  This is how they develop a conscience, and this is how they discover that it feels better when they don’t misbehave!

What we want to avoid is children feeling like they “are bad” as opposed to have acted in a bad way.  This sense of feeling like one is bad is shame.  Shame is a devastating emotion, and gives rise to feelings of depression, and low self esteem.

Self-esteem is a bit of a controversial concept these days.  Some people think parents got too conscious of self esteem by making sports teams less competitive, giving every child a trophy, emphatically praising every scribbled picture, ignoring misbehavior in the name of not stifling their creativity

I believe that children need to love themselves, and feel that they are basically good.  This does not come from letting children misbehave rather than hurt their feelings, giving every member of the team an MVP trophy, or praising things that the children know themselves are not very skillfully done.

Children feel good when they are unconditionally loved, when we listen to them, and they know that they are seen and heard.  Children feel self esteem when they are taught what the limits are, get firm but kind responses when they test them, and appropriate consequences when they misbehave.  They feel good about themselves when they get very specific praise for their accomplishments, and in age appropriate ways begin to do tasks for themselves successfully. 

It is great for them to be in an environment where they can try new things, and know they will be rewarded for effort even if it takes time to succeed at the new task.  They benefit from hearing that everyone isn’t the best at every task; everyone has their own strengths and challenges.

They thrive when they know that everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes behaves inappropriately, but that they can be corrected or disciplined without feeling shame, i.e.: feeling that they are intrinsically bad.  They thrive when they know discipline occurs in the context of unconditional love.

 It can be comforting to remember that the most effective form of teaching children is modeling ourselves the behavior we would like to see from them. If they see us misbehave or make a mistake, and we can admit it and talk about it, they are much more likely to be able to do so as well.

For misbehavior, we can emphasize that the behavior was not appropriate but we will always love them! Then it is important to do the teaching about what was problematic about the behavior. It can be easy for us as adults to think that children know as much as we do about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior.   In reality, they don’t necessarily intuitively know that, and it’s our job to teach them.

If they have been previously told about a specific misbehavior, and continue to do it, we can establish consequences for misbehaving, that we put into effect quickly and consistently, if possible without losing control or yelling, and without long lectures.  These are not effective.

If they make a mistake, we can point out that everyone makes mistakes, the important thing is to own up to it, apologize and if possible make amends.

There is an important difference between misbehavior and mistakes, although with children, it can sometimes be hard to tell which is actually happening!

Most parents have the experience of coming into a room, literally seeing a child obviously misbehaving or breaking a family rule, and when confronted, the child denies it.  Or similarly, a child accidentally spills something, but they blame it on a sibling. If this happens frequently, or over time, it may be a sign that children are feeling so worried about misbehavior, or making a mistake that they need to lie about it by denying it or blaming someone else.

There are mistakes like accidentally knocking over your water with your elbow, which are unintentional.  These things happen, and it’s great to have a handy phrase like, “oops, a mistake, it happens.” If appropriate the child can help in cleaning it up.  If this happens frequently it may be helpful to see of there’s something preventative that can be done, by providing a cup with a lid on busy mornings or

Children can also insist on doing a task like pouring water for themselves when they don’t yet have that fine or gross motor skill motor needed for the task. 

This is an instance where balance is really important.  Children really benefit from learning to take risks, and try things, even if they fail. It’s so important for them to be able to do that in a safe place like your home.

But the busy morning rush on a school day might not be the best time to try.  So again, preventatively, you can try to find a small plastic picture with a lid that’s easier to negotiate, or have the liquids all poured out before the child comes to the table.  In the interest of time, and your own sanity you might just need to pour out the drink, despite the child getting upset about wanting to do it herself.  There is still an opportunity to empathize, “You feel angry and sad that you can’t pour the milk yourself today, that’s a yucky feeling.  We’re in a rush, but on Saturday morning everyone can do their own pouring!”

 You might find yourself in a power struggle every morning because you’re preschooler wants to zip their own jacket, but you need to get them in the car quickly, it’s a set up for stress all around. 

In that case I recommend saying, “you want to zipper your own jacket-good for you.  We don’t have time for that now, but when we get home lets play a pretend game about going outside and you can try again.” 

Or, “we are in a hurry this morning.  I’m going to set the timer for 5 minutes and you can try to zipper yourself, if the timer goes off we have to leave the house, but you can try again next time.”

Or even, “I know you wanted to zipper yourself and your disappointed because you can’t, that’s frustrating.”  Sometimes just validating the feelings can help diffuse the upset. Sometimes she will still cry and you’ll have to carry her crying and flailing to the car, but she will know that she has been heard, and over time that is very meaningful.

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