5 Ways to Stay In the No Problem Zone

5 Ways to Stay In the No Problem Zone

Many of the skills we learn in the course -- Active Listening, facilitating between two fighting siblings, collaborative problem-solving, to name few -- help resolve problems and bring us back to the No Problem area.

When sailing is smooth, however, there are skills we can actively reach for to keep us in those calm waters longer! As Susan Stiffelman writes in Parenting Without Power Struggles, "Ship Captains don't just deal with problems when they appear; they scan the horizon for icebergs or storms so they can avoid them." (page 28)

Here are the five skills that I cover in class. The first four are forms of self-disclosure, sharing something about ourselves in the form of I-Messages. The last has to do with tinkering with the environment. (Finally, check out how you might even use Active Listening in the No Problem area too!)

1. Positive I-Messages

When we share with children how much we cherish and appreciate them, we fill their proverbial cups. Kids need to feel secure in our love; indeed, social connection has been deemed as basic a need as food or water.

And we do it just to do it:

It’s important that Positive I-Messages not be used to manipulate behavior or ‘shape’ a child’s behavior. Such ulterior motives invariably come through to the child and make your sincerity suspect. The Positive I-Message should be a ‘no-strings attached’ expression of acceptance and acknowledgment.
— P.E.T. Workbook, page 45

Let's not skimp on the them either! 

Humans have a strong negativity bias to keep us safe and protected as a species. Thus we remember more vividly dangerous things in our environment -- think lurking tiger -- over the cheerful chirping of birds in the trees above. And Mom or Dad's explosion or messages of shame and blame can feel unsafe to a child. 

To have a healthy relationship, try to to balance at least five positive interactions for every negative one

Here are some examples:

  • "I love spending time with you -- it's so interesting being your dad!"
  • "Thank you so much for your help."
  • "I missed you today!" (and if you've just come home from work, try to refrain from asking whether he's done his homework)
  • "I have a spot in my heart that has only your name on it. No matter who else is in my heart, that place is there forever and only you can fill it." (Imagine if you made this a ritual and whispered it every day before dropping your kid off to school. Do you think that would help with sibling rivalry? I can't think how it wouldn't!)
  • "I'm so happy you like cooking too!" (Stiffelman says it's important to note similarities with our children.)

2. Declarative I-Messages

These simply share our preferences, opinions, likes/dislikes, beliefs and feelings. The more we share with our children, the better they get to know us as people. They may then be better able to anticipate our needs, or understand when our Line of Acceptance creeps up.

These might sound like:

  • "I'm feeling down -- it's really hard for me to stay on a diet and my clothes are tight again."
  • "I admire leaders who do the right thing. I believe helping Syrian refugees is something that's good for our country now and in the long run."
  • "I'm sorry I raised my voice. I am working on my temper because I truly believe you don't ever deserve to be yelled at."
  • "I just want you to know that I will be here whenever you want to spend time with me because I am your mother and I will be waiting for you no matter what!" (helpful when your child is showing a strong preference for the other parent)

The following mixture of Declarative and Positive I-Messages shows that there are no missed deadlines when it comes to healing:

3. Preventive I-Messages

We use these when we have a future need and we'd like to head off any problems in advance. We let our kids take the initiative to become helpers to us, so we don't have to mandate the solution.

Preventive I-Messages you might try with the kids:

  • "Hey, even though tomorrow's Saturday, things are really busy at work and I'm going to go in for a few hours. I'm concerned that it's gonna be a hard transition when I leave after breakfast." (You leave out: " . . . so make sure you don't whine or cry.")
  • "I'm anxious that, because of the Rugby 7s, it's going to be impossible to get a taxi and I really don't want to be late. (You leave out: " . . . so be ready 30 minutes earlier than we originally agreed.") There's nothing wrong with making a request ("It's gonna be hard to get a taxi today so please be ready 30 minutes early!"). It's just that sometimes you might choose the formula of a Preventive I-Message to grow a child's capacity to empathize and come to your assistance.

In my own life, I plan on giving this one to a friend:

"I look forward to lunch. I'm nervous that you'll be on your phone a lot and I will feel awkward and unable to talk to you the way I'd like to." (I'll leave out: " . . . so I would really appreciate it if you would put away your phone.")

4. Responsive I-Messages

These I learned in my certification course; they're taken from another program that Gordon Training International runs called Be Your Best. I like including them because there are so many times we have to turn down our kids' requests as we set limits for their well-being and to meet our own needs.

It helps first to acknowledge a bit, even with some Active Listening, before sharing our feelings, the impact on us and/or the limit. 

Consider these:

  • Your toddler has found the results of your baking and is reaching out with his chubby little fingers! "Aw, you found the cupcakes and they look awfully good. I don't want you to eat them now because they're not yet frosted and I want to make a tower of them for your Aunt Amy's birthday." Then you might redirect or suggest: "How about we find the fattest one and put it aside so you can help me frost it later and it'll be yours! Right now, let's get a snack from the fridge that you CAN eat."
  • Your daughter asks if she can watch another episode: "You'd really like to stay up another half hour - you love that show. Honey, I'm not comfortable with that because it's almost 8pm and that's bedtime."  

5. Modifying the Environment

Far beyond baby-proofing outlets anharp corners, we can do many things to change the physical environment, even for our older kids. Some I've come across are:

- give kids separate rooms

- create a quiet corner (so important in our small Hong Kong flats)

- turn on the air conditioning in their rooms a few minutes before they return

- keep a supply of snacks to avoid "hangry" behavior

Beyond the physical, what about temporal changes?

We do this instinctively in other boxes of the Behavior Window. For instance, many of us have pared down schedules when our kids are overloaded or we feel under the weather.

In the No Problem area, we have a huge opportunity to use time to our advantage. Have a look at this diagram and consider what particular cocktail of time you need. What about each of your kids? One of mine loves his alone time; for another, that's like banishment to Siberia!

Alone Time

My favorite story was told by a participant whose elder child was a talker. During a cab ride, she looked over at her unusually quiet son and was about to ask him what was wrong. Before she did though, she asked herself Who Owns the Problem?

The realization stunned her -- Oh my! We are in the No Problem area and he is just creating some alone time for himself!!

We parents also need to make sure we get enough recharging time. Here are some creative ways participants have devised for making this happen:

  • Lingering in the bathroom (Don't say you haven't tried this!)
  • Using earphones
  • Announcing “I’m gonna clean the living room now. Who wants to help?”
  • Passing up a chatty hairdresser in favor of a quiet one
  • Holding a cellphone up to their ear like they're on a call
  • Telling people they have an infectious disease (whoa!)

Activity Time

This is stimulating, task-oriented time where there's more than 2 people and lots of input. Work, school, play rehearsal and the like all fit in here.

One on One Time

All of us need 1-1 time to connect with significant people in our lives. A particular approach to achieving this with each of our kids is called Special Time; it deserves some fleshing out because it may be our best ally in preventing and addressing difficult behavior. 

Think of Special Time as preventive maintenance to keep things on track in your family. And if you’re having issues with your child, it’s the first thing to change. Often, it’s the only thing you need to change.
— Dr. Laura Markham, What's So Special About Special Time? http://www.ahaparenting.com/BlogRetrieve.aspx?PostID=469878&A=SearchResult&SearchID=9909336&ObjectID=469878&ObjectType=55

Let your kids see you entering"Siobhan time" or "Kendrick time" into your calendar and then scheduling it to repeat (10-20 minutes daily is great but do whatever you can!). 

You may choose to follow some simple rules:

  • 100% attention -- You are actually the "secret sauce" but only if you're totally present and showing real curiosity and interest in your child.
  • Child is in charge -- Plop down and ask what they want to do. Screens and reading are not allowed, nor is anything structured like baking cookies. Hanging out, playing, doodling are on the ok list, as is fooling around with swear words or forbidden objects like Daddy's shaving cream (read Dr. Laura's entire article for the rationale and other concrete guidance!) If this is your only chance to roughhouse and get physical with your child, try to work some in every other time, but make sure on the off days your child is running the show.
  • Set a timer and follow it -- Help your child if he has a breakdown when time's up. He either now feels safe enough to show you some negative emotions that he's been holding in, or letting go of you reminds him how difficult it is to share you, with a new sibling, say. Holding to the limit and giving him the opportunity to rage and cry can be cathartic.

We can also create 1-1 connection time in unlikely scenarios. Take this one from Dr. Laura Markham's online course, which I loved:

You say, "It's time to brush your teeth!" (Remember, in the No Problem area, orders are not Roadblocks.) Your child says she has already, but you know she hasn't. You have a value around lying, but you've learned that lying is developmentally expected at the age of four so you're not freaking out. You have, in effect, Modified Self, one of the strategies discussed in Values Collisions. You feel you are in the No Problem area but there's still this false statement to deal with.

How about injecting some playful connection with her?

"Ok, let's smell that minty clean breath then."


"Ooh, I don't know. Maybe you brushed your teeth on Mars, but right now we have to brush our teeth on earth! C'mon, earthling, let's go!"

Connecting in a silly manner while enforcing family rules often can keep you both in the No Problem zone. (Click here for more playful ideas.)

So, the next time you're hanging out or planning how to spend the day, keep this post in mind and use some of these five skills BEFORE problems occur. Even better, take a couple of minutes now to plan how you'll start implementing them today.

By using the entire array of skills learned in the course, your Behavior Window at home can start to look more like this. And that's not a bad way to live a life!

Credits: Sailboat (https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/08/76/2f/08762f99608926cd36576412d6435b77.jpg)