To put it simply, to wipe their nose for them so that they learn to do it for themselves. There is a limitation to this however, we can’t parent and guide for every eventuality or challenge they’ll come across. Yet what we can develop is an adaptive, resilience mindset that seeks ways to find solutions.
“Your problem isn’t the problem, it’s your attitude about the problem.” – Ann Brashares
With a change of attitude, or mindset, a problem can often be removed or, in fact, just not even seen as a problem. Because the reality is there will be someone in the world who doesn’t see it as a problem. Yet how do we get to that stage? How do we develop that approach? And how can we share it with our child?
Modelling offers us a powerful method to do this. Our ability to model behaviour can’t be underestimated (check out Think You Know What Your Child Sees? to read more). From infancy we copy, mimic and model what we see on a regularly basis. This continues into adulthood too. And it’s an ability that, to my knowledge, we do not lose. But how can we apply this to the day-to-day reality of living life with children?
This came to mind recently with my youngest when he was struggling with some school work.
School reported that when asked to solve something he had the tendency to shy away from it. Choosing to class himself as a failure. Giving up before getting started, or not even attempting.
This, as you can imagine, was challenging for me to parent. The self-deprecation of this 7 year old had echoes of low self-esteem. Yet I knew he was tenacious, liked being precise and quite driven. In these situations I get curious. What is going on here? What is it that he’s rebelling against?
I noticed that for him he’d rather hide away than risk failing. That he preferred to avoid that feeling of not knowing by removing himself physically or amplifying his emotions disproportionally. Whilst I didn’t have the solution yet, I had at least something positive to focus on that was informing his behaviour.
And it was at the park that I found a way to help him find a more resourceful state and model a better behaviour.
“All play is associated with intense thought activity and rapid intellectual growth” – N. V. Scarfe
He was playing on the monkey bars. He’d climb up and start to move in a rocking motion aiming to reach the next bar. Yet after the third bar, he’d fall. But he’d get up, dust himself down and then attempt to make it across again. I walked up to him as I noticed him fall again. And the brief conversation went something like this:
“What are you doing?”
“I want to climb across the bars.”
“You’ve fallen though. Why get back and try again?”
“Because I want to make it across.”
“But isn’t giving up easier? Why bother?”
“Because I want to do it.”
He was a little perplexed at this point, but I was smiling.
“That’s what we need to be doing when we have a challenge. We need to remember the monkey bars and remind ourselves that to get across we have to keep on practicing”. And I tapped him gently on the shoulder.
Once I knew what was going on for him, I had to look for a clear bit of content that had the correct ingredients of resilience. Then see if he could overlay it to the undesired state: giving up doing the school work. There was no need to explore the details with him, he could figure that out for himself once I’d drawn his attention to the comparison.
And that’s what I would invite you to do also. Notice (again) when you do see the behaviour or response you want. Aren’t there times when they are behaving the way you would like? Notice those and see that by drawing our child’s attention to the resilient behaviour they are more likely to repossess it in other moments.
Since then he’s gotten better and if he begins to shy away from doing some school work, I tap him on the shoulder and remind him of the monkey bars. Bringing him to remember the attitude he had, and start to model that behaviour.
Whilst he may not attack his work with the same gusto as crossing the monkey bars, we will draw the association between the two situations and recognise that giving up never takes you where you want to go.
Does he still fall from the monkey bars? Yes. Does he still walk away from his school work? Yes. But a lot less than he was. And it’s a lot easier to remind him of the monkey bars and he comes back to the work a lot quicker than before. It’s improving. He’s getting better and school are happier too.
But what about mapping someone else’s behaviour? What if we can model the key important factors of someone else’s behaviour we would like? Interested to know how this will be useful for you?
In a similar way as above, we can extract the sequence of thinking and feeling from one person and then utilise that, install it, in someone else. It’s more than just a power pose, though that is absolutely a valid way of looking at it.
Consider for a minute what an actor does. They need to model the sequence and thinking of the character. The great actors dilute themselves and leave space for the character to enter in.
That ability to recreate a certain sequence of behaviour, is available to us. As I’ve mentioned, we’ve been modelling since we were babies.
Haven’t there been times when after spending a repeated amount of time with someone on a consistent basis you begin to use their mannerisms, gestures or phrases?
I was talking with students and introducing them to the idea of physical triggers that can stimulate certain behavioural responses.
This stemmed from my own training but has been more widely understood by those who watched Amy Cuddy’s TedTalk regarding power poses and similar physical triggers. In brief the premise is that by duplicating the positive physical postures, we trigger the mental equivalent of positive thoughts* – a kind of jump start to the brain.
As we explored this further one student shared that his favourite sport was football. And one of the things he was proudest of was his fearlessness when it came to tackling. Where other players slinked away he was confident he’d make a safe tackle and get the ball.
Possibly before they had a chance to think about it, a student said he wished he could be like that. I simply replied, “I’m curious. Let’s find out if you can”.
Turning back to the student, I asked, “What do you say specifically before you go in for the tackle?”
“I’m going to crush him,” he replied.
“And where do you say that from? Where does the voice come from when you hear it?” He pointed to his sternum.
Tone of the voice? Deep? Normal? High pitched? He said that it wasn’t deep but stronger than his normal voice.
I turned back to the student and instructed him to apply those exact words, location and tone next time they wanted to feel that way. Something in their toolkit to use in any situation.
I returned the following week and made a point of asking whether the student had an opportunity to test it out. Interestingly he’d actually used it, unexpectedly, in his art class. It had been something he’d said to himself while struggling with some work. He said that when the teacher reviewed his piece, he was not only complimented for his work but also told it was above the standard of his year group.
Though the student had an explicit strategy in improving his confidence and my son had a less explicit more internally held strategy, both employed the same procedure: taking from one behaviour and applying it to a difference context.
So if your child is struggling with something, take notice and get curious. Look beyond the reaction, take a step back and ask yourself, “What is happening here?”.
What can you notice they are already doing that might give them a solution, some way of behaving differently? Once we can help them discover that, they will continue to be better equipped to manage, cope and overcome any number of challenges. Ultimately to be as resilient as possible. Which, after all, is the capability we want our children to have.
* To clarify, it is more that negative, or less useful, thinking is diminished and more positive thoughts emerge, rather than some massive revolution from depression to elation.
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Ben Jackson is a registered counsellor, coach, and lecturer with nearly 10 years of professional experience. He helps clients with stress and anxiety, anger management, self esteem, confidence, and depression.