Question: “How do I interrupt my pattern of saying “Be careful” to my son all the time? I am aware I’m saying it an awful lot” (Part 2 of 3).
So, is “Be careful” appropriate? Yes, with limitations. the child needs to know that an action has potential consequences, many of which may be painful. Especially the child needs to know if the action is dangerous. However, at some point, the child/teen needs to assume full accountability for risking dangerous actions, especially when the actions are legal. My cut-off here is age 16, but I would not quibble about age 18 or a bit older. From about 12 to 16, the child needs to gradually learn full accountability, and hence my stance is negotiated decision-making between parent and child. For example, negotiated overnight parties or return time for evening parties, but no drugs (alcohol or other) or unsupervised parties.
Between 2 and 12, I follow Phelan’s advice: one age-appropriate explanation in any three month period. Children are not stupid; they understand instructions, but learn best from experiences. If the action of the child is truly unsafe, I stop it. If the major issue is my own anxiety, I deal with my own anxiety, and seek to minimize displacing my anxiety onto the child. I also attempt to teach the child options for better choices. For example, suppose the child is climbing an unstable chair repeatedly. The first few times I would assist the child, while talking about difficulties that might occur. Sooner or later, I would simply allow the child to explore. If the child falls, I would likely ask: “Wow. How did that happen? What could you do differently next time?” (meanwhile allowing the child the experience of a painful outcome in safety). Below age 2, my responses in this example would be similar, but with more attention to safety, e.g., putting pillows around so as to minimize the dangers of falling.
But the bottom line here is that eventually the statement “Be careful” becomes an expression of the anxiety of the parent, and also becomes reinforcement of undesirable behaviour by the giving of negative attention. The child needs to learn the consequences of choice.
As for the wish to change a behavioural pattern (“How do I interrupt my pattern . . .”), this too must be mediated within the issues of safety, energy, and choice, in bottom-up fashion. Any pattern is maintained for a positive intention, usually at the other-than-conscious (OOC) level. Knowing this positive intention is very useful, in that it may provide guidance as to what other behaviour(s) would be useful instead of the current pattern. Moving towards something positive is more effective than moving away from something negative. I would ask this parent: “What is the positive intention here?” and “What else could you do instead so as to maintain this positive intention?”
There also needs to be the recognition, and acceptance, that sometimes the ‘pattern to be changed’ is appropriate. There will truly be times when it is appropriate to tell the child “Be careful,” especially when the learning situation is new or the dangers are very real, and as yet unexplored.
Is there a way that the pattern can be made fun (positive energy)? Years ago, when someone came to the door of my house, I had a dog that barked fiercely, simply part of her particular breed. But the noise was very irritating to me. Many times I attempted to teach the dog not to bark, unsuccessfully of course. Eventually I decided to play. When the dog started to bark, I would say (fiercely): “Kill. Kill. Kill,” knowing full well that I was being playful. It helped me immensely, and allowed me to relax while the dog barked. Then someone pointed out that the individual at the door might not understand my playfulness! So, thereafter I would say: “Chocolate. Chocolate. Chocolate.” It was just as effective for me, and the dog certainly did not care. So again I would ask this parent: “How could you play with your own energy so as to minimize the impact of your anxiety on the child?”
To be continued.