Friday, October 12, 2007

Coping with Parenting Anxiety, or Doing the Play-by-Play

It is written in stone that at some point, young children will engage in socially-undesirable behavior that will leave their parents mortified. Hitting, biting, scratching, soiling, name-calling, and food-throwing are but a short-list of embarassment-inducing behaviors. Why do kids do these behaviors desite our pleading with them to refrain? In short, kids are innately curious. They are curious about how we'll react; they're curious about what powers they can wield in an otherwise powerless position.

So, unless someone can figure out how to drain the curiosity out of a child (and really, who wants that?), the only avenue left for parents is to control their own reactions to unwanted behavior. If a child senses that a parent's anxiety over undesired behavior got her parent to react strongly, she will be curious to see if she can help bring about a similarly strong reaction again. The child is like a little scientist testing and re-testing her hypothesis. In order to quash the experiment, a parent will have to give the same, uninteresting result over and over again, until the child moves on to a new "hypothesis" to test.

So, how can a parent give a "boring" reaction to a child's throwing, cursing, spitting, (insert undesired behavior here)? By simply announcing the "play-by-play". This anti-parenting-anxiety technique requires the parent to simply "announce" what the child is doing, what emotions she might be feeling, and other possible strategies for coping with strong feelings. For instance, if a child bites her parent, the parent might say, "I see that you bit me. It looks like you're frustrated. I wonder if this pillow might be better for biting."

Sure, it's not a difficult strategy to use, but in the heat of the moment, it's easy to forget. That's why it's important to do the play-by-play at non-anxiety-producing times. For example, while a child is playing with blocks, you could say, "I see you're playing with blocks. It looks like you're stacking them to make a tower. I wonder how tall you plan on making this tower." I know it sounds a little hokey, but the more you practice it at non-anxiety-causing situations, the easier the words will come to you when anxiety wants you to react differently. When a child hears your calm, consistent reaction time and again, the more likely she is to move on to the next "hypothesis", whatever that may be. Perhaps it will involve some socially-valued behavior, such as sharing, in which you can "react strongly" with enthusiasm, love, and praise.


Jennifer said...

I think this is a beautiful way to weave storytelling into parenthood because it's yet another outlet for giving voice to the life narrative!

Let us know how it works!

Shannon said...

It works when I work it! The key is remembering to exercise those "mental muscles" so they work when I really need them!