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The stressed parents guide to understanding your child

Child jumping in puddle

Who sometimes feels like their child just 'doesn't listen', 'doesn't learn' a particular skill or habit, or won’t change an unhelpful type of behaviour? Me and my 7 year old are battling with more than one of these at the moment, including the old familiar habit that many of us parents grapple with daily; ‘Put your own stuff away’! Even though I’ve been trying to imprint in his brain for at least two years, we’re not getting very far very fast! However, I try to remind myself that, whatever we’re trying to instill in our children; be it resilience, emotional self-control or ‘self-responsibility’ (boring!); there's a VERY good reason that progress can be painstakingly slow…

Here's why...

When our kids reach an age where it’s reasonable to expect them to ‘do more’; put their shoes away, prepare their own meals., etc; it's not just a case of "It's your job now..."

Because in the 2, 5, 10, 15 years up until that point, it hasn’t been, and all that time, that what’s determined the neural pathways that have become established in their brains. It’s unlikely that our kids are consciously thinking 'This is not my job!'; it’s simply that the that belief is subliminally programmed into their brains, without any real conscious awareness on their part. And if it’s mindset; attitudes and beliefs such as 'I'm afraid', ‘I can’t’, ‘I won’t’; that we’re trying to change, not just habits, those beliefs can be deeply programmed in; they won't just 'uninstall' simply because our we - or even our child themselves - has decided it’s time to overcome them. Beliefs and behaviour patterns can be very deeply wired-in to a brain from a very early age. They basically ensure brains react as quickly as possible. In other words, the brain is a very lazy organ! Once it learns to behave, act or think in a certain way, the neurological ‘pathways of least resistance’ become established, so the brain can work to maximum efficiency without wasting energy. If this feels too convenient, like letting your kids off the hook, then recall the time you maybe arrived at work with very little memory of getting there? Or how long you once drove in the wrong direction before you realised that the ‘force of habit’ was at work? It happens to the best of us… Sometimes, we can even reinforce the very behaviour we’re objecting to… For example, my child sometimes shrieks at me when frustrated. Most of the time, I try to explain that "When you use a normal voice, it makes me feel more like helping”. But for me, shrieking is a ‘nails-down-a-blackboard’ kind of torture and so, despite knowing what I know, occasionally I get triggered. And then how do I react? I yell or snap, or use another unpleasant tone that does nothing to help him learn a more effective way to communicate. And that happens to most of us at times. We’re all human. The fundamental truth is that change of any kind is hard work, for any brain...

...Especially unwanted change. Why would a brain work hard at change if it doesn’t really welcome? Hence why teaching our kids to put their pants in the laundry themselves can feel like marathon training...

So what do we do about it?

You may have already heard of neuroplasticity; the ability of the brain to reconfigure itself throughout life. And it's wonderful! It ultimately means that we have the power to re-programme our brains with new skills, beliefs, behaviours and attitudes, at ANY age. However, what we also need to appreciate is that there’s a good degree of mastery involved. Activating a brain as simply as switching in a lightbulb isn’t really accurate. Because, while learning is NOT difficult for most brains, UNLEARNING is! Long after we've been saying;

"How long have you known how to do this?" "How many times have we talked about this?" "Why do I have to keep saying the same thing over and over?"... ...your child's brains will still try to use those lazy, well established pathways first. In these frustrating moments, try not to focus on what they are refusing to do, or struggling to learn. Instead, ask yourself what they have to UNLEARN first. Remember, you're re-programming a brain here! Even for a fairly straightforward task which a brain practices regularly, and where your child wants the change, three months is possible… but still optimistic. But if it's behaviours, beliefs or attitudes you're trying to change, it can take 1-2 years before you can expect to see the new mindset become the 'default' position... If there's an underlying vulnerability, expect it to take even longer. Don't be disheartened though. Frustrating as it may be, I don’t say any of this in the spirit of struggle. I say it because-especially in our world of immediate gratification, of not having to wait for much at all- we really owe it to ourselves, not just our kids, to take the pressure off and be more realistic with our expectations. It may take a while before we see the changes we're creating, but change IS happening.

Just as seeds sprout beneath the surface long before we see growth above, every single uphill struggle is slowly changing the wiring inside your children's heads, one synapse at a time!

So keep going...

This post was written by Jo Stockdale, Founder of Well Within Reach.

You can find out more here

On Instagram: @jowellwithinreach

Facebook group; "Healthy Brains, Thriving Minds";


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