How do the seemingly insignificant things in a parent-child relationship add up to become significant? I have seen this process unfold with many of the families I have had the privilege of working with. I've also seen this unfold in my own interactions with children during therapy sessions. So what insignificant things am I referring to? A few things come to mind...the way we talk to children when we need to set limits, the way we respond to their emotions when they are not happy, and the things we actually set limits on. Limit-setting and big emotions are always things that come up during my work with children and families, and I often find myself prefacing my coaching around these things with, "This might seem insignificant now, but..." Then we have a conversation about why letting the seemingly insignificant testing behaviors go, or using an indirect and/or uncertain statement when trying to set a limit, or invalidating an emotion because it seems so "dramatic", all add up very quickly for children, creating stress and likely more behavior challenges later.
One very commonly seen example that comes to mind, and often involves all of the above, is a child who climbs all over their parent or uses their parent's lap as their own personal bean bag chair. Of course, from an outside perspective, and the lack of an attachment relationship with the child on my part, this is easier to see as something that the child might be doing to let the parent know they are feeling unsettled and/or are wanting a calm, clear limit from the parent. But from a parent's perspective, and all that the parent-child relationship brings, this behavior is rarely perceived this way and is just allowed because it seems insignificant. When I share my perspective on this with parents, it is often met with a look of confusion or an occasional dismissal. But, when parents are willing to look deeper into the possibilities I present, and even provide the child with a limit, it usually opens the flood gates for the child to meltdown, which is likely what they needed in the first place, but could only express through their non-social, "sensory-seeking" behavior.
So what would this actually sound like if a parent were to set a limit on this early, state the limit directly, and acknowledge the child's emotions if they become upset? Below are two different scenarios, one that unfolds this way, and one that doesn't...
A parent is sitting on the floor having a conversation with another adult and the child comes over and tries to stand on the parent's lap. The parent puts their arms on the child's arms and holds them so they don't fall. The parent tries to move the child over a bit or peek around the child so they can see the person they are talking with. Then the child plops down on the parent's lap on their belly and lays across their parent's legs and rolls around, then sits back up and plops down again on their lap, then pushes their body against their parent's chest. The parent continues the conversation, but is very distracted and eventually says to the child, "No thank you, Johnny! Could you stop pushing on mommy?" Johnnie continues to maneuver his body around in various positions all over his mother's lap, becoming more dysregulated and distracting to the conversation. Mother abruptly ends the conversation and shows frustration toward Johnnie, saying "You never let me finish my conversations!"
Another parent is sitting on the floor having a conversation with an adult and the child comes over and tries to stand on the parent's lap. The parent immediately helps the child sit down while saying, "I'm going to help you sit down so we are both safe while I finish my conversation with Sharon." The child sits quietly for a short time, but then starts to engage in more distracting movement on the parent's lap. The parent responds right away and says, "Johnnie, it looks like you want my attention right now. I know it can be hard to wait. You can sit quietly on my lap or you can use your big bear to get your squirms out." Johnnie proceeds to continue moving and mother moves him off of her lap right away, saying "You're having a hard time sitting quietly on my lap, so I'm going to help you over to your bear." Johnnie starts to cry and mother responds by saying, "I see that you're upset because I moved you off my lap. I hear you. You didn't like that." Johnnie lays down on his big stuffed bear while still crying, and after calming on his own, picks up a book and starts looking at it. His mother stays close to him while finishing her conversation.
It's truly brave and heroic on the part of the parent when they are able to have the courage to set limits early, follow-through calmly and confidently, and fully allow and acknowledge their child's emotions. I say this (brave and heroic) because a parent recently reminded me that though this might be the ideal way to handle challenging situations with their child, that parent-child relationship and all the emotions that come with it, often influence the parent's ability to respond in a way that holds the significance of insignificance in mind. With support, practice, perspective, and perseverance, this does get easier and more natural for parents! I've witnessed it happen with many families who've done this very hard work. And what a significant gift this is to the child!