Because of the way our emotional brain and memory function, our experience as a parent is forever connected to our experience of having once been children ourselves. When events happen that remind us of something painful from our past, the emotional memory of that event gets reactivated. When this happens, our ability to think goes offline and we’re flooded with emotions rooted in experiences from the past.
A good starting point is to notice that when children are feeling close and connected they are delightful to be with. They are cooperative, helpful and obliging. On those mornings we might even be ready before we need to be. But when children lack this sense of connection, or when they harbour upsets, they lose their ability think well and find it hard to get ready on time. There’s a scientific name for this: “inhibited cortical functioning”. It means we can’t use our rational brains anymore.
According to parent surveys, 20-30% of young children have significant problems going to bed (Mindell et al 2006) and I think most families deal with some degree of bedtime struggle at one time or another. Resistance to bedtime is a big red flag that your child needs your help. And a good starting point is to try and figure out why they are struggling. In the vast majority of cases, I believe the causes are emotional.
In truth, however, almost all children at one time or another lash out at others – whether it be hitting, biting, kicking, scratching or hurling blocks. It’s tempting to think that we need to teach them that such behavior is not acceptable. But really, even very young children are quick learners. Children have excellent memories.
Handling children’s aggression brings us some of the most challenging moments as a parent. It’s all too easy to respond with annoyance, or plain anger. It seems that a child’s hostility has a way of making us lose sight of their goodness. We forget that more than anything they want to fit in, to do the right thing, to love others and feel loved. It can be hard to remember that, even in these emotional moments, they are doing their very best. When their behaviour isn’t working, there are good reasons.
Most of us enter parenthood looking forward to sharing the journey fully with our partner. We hope to carve up the practicalities, as well as talk and dream together about how to raise our children. We want to share what’s going well and what’s not, and to reflect on the details of the day. However, having listened to hundreds of parents, I know many discover that their parenting partner is less interested than they are in the finer points of child rearing, or directly disagrees with their way of doing things. This is the cause of much stress and tension in families. And the fact that much parenting advice suggests that you should be on the same page as your partner, only adds to the feelings of inadequacy.