Parenting the Child You Have, Not the Child You Want (my own story)

This may be an unpopular post, it may be hard to read, it will most likely be hard to write… but it is an important post because I see this issue all over my practice, and even in my personal life.  As it turns out, therapists are people too (hmm….I think I might have written about this before somewhere) and so are our children. My daughter has always been an incredibly independent, and (that wonderful world we all use to kindly day difficult) “spirited” child.  This has inspired some looks, some comments, and some discussions with friends and family.  And it has caused me to take a step back and look at my own parenting, and what I want from my child and for my child.

She has been challenging since birth, struggling with reflux, allergies, and terrible eczema she has been understandingly irritable and clingy.  She also inherited a bit of her mama’s flare.  I may or may not have struggled with my own temper as a child 🙂   My biggest fear from birth was that this is all people would see when they saw her.  They would miss her incredibly loving soul, her amazing sense of humor, her incredible intelligence.  All because she struggled to regulate her temper in the face of some non-kidfriendly (<– not a word, just made it up) challenges.

There was plenty of time when I just wanted her to be “normal”, whatever that is.  I used conventional parenting techniques, I got frustrated, my husband and I fought due to all the stress.  And then there was a moment that I realized I was trying to change my child into something she isn’t.

That changed everything, my whole perspective shifted in that moment.  Many of the qualities I had been perceiving as difficult and challenging became positive. My daughter was not born compliant or complacent, she is not a “yes” kid.  She has big feelings, she feels them fully, and she lets us all know. She knows what she wants.  She is strong willed.  These are all great things.  All the sudden I became elated with who my child was, but more importantly, I became empathetic instead of resentful.

It became my mission to empower all of these amazing parts of my girl.  To encourage her big feelings, to allow her to advocate for herself and her needs/wants, to foster her independence.  I realized I had been trying to mold a compliant child, a child who bent to my will rather than learning to exercise her own in a responsible and respectful manner.  I learned from my baby that I didn’t want a daughter who said “yes” to everything because that is what the world wanted from her, but learned how to say “no” in manner that people would listen to her instead of dismiss her.  This little girl taught me so much, I’m so grateful for her.

So, what does our life look like now?  It’s not all rainbows and sunshine.  Changing my perspective didn’t solve all of our problems.  But it did make parenting easier and much more fun.  I get to enjoy my child.

Here are a few things we do:

  • Instead of time outs, we do time ins. It was incredibly traumatic for her to be on time outs, and it never made a situation better or stopped the behavior from occurring again.   Myself or my husband will now take her (we do this with our son as well, it’s just much less frequent since he is a total rule follower!) out of the situation, hold her or sit with her (whichever works better for her) and discuss why we had to take a time in.  We talk about the situation, everyone’s feelings, and what we need to do next.  Then we return together.  She learns much more this way, and feels loved and supported at the same time.
  • We talk about feelings, A LOT! If she yells in response to me and I let her know
    • I don’t like being yelled at.
    • It is difficult to hear her and her needs when she yells at me.
    • I am on her team and want to help.

Just talking to her like this, in a calm voice, usually brings her volume down and allows us to have a decent conversation.  If I yelled back, or punished her for yelling, the learning would have been lost, and I am modeling behavior that I don’t want to see from her!

  • We take deep breaths. I am human, I get frustrated.  I model what I want to see.  So, I take a deep breath, I might even tell her I am getting frustrated, and I do what I need to do before addressing the situation.
  • We practice mindfulness, individually and together. I have my own mindfulness practice that I began after she was born.  My mindfulness practice gives me the invaluable choice to respond rather than react. Just this extra moment has deeply changed me and my relationship with my daughter.  We practice mindfulness together by using Stop, Breathe, and Think’s Kid’s App.  We also take mindful nature walks often.
  • I make a distinction between her behavior and her self. She is not her behavior.  I love her even when I don’t love her behavior, and I tell her this often.  And in turn she tells me often “Mama, I love you even when I’m mad”.  This is so healing for the both of us.
  • I look for the need. I can fully give credit to Jason and Cecilia from Happily Family for this one.  They discuss how our children’s behavior is most often a form of communicating an unmet need.  If we take the time to figure out what are children need we have a good start on working with the behaviors.
  • We connect often. This may not be a need for every child, but it is for mine.  We snuggle, I hold her, I give her loving touches, and I tell her how much I love her, how smart, brave, and strong she is often.  I truly believe this fills her tank and makes her outbursts shorter and less frequent.

 

Here are a few thinking patterns that I feel need to be challenged if we are going to love our kids for who they are:

  • Things should be easy. I find myself thinking this a million times a day.  “Why can’t this just be easy? Things don’t need to be this hard.  Why can’t they just listen?  Why do they have to question me all the time?” — Here’s the thing.  It isn’t easy, it’s never been easy. Parenting is hard.  Dispel the myth that it should be easy and you set yourself free.  Ok, that was dramatic, but still.  We are given these little humans with their own personalities, strengths, and challenges.  Figuring out who they are, what they need, and how to raise them to be good humans is our life’s work; there’s nothing easy about that.  It isn’t going to be hard, sweet, sad, heart exploding, devastating, exciting, and scary. Let it be all of those things.
  • “Bad” Behaviors need to be Punished. Nope. Keep your eyes on the prize here.  If our goal is to raise good, healthy, smart, functional kids then our goal shouldn’t be to punish these behaviors; the goal should be that our children LEARN from their behaviors.  We have the opportunity to show them how their behavior/choice impacted others, how we feel about it, how it impacts themselves. We have the ability to teach them so much… and we lose that chance when we shame and punish them.  If your child is locked in a timeout after being yelled at, do you think they are learning? We are teaching children that if they make mistakes they will be punished, shamed, and isolated. Listen, I’m not saying that kids should get to do whatever they want without consequence, but I am saying that we need to be incredibly thoughtful about that consequence.  And mostly what I am saying is that the idea that “bad” behaviors deserve punishment is dangerous and ultimately not skillful parenting strategy. Please check out current research on the negative impact of time outs for more discussion on this!

 If this post spoke to you, please take a few seconds today to really think about who your child is and what they need.  Be thoughtful about how you can help the child in front of you grow and learn.  Take a deep breath and let go of the child you wanted or the child you thought you’d have.  Refocus your efforts on being the parent your child needs today and in the future.

And know that I am sending you so much love and support.  This parenting stuff is hard.

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And if, in the future, my daughter decides to go back and read her Mom’s blog…

Baby girl, I thought I was here to teach you, turns out this goes both ways.  Thank you for being my greatest teacher, and thank you for showing me unconditional love as I learn. You are amazing just the way you are.  I love you boundlessly now and always.