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  • Shanna Donhauser

On Being Bigger and Stronger

One of my favorite parenting mantras comes from Circle of Security:

Always be bigger, stronger, wiser, kind

Whenever possible, follow your child's lead

Whenever necessary, take charge

Today's post focuses on that first line.

As parents, we need to be bigger and stronger than our children, while simultaneously being kind and having the wisdom required to balance our strength with our kindness.

In my work with families, I often see parenting styles clump to one extreme: authoritative or permissive. Authoritative parents tend to be too big and too strong. Permissive parents tend to be too kind. Neither strategy works alone. Developing the wisdom to balance out both responses, takes time and concerted effort. Parents with this wisdom are rewarded with a calm household.

Our children keenly observe us and our reactions. When we are unbalanced in our responses of strength and kindness, our children feel unbalanced and confused. They feel unheard, unseen, and overwhelmed with the impossible task of being bigger and stronger than their actual capacity.

Children look to us for guidance. How to act (behave), interact (connect), and assert themselves (autonomy/sense of self). Our bigness, our strength, helps them feel safe enough in the world to explore while containing them when they naturally test our boundaries. Our kindness allows them to learn from mistakes and reconnect.

So where do you land?

It's nearly impossible to objectively view ourselves accurately. Many find it equally hard to view ourselves objectively and with kindness. So how do we figure it out? Reflect on the specific experience of being with your child when they feel flooded by emotion.

Do you find yourself tuning out when your child throws a tantrum?

Do you feel anger or overwhelming frustration when attempting to calm your child?

Do you want to retreat or run away when your child is upset?

Each of these reactions may be indications that you struggle with the balance of being big, strong, and kind. So what do you do?

If you think you need to be bigger and stronger:

- Practice protective messages

Use opportunities in play and in life to protect and defend your child. For example, you might protect a favorite lovey from the imaginary "bad guy". Or you might talk to your child about how you'll help keep them safe at the playground (i.e. "we're going to have so much fun at the playground today. If you get scared or worried about a new friend or anything else at the playground, I'll keep you safe because I'm big and strong").

- Physically intervene

When your child is upset and overwhelmed by their emotions, practice physically intervening whenever possible. You may need to keep some distance in order to keep yourself safe, but sometimes a confident bear hug does a lot to help calm children. Remember that you are bigger and stronger than your child, and if you need to, you can and should step in to help physically contain them.

If you think you need to be kinder:

- Practice self-regulation

In order to respond with kindness and understanding, you need to be calm. Practice calming down your own physiology before responding to your child. Take a break, take some deep breaths, shake it off. As they say on airplanes, you must put your own oxygen mask on before attempting to help your child.

- Try to reorient

Remember your child's developmental capacities. Despite how it feels, your child is not personally attacking you. Developmentally, they are only capable of so much emotion. We all have limits and moments of feeling overwhelmed. Your toddler has a much lower threshold. Tantrums are normal. When you can anchor to that expectation, you'll realize that tantrums do not reflect on your ability to effectively parent your child. With that realization, many parents find that they can respond in a much more calm and kind way.

Try out these strategies and share your results. What worked? What didn't? Let's talk about it.

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