#67 – Proactive Parenting with Maria Sanders, Parent Coach
In this episode of A Dad’s Path podcast, Will Braunstein interviews Maria Sanders, a licensed social worker, and PCI-certified parent coach. Maria explains how she helps dadss navigate parenting challenges and emphasizes the importance of advocating for oneself and communicating with one’s partner to establish a sense of partnership and shared goals.
She also highlights the importance of giving yourself and your child time to cool off before having a healthy conversation and what to do in a situation that requires immediate attention (e.g., one child is hitting another)
Maria also talks about some of the challenges she sees in relationships and encourages dads to move away from the perspective of “I am right, and he/she is wrong.”
Other highlights of our conversation include:
1. Some ideas for finding the balance between work and family.
2. How to help parents feel good about their interactions with their children.
3. The importance of advocating for yourself and communicating with your partner to establish a sense of partnership and shared goals.
4. The importance of a safe space for couples to talk so you can work together to find solutions and openly communicate.
5. Be curious, not furious: Instead of getting angry, stay calm and bring in curiosity
6. The importance of taking a pause and asking yourself, “I wonder what could be going on here?”
7. Instead of just reacting to problems, look for patterns and try to understand the root cause
Like this episode? You can check out more of our Dad Podcasts.
Will Braunstein: Hello and welcome to another episode of A Dad’s Path podcast. I’m Will Braunstein. Today we’re here with Maria Sanders. She’s a licensed social worker a PCI-certified parent coach and has a ton of information for us. We’re going to be able to dive in today. You can find her online at mariasandersparentcoach.com, but first, welcome, Maria.
Maria Sanders: Thanks so much for having me.
Will Braunstein: Thanks for coming. I’m really excited to have a parent coach to dive into some of the challenges that I’ve faced as a dad as a lot of other dads are facing and pick your brain for your expertise if that’s what we’re going to do here. If we could just start. I know what a parent coach is but would you mind just talking for a second about what you do and then maybe real quick how you became a parent coach? What drew you to it?
Maria: I’ll go in reverse. I think I’ll start with how I got here. My background is as a licensed social worker. I was a school social worker for a number of years, working in public schools, independent schools. I also did something called early intervention which is working with parents who have kids between the ages of zero and three who have a developmental disability. I did that for a long time, absolutely loved it. Then had kids and said, “Oh, you know what? I think I want to stay home with my little ones for now.”
I always knew I wanted to go back to work and that’s where the parent coaching came in. I had all this experience in the mental health field and working with kids and then when I became a mom I realized oh yikes, this is not what I thought it would be. Realized it was a lot more difficult than I had expected. I did find out about parent coaching. I didn’t even really know what the term was. I was looking at what do I want to do with my life now that my kids are in preschool? I found out about parent coaching.
I did a one-year master’s level parent coaching program and got certified, mostly so that I could understand the difference between coaching and therapy because I do practice as a coach. I feel like in a lot of ways I’m a teacher for parents in teaching them the work, the approaches that I follow and I’m not really doing therapy. We’re really focused on moving forward, understanding what are the current challenges and how can I help parents move through those challenges so that they feel good about those interactions between them and their child.
Will: Got you. That makes a lot of sense. A couple of things, one, there’s a lot of dads who are listening, well, all dads mostly but they’ve gone through this transition like you did where they had kids. A lot of us have struggled with that and said, okay, I do want to get back in the workforce. I do want to have a bigger mission than myself. I want to earn money from my family but my family is very important so I want to make sure that my work doesn’t supersede that, that I can set my own hours.
You happen to do it in a very aligned way because you’re focused on parenting, you’re living parenting, you’re breathing parenting and you’re able to be home as a parent. I think even if for dad’s listening, there’s other jobs you can have, other ways you can do that but I think the overall message that you’re sending them Maria is just will resonate with a lot of dads which is like there are answers between going back full-time and not working at all.
I think for a lot of us that’s actually the right answer because we love being dads, we love being parents. It’s hard to do that if you’re working 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM and you have work on weekends and stress and x and y. It’s a balance but that was one thing that really resonated with me on your path which I appreciate. Digging into though some of the parenting and some of the help you give, when you get a call or email or whatever it is from a parent. What are some of the most common requests or questions they have for you? What are they coming to you with?
Maria: It ranges because I work with parents of kids of all ages and all abilities and all disabilities. I get parents who have toddlers and parents who have older teenagers and so it ranges. The umbrella for everyone is that there’s a challenging situation or the parents are experiencing some challenging behavior with their kids and they’re looking for some help because what they’re saying is oftentimes, I’ve tried everything. I’ve read this book, I’ve listened to this podcast, I’ve tried this approach, I’ve done that. Nothing’s working, Maria, help me. I don’t know what else to do. It’s damaging my relationship with my child and I need help.
Sometimes I’m a last resort. At the same time, sometimes there are parents who are proactive and they know, my partner and I are going to be going through a divorce or there’s a grandparent who is on hospice, they’re going to be dying. Can you help us manage what’s coming ahead? Sometimes there’s situations where the parent is proactive and other times where like I said I am their last resort.
Like I said, it really is the challenging situations that just feel overwhelming. That’s true for everyone. I’d like to say that everything that parents call me about is within the range of typical, it’s within the range of expected or maybe normal. That does not mean it’s easy. Like I said, I worked in schools for 15 years. I was a camp counselor, I was a babysitter. I’m a big sister. I have a ton of cousins who are younger than me.
I thought I know everything. I got this. I got this parenting thing and I am a “expert”. That being said, this is not easy work. I really have a lot of heart that goes out to parents who don’t have that experience. I do have child development experience and all of that. Then there’s parents who say the first diaper I ever changed was my own child’s diaper. This is really hard. What do we all want? We just want to have a good time. We just want to have a good relationship with our kids.
Will: I like that a lot. You articulated a lot of thoughts that I often have where it’s like man, I live and breathe the dad’s stuff and I still find myself struggling. A lot of people don’t have the time or resources to go as deep as I’ve gone or even deeper like you’ve gone and we’re saying, hey, it’s still not easy. I think that’s such a strong message because it’ll never be easy. The second you think level up, they’ve got two levels up. They figure that’s–
Maria: We’re real people. We all have stuff going on in our lives. Just because we want the best in a situation, doesn’t mean we’re always well prepared for those situations. We have work stress, family stress, financial stresses, all these things that play a role in our ability to connect and communicate with our kids. Again, that doesn’t make us bad people or have bad intentions. We do the best we can with the skills that we have.
Will: Yes. Absolutely. I do want to dive into more of the challenges that parents come to you with but before I do that you mentioned something interesting which is you can’t pour from an empty cup? If you’re exhausted and then you’re, “I need to be a top-notch parent. I need to be on my game. I can’t lose my temper. I have to be patient.” All those things, it makes it harder. You’re giving yourself a handicap there which you can do it but you’re not optimizing it. I’d love if you don’t mind talking about the role of self-care for a moment. How you advise parents to make space for that or room for that or what role that has?
Maria: That comes up a lot. I’m glad you brought that up. The first thing that comes to mind is when we have those high expectations for ourselves, “I have to be top-notch. I have to look like I have it all together.” It makes it really difficult for our kids, not even talking about our own self-care but that makes it difficult because then two things could happen. One we’re going to have that expectation for our kids as well. Even if we think we don’t in an unconscious way, that’s what we’re thinking and that’s what we’re communicating if we’re not being our authentic self which may be the person who fumbles sometimes.
That’s really an important tool for our kids to see how we handle those fumbles. How do we get back up? What are the resources we tap into to make sure we get back up and we’re able to dust ourselves off? With that, is showing our kids what self-care looks like. I know a lot of parents sometimes say to me, “Well, I don’t have the time in my day to go to a spa or go away for a guy’s weekend,” or whatever the case may be. Sometimes we have to be really creative in that.
It could be taking a mindful shower. I know that sounds silly but when you’re a new parent and maybe a parent that has a lot of needs, you don’t have a whole lot of time to shower. You may only get five minutes. If you run into that shower just thinking about hurrying up and rushing that shower and then rushing back out, it’s like a wasted shower. Instead, you can say, yes, I only have five minutes but while I shower, I’m going to turn on the music or I’m going to grab my favorite bar of soap that smells so vanilla yummy.
Use that and like just take a pause, take some deep breaths and enjoy those five minutes. I guarantee that shower’s going to feel a lot different. I always think about that when I’m at the gym. I take a class, it’s usually an hour. If I’m doing weights and following, whatever, and I’m thinking about my to-do list. I leave the gym and I’m like, “All right. I worked out, but now I just got to go run all those errands.”
Instead, if I focus on what I’m really there for, it’s a much better experience. Sometimes we do have to be creative in how that happens, either because we don’t have time or we don’t have the finances or whatever the case may be. Sometimes parents talk about if they’re working part-time or full-time, it’s really difficult for them to transition from the work dad or work will to dad will, for example. Thinking about how can I make that transition more mindful?
It might be if you’re the one who’s in charge of going to do after-school pickup, on the car ride to the school to pick up your child, maybe you put on a fun podcast, maybe you put on fun music, whatever it is, that is a good opportunity to have some transition time. It’s not finding these elaborate amounts of time that really doesn’t exist for a lot of parents, especially parents of young kids. Instead finding those routines that already are in place and bringing something special to those smaller routines, because we know they’re going to happen. I have to eat three times a day.
I could skip a meal, but really, I eat three times a day. Why am I going to rush lunch? I know I have lunch every day. Can I do something during that lunchtime that I give myself to make that a little bit more, that will fuel me, that will give me that energy when it’s time to see my kids this afternoon that I’ve got a little bit more pep in my step.
Will: I love that. You said a lot of great things, the number one takeaway to me is things are busy, especially when you have a newborn and they’ll always be busy. There’s also things you can do to create these moments of Zen and you can create those moments in your day, ensure that the amount of time you’ll have for those moments will shift. You still have the ability to do that. I don’t know if it’s ironic or not, but if you think about the ideal life you’re living, kids or no kids. That’s what it is.
It’s creating nonstop moments of Zen, just living in the moment. I’m working out. I’m going to work out. I’m eating food. I’m going to appreciate I’m eating my food. That’s the ideal way to live. I think especially when your parents, especially when you’re in the pressure cooker of there’s 20 things to do. There’s all these stresses, it can be even harder to recognize that. It’s that complicated and that simple.
Maria: Yes. I think the complicated piece is figuring out how do I start because in the beginning it feels really overwhelming and there is so much going on. Especially when I’m working with parents, we have weekly sessions and so there is some accountability there where they’re checking in with me, we’re setting goals. They tell me what they want. I’m not telling them what to do. They tell me, “Maria, I want to bring more of that self-care.”
“Okay, then let’s talk about what that might look like and how are you going to take some steps to make sure that happens?” Then they’re checking in with me on a weekly basis so they know, I got to send my homework to Maria. Maria’s going to be checking in if I did it. Sometimes that can be helpful. It does not need to come in the form of a parent coach. It could be another accountability partner. When we’re working on hard stuff, that can be really helpful.
Will: I imagine so. I like the approach. I like that approach a lot. What you’re saying about transitions also made a lot of sense. That’s another challenge dads have or all parents have. Making that moment between, I’m crossing the threshold from you like you said work will to dad will, how do I mentally do that so I’m not still ruminating about this thing at work happened or this is causing me stress?
Maria: I know one dad has a pool table in his office. He ends the work day, he shoots the game of pool and then goes home. Another dad I know works from home and changes his shirt, so that it’s almost like I’m discarding my work self and I’m putting on my dad uniform.
Will: Yes, I love that. That’s great. The other I’ve heard things like just hitting the wall of the garage or whatever. Not out of pain, but just that’s a knock, knock, I’m home, kind of thing. This is now dad coming. I do the changing the clothes though. I feel that’s a symbolic one. Not all of my listeners are married, but a lot of them live with their partners at least. What about the role of partners or wives or husbands in this?
Do you find like hey, let’s each set some time for ourselves and for each other? I don’t even want to talk about the relationship part yet. Just self care. Let’s stick there for a second then we can move on. What’s the role of your partner in that?
Maria: It is complicated stuff. It is very rooted in marriage stuff. I think a lot of us have a difficult time advocating for our needs and our wants because we think we should X, Y and Z, right? I should be working and doing my best at work and giving my all to my kids. That’s unrealistic. A lot of times we take on too much and we’re not very clear with our partners. The word partner means we’re in this together and hopefully, we’ve got each other’s back.
It really is important that we A, advocate for ourselves when we need a break. It’s really important that we communicate that because that’s going to be better for our kids when we do take a break, and we need to have our partner’s back. If they need a break, we might have to step up. We take turns and it’s like a seesaw. When you go up, I go down, when I go down, you go up, whatever the case may be. It really is a partnership.
Being able to communicate that. The nice thing about COVID, I used to see all my clients in person, a bulk of them now, 100% of them are virtual. They’re choosing to be virtual. I’m able to have both parents in two-parent homes on the call, which is really nice because now as a couple, they’re setting the same goals or at least similar goals. They’re hearing the same message and they’re working on something together.
Will: You just said something great there, working on something together, because that’s a big challenge. I think we’re talking about the stresses of being a parent, the stresses of self-care and we’re saying, I’m really tired. I can’t be a good dad. Here’s some things that’ll help a little bit. You just don’t have a ton of time and now there’s this whole big thing of your partner and they’re in the same boat, different, but you’re in a similar boat and you had a relationship before, which is now changing.
I’d be curious and I do want to spend more time on the kids’ stuff, but just real quick, I’d be curious to hear what you’ve experienced or what you’ve seen in terms of maybe looking at relationships that seem to be doing better versus ones that have more challenges, what they have in common, et cetera, or the ones that are succeeding in the people you’re talking to because I don’t think a lot of the people are coming to you saying, “I need help with our relationship,” but I’m guessing you do see relationship challenges.
Maria: Yes. I’m not a marriage therapist, so that’s doesn’t come in. When the parents do let me know that they’re considering separation or divorce or whatever the case may be, I have to really spend some time talking to them to make sure that what’s happening with them does not interfere with the parenting work. At the same time, you asked what things kind of work well.
I think when couples are able to really have the safe space to share what their concerns are, so there’s a platform, there’s a space that they can each explain their perspective and what’s important to them and then work together to find something that works for everybody, that’s going to be a lot better of a process than one of the parents, one of the partners trying to move their agenda along and try to make something happen. “I need him to see my point of view because I’m correct.”
I do see that dynamic happen a lot. That does not work well. I do get some parents who say, “Can you just talk to my husband and make him understand that basically I’m right and he’s wrong?” I really encourage parents to move away from that perspective. Instead, let’s take the time so we can hear where everyone’s coming from and understand what the shared goal is and start moving in that direction where we’re going to meet that goal.
Also, just allowing your partner to be on their own journey. Not everyone is going to “get there” as quickly as someone else. You have that, what is that? The tortoise and the hare example. It’s going to take some people a much longer time to understand the work that I do and to make the changes in their tone of voice and then their reaction time and all of that. Some people get it very quickly and we can’t make someone do something because it’s not going to go well. They’re going to feel like they are being controlled instead of working collaboratively, working together to find a solution that works for both parents.
Will: I love that. Basically, what you are saying is different parents have different strengths and some parents can be really good at understanding and learning from you. Other parents are going to say, all right, this is going to take work. That’s fine. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. One common theme though I think in all this is communication. I started doing, see I’m already messing up. We, my wife and I [laughs] started doing a weekly meeting. Just me and her every Sunday, where we plan the meals for the week, we talk about events, things that are coming up, kids, stuff.
Then we also go a little deeper and say, “Hey, this is bothering me and I’m starting to resent this a little bit. I’d love to fix this. This is causing me some challenges.” Yes, we don’t work through everything, but if you start articulating and communicating it, that’s a thousand times better, in my opinion, than just keeping it internally. Then it just blows up over something totally different.
Maria: I’m guessing that while you’re having that conversation, even though it’s a difficult conversation, you’re feeling good about having that space to have that conversation. When you walk away, you hopefully are thinking, wow, I felt good about that, and I think my wife felt really good about that. That’s the work that I do with parents and helping them navigate some of these challenging situations with their kids is, there’s no right way or wrong way to parent. There’s definitely things that could be damaging and all of that, but really, any approach, whatever you want to call it, gentle, positive, there’s so much overlap.
What you really want to be able to say is, okay, my child just exploded. They just flipped out. I think I handled that well. I think I did a really good job. I feel good about it and I feel like my child thinks I did a good job. They feel like they felt heard, they felt seen. They feel good about how that went down because the worst is when we have a conversation or we think we’re having a conversation and it ends up being one party. Same thing with couples. It’s all about relationships.
Whether we’re talking about parenting partnership or a parent-child or a student teacher, it’s about relationships. We could again blow up thinking we’re going to have a conversation. Then we walk away and what do we feel as parents? We feel guilt. That’s a horrible feeling to feel. This guilt of like, I shouldn’t have said that to my child. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have taken away yet another toy from them or withheld dessert. Then we feel guilty and that eats at us and it doesn’t really solve anything. Instead, when we’re able to have that space like you were talking about a conversation where we feel good about it, it’s a win-win for everyone.
Will: Yes, absolutely. One thing I do advocate actually for feeling that pain. If you mess up, feel it, feel that pain so next time you’re less likely to do it. Now that’s not a reason not to. That to me is a part of it. I want you to feel that pain and then I want you to get the tools and resources because it’s not that you’re a bad dad or parent. It’s not that you’re whatever it is, it’s challenging like we keep saying, but the key is to make sure you keep yourself under control. When you do feel, yes, like I said, I do like to feel that pain or dads feel it.
Just, hey, next time you’re less likely to go towards that pain, but yes, you need that other side, the tools, and resources, and that might be a nice place to transition to because I know that that’s another one of your areas of expertise. I know a big challenge for a lot of us dads is like, I’m telling my kid what to do and it’s the right thing to do, and he’s not listening. Like, what’s wrong with him? [laughs]. He’s doing the opposite. He’s not cleaning up, he’s not clearing his dishes, he’s not getting ready for bed. It takes 20 hours. What’s going on here?
Maria: I thought I was really clear in what my expectation was. What’s going on here?
Will: Yes, no expectations. That word comes up a lot, I think, in parenting, where you have an expectation because it’s pretty clear, go upstairs, get ready for bed and it’s not happening, but that’s probably not the right mindset to have.
Maria: Well, it sort of is, because one of the things you just said is, “I wonder what’s happening here?” Which is actually the first step, right? Actually, there’s a step before that, which is we can easily flip our lid about our child not doing what we asked them to do. When our lid is flipped, we’re not going to make coherent, well-thought-out decisions. If we’re able to stay calm when we see that our child is not meeting our expectation, they’re not doing what we asked, then we do want to say, well, I wonder what could be going on here? We do want to bring in that curiosity. There’s a great little phrase that says be curious, not furious.
I’m not suggesting that you or any other parent gets furious right off the bat. A lot of us do, but some level of what we call dysregulation, where our feathers are ruffled by our child not doing what’s being asked. We want to bring in that curiosity. If we move to furious, if we move to getting ruffled, then we are not operating at our best selves. We’re not going to be able to think straight. We’re not going to be able to think clearly.
When we come from a place of curiosity, we’re being open. We’re being open to what possibly could be going on here. We could ask ourselves, I wonder if this is difficult for him. I wonder if maybe he didn’t hear me correctly. I wonder if he’s just too busy doing something else and that’s why it’s difficult for him to transition upstairs for bath time. I wonder that’s what we want to do. We want to first take that pause and bring in that curiosity because we may answer our own questions.
We may even engage in a conversation with our child. With that curiosity, we may ask our child, “Hey, kiddo, I’ve noticed you’re having a difficult time getting upstairs for the bath. What’s going on? I’m not mad at you. I’m really just curious. What’s up?” Your child might say, “Well, I was playing with my Legos before dinner, and I wanted to finish what I was building, and so I’m not ready to go upstairs and bathe.” Okay, well, if we get that bit of information, we may still want our child to get in the bath, but that also makes a whole lot of sense.
Oftentimes, we don’t allow for that space to have that conversation and we move right to, “Kiddo, this is the third time I’m asking you. You need to get upstairs in the bath. You’re not going to have story time if we don’t get upstairs.” If we can take that pause and maybe engage in a little bit of back and forth, “Hey, what’s going on here? It seems like you’ve had a tough time brushing your teeth lately. Do you think you don’t like the toothpaste? Do you think it’s something about the toothbrush? Do you think maybe it’s because you’re upstairs by yourself and you’d rather one of us upstairs with you? What do you think might be going on?”
Will: No, that’s great. I like that a lot. Time is a funny thing, and it feels like a lot of time has passed. Like the example you just gave, hey, I’ve asked you three times. That took a little bit of time. It’s not that much time, but if you just back up and the first time you ask them, you see they’re not doing it, you could just go down that road right away. That’s where I’ve had success, and I feel like other dads have too, where you say, okay, let me give you a little space. You need two minutes. I’ll give you two minutes. Right? I’ll set a time or two minutes, and it’s two minutes. It’s no time. Right? For them, you’re giving a little bit. You’re not just saying, this is the authoritarian rule.
This is this. Listen, it’s giving them a little bit of I don’t know if autonomy is quite the right word, but just giving them that space, I’ve found, has avoided a lot of challenges that we had before. My son’s reading a book to himself, and it’s time for lights out. What we used to do is, it’s time for lights out, but now we say, “Hey, you can finish your page.” Adds 30 seconds, adds a minute or two, whatever it is, but made a huge difference. It was like a shift for him.
Maria: Sorry to interrupt, but it makes me just think sometimes we as parents have to check in with ourselves. Why am I making my kid turn out the light in the middle of reading and get ready for bed? Like, what is that extra two minutes that he might need so that he can finish his page? Why is this so important to me? That’s a good question for us to take a big pause on as well because sometimes we do have these silly ridiculous rules. It’s just because I said so.
It’s winter where I live. I’m in Northern New Jersey, and a lot of parents require their kids to wear hat, gloves, and jacket. Well, not everybody works that way, right? Like, I’m always freezing. Not every kid is always freezing, and so why am I going to make my child do something? I might have to, right? If there’s a safety reason, some other reason, maybe there’s a reason why it’s really important that my child does what I’m asking, but it is always good for us to check in to see why am I asking what I’m asking.
What is important to me about this? Why is it that I’m trying to pursue this action? It doesn’t mean we’re always going to change our mind about something, but it is important that we do check-in because sometimes I’m a mom, sometimes I make ridiculous requests, and it is important that I check in.
Will: No, that’s great. I think that’s right on. I found myself doing that recently with my daughter’s bedtime. I do bedtime and then at some point I leave and then it’s my free time for the night. That’s pretty valuable to me, of course, but I found myself rushing a little bit saying, okay, I might have one more minute. At the end of the day, now we’re two minutes or three minutes or four minutes of less of free time. I mean, that’s not even noticeable. Just your priorities can get out of whack pretty quickly, though. The flip side of that is we’re human. We get tired. We’ve been working all day, and we’re doing the best we can do.
Maria: Look, every once in a while, we make an adjustment like that. If it’s a problem that is recurring, we want to tackle that, right? There’s an approach that I use in my practice called collaborative problem solving, and I have mentioned it in a nondescriptive way before, which is where we want to understand what’s going on with our child. “Help me understand. Seems like you have a difficult time turning out the light when I tell you it’s time to turn out the light. What’s going on? I’m not mad at you, not judging you, I’m not blaming you, blah, blah, blah. I just want to understand.” Then I might as a parent share what’s important to me. “I hear what you’re saying, Kiddo. You really want to be able to at least finish a chapter if you’re in the middle of a chapter. I get that. That’s important to you. What’s important to me is that you get a good night’s sleep. That’s really what’s important to me.” Nine hours or however old your child is 10 hours, that is what I consider a healthy amount of sleep. “Let’s work together, Kiddo, to find a way that you can still read the amount that you want to read or finish a chapter.
At the same time, you can get to bed at a reasonable time that still gives you that healthy amount of sleep. Let’s work collaboratively. Let’s work together to figure out something that works for both of us, and then it’s a win-win. We’re working together to figure out this problem that keeps creeping up, that frustrates me and then you get frustrated because I’m frustrated, da, da, da, da, da. Let’s just work together to figure this out.” In order to figure it out, we’ve got to take time to hear where our child is coming from and hear what’s important to them. It’s important for our kids to also hear why we’re asking this. What’s important to the parent?
Will: I love that. I love that we create these rules or expectations that are for their health, for them. You try and you make sure you’re explaining it, you’re communicating it and hopefully, they understand why you’re doing it. There are going to be cases where maybe your child does something that they shouldn’t do, that they know they shouldn’t do. Maybe just drawing that example. You say time for the lights out.
You turn off the lights and you walk by the bedroom 10 minutes later and they’ve turned the lights back on. That actually has not happened to me, but something like that. How do you view more broadly maybe using this example, maybe not, just the role of rewards and consequences or punishment in all this? Where does that fit?
Maria: Let’s use that as an example. I think it’s a great example and it’s common. You tell your kid lights out, turn off the lights, you kiss them on the forehead and you shut the door and then you walk by and the lights are on. That is your choice point. That’s where you get to decide what am I going to do. I could either go in the room and say, “That’s not cool. Your lights need to be off and if you don’t keep them off, here’s your consequence.” I might throw out a bribe or some incentive like, “If you could just keep your lights off tonight and go to sleep, you’ll get extra five-minute iPad time tomorrow morning.”
We can do that. When we do that, it’s not really helping the child build any of the skills that are needed to meet the expectation of shutting off the lights. There’s something going on beneath the surfaces. Something that is making it difficult for the child to shut out the light and go to sleep. When we try to make our kids do something or try to motivate them to do something, that often causes a rupture in the parent-child relationship because it’s the parent again trying to make their child. I’m imposing my will onto my child. I’m trying to make them do what I want them to do.
It doesn’t really often go well if you talk to parents and I get parents all the time that say, “Maria, I’ve taken away everything. I’ve threatened my child with everything. It’s still not changing their behavior.” It doesn’t work to change the behavior. We could walk by the room and see the light on and just let it go and say, “You know what? I’ve had a long day. I think they’ve had a long day. I’m going to mind fully choose to just let it go and not address it. I’ll address it another time. I think if I go in there, I’m going to flip my lid. I am exhausted. You know what? It might be better off that I just let it go.
He’ll turn off his light at some point. I’m just going to go take care of myself. You can do that as well. That also may not lead to any change in behavior, but the idea is that you’re going to go back to it at some point. At some point, maybe not that night because again, maybe that night is not the best time to do this collaborative work of problem-solving because it’s late because you’re tired, whatever the case may be. Soon after, maybe the next day after school, you pull your kid aside, maybe you’re playing Uno or doing some fun activity and you say, “Hey kiddo, I’ve noticed you’ve had a difficult time turning out your light and keeping it off. Help me understand what’s going on.”
The kid may get a little nervous that they’re going to get in trouble because that’s typically what happened and you might want to reassure them and say, “I’m not mad, I’m not taking anything away. I really just want to work through this with you.” Let’s figure out what’s going on with the whole light situation. Then you move into that work of trying to understand again, their perspective. The bigger thing to answer your question is you do have a choice with every unmet expectation. When the light is turned on, that is an unmet expectation.
Now, I have a choice. I can try to make my kid do something. There’s pros and cons of that, but it is a choice. I could let go of my expectations, say fine, and that is a choice or I can work with them and partner with them and say, “Okay, let’s figure this out. This is a recurring problem, let’s see what we can do about it.”
Will: I like that a lot. Talking about unmet expectations and again, making sure that you’re in a good place, that you’re being proactive, not reactive. You’re not doing what you feel like doing or what you feel like saying, but taking a moment to say, “Hey, what’s actually going on here?”
Maria: In the heat of the moment, you’re too hotheaded to have a healthy conversation. If you give it some time and you let it go, it doesn’t mean that you’re letting it go forever. That, oh, your kid’s going to learn that they can “get away with it”. No, it means you’re giving it a healthy pause until you’re both in the right place where you can resolve that issue.
Will: No, 100%. I learned very quickly that both my kids can recognize when I’m angry, when I’m stressed, when I’m reacting that way and they immediately react to me that way and it just escalates. Whereas if you take that breath, because it doesn’t just affect you and how you’re parenting, it affects your kids’ emotions and how they feel. They feel that anger, they feel something building in them and–
Maria: There’s real science to support exactly what you’re saying. Our brains all have something called mirror neurons. In an unconscious way, our brains actually mirror one another. Researchers will do this with infants. The researcher will smile and the infant will smile. The researcher frowns and the infant will frown. I’m sure there are times you’ve walked in a room and you’ve said, “I don’t know what happened, but I can feel the tension.”
It’s like that where if I’m in a good happy mood, the likelihood is my kids are going to get along, things are going to go smoothly. If I’m feeling a lot of stress and anxiety and frustration, I’m going to start seeing some of that being reflected from my kids. It really is important that we are mindful that if we’re feeling that dysregulation, that ruffled featherness, we take care of that because it’s contagious.
Will: Yes, that’s awesome to hear that science behind it and it makes sense, like you’re saying, as an adult, we recognize that going into a room that feels awkward or angry or whatever it is. Maybe not at the same level that’s going to happen with our kids who know what’s better. They take on those cues. The last area I’d be curious to dive on a little bit is when you’re in a situation that has more immediacy.
Light’s on, lights off, you can just say, “All right. My kid might be a little tired tomorrow and then I’ll tell him you’re tired because you’re kept your light on,” whatever. What about the case where a sibling hit another sibling or is doing something destructive or something that takes that immediate, all right, we need to step in now. Does collaborative problem-solving work there or is there a different approach you would advise? What would you say there?
Maria: It’s all the same. Hopefully what we’re doing is identifying some of the triggers. If one sibling hits another sibling, there’s a reason why. That’s what we want to start to see like, “Hmm. I’ve noticed that my one kid hits the other kid anytime they play with the blocks. It doesn’t seem to happen with the Legos, but for some reason with the blocks, it happens.” Well, if we are able to see that there’s a trend there, there’s some pattern, then you used the word earlier, proactive. We can be proactive and get ahead of it and say, “You know what? We’re going to bring out the blocks,” to myself. I might say, “Okay, I’m going to bring out the blocks and I know this is often triggering for my one child.
Proactively, I’m going to have one of those conversations with my kiddo. “Hey, I noticed sometimes it’s difficult for you to play with your sister when we’re playing with the blocks and we’re going to work out a plan there.” Hopefully, we’re getting ahead of the bulk of– Let’s say if there’s a hundred problems in a family, like all these little things, or let’s say ten. There’s ten. Maybe three or four of them. We can get ahead of them and be proactive and identify those based on the patterns we see. Some of them, we really are going to get caught off guard. We still have those same choices. Kid one hits kid two and I have a choice.
Again, that’s my choice point. First thing is I want to take a deep breath and make sure I’m moving from a place of calm and that I’m not being reactive. Maybe depending on the vibe, I may move right into curiosity and say, “Whoa, kiddo, looks like you’re having a really tough time. Help me understand what’s going on.” We still have the other choices. I could not do anything, and sometimes that happens, sometimes I’ve chosen to not interfere with my kid’s fights or we can make our kid do something.
“Hey, you guys need a timeout, I’m taking the blocks away.” Again, we don’t have time to go into all the pros and cons of each of the options but there’s pros and cons about that. It does not mean that that is not a choice. It just means that we want to get into the habit of being proactive, of trying to think about what is going to be my best response in each of these situations. Yes, we’re not always going to know that something’s going to happen, but we can start thinking about how do I want to handle those situations.
Will: That’s awesome. That answers a lot of my questions and I’m sure my listeners’ questions. You’ve given us a lot to think about. I’ve learned a lot just through this little conversation, but another takeaway that’s really important is, as you said, you can be as experienced as any parent, you can have all the tools in your toolbox and resources, but you still might need help.
You still might need to reach out and that’s where someone like Maria can help. Like she said, she’s all remote. It doesn’t matter if you’re in New Jersey or where you are, but you can find her at mariasandersparentcoach.com and just a lot of information on her website, but hopefully, you guys found this conversation helpful. I know I did. Thank you, Maria. I really appreciate you joining us.