Many of us dreamed of being a mommy one day. We spent hours as a child taking care of our dolls, bathing them, dressing them and telling them everything would be ok. We watched and copied everything our moms did or what we hoped they would do to take care of us.
Or maybe being a mom wasn’t something that came naturally to you. Maybe you had a challenging childhood and questioned what kind of parent you would be?
Regardless, parenthood isn’t easy and to our dismay, babies don’t come with instruction manuals. So what’s a parent to do? How do we best navigate the often troubling and exhausting waters to reach the shores of balance and harmony within our families and ourselves?
As a psychotherapist and parent coach, I have spent years researching these very questions. I have found that there are no easy answers, but there are answers. The key to parental enjoyment begins with us and our willingness to look within. “Us?” You say. Yes, it begins with our willingness to pause before reacting to notice what is happening within our bodies and minds. It involves learning that we are bigger than our thoughts and that our thoughts are not always truth. This process certainly isn’t easy, yet in this space of pausing, we realize we have choices and more importantly, opportunities. Namely, the opportunity to nurture and guide, rather than punish and control.
When I was a brand new parent (and sometimes even now – 10 years later!) I felt completely overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated and baffled by many of the behaviors I was seeing and challenging moments I was having with my kids. It took me a while to realize that I was playing a big role in the “problem.” Trust me, it wasn’t easy to admit! My expectations of how I thought my kids “should be” behaving simply weren’t realistic and my reactions weren’t helping any of us. Things had to change. For me, it began with taking responsibility for my own behavior in order to begin building the connection I knew I truly wanted for my family.
There are times we react to our children in a negative way. For example, we may be in a hurry, becoming impatient and easily annoyed. Or, we may find ourselves easily triggered by something our child says or does, so either lash back or worry their “misbehavior” will persist! Or perhaps even both! When in these states, how often have you said to yourself, “I sound (or am acting) just like my mom/dad!?”
We’ve all been there!
On the other hand, when we allow ourselves time to slow down, reflect and become aware of these patterns, a beautiful thing happens. We invite the potential to become more present, focused and compassionate. Recall the child who lovingly took care of her doll…was she in any hurry?
To fully enjoy parenting, it’s useful to give yourself and your child the most important gift of all – PRESENCE. What does this mean? What does it look like? To be fully present means setting aside your “to do” list. It means tuning into your child and paying attention to all that he/she is experiencing in that moment. It also means making sure YOU are at the top of that list!
Being present is more than simply listening with your ears, it’s listening with your heart. It means appreciating the amazing being in front of you with all his hopes, dreams, fears and ideally, without judgment.
As a first step in this process, it is crucial to begin accepting your own imperfections and treat yourself with the same loving kindness you give or hope to give to your child. Your child doesn’t want (or need) you to be perfect…she wants you to accept yourself so that you can then accept her and all of her imperfections. When we accept ourselves and are willing to make mistakes, we teach our children that mistakes are how we learn, grow and evolve.
Our children are little sponges picking up on every detail of our communication, both verbal and nonverbal. Think about what message you want to send your child about self-confidence, self-acceptance and resiliency. Model the very behaviors you hope to instill in your child. Become aware of your own negative self-talk and the toll it takes on your mind and body. Think about what you would say to a friend…if you wouldn’t say it to a friend, I suggest you stop saying it to yourself.
When children misbehave, as they all do, they are doing so to get their needs met and because they’re dealing with strong emotions they are not yet able to rationally process. They are also working hard to figure out their world and just how far they can go. It’s their job to push the limits and test the boundaries and it’s our job to have those limits and boundaries in place – set with both kindness and firmness and an empathic understanding of their developmental needs.
Every human has fundamental needs, physical and emotional. These include the need to feel respected, loved, valued, understood, a sense of belonging and a sense of security. What we know is that all misbehavior is a communication and a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. When a child acts out, he’s telling us he needs our help in the only way he knows how.
If parenting has become taxing for you because you have a misbehaving or challenging child, you are certainly not alone! Here are 7 suggestions to help restore your sanity, increase the connection to your child and begin to more fully enjoy parenting:
- Pause before parenting.Take a break, walk away, BREATHE and center yourself before responding to your child. Figure out what you need to do to take care of you in those stressful moments. Then, consider the needs of your child and what need she is attempting to have met (is she feeling disconnected? in need of more attention from you? feeling powerless? hungry? tired?). Be curious and try asking questions, rather than lecturing. You may be surprised at the answers.
- Become your child’s “Emotion Coach.”Use empathy to help your child understand what he is feeling. This meets your child’s need to feel understood and valued. When you address the underlying reasons for the behavior, rather than the behavior itself, you’ll see a change in your child. For example, when faced with back talk, “You must feel really angry to be speaking to me that way. What’s going on? Let’s talk about it.” Later, when you’re both calm, you can review with your child your expectation for respectful communication and how he can better handle the situation next time.
- Ask for the behavior you want.Children receive thousands of negative commands every day. “Don’t jump on the bed.” “No hitting.” “Don’t do that.” It helps to give a child directions they can successfully follow. A child feels loved and capable when she can do what you’re asking her to do. Tell your child the behavior you want to see vs. the behavior you want her to stop. For example, “The couch is for sitting.” “Keep your feet on the floor/hands to yourself.“ “Food is for eating, not throwing.” etc.
- Offer appropriate (and limited) choices.Children have a need to feel a sense of power and control. By offering choices, you meet this need and reduce the likelihood of a power struggle. For example, “Would you like the red cup or the blue cup?” “Would you like to put out the napkins or the silverware?” “Would you like to start your homework now or after a snack?” “Would you like to brush your teeth first or put on your pj’s first?”
- Create “Special Time.”When your child is misbehaving, he’s sending the message that he feels disconnected from you. Carving out time in your day where your child can have 100% of your attention and he directs the play or how you spend the time can work wonders for your relationship. When your child acts out, it’s as though he’s saying, “my tank is empty.” Quality, uninterrupted time with your child (even 10 minutes a day) helps to refuel your child and your connection.
- Teach your child about mindful breathing and how to ask for what he/she wants.For young children, you can have them hold up both hands. Have them pretend there is a flower in one hand and a candle in the other. Show them how to “smell the flower and blow out the candle.” Older kids will enjoy the multitude of mindfulness meditation apps such as “Smiling Mind” and “Stop, Breathe and Think.” Helping a child to manage her emotions by first learning how to “calm down” is an invaluable life skill. Once a child is calm, she can then be taught how to ask for what she wants and/or needs in an appropriate way. You can also teach your child to ask for attention versus acting out for attention. Be sure to offer hugs and teach your child she can ask for a hug whenever she needs one.
- Bring in PLAYFULNESS. With our endless lists of what needs to get done and our constant rushing from one activity to another, we often forget the value of simply being in the moment, appreciating the moment and not taking it all so seriously. The beautiful thing about young children is that they are almost always in the “here and now.” Unlike adults, they are not overly concerned with what happened yesterday or what will happen in the future. Take a lesson from your kids – bring in the silliness and playfulness. Throw on music when it’s time to clean up, have dance parties, make your requests in goofy voices, give a piggyback ride up the stairs or crawl like tigers when it’s teeth brushing time. Play is the language children know best!
To truly feel the joy of being a parent, we must begin to appreciate our imperfect selves in order accept the imperfections in our children. None of us are perfect. We’re not meant to be perfect. It’s our imperfections that make us so colorful and interesting! We must also realize that parenting isn’t always blissful and that’s ok! We’ll have good days and not so good days because it’s all part of the journey. Find your tribe of support and put yourself back on your list of “to do’s.” As they say, “You can’t pour from an empty cup!” YOU matter!
All the best,