Can A Swiss Army Knife Can Teach The Best Parenting Approaches?

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Can A Swiss Army Knife Teach The Best Parenting Approaches For Disruptive Kids?

Years ago, when I was about eight, my parents gave me a special gift - a Swiss Army Knife. 

I had just joined the Boy Scouts, and this was a prized possession for camping. It had a number of different tools on it - a small knife, can opener, screwdrivers, tweezers, scissors, nail file, and a few more items. As with most new things at that time, I found every opportunity to use it - opening packages, opening cans, as a screwdriver - anything!

Maybe you had a similar special gift as a child that meant a lot to you, and you used it for lots of things. Or maybe you also had a Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman tool.

Let’s explain how parenting - and being a kid - is a lot like using one of these amazing tools.

Wait, what!?

Stay with me - I promise this will make sense.

Let’s say you only knew how to use the tweezer tool. Yes, you had the whole knife, but just couldn’t use other tools. You may not even know they existed.

Along comes a need for a can to be opened. You just have a tweezer. The expectation is that you open the can. If you do, there’s a reward chart that gets a star or a piece of candy. Other kids are getting them.

But, no matter how hard you try, you can’t access the other tools. You try and try with the tweezer, and fail. It’s very frustrating. You feel like a failure and are probably angry. You may get upset, out of the blue. You may get in trouble.

But, you still cannot access the can opener.

It gets worse, because when we are upset, “it is like we are operating with 10-15 fewer IQ points” (Dr. Relly Nadler). We are literally less resourceful in these moments. 

Sounds pretty rough, right?

As it turns out, this is nearly exactly what kids who may struggle with behavior issues are going through inside.

You see, in their internal Swiss Army Knife, they don’t have access to the can opener. They just don’t have that skill. They would love to have that skill, but don’t yet.

As Dr. Ross Greene puts it, “Challenging kids are lacking the skills of flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving, skills most of us take for granted.” 

Now, as parents, you of course want to help your child have access to all of their resources - all of those tools on that internal Swiss Army Knife.

When the need for a can opener shows up, you want them to have that ability - and not a tweezer.

How do you build up this resilience, and help them find their resources?

Two words - validation and empathy. 

You see, if they know they are understood and not alone, the cortisol and adrenaline stops flowing. The anxiety eases. The stress response calms. They can start to access more of that internal Swiss Army Knife. They may even find the can opener - or know how to ask for help to find it and use it.

What doesn’t work?

Another rewards chart, punishment, or just expecting the child to get over it. This would have already happened - they’d prefer to be high functioning in life.

Remember - what’s a big deal to a child is a big deal to them. It’s not to us anymore as adults - we have decades of coping skills. We have a developed brain (this happens at about age 25). However, when we were 5,8,10 - some things were a really big deal then. Telling us they weren’t didn’t change how big they were.

This season of giving, one of the biggest gifts you can give your children is empathy and validation. This builds lasting resilience so they can not just obey you, but thrive in their world.

And, if you get upset or frustrated - it’s hard to find your can opener too. The quicker you can get to calm, the easier it will be to use all of the tools on your internal Swiss Army Knife. You may even discover some new ones.

Have an amazing Thanksgiving and holiday season!

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