without fear of condemnation or punishment. Children naturally learn through their mistakes and deserve to be guided lovingly rather than punished or shamed. Punishment is way too much for kids to cope with and not only unnecessary, but causes the problems that most parents have thought it's addressing. Children who are supported rather than criticized when their parent isn't happy with their actions are empowered to learn and grow through their mistakes and generally maintain a higher self esteem.
But parents can't help having an annoyed or frustrated reaction
to their child at times, that's just normal. Parents are not only human, but mostly very stretched and stressed humans; parents often feel exhausted, lacking in support and often feel very under-appreciated! It's understandable that parents can feel very stressed as they juggle all the needs in the family. As long as parents stay in their role as mature caring parents, our children not only can cope with us having emotional responses to stressful situations, but they can learn a lot from the feedback of their parent's upset responses, especially when parents can adopt some of the following tips.
Less "you" statements leads to less stress
In the absence of learning a different or better way of communicating, parents can rely too heavily on "You" statements like; "you must ..", "you shouldn't ..", "why do you always ...", "why must you ...", "now you need to .... ", "you better fix this now ", "you need to do your homework", "you should make your bed", "that's not how you should do it", "you need to learn to be more responsible", "don't you dare ..", "don't you even think about it" - which can all feel so critical, blaming and can add up to being pretty overwhelming for children of any age when they hear quite a few of these "you" statements. Giving your child too many such "you" commands, requests and corrections puts you as the parent in the sergeant major role and can make it really hard, if not impossible, for your child to hold a sense of your humanness, to care about your feelings, to consider your needs and to respect your perspective. One of the challenges of parenting is to be a leader who is strong, confident, caring and fair while maintaining trust, open communication and connection..
The advantages of using "I" Statements.
"I" statements on the other hand, are a way of communicating your boundaries and limits to your child clearly, authentically and assertively but non-aggressively. The parent has the opportunity to show their feelings and provide great role modelling of how to express feelings without attacking, demanding, threatening or punishing. "I" statements (for children and adults alike) invite a more positive response than "you" statements. Here's some guidelines for expressing "I" statements (in no particular order):
Express what you see
Express what you feel about what you see
Express why you feel that
Give reassurance of trusting and caring for your child (if relevant)
Give child opportunity to change their behaviour or enter dialogue based on this information
Express what you expect of your child, but only if they don't figure it out themselves first.
Some examples are:
"I get scared (what you feel) when I see you waving your toy close to the baby (what you see) because the baby could get hurt (why you feel it) and I know you wouldn't like that to happen" (reassurance of trust). Clearly, if the baby is in danger, you'll need to also physically ensure the baby's safety, while giving your child the opportunity to modify their behaviour based on you sharing your observation.
"Because your play is so loud (information), even though it's great that you're having fun (reassurance of caring for their wants), I'm worried (your feeling) that the baby will wake up and be upset." (reason for feeling)
"When I see you running inside (information), I get worried (what you feel) that you might break something or fall and hurt yourself." (reassurance of care)
"I see that you're enjoying your play and that it's 6.30, I'm worried about you getting your homework finished. Would you like to talk through what homework you have on?"
"I hear you want me to play. I'm feeling stressed because I wish I could play with you (reassurance of wanting connection), but I need to make the dinner and can't do both."
"I feel sad when I give you food and you say "yuck", but it is ok that you don't like the mashed carrots." ... If no response "what's a different way that you could let me know you don't like the carrots?"
"It worries me when I see you put crayons in your mouth, they're only for drawing and could make you feel sick." ... If no response, "you can draw with the crayons but can't put them in your mouth."
Children benefit from receiving a message that's clear,
that leaves little confusion about what you feel and what you expect, yet remembering to give them the opportunity to figure out and voice what a better action would be. When settling limits It's best if your tone of voice conveys a sense of trust and positive expectation. Expressions of our emotions can impact our children strongly and are important for a child to get to know and relate to their parents as real people with real feelings, needs and limitations. It's also important to be very aware that children's feelings and actions can easily touch on a parent's backlog of unresolved hurts, which can elicit an emotional reaction in us parents that's out of proportion to the situation, so it's important to keep our expressions relatively mild so as to avoid intimidating, frightening or overwhelming our child.
When parents start to practice using more "I" statements,
they'll often be pleased and relieved to hear their child using similar vocabulary with others who they're unhappy with. What great modelling of identifying how they feel, naming their feelings, listening to the other's perspective and expressing what they want, need or expect from the other person.
Some parents exaggerate their disappointment in their child
to make a point in the hope that the child will feel guilty or ashamed, hoping that this will motivate them to avoid repeating their behaviour. But feelings of fear, guilt and shame do not motivate children to behave better in the long run, they only "work" in the short term because they instill fear of further discomfort which is neither healthy, constructive or necessary. Instilling fear, guilt and shame blocks a child's process of learning and development. Children are very sensitive to criticism and easily discouraged at this young age. Moralizing and guilt tripping weigh a child down emotionally making it very difficult for them to take responsibility and see the situation clearly. A child's upset and defensive feelings in response to their parent's criticism make it very difficult for them to think clearly or have empathy for others. In fact many studies show that the child will be more likely to repeat the behaviour that brought them scorn and criticism. It's also instinctive for people of all ages to have the urge to rebel when they feel judged and misunderstood.
Children need reassurance when their parent gets upset.
When you're annoyed at something your child has done, your child will feel those feelings from you and see it in your face and they generally benefit from a congruence between what they feel from you and what you say as long as you remember to express your feelings maturely and responsibly, without blaming, criticizing, shaming or yelling. On the other hand if you try to mask your feelings by just speaking sweetly when you're clearly unhappy, your child may well become confused and frustrated. If a parent masks their natural reaction too often, a child is also denied the learning that their actions have an effect on others.
The healthy balance is to
show your real feelings honestly but maturely offering important feedback and information for your child. So, to say; "oh dear I am very disappointed to see that you threw your bowl of food to the ground" is your real and honest response and gives him/her the information that throwing food on the floor stresses mum/ dad. Also, offering connection, warmth and reassurance will allow your child to learn rather than rebel or self-blame; "but t's ok honey, we can sort it out, what do we need to clean it up? .. Yes, good idea! Let's grab the sweeping brush".
If your child has become upset to see your disappointment,
that's understandable and they deserve support and empathy, perhaps; "I can see you're sad to see that throwing your bowl of food upset me" (sympathetic look) - "hey my child it's ok, I love you no matter what and care about all your feelings!" - big hug - lesson learned, your child's dignity is in tact and the connection has survived. "Now let's pick up the food and put it in the compost"
When the focus is on maintaining connection even when expressing boundaries ....
parents are more inclined to be aware of and take responsibility for the emotions they are bringing to the situation, hence more likely to focus on returning to a calmer more patient state, more likely to take a couple of deep breaths and self-regulate. If calming down takes longer, you can express; "ok I'm disappointed about this and I just need to take a minute to calm down, we can sort it out soon". If you're feeling very negatively towards your child, it's again best to focus on self-regulation, self-empathy, validating your own feelings and perhaps promise yourself to organize some listening time soon and then come back to speaking to your child maturely with non blaming or threatening "I" statements.
The child experiencing the natural consequence of the father/ mother's emotional reaction, while also gaining support and reassurance from their parent, learns about other people's boundaries in a way that's natural, non-threatening and congruent with the parent's real feelings, which gives clues to other people's real feelings in other similar situations.
What about imposing consequences?
If your child's not interested, they're very likely to change their mind if you manage to make it fun! If they still don't want to that's ok, don't worry that they'll never take responsibility unless you insist they do the right thing every time. Remember that you're fostering integrity and self-discipline rather than empty obedience. What's more important than your child helping you every time right when you ask is that they don't gather stressful feelings that they'll carry in their body relating to taking responsibility in future situations. Children are often more ready and able to take responsibility after their upset has subsided.
If your child is upset, prioritize listening to their feelings.
The parent expressing a boundary/ limit is often a catalyst for the child to feel, show, express and resolve any backlog of built up stress. When adults enforce external consequences ("ok you've spilled the juice, now you have to clean it up whether you like it or not and if not you'll only be allowed water until you've learned your lesson"), children generally experience it as a punishment rather than an opportunity to resolve and repair the situation willingly, a battle of wills ensues and you can expect more and more conflict and less cooperation as a result.
Children respond to and remember emotions much more than reason.
They can understand and respond to our boundaries and requests better when there's a congruence between our words and our non-verbal communication of our feelings. But expressing our real feelings to our children needs to be done sensitively as they are highly attuned to our feelings and a little bit of feedback from a parent like "ouch that hurts when you pinch me, I don't like that" can have a very strong effect on a child, so it's good if the parent can stay in their mature adult self and immediately show care for how the child received the boundary. Balancing tense moments with a bit of humour can also be a great way to relieve tensions and give reassurances of love, connection and support - "but you *are* allowed to give me a big hug" and give them a big silly dramatic hug!