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.

At Home Help for Your Child’s Anxiety

Therapists get a lot of questions from friends, family, and people we have just met at holiday parties, weddings, kids’ sporting events, etc… I’m going to be honest, I’ve considered making up a new profession just to avoid awkward conversations with new acquaintances.

You may be curious as to what issue gets asked about most often, if you aren’t curious, read this anyways… it’s good stuff.

The thing I hear most often is parents asking me how to handle their children’s worries.  To be fair, they usually aren’t talking about normal childhood worries, they are talking about big worries, worrying about everything, or irrational worries.

Now, I am as big of a proponent for therapy as you are going to find, but there are plenty of things that can be addressed at home prior to seeking help through a professional.  Sometimes, the issue with worry is that parents just need a bit of help talking their kids through it.  That’s where this resource comes in.

Check out What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety (What to Do Guides for Kids)

This is my go to for working with kids who have anxiety, here are the reasons why:

  • It’s playful and fun.  It lightens the mood of what can be a heavy topic by providing a cute metaphor (anxiety is like a tomato plant that can grow out of control the more we feed it) and giving kids opportunities to draw pictures and come up with funny phrases.
  • It gives us a common language to address the issue.  Us therapists formally use the term anxiety, some kids use worry, some use nervous, others have their own unique way to describe it. By doing the workbook together, we have a common language from the book that we develop together as we work through it.  We can use this language when the kiddos are struggling in session and at home.
  • It’s accessible.  It never goes above your head or gets overly clinical.  It can be used  by therapists, but it can easily be used by parents and family members as well.
  • It has great interventions that are easily explained.  The child will come out with a bunch of skills to use. And if mom and dad are paying attention, they may pick up a little something too!

One last reason this book is great.  Going through it will not only help your child understand their worry, it will help you understand their worry.  Addressing the issue together can help your child feel understood and create the feeling that you are all in this together.  That is incredibly healing!

My Go-To Resource for All Parents

Now that we’ve gotten past that personal stuff in the first blog, let’s get down to the good stuff… the resources.

When I was planning there may have been (read: there was)  possibly (definitely)  a little panic about where to start.  The first few seconds of panic went something like… “This is a big decision; this will set the tone for the blog; where could I possibly start?” Enter seven thousand ideas.

But the following 3 seconds went like this… deep breath… “Let me start where I started”.

And so, I will.

When I began grad school every professor was so different. Different in their personalities, teaching approach, theoretical approach, names, addresses, social security numbers… you get it… but they all agreed on a few things.  One of them being that we needed to read Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell, like, immediately.  What a great place for me to start my blogging journey, right where I began my therapy journey.

Before I really dive in, let me tell you one thing.  I do not love when I am reading blogs, say a food blog, and I have to scroll down through cutesy anecdotes and tales of triumph and tragedy until my fingers bleed before I find even a hint of an ingredient list, or for heaven’s sake, the recipe itself.  I’m not going to do that to you folks, with the exception of this useless paragraph, which I hope you’ll forgive me for.  I want to give you useful things in a format that is quick and easy to read so you can focus on using what I’m saying, not reading until you’re holding your eyes open with toothpicks.

So, back to the point.  This book was groundbreaking!  This was one of the first parenting books out there that asked parents to look into themselves to be a better parent!  I just listened to Dr. Siegel give a talk where he mentioned that something like 25 publishers turned this book down.  They all said that parents want action points, things that they could do to work on their kids.  No parent would buy a book that asked them to work on themselves first.  Thank goodness for the 26th publisher!

Dr Siegel and Mary Hartzell open the book with the sentence “How you make sense of your childhood experiences has a profound effect on how you parent your own children.”  Notice that they are not saying your childhood experiences effect how you parent your own

children.  Rather, it is how you make sense of them. The book asks parents to take a look at their own experiences and form a coherent narrative in order to assist their children in forming coherent narratives of their own experiences.

The book relies heavily on neuroscience to explain how to form this narrative and why it is so impactful in how we engage with our children.  Neuroscience can be a scary word, even for someone who studied it (please don’t quiz me, it’s been a really long time).  The great news is that Dr. Siegel is a master at making it accessible.  The book does a wonderful job of explaining our complex brain in easy to understand ways, and then linking that knowledge to the parenting portion of the book.

The book explores so much, but my main takeaway (which may not be yours) was to choose how I react to my children, rather than to just react.  The emotions that come up initially in reaction to something are informed by our past experiences, and we have the choice to react upon those emotions in the moment, or to be mindful of the role those emotions play in our narrative and make a different choice.  It is truly liberating to know that that choice is out there for all of us.  And if your kids are like my kids, we get the chance to make that choice many times a day!

Dr. Siegel has written many wonderful books which demonstrate how being mindful, combined with some knowledge of how our brains work, can lead to much more compassionate and in-tune parenting.  Parenting that is really meant for the child.

And this brings me to my last point.  I value this book because it asks the parents to do the work first.  So many parents drop their kids off at therapy without even checking in on how they are doing or giving the therapist an update.  And often when family sessions are held, there is a lot of resistance towards any work on the parents’ part.  Listen, I am a busy, tired, and occasionally (read: often) overwhelmed parent myself.  There is no judgement here.  But, what a great model to give your child in therapy… to say, I’m willing to do the work too, we’re in this together.  If we are asking our children to look into themselves through therapy, it is amazing modeling to take the first step yourself.

If you’d like to read a sample of the book or buy it, click the link below:
Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive: 10th Anniversary Edition

If you’d like to read my disclosures click here.

Enjoy the read!