The 3-Letter Words Child Psychologists Love
Pandemic parenting burning you out? Use these words psychologists endorse.
Pandemic parenting is hard. For many of us, parenting during COVID-19 is the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. It’s not surprising that Google searches for parental burnout, parenting, and stress, and emotion management are spiking. It’s also not surprising that children are experiencing more stress-related symptoms than ever before. Coronavirus is like the gift that keeps on taking, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to be past it any time soon. Even when we are past it, I think the next pandemics facing this country will be pandemics of post-traumatic symptomatology and burnout.
Parenting is hard even when there isn’t a pandemic complicating matters. Sometimes, parenting is so hard, we forget that there are simple changes we can make that can help. Here’s a list of some of my favorite three-letter words that can transform our parenting. I try to review this list and use at least one of these words with my kids, or with myself, each day. Turns out, adults are just grown-up kids, and using these words with ourselves can help us be kinder to ourselves, too.
This is a word that I try to attach to the end of any sentence that starts with “I can’t.” Whether that sentence is about how “I can’t” traverse the monkey bars, multiply fractions, use Canva, or get along with a troublesome peer, the word "yet" transforms the sentence from fatalistic to hopeful. I can’t do a cartwheel—yet. I can’t successfully bake a loaf of sourdough bread—yet. I can’t handle quadratic equations—yet. And also, for parents—I can’t stay calm when the kids are bickering—yet. I can’t handle another few months of hybrid schooling—yet. I can’t get my kids to comply with bedtime—yet. A wonderful children’s book that teaches this concept is called Bubblegum Brain. It’s by Julia Cook, and it describes how the ability to persevere despite frustration helps us succeed. The book is very child friendly but has a great message for adults as well. (For more about parenting to promote a growth mindset, click here.)
This is a favorite word with DBT therapists, because it helps us remember the dialectical nature of human psychology. Two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. Using “and” in our communication with children helps us convey our unshakable love and belief in them, even when we’re reprimanding them. You are a wonderful, kind boy, AND we need to work on using our words when we disagree with our brothers. You are a responsible kid AND we need to figure out a better system for time management around chores. You are a good person AND you need to learn some tolerance skills. After all, our kids can be the most exasperating creatures in the world AND we love them more than we can express, right? We always want to convey the message (in the immortal words of Mr. Rogers): I love you just the way you are AND there are always skills you can learn, competencies you can master, and emotions you can learn to regulate better. The one does not cancel out the other. That’s the power of the word “and.”
When a child is still stuck in a behavior pattern we don’t approve of, we have to remember that they are not finished products. Instead, they’re in the pre-change state. Sometimes, children don’t change until they’ve matured enough to be ready to do so. Sometimes, it’s a matter of development. Sometimes, it’s a matter of peer expectations, and sometimes, it’s a matter of motivation. I remember a patient of mine who simply could not learn time management—her mother tried all sorts of charts and behavioral systems, but nothing stuck. Until she auditioned for the school band and was accepted. Band practice was before school, which meant catching the early bus. She never missed the bus once! A combination of maturity and motivation got her to a place that no amount of behavior modification or parental encouragement could. She wasn’t incapable of change, she was just in the pre-change state.
The same can be said of parents: When people try to learn new parenting patterns, it can seem daunting. But perhaps we’re not inept, we’re just pre-change. I’ve seen many parents who were daunted by the thought of mastering parenting a child with OCD, anxiety, or social challenges—and who soon mastered new skills. Like the word “yet,” “pre” reminds us that we’re always growing, changing, and evolving, if we let ourselves embrace that process. (To read more about using this concept in parenting psychodiverse kids, click here and here.)
Why (and why now)
This is a word that helps us understand that there are frequently many motivations for our children’s behavior and our own. Why did my child have such a strong reaction to being teased by this person, in this manner, at this time, when yesterday he was teased and he let it wash over him? Why does this situation make my child behave in what seems to be an irrational manner?
"Why" is a great word for parents as well, because it helps us understand why we can sometimes react so unevenly to stressors. Why can I stay so calm during a child’s meltdown, but react so strongly when one sibling is taunting another? Does it have to do with my own unresolved feelings about sibling bullying? Why are Tuesday nights so difficult in our home? Is there a way to manage the schedule on Tuesdays better? "Why" is great for figuring out whether there are still ghosts from our past that are interfering with our parenting today. Frequently, when we do respond disproportionately with our children, it’s either due to our own stress levels or due to feelings from our childhood. Why helps us figure out the patterns that lead to our behavior. (To read more about Post-Traumatic Parenting, click here.)
There’s a wonderful picture book by Peter Reynolds called Ish. I recommend that every parent buy the book and use it to discuss perfectionism with their children. Ish describes the way an older sibling’s mocking causes a young boy to stop trying to draw, until his sister teaches him the power of "ish." Rather than try to draw a perfect flower, draw a “flower-ish” or a “dog-ish” or a “pencil-ish.” Soon, the boy regains the joy of creation. When I’m working with a child who is intimidated by starting a new skill, we talk about how to do a good job—ish, and that’s all that matters. It doesn’t have to be a perfect score, or a winning goal, or the best cartwheel in the class. To start, all we need is to try, and do it “ish.”
The same goes for parenting. We can get lost in an endless cataloging of our parenting ills and triumphs. But the truth is, we need to parent responsively-ish. As D.W. Winnicott said, small failures on the part of a parent are healthy for a child. Parenting doesn’t come down to perfection, it comes down to connection, inevitable failures, and our ability to repair them. (To read more about how parenting perfectionism can lead to deleterious outcomes, click here and here.)
Sometimes, parenting in stressful situations can be as simple as adding some three-letter words to our vocabularies. I’d love to hear from fellow parents about other three-letter words that can help.