Rules of Engagement

shadow talk

Have you noticed that disagreements with your child quickly get out of control as they seem to masterfully use your words to make their point and pull in all other unrelated issues like a giant magnet? You become exhausted as you parry and thrust to get your point across and win the argument as you rightfully should as the grown up.


Lay some ground rules. Really. If you know you are about to have a discussion and you have very different opinions on the matter, stop and give the rules. It will keep you both focused on what the goal of the discussion and hopefully keep you both focused on problem solving.


I’m not a boxing fan, but I’ve watched enough old movies where I’ve seen them go over the rules of a fair fight before beginning the match.


Rule #1: We both only get to say how “I” feel. We can say,

“I feel like you don’t trust me,”


“ I feel frustrated”


We are not allowed to say what the other person is feeling or thinking, because we don’t know.  We shouldn’t say:

“You don’t trust me!”

“You hate me!”


Rule #2: No Yelling. This is not about domination; this should be about communication and you each getting to say how you feel. When there is yelling involved, it’s a power struggle and you ae both going to be less interested in what the other has to say.


Rule #3: You are both only allowed to say what you will do to contribute to the solution. This is the key. The criticizing, blaming and shaming will not solve any problems and will make the problem worse. Instead, offer what you can do to solve the problem- even if the problem is something your child is or is not doing. Show that you care and you are willing to help. This may take a lot of self-reflection ahead of time as you try to sort out your needs or expectations, and how you can cooperate with your child to get there. It may be that your expectations need to change. You can even tell them that- that would be a conversation starter that will get your child’s attention! Is it a chore? How important is it that the child needs to do the chore, or it just needs to be done? Could you offer to do it with them? Spend some quality time, and maybe show your child some skills to make the task less overwhelming?


Rule #4: Boundaries. If either of you need to walk away, say so and do so. I don’t mean storm off when tension is high, I mean before one of you lose it and regulating yourself isn’t working, say that you need to take a break and talk about this later when you can calm yourself. Make an appointment. Say, “can we try this again in 10 minutes, (or an hour, whatever you need.)” Stop yourself before you say something you will regret.


Everyone has needs, when there is conflict, you need to slow down and talk and find out what each other’s needs are, and how can you both meet those needs.


Remember, discipline is helping a child solve a problem, punishment is causing a child to suffer because he has a problem.



Resilience. In the natural world, resilience means that something is able to spring back into its shape after something causes it to momentarily change its shape. Like the elasticity of a palm tree in a storm, it sways and almost bends and touches the ground, but eventually springs back into a straight palm tree.


Resilience is a bit different when it comes to people and adversity. People may go through a storm too but will not usually come out of the storm the same. They will change. Resilience is when a person is able to come out of a difficult situation with new strengths or a new knowledge of who they are. They can recover from adversity but with the awareness that they are not the same person that they were before the storm.


If you are parenting children with trauma, or if you as a parent have had trauma in your own life, you know those scars cannot be erased. But you and your child can discover a resilience that comes from those traumas and know yourself better and be stronger for it.


You can help your child build resilience by attuning with your child and teaching him how to regulate those tumultuous emotions when circumstances trigger anxiety and unsafe feelings. Those feelings are normal with trauma backgrounds. You can be the safe, calm person that helps your child work through those feelings and what to do with them. I’ve said this before, knowledge is power. Learn how trauma changes the brain and how you can help that person feel safe again.


For further reading, here are a few other posts I have about trauma:

Raising Kids with Trauma in their Past

5 ways to Build Resilience as a Family

Parenting with a History

Creating a Nurturing Environment


I also have a resource section with great book recommendations to read on trauma, and I am always available to work with you one on one to help you connect with your child through those big behaviors.

Know Thyself

buddha perspective

I recently did an activity with the parent support group I run. I told the parents to close their eyes and mill around the room. We bumped into each other and laughed and apologized as we blundered around. I then asked them to keep milling around the room with their eyes closed but to imagine that everyone they touch is toxic and the longer they come into contact with someone else the sicker they will become. The milling became filled with tension as we all jerked back at the slightest touch, one person felt his way to another room and stayed there! And then one more time I asked them to imagine that touch was good, warm, connecting and healing. Within a few moments, the whole unseeing group found each other, and we were all connected, holding on and not letting go.

What changed? The circumstance was the same, we were milling around a room with our eyes closed, but we underwent a vast array of emotions in a few minutes. It was how we thought about the situation. When we assigned a thought to the situation, our feelings and actions quickly followed.


Your body also reacts to the feelings and thoughts. If you have good feelings, your body relaxes and releases endorphins and serotonin. Bad feelings are translated as potential danger in your body and your muscles tense, your breathing becomes short. Your body will prepare to fight or run or whatever it needs to do to meet a crisis.


You can only consciously choose your thoughts and actions. But your total behavior of thoughts/feelings/actions and body response is an unconscious choice and your attempt to make the best decision to meet your needs from a circumstance.


If you don’t think you have choices about your thoughts and feelings, there would be no market for counselors or self-help books.


To get your needs met you can either change what you are doing, change what you want or both.


How to change?

First be aware of the different categories in your mind. Get used to categorizing circumstances, thoughts, feelings and actions. Just observe. Don’t try to change them, be aware and gain an understanding of how your mind works.


If you are noticing that you predominately have negative thoughts and feelings with all or certain circumstances, write it down. When do you have positive thoughts and feelings? What is different? Write it down.


When you have been keeping track and journaling about your circumstances, thoughts, feelings and actions for a while, you can start to change what you would like to change to get your needs met better. Is anger and effective way of dealing with whatever circumstance you found your child in? What do you need to stay connected with your child and regulated?  Again, you have direct control over your thoughts and actions. The feelings and body response follow. Often your make a choice of anger because the more vulnerable feeling of loss of control or maybe even culpability are far too uncomfortable, so anger feels like a better choice.


What do you need right now? Safety? Fun? Belonging? Love? Survival? What thoughts, feelings and actions are best going to meet those needs?




The activity was not my own it is from Leonard Scheff.


Further reading on Circumstance/Thoughts/Feelings/Actions can be found here:

Calming Your Child with Body Language

!body language

Take note of your body right now. You know how you are feeling, how does your body show the way you are feeling? Look at someone else in the room, can you tell what their mood is by what their body is doing?


While you are having a conversation or an argument with your words, there is a whole other conversation going on with your bodies. Our thoughts have a whole-body response. We don’t just say we are mad, we stomp and tighten our muscles. If our thoughts are sad, we hunch our shoulders, hang our head and walk slow. If we are excited, we may jump up and down.  Even if we are not in a conversation with someone, or even know the person, our own bodies have a reaction to other people’s body language and mirror without us consciously doing so. Think about watching people in an airport, we smile when we see a family embrace, we glare at someone who is shouting at an employee. We feel our heart tug and wish we could help someone who looks sad.

We all crave to belong and to attune to others, it is one of our basic needs. Our bodies are programmed to attune to others by picking up on body signals and mirroring those signals- mostly without our awareness. This is particularly true of a parent child relationship. A child attunes to a parent’s signals and subconsciously knows when a parent feels safe and not safe.


When your child gets angry, our body mirrors the anger and if we don’t check ourselves, we get angry and louder, and it becomes a power struggle and the only winner will be the one who can dominate.


It is difficult to think when we are angry, so it is hard to rationalize and calm ourselves by thinking our way out of it. That’s called a top down approach, where you try to control your thoughts to change your behaviors. What we can do is use a bottom up approach where we deconstruct the thought, by controlling our body.


By calming your body, you brain will respond and calm as well. Your child’s body will pick up on the signals and deescalate as well as she attunes to the “safe” body language you are portraying. Your goal is to connect with your child, so you can talk about your differences. That cannot be done in a screaming match.



Typically one or both of you will have your legs splayed apart, hands on your hips, firsts clenched or arms crossed. When you spread your legs apart  your body is trying to gain territory and show power. To deescalate the situation, bring your legs in closer together, physically take up less room. Open your arms if they are crossed, this suggests openness instead of being closed off. If your hands are on your hips, that is also a body language that conveys power and intimidation. A curious thing about this stance is that it depends on where your thumbs are. If your thumps are forward, it is a power position. If your thumps are backwards, it conveys curiosity and pondering. Try it. Do you feel different with your hands on your hips with your thumbs forwards and then back? It puts your brain in a different gear without even trying to change your thoughts!


When you are angry your body prepares to meet a crisis, you take short breaths, your muscles tighten, and your blood leaves your extremities as it prepares for whatever it is about to face. You drop into your instinct brain and it is harder to think clearly. You can stop this visceral reaction by taking a slow deep breath, dropping your shoulders and opening your palms facing up. It is actually physically impossible to feel stressed or angry in a relaxed body. So, if nothing else, just remember to drop your shoulders or open your hands when you feel tension rising. Your brain cannot prepare for battle if the body won’t participate and you will be able to stay calm and in your thinking brain and your child will respond.


I’ve actually asked my kids to open their palms when they are talking to me and they are upset and I do likewise. They stop and suspiciously ask why, and I say, “Oh it’s just an experiment, now what were you telling me?” And it works! We mirror each other with the open palms and have a conversation about whatever is bothering them.


Try it

Constant Positive Regard

act as you think

There’s a concept in psychology called Unconditional Positive Regard. It means to set aside biases and to think well of someone and accept them regardless of their actions. Professional helpers like therapists and coaches this practice this all the time to build a relationship with a client the create a no judgement zone to support them and help them reach their goals.


As parents, this may or may not be an easy thing to do. If you and your child are in a cycle of reactivity to each other there is a lot of mistrust and judgement flowing from both of you. There is a lot a parent can do to be the one to restore an atmosphere of connection and trust. One of the main things you can do it to remember your love for this child and practice a constant positive regard for your child.


If your find yourself complaining about your child, and getting tense just thinking about your child you need to restore your positive regard for your child. I blogged and kept a Facebook chronicle of my children when they were very young. I took tons of pictures of them- and still do. I love the Facebook feature of Memories on this day. I check it every day and get an “aww” feeling when I see pictures and cute saying of my kids when they were little. Look back on your memories with your children and get that sweet feeling of nostalgia. Give hugs. Build hugs into your routine; hugs when they leave for school or you go to work. Hugs before bedtime. Hugs are affection, acceptance and a transfer of warmth and love- positive regard.


You may need to just take some time out and sit and think about your child. Do it as a mindfulness exercise. Sit where you can see your child when he or she is occupied with something else and you can just quietly sit by. Think of your child when they were born or when they entered your family and the warm and overwhelming feelings of love you had then. Think of what you love about your child. That walk, the way they laugh, how sweet they look sleeping. Think of his or her talents, their generosity, and what makes them so special to you. Just take some time to think of only positive thoughts and love toward your child. Set aside the friction and irritations and saturate your mind with positive regard.


Just like “you are what you eat” you also act as you think. Your thoughts affect your feelings and your actions. Next time your child has a big behavior, it will be easier to see the child behind the behavior and stay calm to try to meet their needs. So decide to keep positive thoughts toward your child, and watch how your constant positive regard affects your relationship to keep you connected with your child.