“Parenting can be rewarding, but it is also the most challenging thing that you will ever do.”
Does the above quote feel true to you? Do you love being a parent, but find some situations or days challenging? Do you feel like it takes a lot of emotional energy to parent in the way that you would like to? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone.
Welcome to being human and to being a normal, yet imperfect parent.
All parents struggle. We love our children more than anything. Children provide our lives meaning, joy, hope, and love. However, children’s behavior can also bring out feelings of stress, guilt, embarrassment, and anger. This range of emotions is part of being a human being.
Parenting strategies and tools are very helpful, particularly techniques like Parent Child Interaction Training (PCIT) and Parent Management Training (PMT) that are empirically supported. We have written about these strategies often on our blog.
However, many parenting approaches fail to address something that is also very important: how the parent is thinking and feeling. Helping parents to acknowledge and open up to their thoughts and feelings clears the way to raise children in a manner that is effective and meaningful.
Research finds that when parents become immersed in their own insecurities and anxieties they are more likely to:
- Use ineffective or rigid parenting.
- Be less kind and compassionate towards themselves and their child.
- Be less consistent with parenting.
- Over-react to our children’s negative emotions and behaviors.
- Forget to praise the good things their children do.
“Helping parents to acknowledge and open up to their thoughts and feelings clears the way to raise children in a manner that is effective and meaningful.”
A Parenting Exercise
Here is an exercise for you, the parent. Think of the last time you were somewhere (preferably a public situation) when your child misbehaved. Maybe it was the checkout lane of the store, or the toy aisle of Target. Maybe it was your place of worship, or a music recital.
Reflect on that situation for a few minutes. Where were you, what was happening? What did your child do? What did they say? What were they feeling?
Now consider yourself. What did your face look like? What feelings did the situation evoke? Were you embarrassed, ashamed, or frustrated? What were the thoughts in your head? Do you have flashes of what your parents may have done in that situation, even if they were negative?
If you were like many parents, you may have questioned what others were thinking, or how you handled the situation. A friend of mine once confided that she thought, “Please just stop crying. Just stop.” You may have also thought something like, “All these people think I am terrible at parenting,” or “They are going to think I raised him to be a disrespectful kid.”
Before we are too hard on our parenting skills, we must consider our ancestors.
Whenever we talk about discomfort, we must reflect on our ancestors. These folks had it rough. They didn’t have electricity, water, roads, or well-constructed homes. Nor did they have grocery stores or daycares. They parented on pure fear and survival. They had to be alert and watchful every moment of every day to keep themselves alive and their children safe. If they didn’t, their children did not survive.
We inherited our instincts from our ancestors through our DNA. As a result, our mind constantly evaluates unseen parenting dangers. Furthermore, we are incessantly impacted by how our children act. Although our mind’s purpose is to protect us (and our children) from harm, sometimes our brains help “too much.” When things don’t go smoothly, we experience a lot of discomfort. We are programmed to see our child’s misbehavior as stressful, or even threatening.
Furthermore, our brains are keenly aware of when our children are doing something different than the group. For our ancestors, isolation from the group meant a lack of survival. When our children act out (especially in public), our bodies often still respond with anxiety, fear, and frustration! Unfortunately, these instincts may not always help us to be the kind of parents that our child needs (or the kind of parents that we want to be).
So how do we work around these fear instincts and become the parents that we want to be?
Mindfulness is simply noticing things as they are, without judgment. Here is a great article to better understand mindfulness and how you can use mindfulness in your life.
In their book, The Joy of Parenting(2009), Coyne and Murrell discuss many benefits to using mindfulness in parenting. Research by Singh and colleagues (2009) found that when parents identify and open to their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences around parenting, they are more likely to effectively nurture their children, as well as set limits.
The next time that your child is acting out (especially in public), identify your feelings.
Notice what you are thinking and feeling. Is it embarrassment, anger, or disappointment? If so, that’s ok. Don’t judge yourself, just notice.
Notice where in your body those feelings occur.
For many people it is the chest, shoulders, stomach, face, or hands. It could be in the bottom of your feet or the top of your head. It doesn’t matter where it is, just notice.
Expand your awareness to the other things currently happening.
Russ Harris, in his book (and program), The Happiness Trap, discusses the concept of “dropping anchor.” When you use this skill, you will ground yourself in the present moment. It involves taking a few moments to increase your awareness of other things that are currently happening. For example, you may notice 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you feel, touch, smell, or taste. Notice the parts of your body around the discomfort. The purpose is not to distract from the discomfort, but to notice that there are a lot of other things happening too, sensations that we typically block out under stress. Some of these sensations are even positive, but we miss them when we are bogged down by our stress response.
Use Self Compassion
Remember, all parents have children that act up from time to time. Meltdowns, tantrums, and restlessness happen. Anxiety and irritability happen. Send yourself some positive messages, like, “It will be ok.” “It is hard when they feel this way.” Consider what you would tell a loved one in this moment, and take that advice for yourself. You would never tell a loved one, “You are a bad parent.” Similarly, watch that you don’t give yourself those same messages too. Read this brief article on self-compassion as a parent if it helps.
Self-compassion for your parenting is particularly important if you had a parent that was harsh or abusive to you. Because you were mistreated, you will work hard to learn how to do things differently or in a way that feels good to you. Don’t blame yourself or judge yourself, but be proud that you care enough to try something different for your own children.
Consider what kind of parent that you want to be.
Do you want to be a strict, harsh parent? (Probably not). Perhaps you want to be a parent that is supportive, yet firm. Maybe you want to be a kind parent or a responsive parent. Many people report that they want to be an effective parent. Consider your values as a person, and how you were parented as a child. Focus on what is important to you, as these beliefs will help to provide a direction and purpose, even in difficult moments.
Choose an action that reflects your values and the skills that you have at your disposal.
Remember that there are no perfect choices, and you will not always know the right thing to do. But, if your choices reflect who you are, the skills that you have learned, and who you want to be, you are more likely to feel better with how you respond. You are also more likely to respond in a way that feels better to your child.