I like getting my hands on a good parenting book now and then because it helps me step outside my own perspective long enough to get some helpful nuggets of wisdom. I found that I read these kinds of books a lot more when I was overwhelmed with the prospect of becoming a parent and when I was trying to figure out for the first time what to do with a tiny newborn who never wanted to be out of my arms. Now my kids are in different phases–but I still find myself occasionally perplexed about their behavior and the best way for me to respond. Kids don’t come with instruction manuals for their unique make and model (though wouldn’t that be nice?). But we do have a few excellent resources to turn to for answers. One of them is the book Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior by psychoanalyst Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.
In her book, Dr. Hollman offers parents a five-step process for approaching their children’s undesirable behavior. She helps the reader see that rather than reacting to a temper tantrum, for example, it’s important to step out of the immediate scene and attempt to understand the bigger picture. She encourages parents who are faced with a situation of unwanted behavior to ask “What does it mean?” not “What do I do?”
Dr. Hollman’s five steps toward gaining “parental intelligence” are:
- Stepping back. Try not to react in the moment. This may prove difficult if, say, your two year old is wailing in the checkout line that he wants a pack of gum. The idea is that we shouldn’t yell and snatch it away. Rather, take a deep breath and look at your little one without becoming emotional. Why is he acting this way? This step allows us to get into a mindset of seeking understanding. But it does require “tolerating frustration–a skill we are also hoping to teach our children.”
- Self-reflecting. Dr. Hollman says we need to look at how our own past and emotions may be affecting how we respond to our children. If I can realize that I am feeling embarrassed that my son is throwing a tantrum, that might change what I do in response. Our own emotions, past experiences, and relationships with our own parents may be complicating what is happening with our children. By self-reflecting, we can adjust our approach as needed.
- Understanding Your Child’s Mind. “Understanding your child’s mind is central to knowing your child,” says Dr. Hollman. I need to ask myself “What is he going through right now? Is he tired? Is he sick? Did he have different expectations that might be causing the breakdown?” This is the stage where instead of asking “What do I do?” I should ask “Why is he upset?” That takes some patience, yes. But it is a wonderful road to understanding the deeper layers.
- Understanding Your Child’s Development. It’s important to understand that children go through different stages at different ages. Dr. Hollman says it’s important to ask two questions: What is expected at my child’s stage of development? and How far apart is my child’s chronological age from my child’s developmental age? So, this is where we can break out the books on child development and see what we should be expecting. Temper-tantruming 2-year-old? Yep, right on target. If my 9 year old is doing this, on the other hand, we may need to have a conversation about what happened earlier that day.
- Problem solving. Once we’ve stepped back and tried to understand the bigger picture about what is going on with ourselves and what our child is experiencing, we can begin to work toward a solution.
After introducing her five steps, Dr. Hollman discusses examples of 8 different parent/child dynamics and how the parents were able to work through difficult issues by seeking understanding and problem solving together. The approach is a refreshing reminder that as a family, we are an interactive system, constantly affecting and being affected by each other. As Dr. Hollman put it, “Parental Intelligence is a relationship-based approach to rearing children as opposed to solving problems by punishment. Parents don’t lose their say about their children’s behaviors, but rather they understand the reasons behind the behavior, its context, and workable approaches that help their children and themselves to change the behavior or their view of the behavior.”
I appreciated using this new approach as I’ve interacted with my own children in the past few weeks. When my son got upset about my insisting that he wear his helmet when riding his bike, I tried harder to step back and ask what he might be experiencing at this pre-teen age and all it’s peer pressure to be cool and live dangerously. (That doesn’t mean he gets to ride without a helmet. We still have to problem solve this one!) When my 7-year-old got upset about her big sister leaving her out during a playdate with friends, I tried harder to look at what her emotional experience must be and invited her to be my special shopping helper at the store. Or when my 9 year old cried about cello not being fun anymore, I tried hard not to lecture, but rather search with her about what might be causing the extra frustration (we discovered that her new teacher simply hasn’t realized how much Ellie loves learning new pieces even when she hasn’t mastered the technique of older pieces).
Overall, I think this is a wonderful parenting book with an important reminder that our children need us to seek understanding about who they are and what they need as they grow and experience all the newness of each stage. They need patience and love and trust and a guiding hand as they figure out how to be their best selves.