We often talk about how we want kids to take responsibility for their feelings and actions, however, we often model something very different, usually without even realizing it. Let’s look at how we easily fall into the trap of blaming others for our feelings and how we can stop.
1. “You make me so…!”
When a child or adult does something that pushes one of our buttons, “You make me feel…” is often our response, especially if the words or actions are a pattern. The logic is pretty simple; they do or say A and we feel B. It’s cause and effect, right? Not exactly. Kids can and do push our buttons, however, we have a choice in how we respond. For example, if a child is constantly refusing to pick up their toys at the end of the day and you’re constantly getting frustrated and annoyed at getting stuck with the mess, you can decide to stop the cycle. You can choose to find a fun way to engage the child in clean up, allow only one toy at a time after 4 PM to make clean up quick and easy, or use mindfulness tools to let it go and avoid getting pulled into frustration or annoyance. There are lots of ways to change your reaction, the key point is that you’re in charge of your reaction. Just like kids are in charge of their reactions when things don’t go their way.
2. Be careful not to make kids responsible for the feelings of others.
When you say “You make me so mad!” or “Get this done and I’ll be so happy” or “Don’t say that, it makes Eva sad” you’re trying to teach that a child’s words and actions impact those around them. Great lesson. However, by drawing a direct line between cause and effect, you’re teaching the child they have control over and responsibility for others’ emotions and others have control over and responsibility for theirs. That idea is scary and burdensome to kids and once it takes root, shows up in unhealthy ways in future relationships.
3. How do you teach the lesson?
While kids don’t cause our feelings, they do impact and influence them. Humans are social creatures and our interactions with others affect how we feel. We can teach kids the intended lesson by changing our language and providing context around the why of what’s happening. Instead of “You make me so mad when you don’t clean up!” you can say “When the toys aren’t picked up at the end of the day, I have to do it. That takes a lot of energy when I’m already tired and I get frustrated.”
Instead of “Don’t say that, it makes Eva sad” you can say “Eva isn’t sure about her new haircut and she’s afraid others will make fun of it. When you said her hair was too short now, she was sad because she thought she was being teased.” With expanded and intentional language, the child can see the situation is the cause, not them personally. They understand you’d be frustrated with any child who didn’t clean up at the end of the day and Eva would be sad if any child said her hair was too short after her new cut. They’re no longer the cause of anyone’s upset and they’re no longer responsible for making anyone happy.
Using new language can take time to get used to and master. However, with practice, it can become a natural part of your communication style.