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Can We Change How We Parent? Unlocking Your Parental Intelligence

Do you ever wonder why your child behaves the way she does? How many times in a single day do you ask yourself, "Why did she do that?"
09/17/2015 12:35pm ET | Updated September 16, 2016
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Why do children do what they do? What's on their minds? How can parents know their child's inner world?

Do you ever wonder why your child behaves the way she does? How many times in a single day do you ask yourself, "Why did she do that?"

Even little things can throw you. Your three-year-old lies about putting her toys away in the bin. She lied? At age three?

Sometimes it's surprising, but unsettling nonetheless. For example, when your usually self-assured teenage son comes in the door from school, he oddly and impulsively knocks over a stool that falls to the floor in the kitchen. As he regains his balance, he blurts out that he wants to meet a certain girl at a party, something he'd ordinarily keep to himself. Why does he tell you now? What's up with the stool? Does he just feel like confiding in you or did something happen that he's not quite able to tell you yet?

Behaviors are Communications

Parental Intelligence helps parents become "meaning-makers" who understand the significance behind their kids' behaviors. Kids' actions are communications. A parent has to take up the challenge of deciphering the message.

This is a life changer for a mother or a father, a new perspective on infant, child, and teen behavior. Parents can solve problems by learning what their kids think, want, intend, and feel--what's on their minds.

Faced with puzzling behavior? How can you decide what to do about a behavior if you don't understand it? Before asking, "What do I do?" ask, "What does it mean?

Why Does Three-Year-Old Lara Lie?

Let's think about our little three-year-old who's just been told to clean up all her toys. She's been meticulously creating a fairy house with multi-colored plastic and wooden blocks. She's created her version of an upstairs and a downstairs with a triangular block for the peak and wants to put her teeny toy figures in the rooms.

That's when she hears her mother call out from the kitchen to put all her toys in the bin. She knows how to listen to what her mother says and usually complies. But she's just become an architect and now a frustrated one at that. Aggravated, she throws the extra plastic blocks across the room and watches as some of them crack and break. She didn't want that to happen. Tears come to her eyes.

She stops and studies her magical kingdom and is stymied about what to do. She can't take it apart--it's too precious. And it's finally finished. She's proud of her work and can't fathom destroying it just because her mother said to clean everything up. She loves her little figures and feels an attachment to them. The first figure she puts in a bedroom is a kind mother just like hers. So now she's confused.

Not wanting her mother to think she's a bad child but not wanting to demolish her creation, Lara goes in the kitchen and tells her mother the toys are all cleaned up. Her kind mother gives her a favorite snack of blueberry jam on peanut butter bread and they smile together. But deep inside Lara is worried and rightfully so.

Her mother wanders into the playroom and sees that her daughter lied! Blocks are strewn all over the room. They even look like they've been thrown as she sees them in corners and under tables. She's beside herself.

Puzzled, confused, and angry, she yells at her daughter to go sit in the corner to think about lying and never to do it again. Head down, Lara listens promptly. Her mother acted so hastily she never even saw the fantasy house.

Seeing her daughter's head down in shame with tears flowing, she pauses and wonders, What have I done? Shouldn't I be teaching her a lesson? Conventional wisdom taught her discipline was about giving quick consequences for actions, but she knows the actual hallmark of discipline is learning. But all that this three-year-old learned was that it's scary when her mommy yells and she feels very threatened and insecure.

Lara's Mother Uses Parental Intelligence

Let's turn the story around and imagine that this mother learns about Parental Intelligence. She questions why her daughter lied, a first time occurrence. She takes a deep breath, the pause allowing her to notice the magic kingdom with a little figure inside.

She asks her daughter, "Who's the little figure?" Lara replies, "It's a kind mommy."

Somehow, unexpectedly, she thinks back to her own mother who was strict and a definite yeller. She'd always promised herself she wouldn't be that way. Yet here she was tempted to follow the same path.

With a new mindset, she asks her little daughter, "Why didn't you put the blocks in the bin when I asked you to?" Lara responds, "I was still playing. See Mommy I made a princess house. I want to keep it forever."

Lara's mother says, "It's beautiful. You put it together so carefully." Then she waits and continues: "Now, what do we do about all these blocks?"

With a serious face, Lara makes an independent decision. She scurries around the playroom picking up all the unused blocks, even the broken ones, and puts them in the bin. Presto! The job is done.

She didn't need to lie. She'd just used remarkable fine motor coordination in building a house. Then she demonstrated her new found autonomy about how to solve a problem. These were big milestones for a three-year-old that a mother could be proud of.

She had her own thoughts and wishes and was ready to express them, given the chance. How sad to think of her wanting to make a good decision and ending up in a corner fearing her mother's tone of voice, which was probably one of the reasons she would lie in the first place.

How Does a Mother Help Her Sixteen-Year-Old Son to Open Up?

Todd's mother has already learned about Parental Intelligence, and it frames how she reacts when her son unexpectedly, albeit awkwardly, tells her about a party and even a girl. She steps back in her mind, pausing to think how to approach him. She's tempted to tell him to pick up the stool he impulsively knocked over but hesitates and does it herself considering that his surprising action showed his mind was in disarray.

She remembers how she was at his age, so different than him. She'd never dated and hardly went to a party. So she wasn't experienced in this kind of thing.

She gently asks, "Hey Todd. What's up about this party?" Again, he reacts in a puzzling way. He's usually very well-spoken, but now he is stuttering like his mind can't straighten out what he wants to say.

Seeing no judgment in his mother's eyes, he says,

"There is this really fine girl. And, she doesn't drink." (He pauses for a moment.) "I have a confession. Last time the police came to a party and found me drunk. They warned me not to drive and to never get so out of control again. There were no parents at the party. I didn't get in anybody else's car. I waited an hour and sobered up by the time Daddy came to pick me up. I know I seem like I'm really popular, but I'm basically a fake. I have trouble making any conversations at a party without drinking."

While worried, Todd's mother is relieved and pleased because her son trusted her to confess his struggle. They would work it out together. She knew she got this far because she used steps of Parental Intelligence--stepping back, self-reflecting, and trying to understand her son's mind. The overall problem, his low-self confidence, would be figured out together.

Changing Your Parenting Life Style

• Learn not to react quickly.
It's counterintuitive not to give immediate consequences. But stepping back gives you time to consider meaning behind behavior which promotes understanding. Self-reflecting about your own reactions helps to sustain self-control and use life experiences to know how to proceed.

• Understanding your child's mind is the key to Parental Intelligence.
Learn your child's thoughts, feelings and intentions to define the actual problems that need to be solved.

Parental Intelligence offers a new parenting mindset.
Trust, security, and empathy build your parent-child relationship.

Parental Intelligence reshapes your parenting life.

Laurie Hollman, PhD, is a psychoanalyst who specializes in infant-parent, child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy, a unique practice covering the life span. Her upcoming book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child's Behavior, will be released October 13, 2015. It has been endorsed internationally. Pre-order from Amazon at a 21% discount.