Have you ever encountered a problem with someone that kept you up at night? Last night, due to a cold and some nagging issues on my mind, I spent the night tossing and turning in bed with my non-stop-brain vacillating between trying to figure out how to solve a problem and telling myself to go to sleep.
In the wee hours of the morning, I awoke, and finally got a bit of clarity. I wasn’t able to fully articulate my thoughts though until I reconnected with another parent I know who is dealing with a similarly troubling issue at her school.
A bit of background: My friend and I have been writing back and forth via email to share ideas on our struggle to change systems that are both inefficient and inequitable. Even though we have had our best intentions in mind, and have made significant progress, it has not been without a great deal of upset, brought on by people invested in the systems we are trying to change. We are both finding the conflict, personal attacks and melodrama to be emotionally taxing and sometimes question our resolve to continue our cause.
And isn’t it something? Writing to counsel my friend about the challenges she’s heroically facing, I came up with the very words I needed to hear myself…
That said, I’ve decided to share them with you, in the hope that you, blog readers, might find some clarity for reassurance too. I know many of you are out there like me, trying to create positive change in the world, community, school, or family… (Heck! This new clarity I got even applies to trying to change some things about ourselves.)
Here’s the Magical Advice…. Wait for It…
This change thing is really hard…
… for all of us … as individuals and even harder for organizations, which are basically HUGE groups of individuals.
Based on the fact that we are humans, and our primary goal is to survive, it makes sense that:
- People/organizations will resist change (even good ones) because it feels different or uncomfortable.
- We are hard-wired to survive, and anytime we perceive anything to be POTENTIALLY threatening, the “caveman” part of our brain (also known as the amygdala) usually starts firing off all sorts of signals (and stress chemicals) that basically make it impossible for us to think.
In response, the person/organization “under attack” will usually fight back or run away (Yep! Good ‘ol Fight-or-Flight!)
Knowing this, it’s easier to see how the sometimes awful reaction we get from our efforts really isn’t PERSONAL, even though it definitely feels like it is. It’s just the normal human reaction to change.
What happens next? Well, the common (normal) response to being attacked or dismissed for trying to change things is to either attack back or run away ourselves. This all makes sense… but not always:
- Avoiding or “dropping”the issue can be a good idea, if it was not a big deal in the first place. Nonetheless, if it really is a problem we are wrangling, we know it will just continue to build underground and eventually fester and explode later on.
- Fighting back usually backfires, because we often get labeled as aggressors… and then dismissed as crackpots or worse (!) Or, conflicts can escalate until both sides can’t be mediated because the situation looks from the outside like just another “he-said-she-said” argument.
The way we were…
In both of these scenarios the problem person or structure gets what it wants (either consciously or subconsciously) by getting to go back to the “way it was”. Status quo SAVED! This is kind of like when you set a new rule at home with your kids. If you fight back they become more resistant, and if you ignore real problem behaviors, they get reinforced.
But There is HOPE!
So, how do you get past all this? Remember what you do when you are being a “good parent”…
Stand your ground–don’t lose your head, don’t run away. Any parent who’s successfully weathered a tantrum knows how this goes. When we are centered and clear in our purpose, we tell our kids a new rule and have a plan to stick with it. We don’t yell, we don’t beg, we don’t bribe and we don’t go away. We keep stating our expectations and we don’t stop until we see the positive change we know our children can achieve.
How do we keep from loosing our cool? Well, using the child analogy, we don’t get upset when our kids cry… we know this is part of raising kids. In fact, if we are any good at this parenting thing, we anticipate the “ramp up” in tactics that have worked previously. If “fight” worked in the past then a tantrum or big blow-out is on the way. If “flight” worked before, then we expect avoidance behaviors, like acting silly, or our kids pretending they don’t hear us or acting confused. (Is this all sounding familiar?)
How Does this Work with “Big Kids”?
So, let’s use this metaphor and apply it to “big kids” (aka: adults) or systems problems we may see in our schools (or at work) … Based on what you know about kids, you can almost EXPECT tantrums, avoidance, and even trying to get siblings and other family members in the fray (Remember trying to pit your mom against your dad as a kid to get your way? I certainly did.) Likewise, we can EXPECT to see grown-ups having blow-ups, crying, and playing the “blame-game”.
Using this framework is really helping me be compassionate while also staying engaged. I know the easier logistical stuff usually gets fixed first, because it’s easy. Harder more ingrained problems are going to take a longer. Nonetheless, just because change doesn’t happen right away, doesn’t mean change will never happen–it just means it will take a bit more patience on our part, and a deeper commitment to staying engaged. Lord knows, if it’s really important and a really big change, we have to be willing to ride it out and not give up over a tantrum or two (or ten!)
This video is a great illustration of some of the challenging behavior you may be faced with. When I’m really frustrated, reframing it in my mind as a “toddler temper tantrum really helps me stay focused on my goal while keeping my cool.
What If Adults Had Tantrums Like Toddlers?
Anyway, I don’t mean to be preachy in sharing this advice, we all get defensive, want to run away and loose our cool at times. That said, as adults, it’s our job to “grow up” and work together to best support our kids. Keeping this in mind, not only helps me deal with challenging behavior, it also reminds me not to add to the problem. It also gives me peace as I continue my fight for the school/kids I love, and reminds me to take care of myself along the way.
Whatever challenging person or situation I am facing, it is also reassuring to know I am part of a larger community of HERO parents and educators, who include you, dear readers, who are committed to “fighting the good fight” for high quality education for ALL our kids!