The tedious often thankless job of being a parent is not for sissies. Once we are past the sweet baby phase (which for many has its own challenges) we are on to witnessing this little human enter toddlerhood, childhood and adolescence who has their own mind, needs, wants, wishes and temperament.
That often is accompanied by a lot of challenges. Sadly, since parenting courses are not required in our society, children are left with the luck of the draw as to whether they will have a parent or parents who parent out of woundedness of their own childhood including unhealed traumas. If a child has a parent who sorely lacks self regulation skills, that often creates a lot of chaos and instability. Or, if they are among the fortunate, they get to grow up with parent(s) who have walked their own journey of health, healing and have learned how to parent with intention toward their child’s healthy development and stability.
To be clear, there are no perfect parents. With that said, this was the week for parent / child interactions in my private practice as a Certified Counselor. Because I love what I do, and because I believe the health of the parent / child relationship is vital to both individuals, families and the community at large, this is a topic near and dear to my heart.
Here are some observations from client stories in my practice,as well as out in the world as well, that are a little heartbreaking, i.e. the stuff that not only does not work, but really does damage to a growing developing human.
1. Parents who constantly yell. I extend this to teachers, coaches and childcare givers as well. Yelling is often accompanied by words that are harsh, sometimes accusatory and often shaming. Think of some of the messages you grew up with that still occupy your thoughts today, e.g., “Why can’t you sit still like your sister?” Yelling is an indication that you, the adult, are lacking in self regulation skills-i.e., the ability to control your own emotions. That is on you to learn. Life goes better for everyone when you do.
The problem with this is kids personalize everything. They internalize something must be wrong with them if they are getting yelled at all the time. They don’t have the brain (prefrontal cortex) maturity to understand this is a Mom or Dad issue.
2. Caving and giving a child what she wants all the time. I am talking about the child throwing a tantrum in aisle 5 of the grocery store, flailing arms and legs and mom gives the candy to “get her to stop.” The mom or dad who laments I am too tired to properly discipline or provide consequences- just give her what she wants. I have seen five year olds who are so unruly that virtually no one including the parents want to be around this child. What will this out of control child look like 3-5 years from now?
3. Using screens as a babysitter or allowing your adolescent to be on them constantly.
Of course screens and tech have their place and benefit. The problem is largely when kids are allowed to be on screens from a young age (under 2) and when they are on screens for hours at a time. I could list so many downsides to this, but suffice it to say, we are wearing out the pleasure center of the brains of our children. This goes far beyond the problem of kids needing immediate gratification. There are huge developmental / social / relational implications to this as our kids are not getting enough face- to- face interaction with people and learning to read social cues. Many are losing the ability for compassion.
Here are some important concepts toward moving toward a style of parenting that honors you, your child, and can make a significant difference in restoring some peace to your home and your sanity.
1. What Kids need most: To be SEEN. To be HEARD. To be DELIGHTED IN. Notice, I did not say, the best ipad, the coolest name brand shoes, or attendance at the best schools.
Kids need your time, attention, interest and love. They need to know you delight in them just AS THEY ARE. Learn to be present, ask questions and engage with your kids on a daily basis. You may need to wean them off of electronics in order to do this.
2. Schedule regular “date” days with your kiddos. Having regular scheduled play time, going to the park or playing a game is so important to stay connected with your kids. These are the times to enjoy your child and make lasting positive memories. This is the part where you just enjoy your child. Off limits is talking about grades, homework or any other “to do’s”. Let them lead the conversation, be an attentive listener and stay present and focused. Put your cell phone away during these outings. If you have littles, drawing, coloring, building or make believe play can go a long way.
3. Set Clear Boundaries by both your words and actions. Kids of all ages look to parents, teachers and caregivers for what is ok and not ok. They need communication and consistency. It can’t be ok to be disrespectful one day and then the next day it’s not tolerated. This is hard on kids and leads to confusion and mistrust. If you are too tired to respond appropriately to your child, take a time out, put them in a time out while you take yours, take a rest, and then go back to the child and situation and respond appropriately.
4. Use Language of Ownership. Simply put, don’t ever attack or criticize the child, but rather focus solely on the behavior. This is the difference between “you are a bad boy” vs. I do not like it when you choose to …” The power of a parents’ words is significant and kids will come to believe whatever you tell them whether it is true, or whether you are just losing your cool. Focus on the very specific behavior they are doing that you want them to change. Let them also know why this matters. We all do better when we have some context about why something is important. Kids are no different.
5. Help them to calm down first. This is one based on neuroscience that I wish I would have done a better job when raising my own kids. It is great to tell kids “ I need you to make a different choice…” however the reality is until we help a highly emotional ( high arousal state) child to calm down, they can’t access what little prefrontal cortex they have available to them until they are calm again. Telling your child to “quit crying” or “calm down” is NOT the way to accomplish this. Teach them to deep breathe, in through their nose and out their mouth. There are many other coping skills that kids can learn even when young. ( Side note- the prefrontal cortex is what allows us to make good thoughtful choices and is not fully matured until well into our twenties. This might explain why your teenagers do such dumb things!)
Being a parent is one of the most rewarding journeys I have experienced. Now that my kids are adults, they are both “kids” and friends. Like most parents who have experienced the whole parenting journey from birth to adulthood, there are many things I would have done differently. With that said, I am proud of the humans they have become- and we all like each other which is pretty special.
You are not alone. You have a community. Lean into other parents, teachers, life and parenting coaches, take a parenting class, read a book, heal your own childhood wounds and give that gift to your children…
We wish you much joy on your parenting journey! May you have much compassion and grace both for yourself and your child!