When Water Meets Rock: Approaching Challenging Behavior with More Ease

Photo by Brian Tomlinson on Flickr

Today, our 8 year old son called for a family meeting. He wanted to discuss the issue of equity in our response to quarrels between him and his 3 yr old sister.

"The main problem," he began, "is that you've been letting her get away with too much lately. Like when we both do something but only I have to separate. Every time. And she never does."

Separation is a technique which we've agreed to use with our son's input. When things get heated between him and another family member, he voluntarily (well, after several very stern reminders) goes (well, drags himself while moaning loudly) to a room designated for that purpose, in which he gets to do something calming that he enjoys (lately, this involves browsing for toy police paraphernalia in a Playmobil catalog). No, the irony does not escape me.

The point is that he understands that separation plays an important role in helping our family re-gain connection when we begin to fall apart.

"It's not the separation I mind," he clarified after we went over this again, "it's just the unfairness. I always get separated, no matter what, and she never does. So she gets away with stuff and I don't."

"I really like the way you are staying calm and explaining all this to us. And I do support your desire to be equitable."  That's my husband, leading with an appreciation and a reflection of what is important to Aaron (our experience supports the NVC teaching that people can hear others better once they've been heard a bit).

"My concern," he continues, "is that your sister is too young to understand separation the way we do it."

"Why!? Just put her in like a crib or lock her in a room so she can't get out."

Raised eyebrows from dad.

"Ok. Ok. How about time out? Can you give her 3 minutes of time out? I think you are not being tough enough with her and that is why she is the way she is lately!"

Raised eyebrows from me now.

Of course, the temptation to "crack down" on behavior we do not like is built into our culture's fabric.

If only we can make it "not worth their while" to do it any more, we think, we can probably have some relief soon. In this way, we wind up focusing on how to best react to the behavior, rather than step back and reflect on how to best respond to the person within the child.

And when we are caught in a pattern of reaction, the only way to go is up: to shout louder, stomp down harder, get tougher.

Yet, with Non Violent Communication (NVC), I have found that the answer is often the opposite.

"I admit your sister has been going through a bit of a phase," I say, "NVC reminds us that her outbursts are still a communication of a 'beautiful need' underneath, like wanting more love or more inclusion or more consideration of her wishes. I think the answer is to focus on being kind and patient with her before she escalates into yelling, hitting and demanding."

"Mom," our eldest said, sounding truly annoyed now. "I tried that patience thing for a week with her, but she kept being mean and all my patience got used up. And now I don't have hardly any left for her at all."

"I'm guessing your patience ran out because you were trying to use willpower to be patient. You were trying to be strong and your patience muscles got tired. But NVC is about softening, about opening our heart to the other. About seeing their pain or sadness and feeling more patient because of it. It's like being a river that flows around the other person, not like a rock that stands strong in front of them. Do you understand?"

"Yeah. You are saying that it works better when I have compassion and use my heart."

"Yes! Heart instead of Willpower. Water instead of Rock. Not just with your sister. All of us with each other."

And with that reminder before us, we agreed that we could improve the sense of balance and inclusion in the family by considering separation as a tool for anyone who seemed to need it.

Finally, an excuse to "separate" myself upstairs with a good book. How is that for equality?