I was standing in the arena after eating dust yet again from being dragged by my horse. I remember the feeling of rage pumping through my veins and screaming inside “How dare he! How dare he drag me across the arena yet again. Stupid horse. He needs a good beating!”
My jaw was clenched and my foot was tapping as I looked around at everyone who was stood there. I had paid a load of money to be here. I wanted to learn all the things that would make me a better horse woman. What I didn’t want to learn was how quickly my horse could drag me through the sand on my belly, in front of a group of people. My teacher, the old cowboy who was taking the course, said to me, “Well I could have told you that was going to happen!”
This made me mad. How did he know my horse better than me? He was crazy. I was going to load up and go home and not bring my bruised ego back. Stupid horses. This new way is no better than what I had already been doing. At least I could make myself feel better the old way when I shouted at my dumb horse.
Except it hadn’t made me feel any better. Every time I shouted it made me feel worse and it made this rage inside of me get bigger and bigger.
At the time I was a primary teacher and a rather good one at that. Although I did have this temper. If the children weren’t listening to me or they weren’t doing what I had told them to, I would start to shout. I would get the same clenched jaw and the same tapping of the foot. The only thing I didn’t do was hit the kids as that was against the law.
To be honest every aspect of my life seemed to annoy me and fill me with rage. I wasn’t sure what was happening to me but I knew that I didn’t want to live the rest of my life like this and that there had to be a better way. Hence finding myself eating dirt in the arena…
You will be happy to know that I did go back the next day. Pride and dust brushed off , I had decided the previous night that I had paid my money and I was going to learn all the stuff that this cowboy had to teach me.
Fast forward 20 years later and I have the most amazing relationships with my horses. It is based on respect and leadership. They know I am safe to follow and that what I ask them to do comes from a place of true leadership. A place of safety.
This approach I started to incorporate into my classroom and later as a foster parent. Build a relationship on mutual respect and trust. Say what you mean and mean what you say. That way everyone is on the same page and no one is unclear of what the expectations are.
What I started to notice was that every child I interacted with would do what I asked them to do. There were moments, right at the start, where they would rather disagree with me and tell me to do one, but over time my consistent approach won them over. I was firm but fair, consistent in my message to them and always, always had open conversations where we could talk about any subject.
There is always a reason for behaviour. Whether you are a horse or a child. Something I use to tell our fostering social worker – “Horses, dogs, and children all want consistency and boundaries. They want to know what is said today, is true tomorrow. The most dangerous place to be is with a person who changes their mind like the wind. There is no safety there.”
Within my work with parents of challenging teens and tweens, we talk about what the behaviours mean. What are the triggers? My child is acting out. Why? because they are having big emotions that they don’t know how to express. What do they need? They need me to connect with them and to help them regulate their emotions.
As a foster parent, I have worked with many teens and tweens who have been crying out for connection through the most challenging of behaviours. I understand how difficult it is to get our kids to open up and talk. I remember feeling frustrated that they weren’t communicating with me. I remember that feeling of dread and concern every time the phone rang, wondering who it was and what they were going to tell me.
I have held children while they cried for the connections that they never got and took all that anger and rage out on me.
I have made those connections and come out the other side with teenagers who finished high school, when they were written off, with teenagers who would talk to me about their concerns when previously they would be closed and shut down. I get it. I understand it. I lived it as a parent and as a teen.
Remember their behaviour is rarely about us.
It may feel like it, but it really isn’t.
There is so much going on in their life that they are trying to understand and work out.
And sometimes the don’t express that it the best way.
Sometimes we trigger them without realising it.
Take time to notice what is happening and offer the connection.
Not a forced, you must talk to me now, more a “Hey I have ice cream and marshmallows in the freezer if you fancy it?”
Be prepared for silence.
Allow them that space.
They will come to you.
Give them time.
Listen without judgment.
Be the safe space.
And remember it isn’t about you.
There is always a reason behind the behaviour we see.
As my cowboy friend, yes we did become friends, said to me, “Jo, notice what you notice, and then notice what happened before that. That’s where the trigger is. Seek the connection. Give respect. Let them know that there is no danger being with you.”