5 Preventive Maintenance Habits to Keep Your Child Out of the Breakdown Lane

By Dr Laura Markham

Would you like a way to avoid power struggles and meltdowns at those inconvenient times, like when you’re trying to get your kids into the car to go somewhere? The answer is Preventive Maintenance.

What’s Preventive Maintenance? Think about what happens to your car if you don’t fill it with gas, change the oil, and give it a regular tune up. It ends up in the breakdown lane. Life with children isn’t so different. With preventive maintenance, you meet your child’s needs before the unmet needs cause a breakdown.

Unfortunately, parents aren’t given a preventive maintenance plan for their children. But if you don’t refill your child’s love tank with acknowledgment and validation, roughhouse with him daily so he gets some good giggling in, and give her regular one-on-one time, you can count on more breakdown time.

Unfortunately, once your car is in the breakdown lane, your options are limited. Similarly, there are only so many things you can do once your two year old is in meltdown mode when you’re trying to buckle him into his carseat, or your twelve year old is lying to you about drinking with his friends. The trick is to prevent the breakdown to begin with.

So if you’re having an ongoing problem with your child, it’s worth asking what kinds of preventive maintenance might keep you from ending up in the breakdown lane so often. And if you have more than one child, you certainly can’t always be available for meltdowns when your child “blows”. That means that your primary parenting strategy has to be prevention.

Here’s your 5-step preventive maintenance plan.

1. Make empathy your go-to way of relating to your child.

Empathy strengthens your relationship with your child, helps you understand her better, and helps her feel understood. That means she feels safer to feel her emotions as they happen, instead of stuffing them in her emotional backpack where they’ll burst out uncontrolled at a later time — so she gains the emotional skills to manage her feelings and behavior. Empathy also helps your child accept your limits. Ninety percent of your interactions with your child should be about connecting, so she can accept the 10 percent that are about correcting.

2. Roughhouse daily to get kids laughing.

Children build up anxiety (mild fear) all day long, and they need a way to let it out. What do they have to be anxious about? They’re small people in a big, chaotic, unsafe world. Their brain is still developing, so they often feel overwhelmed by big emotions. They’re not in charge of much that happens to them, so they feel pushed around a lot. They also often feel scared about things from mundane (what if the teacher calls on them?) to huge (what if you stopped loving them, or died?)

Luckily, nature has designed humans with a great way to off-load anxiety: giggling. Laughter really is the best medicine, and the best way to get your child laughing is physical games that very mildly provoke a fear response. Roughhousing also triggers bonding hormones, so it builds trust. This is important for all kids, but especially critical if your child is highly sensitive or has any past traumas to work out, large or small. That includes past punishment and yelling, if you’re making the transition from conventional to peaceful parenting.

(Tickling isn’t the best way to get kids laughing. It seems to involve a different physiological response so it doesn’t accomplish the goal of release, and it can make kids feel out of control. If your child begs for tickling, try “pretend tickling” where you threaten to tickle, but don’t actually make contact.)

3. Make time for Special Time.

Life has a way of disconnecting us. Spending one-on-one time with each child daily is your most important tool to build trust, stay connected, build self-esteem and help your child express his emotions. Turn off your phone (yes, really!) and let your child take the lead, while you simply delight in your child. Many parents tell me that once they start daily Special Time, their problems with their child diminish dramatically, whether the problem is aggression between siblings, tantrums, power struggles or defiance.

4. Use routines.

You don’t have to be a slave to the schedule, but regular routines minimize your job as head cop, reduce power struggles and increase your child’s sense of safety. Routines also make it more likely that your child’s needs for sleep, food, and unscheduled time will be met, which gives them more inner resources to face the demands of the day.

When you incorporate connection opportunities into the routine, it not only helps your child feel loved; it also makes the routine go more smoothly, because your child feels more cooperative. So be sure that your daily routine includes a morning snuggle with each child, a family hug and high five before you leave the house, and/or appreciations all around the table at dinner.

If you work with your child to take photos of the routine and make a chart, he can start taking charge of moving through the routine himself, which reduces power struggles and resistance. All children want to be “in charge” of themselves!

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