“Thanks for not throwing that bowl at me kiddo!”
Lest you think I have some simple formula for creating Stepford children, let me share a little parenting scenario with you. First, some back story:
Like many parents of school-aged children, in my household, we struggle with screen time limits. It’s my fault, really–inconsistency strikes again. I enacted a “no-screens-during-the-week” rule. But then there was a weekday holiday, and I slid the limit. Then I had a deadline and needed to work intensely during some school day afternoons; the rule was overlooked.
I heard a friend mention that they use screens for driving to school since it’s not a very connected time anyway (you’re staring at the road, they’re trapped in the backseat until they’re 12), and it created a good impetus to get out the door in the morning. My weekday screen time boundary got completely washed away. For like a month.
Things were not going well. It was like I had cut the bottom off a piece of cloth and tried to sew it to the top to get a longer piece. More cooperation in the morning (getting out the door because he wanted to play his game) was shrinking his pleasantness and ability to cooperate at other times–the cloth was not growing.
The ramifications of my lapsed limit became unbearable. Earlier in the week I had mentioned in passing that we would soon be going back to our original limited screen week.
This morning when he asked, with a perfect combination of 7-year-old confidence and trepidation, “So, can I have your phone on the way to school?” I said, “No.”
He whined. I told him I understood his upset.
He argued. I explained my simple reasons once.
He said he was going to find my phone and play anyway. I acknowledged that he wanted to be in charge of my phone.
He demanded the phone. I said “no” again.
He stood by the kitchen table with his hand on his breakfast bowl and said, angrily,
“If you don’t give me your phone, I’m going to pick up this bowl and throw it at you.”
I responded, “I hear that you have strong feelings about wanting my phone. Please do not throw that bowl.”
Because I have a good understanding of the triune brain (short video overview here), I KNEW that he was in his LIMBIC brain and was emotionally driven. If I had launched downward into my triggered, emotional brain, I would have lost my cool and likely yelled, sending him further DOWN in his brain, instead of where I wanted him to go: UP.
The lower-level, FEAR driven brain would make him much more likely to lose control and fling the bowl. Loss of control was something I OFTEN saw from my boy when he was a toddler and preschooler. But, we have come a long way baby!
We’ve spent MUCH time and attention soothing and guiding his brain to grow toward being able to regulate itself–and I saw progress here. I recognized his threat for what it was–just a threat–and an indicator that he was holding on in his emotional brain: he had not completely flipped his lid and spiraled into the most dysregulated place.
After a bit more back and forth, he got in the car for our 15 minute drive to school. He asked a couple of more times why he could not have my phone. I explained again, briefly, and noted that it must be very hard to understand my reasoning and the change on the rule. Honestly, at 7, he’s not going to get my prefrontal cortex’s (THINKING brain) long-view perspective on WHY he can’t have my phone.
That’s when I found myself complimenting him:
“I noticed that you were able to control yourself and NOT throw that bowl this morning, even though you were really mad at me. That was your upstairs brain staying in charge of your downstairs brain. I really appreciate how much your brain is growing.”
Because I like to offer a vote of confidence that he will be able to “get to the next level” of keeping himself regulated, I added, “Next time you might be able to just STATE how mad you are, instead of threatening to throw a bowl.”
He didn’t say much, which was fine, and then he continued in his noble effort to reassure me that if he could just have the phone one day, he would totally be able to accept a “no” the next day (I know from experience that this is NOT yet the case–though it would be useless to point that out to him).
Was it hard to stay calm when he was threatening me? Yes. Has he ever actually thrown something? Yes. Has it been a while since he lost his cool (thinking brain!) enough to throw things. Yes. Did I trust that he was capable of maintaining his composure today. I did.
Yes, I could have regarded much of his behavior this morning as “unacceptable.” I could have made sure he knew that. But this new unacceptable behavior is a brain-step UP from previous behavior, and I know that parenting is a marathon, not a sprint.
Would focusing on how far he still has to go, instead of how far he’s come have actually helped either of us?
To that, I have to say, “No.”