One thing that isn’t on the notes that we discussed is the importance of boundaries and consequences. It’s important for us to remember that connecting emotionally with our kids, joining with them, and looking at the underlying needs/emotions beyond the surface behavior doesn’t at all mean we should be indulgent. As an example, I think it would be weak and indulgent to respond to a child who’s crying and tantruming in public because he doesn’t want to leave somewhere by asking, “Are you upset? Why are you upset? It’s OK. We can talk when you’re ready.” And leave them crying and being upset, and not making them leave–giving them control over the situation. It doesn’t feel good to them or to you to allow their emotional states to dictate what is happening. A more appropriate response would be something like, “I can see that you are upset. Do you want to tell me about it? Ok, well, we can talk when you are ready, but right now we need to get in the car. You can either come right now on your own or I’ll help you get in the car. “ These are subtle distinctions, but important ones.
Sometimes they don’t know why they are upset—they just feel it. What’s important is that we let them feel that we care about how they are feeling, but also that we provide some limit and structure to the situation. For an older child, when she is losing it at bedtime, we can say something like “I know it can be hard sometimes and you can go ahead and let your feelings out. I’ll be here for you if you need me, and I can just listen if you want to talk or I can just sit here with you. In 5 minutes we’re going to turn off the light so you can get to sleep, but I can be here for you however would feel best to you for the next 5 minutes.” Our non-verbal tone of voice, body posture, facial expression matter a lot in how we come across.
I saw a mom at the park this afternoon who had a son who was about 5 or so. He was being a bully on the play structure and the mom didn’t intervene (saying she didn’t want to solve his problems) until another mom let her know that he wasn’t letting the other kids go down the slide, etc. The mom reprimanded him at which time he started calling her stupid and throwing sand. She told him they had to leave and gathered their things and kept trying to get him to leave, but never enforced it. They were still there when I left.
A way this mom could’ve been both attuned to his emotional state AND enforce boundaries would be to tell him that the way he was acting wasn’t OK and that they were going to leave (it might be OK to give him a second chance with a clear warning about what would happen with any future infractions depending on the situation and severity). When he started calling her stupid and throwing things, she could say “I can see you are really angry and disappointed about leaving the park. We can’t stay at the park because you didn’t make good choices, so we are leaving now. You can either walk yourself to the car or I will take you to the car. It’s your choice.” And then make it happen.
When we tell them “I know you’re having a hard time” or “I can see you are really upset” or whatever we say to connect with them emotionally and to let them feel felt, we also MUST expect behavior to meet our expectations, give consequences. We do want to offer emotional connection, but we never want to indulge their behavior. Again, it doesn’t even feel good to them to allow their emotional states to drive the situation.
Emotionally responsive parenting is at the heart of optimal development, but emotionally responsive parenting isn’t at all about being indulgent.