3 Ways to Confront Really Little Ones

3 Ways to Confront Really Little Ones

The Gordon Training International official P.E.T. Facebook page recently shared a humorous video of why some parents don't seem to get anything done.

I can refer to it as funny because I am far removed now but I remember feeling exasperated and burnt out A LOT back in the day. I did a fair amount of "No!"ing, desperate to finish the housework so when the baby napped I could have some precious me time.

I wish I had known about confronting really young children, especially these three strategies from Dr. Thomas Gordon's P.E.T. in Action: How Family Training Dramatically Improves Family Functioning.

First, as way of contrast, let's review how we assert our needs with a child who does have verbal ability. 

We calmly state a strong, three part Confrontive I-Message containing:

  1. a non-judgmental description of the child's behavior
  2. our feelings about it
  3. its concrete and tangible effects on us

If our child resists or becomes defensive, we Shift Gears to listen with empathy so they cool down and are able to hear us when we again assert ourselves.

Now, with the little ones, we tweak the I-Message part . . . 

1. The Guessing Game

Dr. Gordon says this is a special type of I-Message in which the parent provides the solution.

Say our one and a half year old does not want to sit at dinner but would rather tour around with her father and eat swinging in his arms. (Daddy has done this a few times already.)

We can -- with simple words and body language -- make it clear that we want smooth and shared mealtimes: "I love to eat together!" while   placing her in her highchair. (Translated into a three part Confrontive I-Message, that would be: "When you refuse to sit down, I feel frustrated because I don't like to eat alone at the table.")

If our daughter becomes upset, she's in a hard place. Why? She lacks the verbal ability to tell us exactly what she wants and the resources to find her own alternative solution.

Moreover, it's hard to comply since she would have to regulate her emotions first! That's where Shifting Gears to Active Listen can help: "Oh, sweetie, you just don't want to sit. You really were looking forward to going around with Daddy."

Then, temporarily setting aside our desired solution and recalling the P.E.T. tenet that all behavior is simply to meet needs, we can shift our focus to the cause of our daughter's request

Here, possible needs and creative solutions might include: 

  • Fun - Perhaps Daddy can do his tour of the house with her before the meal? Has she spent a lot of time in her chair already? if so, might she be able to have an earlier meal at another location?
  • Connection - Can she use some more time with her father on a regular basis? Would she enjoy more company at the table, like her beloved stuffed animal?
  • Power & Choice - Would she like to be involved in choosing her snack or making her placemat? (Dr. Laura of Aha Parenting has some great ideas.)

Let's pause and acknowledge that, when it's a roly-poly baby, it's easier to want to go this route:

Parents have to use this trial-and-error method very frequently with infants when they whine incessantly, when they’re restless and pestering, when they can’t get to sleep, when they throw their food on the floor. The guessing game works effectively because when infants do things that are unacceptable to their parents, there’s a reason for it — usually a very logical reason.”
— Dr. Gordon, P.E.T. In Action: How Parent Training Dramatically Improves Family Functioning, pages 159-160

It's often a different story as our kids reach toddlerhood and beyond: 

"Really, Catherine? Sometimes my kid does things on purpose to be mean!" 

"I'm convinced that he does it just to annoy me! He pushes my buttons on purpose. I mean he is looking straight at me!"

"She is spoiled and is just trying to get her way. I can't have that, I need to nip this in the bud." 

It would be so tempting to take an uncooperative child down from the chair and make her wait until the next meal. This would be a classic battle of solutions, without looking at underlying needs and working towards a win-win solution.

Yet, over and over in class as we consult the Inventory of Needs, we agree that what is seen as "misbehavior" can actually be understood as attempts to obtain fairness, acknowledgment, mattering, autonomy, etc.

I believe P.E.T.'s dedicated focus on needs encourages and enables us to see the basic goodness of our children (for me, this has been a huge game-changer -- see below).

2. Let's Make a Trade

The next I-Message variant substitutes unacceptable behavior with what we can take

Dr. Gordon explains:

Nonverbally, the parent first communicates, "When you have jam on your hands I don't want you on my lap." Then, by washing Shirley's hands clean and putting her on his lap, Dad communicates nonverbally, "When your hands are clean I want you on my lap."

P.E.T. in Action, page 161

When my toddler (I think it was Claudia!) put 51 pen marks on the sofa, I was a messy fountain of blameful You-Messages. In addition to more honestly sharing how heartbroken I felt, I should have provided other material and outlets for that heady, in-the-glorious-moment energy known only to a child that young!

True, never again was our sofa sullied but, remember, effective confrontation does more than just getting compliance:

3. "I'll Show You How I Feel."

Another option available to us is a silent I-Message.

Dr. Gordon uses the example of a toddler laughing while he kicks his father in the stomach; Dad quickly puts him down and continues to walk.

The key here is:

. . . to avoid any behavior that will be punishing or painful to the child. After all, you only want him to know how you’re feeling. Slapping, hitting, thumping, pushing, jerking, yelling, pinching — all these methods inevitably communicate to the youngster that he’s bad, he’s wrong, his needs don’t count, he’s done something criminal, and he deserves to be punished.
— P.E.T. in Action, page 162

If the son starts to cry, Dad can AL him: "Oh, you're sad because you like being held. And yet, ouch!, it hurts when you kick." And then, providing a solution for his son's need for closeness and affection, he might put him on his shoulders, or hold hands and start skipping or pick him up and give him a second chance.

So back to the video . . . 

Perhaps the mother could guess that the baby wants to be included and redirect her daughter from taking clothes OUT of the drawer to helping her put folded clothes INTO it. 

Or perhaps the parent could fend off the spreading mayhem when the daughter reaches the middle drawer by explicitly swapping that out and limiting her to the bottom, designated "messy" drawer. 

(By the way, there would be nothing wrong with adding a sincere I-Message: "Oh, I like the clothes neat! I don't want to fold them again.") 

And so on . . . I mean, the baby gets into a lot in this clip!

After all, sometimes we parents feel a whole lot better if we do get SOMETHING DONE, right? It's just way better if, at the end of the day, we can say we were honest, fair and respectful with our children along the way.

Just a note on Tara's quote above. It resonates with some points master P.E.T. trainer Kathryn Tonges shared in my certification course:

Children do well if they can.

Everyone wants to be the good guy; no one wants to be the bad guy.

We can put our children in the role of helper, rather than culprit.

I came to this shift pretty late (and still sometimes struggle with it -- I'm working on why). When my children (now 16, 14 & 11) were younger, I used to blame them when they didn't adhere to my schedule or expectations. Not only did I fail to see when they owned the problem, but I approached conflict thinking the worst of them and armed with You-Messages

"That's rude and disrespectful."

"You should know better!"

"That's it, I'm done. You've pushed me too far!" 

Claudia was eight when she spontaneously gave me this note to cheer me up:

Ouch, reading this hurts. Especially #1 -- I often had a super-closed window when they were in emotional distress and made them feel responsible for my happiness. Boy, I've come a long way.

Ouch, reading this hurts. Especially #1 -- I often had a super-closed window when they were in emotional distress and made them feel responsible for my happiness. Boy, I've come a long way.

I am utterly grateful for P.E.T.'s guidance on healthier ways of confronting and getting needs met. What a gift to my family, and I hope to yours as well.

Credits: Girl eating (http://blogs.mydevstaging.com/blogs/parents-news-now/files/2011/10/toddlersnackideas420w-420x0.jpg); Video "Why Moms Get NOTHING DONE" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bP0Uf3Shd0)