A recent conversation in a Facebook group inspired me to write this article. A scenario was brought up regarding a toddler screaming in a parent’s face and how to handle the situation.
My stated philosophy is to use the simplest tactics at your disposal first and then escalate your response and behavior if necessary. In my response to this parent, I mentioned the simpler approaches but offered an example of an escalated approach as well:
“When you scream in my face I feel like I need a lot of space from you.” And then you can go in another room and lock the door if needed. If they cry, it’s a good sign they got the message, to which you can open the door and say “I can come back out if you agree you won’t scream in my face.”
I could have explained this tactic in many ways. “If you can’t stop screaming in my face, I’m going to go into the other room.” And honestly, I could have explained it better with a lot more context. But it was early in the morning and I hadn’t had my coffee yet.
The objection was that this tactic amounts to abandonment or conditional love. In other words, it’s “not perfect” and there are better, “optimal” alternatives.
Of course, this is where context must come in. I explained the following:
- That I’ve never had to do this with my own child because she’s sensitive and responds very well to simple requests.
- That the simplest tactics should always be used first and that this is an example of an escalated tactic.
- That children have different personalities and not all will respond to the simple tactics.
- That this may not even require locking the door. By simply going into the other room the child will likely follow you and be concerned, prompting you to ask them if they agree not to scream at you. They agree and all is well.
- That children of different ages require different approaches and that even though I’m responding to a question about a toddler, I’m offering suggestions that may very well apply to older children better because there are parents of older children reading my answers. The biggest complaint I get is, “you never offer suggestions for X age.”
- That this tactic is no different from the “If you hit me, I need to go in the other room to keep myself safe” tactic. It’s an emotionally healthy tactic that teaches children that hitting drives people away.
- That if “love withdrawal” is a concern, you can easily alleviate this concern in the child by clearly explaining to them, “When I go in the other room, I still love you. But I will not let you scream at me/hit me.”
- That the healthy/unhealthy-ness of the situation is dependent on the parent’s attitude, delivery, and intentions. You can easily make the tactic unhealthy by displaying anger and coldness. Or you can make it healthy by displaying calm-assertiveness, attentiveness to the child’s reaction, empathy, validation, and so on.
Still, there were objections. And that prompted me to write this article because I feel we can easily go to an unhealthy place in parenting groups where there is an insistence on always using the “optimal” technique in every situation. In this paradigm, parents easily start to get the idea that if they fail to choose the optimal technique, they’ve done something wrong. They begin to feel that perfection is necessary to win. They become frustrated. Or they walk on egg shells. Or they give up altogether.
So let’s take a step back and consider these additional points:
- *Even if* a parent angrily went in another room and slammed the door and locked it and stayed in there for 10 minutes, they could rescue the situation by coming out and apologizing and explaining themselves and reconnecting. That one incident will not have any lasting impact on the child.
- Parents have different personalities too. And different triggers. Not all parents will have the level of patience needed in certain situations to choose the “best” or “optimal” response. Choosing ANY response that’s in alignment with authenticity and a principled approach is all we should ask of them.
- There are parents who have never met strong-willed or highly-limit-pushing children who believe and often vocalize that certain responses are “over the top” or “unnecessary.” It’s not fair to communicate this to parents if the tactic is authentic and principled. It’s the parent’s job to respond in a way that is in alignment with their child’s needs and personality.
And this brings me to an important concept I like to call “Never-Evers.” I’ve laid out the principles of authentic parenting and have proposed “optimal” tactics and strategies for dozens of situations. But just as important as those, which I haven’t talked about before, are very simple “Never-Ever” rules for your behavior as a parent.
A Never-Ever is something that you have committed to never, ever do:
- Under NO circumstances will I hit my child.
- Under NO circumstances will I scream at my child.
- Under NO circumstances will I ever outright abandon my child.
- Under NO circumstances will I ever call my child names, threaten my child’s safety, etc.
As I just stated, parents have different personalities and triggers. Right? You’re going to run into a situation where you have a choice between exploding on your child and breaching your Never-Evers or choosing a “non-optimal” authentic approach.
In these situations where you are triggered and/or highly stressed and feeling like you’re approaching the edge of the cliff, all the talk about “optimal” responses goes out the window. All that’s important now is making sure you don’t breach your Never-Evers.
So maybe you run into a room, shut the door, and scream into a pillow at the top of your lungs while your child sits hopelessly in the hallway crying. Is that the “optimal” approach? Of course not. Is it an acceptable approach? Hell yes. You didn’t breach your Never-Evers in a society where parents breach your Never-Evers pretty much every day. Your choice to isolate yourself and vent in the way that you did *protected* your child from you. In short, you ma’am—or sir—are a fucking winner.
In order to be a successfully authentic parent, you need to know that these options are on the table. There are options that are NEVER on the table (as I just described) but if you think all non-optimal responses make you a failure as a parent or if you believe that non-optimal responses will harm your child, then your parenting career is hopeless. And at the same time, you’re going to drive yourself insane.
Parents start to look at other peaceful parents and think, “I bet she never gets angry. I bet she never feels like slapping the shit out of her child. I bet he never raises his voice. I bet he never gets frustrated…” Parents think this precisely because we’re always talking about the “optimal” responses as if we’re always capable of employing them. And these thoughts cause peaceful parents who are normal and winning to think less of themselves. And this impacts their parenting quality.
I think it’s time to take a step back from that paradigm, start letting people off the hook more often (including letting ourselves off the hook), and recognize that “winning” has a lot of different looks.