“Terrified I’ve Damaged My Spirited Daughter”

In this episode: A mom writes that she’s recently noticed her 2.5 year old avoids looking her in the eye — as if she’s ashamed. She’s worried that her stern lecturing and irritation when setting limits has damaged her daughter’s spirit, and she wants to know if it’s too late to make reparations.

Transcript of “Terrified I’ve Damaged My Spirited Daughter”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury and welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to an e-mail from a mom who’s worried that the gentle discipline she’s been practicing throughout her two-and-a half-year-old daughter’s life may have caused some permanent damage to their relationship. She wants to know if she can now do anything to mend it or whether it’s too late.

Okay, here’s the e-mail:

“Dear Janet, I was having issues setting limits with my two-and-a half-year-old since we’ve been practicing gentle discipline, and then I discovered your blog and books. Everything you say resonates with me. I’ve only been applying your suggestions for a week and I see great results already. I have a question, I’m terrified that I damaged my spirited daughter. After reading your blog post Problems with Gentle Discipline, I realized that when setting a limit, I was getting irritated and I was lecturing for way too long. What I now realize is that ever since my daughter was very little, she has avoided looking into my eyes. Have I damaged her forever? Is she going to think now that I disapprove of her behavior?

I’m terrified because according to Erick Erickson, the age of shame versus doubt is between 18 to 36 months, and she avoided looking into my eyes during that entire time. I grew up feeling like I was a nuisance to my parents and I always felt I was a bad child. Is my adorable little girl going to feel that way too now or do you think I can fix it by changing my approach to limit setting now? Thanks so much for your blog and books. I own them in print and on Audible.”

Okay, well first of all, I just have to say that it’s never too late. If we’re making positive changes in the way we interact with our children, they will welcome this with open arms at any time. So I would love to put this mom’s mind to rest about that.

As far as damage, no, I don’t believe there’s damage that is irreparable. Yes, we avoid looking into someone’s eyes when we feel judged by them, when we feel like we’re getting lectured, that makes a lot of sense, right? But if that changes and now this person shows us consistently that they don’t judge us, that they’re on our side, that they don’t lecture us to try to teach us lessons because that actually isn’t the way children learn the lessons, and I’ll go into that in a minute, then we do open up to that person again and we do risk looking into their eyes when we’ve done something that we both know we shouldn’t have done.

That’s the important point I want to make here. Children know. They may not know the very first time that they tried hitting us, which usually happens towards the end of the first year of life. That little pat that’s a little stronger than a pat. Very soon they notice that there are things that they do that are not welcome, that are not okay, and yes, it’s good to remind children of those things. That’s not okay, I can’t let you do that, but that’s not really what children need most in these situations.

What children need most is to know that we are there to stop them whenever they cross a line, that we’re there to physically stop them, but that we’re coming from a place of being on their side and understanding that these are impulses that they fell into.

It’s not that they need the lesson or the lecture again. They don’t need to know all the reasons they shouldn’t do that and what it does to people. They really do get that part very quickly and, even if there is benefit to discussing it further, it’s usually not in that moment of misbehavior. It would be later when we’re having a nice time together and we bring up, “By the way, you know, sometimes you have this tendency to do this behavior with me and I have to tell you, it kind of bugs me. It feels like you’re trying to tell me something there and I would love for you to tell me another way.”

There are ways that we can get further into these kinds of lessons, saying something like, “You know, grandma is really sensitive to sound and when you go there and you’re all exuberant and excited and you’re screaming and being loud, it’s really hard for her.  So is it okay if when we go there that I remind you? Maybe we could have a little sign together where I make this little sign with my hand or I put my finger to my lips, and remind you that it might be a little loud for grandma.”

We’re coming from a place where we are with them, not against them. That’s really the most important aspect of setting limits.  And this definitely doesn’t mean permissiveness in any way shape or form. We can be very, very strict in terms of not letting our child do anything the slightest bit obnoxious, but it’s the way that we do it that matters. It’s the taking them aside with us so that we can save them from themselves in those moments, essentially, or just doing something smaller, like blocking when things get a little too out of hand. You know, “That’s a little strong there, I’m going to stop you. That might be too much for him.”

It sounds like this mother is understanding some of this approach now and all she has to do is start doing it, and her daughter will shift and her daughter will trust her more.

As I said before, children are so ready to do this. Once the door is open, they step in very, very quickly. They want to feel closer to us. They want to feel that our bond is one of protecting them and helping them rather than being irritated by their behavior.

Now are we never going to get irritated by their behavior? Of course we are, but if we understand reasonable expectations and if we do consistently come from a place of being on our child’s side most of the time, then those are wonderful times for learning, too.

Our child is more sensitive to our being uncomfortable and more on our side in terms of not wanting us to go there, wanting to try to stop themselves if they can, because those are exceptions, not the way that we always are whenever they do something impulsive or that they shouldn’t do, whenever they make those mistakes.

Then if we really feel like we’ve crossed a line and later we think about it, then we can do this wonderful modeling of apologies and repair, and explain. Also, this is helpful for emotional intelligence for a child. It’s the best way for them to learn through something that’s actually going on, through an experience they’re actually having with their mother being really irritated and annoyed, and then later we say, “Wow, I was so irritated and annoyed. This is why I think that happened. This is where I went. I was tired because I didn’t sleep well last night and then you did this and that’s just something that always bugs me, then you didn’t stop when I asked you and I was just kind of too tired to stop you myself.”

We can go over the process behind getting to those emotional places. That’s a wonderful education to give our child and ourselves. It’s great to go over and figure out, okay, what happened here? What was I seeing here that made me lose my temper?

A lot of the times with us, we’re afraid our child isn’t getting it, they’re not learning the lessons, which forgets that they probably do know the lessons but that they’re behavior got the better of them. Their impulses got the better of them and they went into it for a number of reasons that I’ve gone over in several of my articles.

That’s one we can avoid by understanding more about developmental behavior and where children are with their impulse control, in their brain development. They don’t have a lot of impulse control at this age and if they are in a state of stress or emotion, then they have even less, so understanding all those things will help us to actually perceive the situations in a way that doesn’t get us upset.

Another reason that we commonly get upset that I was thinking about when I read this letter from this parent, what she says at the end is, “I grew up feeling like I was a nuisance to my parents and I always felt I was a bad child.” This is important to understand. What commonly happens, and Magda Gerber talked about this, is that we have repressed feelings from our own childhood that our children tap into and, in this case, whatever this mother went through as a child, feeling that she was shamed, feeling that she was bad, she had to hold in those feelings of shame and hold in all the emotions like fear and anger that were causing her to act out as children do with impulsive behavior.

When her daughter is behaving in these ways, it’s tapping into this mother’s past and that makes it very easy for us to get upset, to get irritated, to feel those feelings again that we had as a child. The way that we can work with that is, first of all, recognizing it, understanding what happened to us, which this mother does sound like she really understands. Then giving that child all the love and the understanding and the empathy that we wish she would have received, blasting her with all of that, and then taking her and placing her aside in a safe place surrounded with love so she doesn’t interfere with our relationship with our own child, so she doesn’t get involved in that.

This is a process we can work through with a therapist, or just maybe start to work through on our own, healing that child, because if we don’t, that child is going to keep entering our relationship with our own children. This is actually how being a parent, being a thoughtful, aware, respectful parent can be very healing for us.

But again, what I want to end with here is the most important thing, it’s not too late and you haven’t damaged her, so keep going. Every day is a new day, every moment is a new moment. Children give us so many chances and they’re so forgiving and they’re so ready to move on with us to more closeness and understanding of each other. Go for it.

I hope that helps.

Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also, I have an audio series if you really want to get into detail and the nitty gritty of some of these issues and hear how my consultations go sometimes where we go back and forth and we try to figure out what’s going on. These are individual recordings of my private consultations, parents discussing their specific parenting questions and issues. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

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