I was the best parent before I had kids.

I just knew that I was going to do things differently. I was pretty prideful about it, let’s be real. It would not be my kids watching a video on a phone in the restaurant. It wouldn’t be my kids having a tantrum in public. My kids would eat all their vegetables and be polite, contributing members of the family and society as whole.

I’m still holding onto hope that these things will happen for us.

All that to say, it feels a little ridiculous that I would write a blog about parenting. I mean, what do I know? I’ve spent the last four years figuring it out as I go. Reading books, articles, and even a class or two: I desperately want to be the best parent possible and I keep falling short. The problem is that reality is a heck of a lot different than theory.

Reality is chaotic, loud, and messy. Reality is really, really hard. 

Reality is a 1.5-year-old who considers the day wasted if he hasn’t climbed, tackled, and eaten everything in sight. A rambunctious, ridiculously adorable, needing-a-scenery-change- every-20-minutes, thinks-the-word-“no”-is-hilarious, very heavy, very particular, toddler.

Reality is a 4-year-old with sensory processing problems. A sweet, handsome, affectionate, picky, particular child who gets really overwhelmed, really easily and can’t communicate why. It sucks not being understood, and then not having the words to communicate what’s going on inside you. So he has a tantrum, he cries, yells, spits, or hits to get our attention.

So we know he needs something from us. The problem is that I’m angry. I’m confused. I don’t understand, because it doesn’t make sense. It hit me recently that I’m feeling the exact same way he’s feeling: angry, confused, overwhelmed.

Logic goes out the window when it comes to emotions.

Logic doesn’t always have a place when it comes to emotions, right? We need emotion to understand emotion. The emotion I’m going back to is love. How do I communicate love to my child through this tantrum?

I took a class recently and learned about relational needs (From the Center for Relational Care- check them out!). The simple principles are life changing. It has transformed my counseling practice,  my parenting, and my marriage.

In the class, I suddenly realized  I’d been using fear (threats, anger), or manipulation to get my kids to behave. That I’d sometimes withdrawn my love and attention when my child rejected me, or embarrassed me, or disobeyed me. That I was (unconsciously) wanting my kids to meet my needs. My need to be loved, accepted, and respected. All important needs. However, my kids were given to me so I could meet their needs, and not the other way around. If they meet some of my needs (and they do!), that is a blessing and a gift and should never be an expectation.

When your child  is doing something you don’t understand or when you don’t know how to respond,

Ask: “What is he/she needing right now?”

Here are a few examples:

Comfort? Say, “I’m sorry you’re hurting right now” and ask if he would like a hug.

Appreciation? “I noticed that you just helped your brother. Great job!”

Acceptance? “There isn’t anything you can do that will make me love you less.”

Approval? “I’m so glad you’re my son.”

Respect? “I will give you some privacy.”

Security? “I will be here when you’re ready to talk.”

Encouragement? “I believe in you; don’t give up!”

Attention? Get down on their level, enter their worlds.

Support? “I see that you are struggling. I’m here to help, if you’d like.”

Affection? “I love you to the moon and back!”

If you are unsure of the need, default to comfort.

I’ve been doing this more and more for my sons. Particularly with my 4-year-old, I’m trying to meet the need first, and discipline (when necessary) after he calms down. Only emotion can understand emotion.

Guess what? It’s working!

Asking my son if he’d like a hug in the middle of a tantrum has helped him calm down much faster. Telling him that I will always love him, even when he says he doesn’t want me, or pushes me away has made him feel safer and more secure. Pointing out the good, encouraging him to keep trying, letting him speak for himself, etc. is shaping my son’s character and heart.

While threats can often get your kids to obey, what will they do when the threat is removed? Will they make the right choices when you’re gone? My hope is that by meeting my kid’s needs first, I can better influence their hearts. Will I take away privileges? Oh yes, without a doubt I want them to understand that our choices have consequences. Do I want my kids to obey and respect authority? Lord, yes. Will my kids continue to test me and disobey? I believe they will. I’ll continue to try my best to be consistent with boundaries, rules, and expectations. I just want all of those things to be soaked in unconditional love.

Heart transformation can only occur within the context of a healthy, secure, and loving relationship. Love first. Your teaching will have more of an impact when you do.

I’m still learning all this, but I’m getting closer every day.