No child is easy, that’s for sure. To be a better parent, you have to consider all aspects of yourself. Everything that makes you goes into your parenting.
By: Sean Grover, LCSW
Every year, I attend a celebration at a culture center in my neighborhood; it’s one of my favorite days filled with music, dancing, art and poetry. Children giggle and run through the halls, old friends discover one another, hugs and kisses abound.
One year, by the third hour, however, sounds and shapes start to blur. My good vibe melts away. I start to feel dizzy . . . my head throbs. My only thought: Get me out of here.
At this point, my three-year-old daughter decides she no longer needs a father and dashes away into the crowd. The chase begins: arms flailing, hands waving, she darts between legs, under tables.
“I don’t want to go home, Papa! Leave me alone!”
I’m trying to stay calm, but inside I’m starting to boil. I have the creeping awareness that I’m being scrutinized. Here I am a leader in the community, a therapist who works with children and families. What must they think of my daughter yelling and bullying me?
Finally, I scoop her up and carry her out onto the street. She wiggles and squirms in my arms like a greased monkey, and wham! My back goes out.
As we speed toward home in an overheated taxi, all I can think about is revenge.
“I’m going to teach her a lesson…I’m going to show her who’s boss . . . I’m going to . . .”
I catch my reflection in the taxi window. My face is red, the veins in my neck and forehead are bulging, and my teeth are clenched. I look like a mad man.
Just then her little hand tugs on my shirt. “Papa, why are you so mad?”
I’m stunned by the question. “Why am I so mad?” I sputter and puff. Before I can answer she states what is obvious to her, but not to me. “This is a happy day. You’re making it a sad one.”
Oh, man. I fumble for a defense and find none. She’s right. I’m acting out in ways that violate all my advice to parents; I’m vindictive, mean, and worse of all, humorless. All my strategies — my training, my schooling, my degrees — in the heat of the taxing parenting moment were useless.
A famous Buddhist quote comes to my mind that asserts that all the knowledge of all the teachings of the universe are of little value until you “perceive the true nature of your life.”
Until I learned to manage my own feelings, I was trapped in a losing game of trying to manipulate and control my child, a joyless world of punishments and rewards.
When we reached home, I collapsed in a chair and my eyes fell upon the parenting books that stock my bookshelves. I imagined myself opening a window and tossing them out, every one of them.
What good is scholarly dissertation or self-help advice if my own parenting springs from such a low state of life?
No child is easy, that’s for sure. But the real cause of my stress was my lack of mindfulness – my inability to manage my own thoughts and feelings and the root of most parenting problems I see in my office.
It was time for me to take my own medicine, to stop obsessing about my kid’s behavior and start reflecting on my own.
The true cause of our happiness or unhappiness with our children is often deeply rooted in ourselves; our attitudes and beliefs constantly shape our relationship with our kids. Purifying and understanding our internal world are the most important actions we can take to improve our parenting.
The Parent Practice
Lawyers practice law, doctors practice medicine, and mothers and fathers practice parenting. Practice is the key word because it indicates an ongoing process of learning. Being a parent is not an identity; it’s a part of who you are. To be a better parent, you have to consider all aspects of yourself. Everything that makes you goes into your parenting.
That means any gaps you have in your emotional development — insecurities, immaturities, fears — affect your parenting. Only a commitment to ongoing personal growth and inner transformation will produce lasting results. Changing your behavior is the express lane to influencing change in your child’s behavior.
Let’s talk a look at some steps you can take to developing more mindfulness in your parenting:
Stop Punishing, Threatening & Blaming
This criminal minded approach to parenting is quite popular and can get you results for a while, but is fraught with dubious pitfalls. Robotically playing judge, jury and executioner, dishing out punishments and laying down the law is a bore and links your relationship with too much negativity. No one benefits from harassment, because in the end, both parent and child suffer. I have found that incentives, praise, and self-esteem building activities produce far better results (See “Five Things Every Teenager Needs“). This requires that you suspend your reactive impulse to lash out. Be sure to take a break in heated moments until you are in a better frame of mind and have considered options that are more constructive.
Take Responsibility for Your Own Behavior First
It’s much easier to blame your kid for his behavior rather than consider your own. They say children hear 10% of what you say but absorb 90% of what you do. If you are a yelling, meltdown-prone parent, consider this: criticizing your child for his behavior is like blaming the mirror for your reflection. Start with your own behavior, and then turn your attention to your child.
Find Ways to Enjoy Your Kid Again
If your relationship with your kid has deteriorated into nagging and badgering, an endless battle over schoolwork and household chores, it’s time to hit the pause button. When was the last time you had fun together? What mutually fulfilling activities can you resurrect? Enjoying each other’s company will keep communication open and enhance closeness. It will also give you more leverage and influence during tough times.
Tend to Your Own Happiness
An unhappy parent is a burden for a child. Some parents obsess about their kid as a way to avoid troubling issues in their own life. If you are unhappy in your relationship with your spouse, partner, parents, or friends, if you lack ambition and drive in your career, if you have a tendency toward anxiety or depression — all these conditions affect your parenting. (For more one this, see “Self-Neglect: The Royal Road to Parent Burnout.“) Addressing and resolving these issues is the best gift you could give your kid.
Childcare Begins with Self-Care
Find ways to sooth your parenting angst and avoid dumping your tension on your kid. There are all kinds of therapeutic activities available to you: tension releasers such as meditation and exercise; creative outlets such as writing, music, and art; and emotional enhancers such as social outings, support groups, or therapy. All these activities will infuse greater mindfulness into your daily life and enrich your parenting. Anyone can be happy under good conditions, but the ability to sustain happiness in difficult times must be cultivated.
A Deeper Understanding
There’s no way around it, parenting is tough going, but when you get it right, there’s no better job in the world.
Parenting offers you a chance to grow beyond limited notions about yourself. It is an opportunity to deepen your humanity by developing greater wisdom, patience, and compassion. Rather than duplicate mistakes, learn from them and strive to grow and evolve with your children.
As a Buddhist scholar Daisaku Ikeda wrote, “It may seem that parents teach the child, but in the end it is the other way around. Bringing up children is a way for parents to become more complete themselves.”
© 2015 Sean Grover, author of When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully — and Enjoy Being a Parent Again
About the Author:
Sean Grover, LCSW, author of When Kids Call the Shots, has worked in child development and adult psychotherapy for 20 years, and maintains one of the largest private group therapy practices in the U.S. He has been quoted in Newsweek, New York Magazine, NPR, and elsewhere about parent-child relationships.
Photo: Michael Coghlan