I had a mother come to me asking for help with her two young daughters, ages three and one. The older child was physically aggressive with her younger sister, hitting and shoving, and the mother was distressed and concerned—distressed that her older child would resort to tactics of aggression and intimidation; concerned that her younger child would get seriously hurt. “What do I do?” she asked me. “How do I stop the conflict?”
I make it a point to tell my clients before we begin working together that I am not the “answers lady.” I do not offer quick fixes or stock techniques because my investment is in the long-term. Parents need deeper, more effective solutions than can be derived from pat answers or standardized how-tos, and coaching is a fascinating and enlightening path of discovery that can produce lasting change. Perhaps we will see a few distracting bunny trails on the way to transformation, but the destination is always worth the time and effort invested.
So when this mother sought my input, we began on a series of sessions where I asked a lot of questions. We discussed a lot of feelings, thoughts, assumptions, and expectations. We talked about developmentally appropriate behavior. We talked about what this mother wanted to see happen between her daughters. And as we unpacked emotions, circumstances, and triggers, this mother began to formulate a new vision of her girls. I asked her one day to tell me what she saw in her older daughter when the two sisters were together.
“She’s older and bigger and she is capable of so much more than her sister. I don’t understand why she wants to hurt her. I get upset because she just seems defiant and hurtful. I wish she could be loving and protective of her sister, not bent on causing her harm.”
Then I asked the mother to imagine her oldest daughter alone, without her younger sister present. I encouraged her to remember or envision a time when she had one-on-one time with her three year old—“When you look at your daughter in this scenario, what do you see?”
As the mother considered this question I could hear the tears welling up through the phone. It took a while for the response to come, but when it did I knew we were walking through a fundamental shift.
“I see a little girl who needs me—so much! She’s so young, such a baby still. She’s hardly done being a toddler and I’m already expecting her to be the mature big sister. But she’s so tiny, so young!”
The remorse and guilt that surfaced as this mother sorted through her realization caused some genuine distress at the time, but as we sorted through her revised vision, her new way of seeing her oldest daughter and the little girl’s troubling behavior, a true transformation took place.
Now that this mother saw differently, she could act differently. Now that her perspective shifted, she was able to approach the problem in a new way. In fact, the problem itself was completely redefined. No longer did she identify her three year old as the cause of her distress; rather, she identified a genuine need exhibited by her oldest that she was now equipped to evaluate and go about meeting. She could begin to be different, which encouraged her girls to be different too. By the end of our coaching time together, this mother had almost forgotten that she originally came to me concerned about physical altercations between her girls. It was a problem many weeks in the past, not because she learned to impose a new punishment or institute an appropriate consequence, but because she parented from a new place of competence when she saw her girls, and herself, more clearly.
We all bring something to the table. We all bring biases, expectations, and assumptions to our parenting. This is universal, for we are all shaped by infinite influences that consciously and unconsciously embed themselves in our way of being and moving in the world. That we come with baggage is not a problem, as we all have the ability to learn from and accommodate our biases. But our willingness to see and our courage to act will have profound implications. If we want to transform, we must be willing to first look within. That is where the true seed for change takes root.