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Teaching and Modeling Responsibility in Times of Upset

by Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D.
Book Cover Image. Title: Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline:  The Seven Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation, Author: by Becky A. Bailey, Becky A. Bailey

Easy to Love, Difficult to Disciplineby Becky A. BaileyBecky A. Bailey

  • $11.32 Online Price

Jason loves to play with his handheld video game all day, every day. He could go outside, play with friends, or join in family time, but he is more interested in mastering his game. From Jason's point of view, dinner with the family or playing outside means less time playing on his handheld.

Jason's mother wants to create a healthy, loving, connected family. She knows the value of sharing family meals and quality family time. These activities are important to her, and she wants them to be important to Jason.

Anyone can see the conflict brewing. Mom is going to ask Jason to come to dinner. Jason is going to mumble his resistance. Mom's voice will reflect her growing upset, and the two will soon be embroiled in a conflict. Every conflict begins with upset. How we handle the internal upset in ourselves and with our children can be a bridge to responsibility and problem solving, or a roadblock that keeps us all stuck in blame, resentment, and power struggles.

Teaching Our Children to Manage Upset

Often we think, "If I could just make the world go my way, I could avoid unpleasantness." Mom thinks, "If Jason would just understand how important it is to have family time, life would be good." Jason thinks, "If mom would just get how close I am to mastering this game, life would be good." The insistence that the world go our way generates our upset, creates conflict, and adds to our unhappiness.

Mom thinks, "Jason should play more outside. He should spend more time with family and friends." And Jason thinks, "Mom should understand me. She should care about what I like." When we attempt to solve problems from a position of resistance (thinking that things should be different than they are), solutions are impossible, power struggles are inevitable, and each person blames the other for his or her own upset.

We can choose to demand that the world go our way, or we can choose to manage our upset when it doesn't. If we insist on the world going our way, we will persist in the problem. We will also teach children to blame others for their own thoughts, feelings, and actions, and make personal responsibility impossible. If we instead make the choice to manage our own upset, we will instead teach our children to transform their upset into responsible behavior.

Responsibility is the ability to respond to the situation at hand, not to find fault. We've got it all wrong when we ask, "Okay, who is responsible?" because that question seeks who is to blame and who is to punish. We want to teach new skills rather than punish. When we are upset, we are in the lower centers of our brain, and tend to either physically act out from our genetic survival system or verbally lash out from our emotional system. To teach responsibility, we must have access to the higher centers of our brain where we can see from many viewpoints and respond with wisdom.

We can help ourselves and our children access the higher centers of our brains by beginning a personal "Be a S.T.A.R." program. When we feel the tension beginning to rise because the world isn't going our way, we can do the following:
STEP 1: Be a S.T.A.R. Smile, Take a deep breath, And Relax. Repeating this simple deep-breathing exercise three times will turn off your body's stress response that has thrown you into the lower centers of your brain.

STEP 2: Affirm to yourself
"I'm safe. Keep breathing. I can handle this." This will help override old programmed chatter in your head such as, "No one ignores me." "I won't put up with this nonsense." "Don't you care at all?"
Once we have regained control of our own emotional state by using the "Be a S.T.A.R." program, we can then approach the upset child.

How to Teach Self-Awareness

From our own integrated state, we can build the child's awareness of his or her upset. We are going to begin the process of self-awareness by bringing the child's attention to his or her body first. "Your face is going like this (demonstrate). Your arms are going like this (demonstrate)." This creates body awareness.

Next, we are going to raise the child's emotional awareness. "You seem _____." Label the emotion you think the child is expressing. Naming the emotion is essential to taming it.

Then, we are going to raise the child's cognitive awareness by stating what the child wanted. "You wanted _____" or "You were hoping _____." Helping children become cognitively aware of what they do want sets the scene for problem solving.

Finally, provide two choices that are acceptable. For example, "You can do your homework on the kitchen counter or you can do your homework in your room." Offering two positive choices empowers children to maintain some control over the situation and encourages good decision-making while still complying with our wishes.

Let's revisit the scenario at the beginning of this article:

Mom calls Jason to join the family for dinner. He mumbles, "I'm in the middle of a game." Mom feels her frustration brewing. She consciously takes a few deep breaths. She says to herself, "I'm safe. Keep breathing. I can handle this," shifting her internal speech to the positive affirmation instead of the negative chatter that serves only to increase her irritation and upset. She then steps into the room where Jason is playing.

"Jason, it is time to turn off the game and come to dinner."

Jason shoots her a look that could kill.

Mom keeps breathing. "Your face is going like this (demonstrate). You seem frustrated. You were hoping you could play longer and finish that part of the game. It's hard to stop in the middle when you are doing so well. You can handle this."

Mom then offers two acceptable choices to help Jason comply. "You have a choice. You can leave the game on and return to it after dinner, or turn the game off and start over. Which would be best for you?"

Jason begrudgingly saves his game and heads for the dinner table. Mom continues breathing deeply, preventing herself from getting hooked into his sulky mood.

It is crucial that we address our own upset and acknowledge the child's upset before we can expect any form of conflict resolution or problem solving. Once the upset is addressed and the situation is calm, we may want to set a limit: "You can play with the game one hour a day." We might teach decision-making by offering two positive choices: "You can play for one hour at a time, or break it up into two sessions of 30 minutes, which is better for you?" We might teach problem solving, "What would help you put time limits on your game playing?" Sometimes, the child is just disappointed, and we might offer helpful encouragement by saying, "It's hard. You can handle this."

To summarize the process for transforming upset into responsibility, we must become aware of our feelings, address our internal state, and then raise the child's awareness of his or her internal state.  
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Meet Our Expert
Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D.
Creator of Conscious Discipline
Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D., is an award-winning author, renowned teacher, and internationally recognized expert in childhood education and developmental psychology. Her workshops touch thousands of lives each year, and her top-selling books have over 100,000 copies in circulation. Dr. Bailey is the founder of Loving Guidance, Inc., a company dedicated to creating positive environments for children, families, schools, and businesses. She is also the originator of Conscious Discipline®.

Dr. Bailey has authored eleven discipline-related books, and will publish her twelfth, Creating the School Family, in the fall of 2010. Her core publication for parents, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, has received national acclaim and is available in eight languages. Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline applies the Conscious Discipline® message to the family unit, offering the support and internal changes adults need to effectively parent their children.

In her passion to empower all people, especially those working with our youngest citizens, Dr. Bailey established the first early childhood education four-year university degree program in the state of Florida. She was instrumental in establishing a teacher certification program for Native Americans in New Mexico. She has raised over two million dollars for children's programs, including playing an integral role in the fundraising, building, equipping, and training of staff for a preschool in tsunami-devastated Sri Lanka. She recently established F.A.C.E.S., a non-profit organization that provides free training and resources to at-risk families and teachers in memory of her mother, Frances Canipe Bailey.
More Articles By
Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D.
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Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D.
Book Cover Image. Title: Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline:  The Seven Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation, Author: by Becky A. Bailey, Becky A. Bailey

Easy to Love, Difficult to Disciplineby Becky A. BaileyBecky A. Bailey

  • $11.32 Online Price