Shifting perspectives and reframing thoughts is one of the most interesting things about coaching. There is a whole world of possibilities in the palm of our hands and yet we often have the same pattern of thoughts, beliefs and expectations all throughout our lives.
Reframing can make the biggest difference in our relationships – especially in the context of how children are viewed and treated in our society.
The idea of the ‘difficult child’ is one that I think should be deconstructed right from the outset – the collic baby that doesn’t sleep unless they’re held, the terrible twos, the boy that can’t sit still in class, the teen with the attitude. They are all social constructions. They are labels we impose on children who are doing what they need to do at developmentally appropriate stages. Why? In order to justify our own behaviour towards them.
See, even before we have our own children we have all of these imagined ideas about each stage of raising kids and the labels that go along with them. After my first son was born I began to witness before my eyes a mismatch, a huge gap, between what I expected of my baby, what I expected of my reactions and what was actually happening between us.
My first son refused to play the part (the role I imagined him to play) from his very first night in this world. He was finally born after 31 hours of labour and I finally thought I could sleep after being awake for days. And he began crying. And when the nurse took him away so I could sleep he screamed louder and I could hear him down the hall. And I got up and I took him back and I held him and he was quiet. That was night one!!
Then I took him home from the hospital and he wouldn’t sleep in a bassinet. He wouldn’t sleep safely on his back. He wouldn’t sleep without being breastfed. Then, as a toddler he wouldn’t stay with anyone but me and he wouldn’t let anyone put him to sleep. He would scream if anyone else approached him. He hated kindergarten. He refused to go to school and his anxiety grew each day we made him go. He wanted to be with his family – all of whom were at home. Who could blame him – he wanted the best of life. Like we all strive for as adults. Every single thing this kid did went the opposite way to what I had imagined. But I went with it because I knew that he was in tune with something that most of us have lost a long time ago. He was in tune with his instinct. And so, we slept with him, I breastfed him, we held him, we kept him close and we nurtured his emotional needs as a priority.
And each time I succumbed to his cry. Each time I attended to his needs I felt I was going against the grain. By following my instincts and my child’s needs from day one I began to see myself drifting further away from mainstream parenting.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was evolving as a parent – a process that continues every day. But to evolve I had to let go of all the imagined ideas I had about what I should be (from a 30 year old professional who had just finished a PhD to a mother) and who my child should be (from a rag-doll that I could take anywhere to a fully autonomous human being). And I had to be OK with letting go of all the expectations and advice of the people around me.
There are so many ways I could frame the behaviours of my eldest son as challenging. And I did for so long. Everything felt so difficult and scary. But when I actually look back I realise that he made me the mother I am and taught me how to be more considerate human being. And all his challenging behaviours were not even close to manipulation but only his emotional needs that he craved to be met by his parents. Our hobbies, friendships, work and self-care began to look different what before we had kids. And so we formed a rhythm that looked different to most but suited our family.
My children allowed me to reconnect with my instincts as a biological being and an animal mother first. All the toughest times have been the biggest blessings. And in following our children most natural needs I have experienced the beauty of re-attuning to my own instincts and discovering the benefits of co-sleeping, breastfeeding until toddlerhood, connecting with and tuning into the individual characters of each of my children. I have to give credit for it all to my first child who wouldn’t let me get away with anything less than attuning to my baby – my initiation into motherhood.
I know now that if I force my son to be anything other than who he is in an attempt to control him, I would do his development and our relationship such a dis-service. I could have broken his spirit in my desire to change his behaviour from that very first night in the hospital – what if he gets used to being held? Or as a five year old boy who refuses to go to school – what if he never learns to read? A few nights ago, after learning how to read all on his own – at seven years old – he turned to me in bed with his book and said ‘I love reading’ mum! And it’s moments like that that I remember why I trust my child and why I continue to choose to distrust mainstream beliefs about parenting and learning.
And sometimes it takes years of nail-biting patience for your fear to be elated because going against the mainstream is scary. There’s no one to blame. Fear is the biggest reason we seek to control people and it is everywhere and perpetuated by everyone – including professionals. These fears have been taught to us by a society that needs mothers to be separated from their babies as fast as possible. A society that compares, competes and steals our most precious time away from our families. A system that needs us to be working so that we can pay someone else to babysit our own children.
And it took years before I actually realised that going against the grain and trusting my child was the truest, most authentic thing I have ever done. And I look at him now and I see beyond each ‘challenging’ behaviour and I see the ways that he shows his authentic independence and his strengths in communicating and his ability to stay true to himself and his free spirit. And that free spirit reverberates through the way we live our lives – from our breezy daily rhythms to our world schooling adventures.
So, what is your story about yourself, your child, your family? How can you flip the script when challenging times arise! Build on the strengths of each member of your family, see your kids for who they are and where they are at. Give the difficult child all of the attention they crave and do it before they ask for it (in all the various ways they ask for it).
Understand that the labels and narratives about your child are not FACTS. Reframe the narrative, change your own approach towards your child and watch the entire family dynamic change.