Friday, December 27, 2013

The Parenting Diet: A New Year's Project for Family Wellness

"I love your post about grooming techniques however as a child of this I have a really hard time getting away from it in my parenting. I do a lot of the "if you don't do this we can't do that" sort of thing and yet I struggle to find other ways to get my needs completed while not using threats or bribery... I'd love a post on some suggestions to get out of this cycle if you are up to it! Thanks!"

This is a good catch. The way we parent our children will develop a foundation of interacting with other people. Conditional behaviors, whether negative or positive, teach our children that relationships are based on payments given and services rendered. Some people might desire to live this way, but blindly teaching a child to accept this as normal opens up the door to grooming.

What is grooming? It's a technique, a method that mixes positive manipulation (bribery, praise, gifts) with negative control (threats, deprivation, pain) that slowly, over time, breaks down the child's autonomy or blurs boundaries. This can be done deliberately so that the child is trapped into an abusive relationship, such as for sexual molestation.

But it can also be done unintentionally by passing on a cycle of learned behavior, and this is where parenting method comes into play. Parenting with punishment, threats, deprivation and bribery, even while avoiding physical punishment, can still weaken self-will and blur boundaries. (Read about praise and rewards here.)

This is, incidentally, why I have cautioned about using praise to manipulate or win the affection of children. Often, people mistake this warning to mean we are never to appreciate or uplift our children. I'm speaking to the way we use our naturally higher status as parents and the child's natural propensity to want to please us to then control the child for an outcome we desire.

That higher status is built into the relationship. We are the older, wiser, stronger, larger, smarter, richer people in the relationship. The other person (the child) has to do everything first- learn a language, learn how to walk, heck even learn how to use the toilet. Children are completely dependent on us for survival and for fulfillment of basic emotional needs.

It is extraordinarily simple, then, to use our higher status and the child's dependency to manipulate situations so we can get what we want (and as parents raising children, usually what we think is needed.) If we can give everything to the child, we can take everything away. If we can light up our child's day, perhaps we should demand something in return, right?

Despite how tempting this is, this way of conditional living stunts us. Not only the children, but ourselves as well. No one wins when a relationship is one sided or when one person is being tricked/manipulated/threatened to do what the other person wants. It also preps our children to take their new role in adult relationships, whether victim or perpetrator, the cycle will be repeated.

Ok, so you're reading this and nodding your head. It all makes sense. The real nitty gritty here is: how in the world do we implement an unconditional way of living with infants, toddlers and beyond? How does anyone do that? Stages are tough, time is pressed, patience is short.

It's a tall order, especially if we have a lot to sort out from our own childhood. Breaking old habits and ingrained behavior is one of the most difficult things to do, but for our children and our own ongoing wellbeing, it is well worth it. So even if you worry that you aren't sticking to it 100%, or maybe 10%, every effort is worth it and every time you practice, things get easier.

Stage 1: Detox

The first stage is the hardest. As with a dietary detox, it is painful and can be wrongly identified as an illness. Have you ever done a detox or elimination diet? As you shed the harmful things in your diet, you feel ill. You feel achy, have migraines, random rashes, even a fever, vomiting and more. Someone not aware of how a detox works can be spotted easily. "Oh, I tried that new health diet but 3 days into it, I got horribly sick! I guess I need my grains more than I thought!" or "That herbal liver support gave me a migraine and a rash. Must be junk!"

Well, this is how it works when flushing your parenting method, and you will have similar complaints and be at risk of making a similar yet wrong conclusion. As you detox the threats, bribery, deprivations, time outs, false praise, emotional attacks and more, you will see all of the harm come out of your child. Your child will act out to put it simply. There will be screaming, crying and testing. All of the hurt, fear and yes, anger, will come out. All of the things your child has wanted to say will come out. As the detox continues, your child might test you fiercely, trying to find out if you are going to stay with this or fall back into punitive parenting.

Don't make the mistake of quitting a few days or a few weeks into this detox period and saying that unconditional parenting was to blame. Take the opportunity of a detox to forge new, stronger bonds with your children and to heal from any past hurts.

Parental detoxes are best started when you have the most ability to be successful. Avoid parental detoxes around holidays, heavy work/school schedules, recent sickness/death, pregnancy/adoption or other big life events. Choose the most laidback time of the year. One rule of thumb: when is it easiest for you to potty train? That's probably the right time for detoxing.

Unless your children are very young, begin with a family meeting. Directly address the family dynamic and discuss how things are changing. Encourage participation and ideas. Shape this into what works best for your family. Some might make charts, others might make a family mission statement and sign it. This is a great New Year's project. Keep it stress free and don't pressure the children, as some might already start displaying confusion or negative feelings.

Following the process of dietary detox, go slow. Let me say that again. Go slow. This isn't a movie and you won't turn into a champion boxer or fall in love in a 30 second scene. Introduce one unconditional concept and then work on it for a few weeks. Don't try ten at the same time. Don't think you will completely change your life overnight. That is a set up for feeling guilty and breeding confusion. Just as you would eliminate dairy and wait 6 weeks, so should you eliminate threats and wait 6 weeks. Then move onto another one.

Pick out the most likely culprit. Do you yell all day? Start on that one. Are you always telling your child to go sit in the corner? Tape off the corner. Is it a constant fight over how many minutes the child gets to watch tv/play videogames? Work on deprivation. Whatever one it is for you, pick one and expect to work on it for a long time. You and your children deserve a long term investment, not a quick fix that exhausts everyone and fails.

Stage 2: Nourish

Going back to our analogy about detoxing the body, it's not enough to merely remove the harmful food from our diets. We need to replace the harmful food with something nourishing. Say, for example, that grains were harming your gut so you removed them. You need to replace them with bountiful amounts of foods that nourish you. A "glutened gut" is painful, but feeling fatigued, faint, dizzy and depressed due to not eating nourishing food is also painful and can set you up for yo yo eating.

Watch out for yo yo parenting. If you find yourself resorting to original parenting methods, it's a sign that your toolbox is light and your fuel gauge is on empty. Spend time researching your one chosen problem area (threats, bribery, manipulative praise, yelling, etc). Find out what can replace these behaviors. Figure out the underlying problem and then look for different ways to resolve it.

At this point, parents tend to have a revelation. There isn't a behavior problem. They realize there's a relationship problem.

Example: All that bribery might have been necessary because the child feels he is asked to do more than his siblings and has grown resentful. He feels used, so he aims to use his parents by encouraging a cycle of bribery. Instead of continuing in this cycle, the parents have detoxed, listened to his complaints and acting out, and are ready to provide solutions. What could they do? They could set out a structured chore plan so that the other siblings don't shirk. They could make a commitment to stop "leaning on" him, and set firm boundaries to ensure he isn't expected to cover everyone else. They could fill up his "emotional bank" with deposits merely out of love and not with strings attached.

Example: A mother who feels she can't get her child to do anything without a threat realizes that her life is moving quickly. When asked what her most commonly used parenting phrase is, she says without hesitation, "Hurry up!" Hurry, c'mon, let's go, over here, get moving, what's taking so long, where are you...Do you hear these words a lot in your home? It could mean restructuring is in order. A child being obstinate in this situation, especially a toddler, most likely indicates emotions such as confusion, stress and being overwhelmed. The mother started to think her toddler was being defiant and making her late. After working to restructure her day and work in much longer prep times, she realized her child was stressed out and hurting. (Read The Day I Stopped Saying "Hurry Up" for inspiration).

Example: It's not always about the children, either! A mother who feels that she yells all the time realized she was burned out and depressed. Her yelling was a last resort that became an all-the-time resort. She felt she didn't have the mental or physical stamina to guide her children all day long. Soon enough, she was "couch parenting" and yelling to get results. Of course, the hard thing about yelling is that children grow accustomed to it, requiring more yelling. As the mother began her detox, she started to notice it stemmed from other relationships and not the parent/child relationship at all.

Her marriage was rocky and her mom had moved in and was very overbearing, causing a ton of stress. Instead of addressing those relationships, she had subconsciously burdened her parenting relationship. What could she do? Awareness is a huge step in these scenarios. Just being aware of WHO or WHAT is truly causing the stress can do wonders for letting go of it or keeping it away from the children. Implementing strict self care is helpful, such as absolutely committing to one hour of exercise a day, or a daily shower, or a weekly meeting for a hobby (painting, music, dance, etc). Actually taking that leap and working on a tough marriage or unresolved parental baggage can be amazingly freeing and energize you enough to break the yelling habit. (Join the Yell Free Year Challenge.)

Some ideas on nourishing 

Commit to a family activity together. Even if it's a walk around the block every night after dinner, it's still nourishing. Just as that one apple is only one apple, but it's a healthy one for you, so is every little step you take in this department.

Relieve pressure or stress wherever possible. Pick your fights, or in this case, pick your stress. Create bubbles throughout the day or week where things can be laidback. This lets children continue the detox process and reconnect with you. Leave space after dinner for hanging out together. Go on a vacation if you can but make it a relaxing one without a schedule.

Promote self-care and boundaries. Ensure each child has personal property, personal space and personal time with the parent. Ensure YOU are caring for yourself daily. Yes, daily. You must be actively working on your health if you want your children to be heart, mind and body.

Bring in the big guns. If things are really out of sorts or you feel you learn better with direct interaction, seek out a therapist or teacher. Attend a seminar. Go to a parenting meeting or group. Often, parents use certain methods because that's all they've seen, and they have no other reference point.

Committing to a change in your parenting is a journey that takes time and baby steps. Again, don't add too many new ideas and don't go too fast. Give yourself a wide buffer for forgiveness and change. Expect things to get crazy before they get better. Dedicate time to caring for yourself and resolving stresses in other areas of your life or from your childhood so that you can break the cycle and provide new skills to your children. This is a hard process and can be unpleasant at times, but as you begin to heal together as a family, it will be well worth it.

Related blog posts:

Protecting children from abuse:

The problem with gentle parenting:

You aren't enough:

The house can wait:

Related parenting resources:

Knost is raising 6 children with gentle parenting and has released 3 books on the topic:

Laura has a HUGE treasure of articles on gentle parenting:

A super inspirational mom stops yelling:

This place is great for asking advice and developing a community:

Dulce and Samuel bring charity back into faith:

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