Understanding the “Energy” Between Parent and Child

When I was training for my Ph.D. in psychology, I was taught the importance of being able to quantify or count what I observe. Now, thirty years later, I am going to step outside of that model and advise that one of the most important things to be aware of from the moment your children are born until you scoot them out the door, is the type of “energy” that goes back and forth between you and your kids — something we can’t see or measure, but we all know it’s there. Understanding it can make you a better parent.

There are probably a million other ways to describe what I am writing about, but I am sticking with the term “energy” because we all know what that word means. For instance, your child becomes cranky and annoying — that energy can make you become frustrated and short-tempered. As a result, your negative energy and your child’s negative energy combines and takes you both to a frustrating place.

Another example: You tell your child to turn the television volume down, and he merely sits there in a “videotic stupor” (as I like to refer to it) and ignores you. Your fists clench up into a ball, you raise your voice, he snaps at you, and the two of you are at it like two cats fighting in a bag.

The kind of energy that surrounds these types of interactions is negative or “bad” energy.

Now let’s switch gears, and go in the opposite direction. What happens when your seven-year-old tells you that you are the coolest parent in the world, and you hug her, and she tells you she loves you is “good energy.” We don’t need to talk about that very much because it’s those moments that make parenting worth the effort.

The important thing to know, if you are interested in becoming a better parent, is that your energy influences your child’s energy, and the same is true in reverse. What you should try to avoid is “pouring gasoline on the fire started by ‘bad energy’.” In other words, don’t chase and supplement your child’s negative or demanding mood by dropping down to that level. Always try to bring your child’s behavior to a state of more positive energy. Sounds perfect, right? Now we just have to figure out a way to do it!

To understand “energy” of both the good and bad varieties, you also have to understand the concept of “the moment.” The moment refers to what is happening “right now,” or as some people like to call it “the here and now.”

Kids are more apt to live in the here and now because they have less on their minds. They are not paying mortgages or wondering what to make for dinner. Parents, on the other hand, have a lot more to worry and stress over (which takes them “out of the moment”), and that’s what makes a child’s demandingness or misbehavior such an unwelcome addition to the full plate of concerns adults must deal with.

Children’s demands also occur “in the moment” because “now” is generally when they want the answers to the questions you don’t particularly want to deal with; and now is when they want what they want. When a child’s “now” demands snap you out of whatever place your mind is in (like work, your next car payment, or what you are feeding your family tonight ), and into whatever annoyance he or she is creating “now” it can be very frustrating, and the impulse is to try to shut your child down and get back to solving whatever problem was going on in your head.

Often, your child’s reaction to this will be to “up the bad energy” level and come after you with more demands and greater needs for attention. Bottom line — it becomes a vicious cycle.

Turning Concept into Action:

1. Give yourself permission to prioritize your needs over your child’s needs, when it is necessary to keep your sanity. You don’t have to be mean and you certainly shouldn’t be neglectful, but guilt and ambivalence are what is making you argue with your child about having an ice cream pop half an hour before dinner.

2. Learn how to say “no,” and stick to it.

3. As an alternative to escalating the negative energy, take a “parents’ time out,” by saying, “I’ve got some very important things on my mind right now and I need to be able to think about them. We can talk about this later, but not now.” When the whining begins or escalates, walk out of the room.

4. Learning the right things to say are important, but saying them in a calm, assertive manner is even more important, because “how” you say something is more of a reflection of your mood than “what” you are saying. Never raise your voice to the level your child is communicating at. Instead, lower your voice as a cue for your child to pay more attention to what you are saying.

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