A parent’s story
We interviewed Kathy, a mother of three (Harry 5 ½, Laura 4 and Tom 2), who came to the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’ classes with her husband, George.
Why did you first come along to The New Learning Centre?
Kathy: Purely for Harry, our 5 ½ year old. The other two are easy children. We’d got to the point where we didn’t feel in control. We were dreading what the next ten years would be like. Harry was already insolent to us, hitting his brother and sister, and wouldn’t do what he was told at home. The worst thing was the hitting when he got cross, and his inability to control himself. We’d tried ‘time out’ and taking his toys away, but the disputes just escalated. George dreaded coming home to put him to bed, and I’d come home to a nanny saying “I’ve had the worst day with Harry.” I was so worried she would leave.
The moment Harry was born he came out wide-eyed and shaking his fists. Even my mother said “That’s not normal for a baby”. He was diagnosed with heart problems at eight weeks, a hole in his heart and a valve not working. After four operations on his heart he is now fine, but I have subsequently learned that intense children like Harry often have physical problems as well as behavioural and social problems.
What about his behaviour at school?
Kathy: At school the teacher was frustrated with his behaviour and had him sitting at a table on his own so he couldn’t distract the other children or boss them around. It broke our hearts to hear him labelled ‘the naughty boy’. And he had no friends.
How did you hear about The New Learning Centre?
Kathy: I always kept in touch with my old friend Jenny. We had our babies at the same time. One day I told her I was having such a difficult time with Harry. A few days before he had pulled down my trousers and knickers in the middle of Marks and Spencers! I had the baby in a buggy and a bag in the other hand so I couldn’t stop him. Jenny said “Get in touch with The New Learning Centre. Do it now!”
My husband, George, was cynical. He thought we would find new-age claptrap philosophy. I didn’t think I could persuade him to come. But we met Gillian for an Initial Consultation, and it helped us just acknowledging the problem. We came away thinking that there was hope and that we would learn lots of skills. I remember her saying, “We work a lot with families who have the more tricky children, the ones with extreme temperaments.” It helped to hear someone who understood, and we knew she could help us.
Gillian said she wanted to meet the whole family for a family assessment. I’ll never forget that meeting. On the doorstep all Harry had to do was to shake Gillian’s hand, say ‘Hello’ and look at her. But Harry said, “Hello Jelly–Belly”, slapped Gillian’s hand and tried to push past her. Gillian closed the door with us still outside, and we had to start again. Twenty minutes later he finally did it and we came in the door. I realised at that moment how much I usually gave in when the going got tough and I had to face his resistance.
How did you find the parenting skills classes?
Kathy: At first it felt indulgent to be discussing our concerns about our children. But in the classes we had permission to talk. And I was so clear I wanted a happier, calmer home. I like peace and calm. All the parents in the class shared a feeling of frustration that we hadn’t achieved that calm. It was so encouraging to hear others’ stories of how they were coping with challenging children. I was inspired by knowing that all of us parents were practising the skills week after week. The Descriptive Praise was particularly weird. Like a new language. And as for Reflective Listening - I should be good at that, I’m a psychologist! I realised I was good at chatting, but not at listening for the feelings. Now Descriptive Praise is part of our lives, and I’m 20% better at listening, still a way to go I know. But Harry can now tell us he’s angry, and put his feelings into words instead of lashing out.
What is different at home now?
Kathy: It’s a transformed house! We now have lots more rules and routines, which have really helped. And we make the rules stick. Almost everything in our house has to be earned. The kids have responded so well to this. In the past, mornings were chaotic, so much screaming and nagging. Now the children are keen to earn rewards.
I know this sounds funny, but In the mornings they can each earn a slice of salami, which they wrap carefully in tissues and eat in the car on the way to school. It’s amazing how well they behave just to earn that slice! They’re all clear about their jobs, from putting drinks on the table to clearing plates away. Even homework, which used to be a big battleground, goes smoothly – largely because Harry can earn marbles which count towards TV time.
We’ve now got tools and the language for sorting out problems. We take more pride in ourselves as parents, probably because we feel more successful. We recently bought a new computer, and immediately George said to me ‘What are the rules for the kids for this computer?” Before the parenting skills classes we would never have thought that through, and we would have had to clear up the arguments which would inevitably have happened.
Are you still dreading the next ten years?
Kathy: Given his intense temperament, Harry will always be somewhat of a challenge. But we now have the skills and strength to cope with that. Did I tell you – I’m pregnant again, fingers crossed he or she will be one of the easier ones!
Here are some of the strategies that Kathy and George have put into place to achieve this transformation:
• Be in charge. The parents, not the children, decide what values will prevail in the home.
• Descriptive praise. Notice and mention every tiny little step in the right direction, even if the result is not yet what you would hope for.
• Reflectively listen. Instead of reasoning, rescuing or getting cross with an upset, angry or unco-operative child, listen reflectively. That means take a guess at what your child is feeling beneath the whingeing or sulking, eg “You really don’t want to go to bed now.” “I can see you’re so frustrated that things didn’t go the way you wanted.” “Even though you think you can’t do it, you’re being brave and having a go.”
• Provide a healthy lifestyle. For example, drastically limit the amount of time your children spend in front of a screen.
• United front. If you have a partner, take the time to sit down together with him or her to clarify your values and strategies.
• Prepare for success. Anticipate what could go wrong, and put routines into place to keep attitudes and behaviour positive.
• Establish clear and consistent rules and routines. Have the courage of your convictions! Children and teens feel more relaxed and confident when they know how to please us and how to stay out of trouble.
• Establish rewards and consequences. To help children get into good habits, arrange for them to earn the goodies in life.
• Take care of yourselves. One often over-looked way to do this is to ask for help. Acknowledging that the old ways are not working is a sign of strength rather than of weakness.