Years ago, I worked with adolescents. I liked working with teens, but I had the awareness early on that many youth were merely the product of their environment. I grieved for these young people knowing that many of them were robbed of early experiences which would have afforded them the security and resilience they so desperately needed. They were doing the best they could with limited resources. Had their parents been given support and education early in their lives, things might have looked very different for my clients.
My choice to work with parents is an intentional one; I work with parents because that’s where change really occurs.
Mind you, this isn’t a popular stance. In my experience, parents don’t like to hear that their behavior should be the first to change, no matter how elegantly I attempt to phrase it. Most parents bristle at the mere mention of their learning, changing, or adapting their parenting. For most parents, this is a personal affront,
That’s a real problem.
Our kids need us to be humble and flexible. They need us to have self-awareness and to be able to recognize when we’re screwing up. Have you ever met an adult who doesn’t have a single complaint or critique about how they were raised? I doubt it. Even adults who remain close to their parents and think they did a great job can usually still think of at least one instance where their parents just got it wrong. That’s because we all mess up. Every parent is fallible, and we’re all learning as we go.
So why is that so hard to admit? Why is asking for help or admitting we don’t know what to do such a cultural taboo? Even if you have ten kids, you’ve never parented your eleventh kid before. It’s still new, and you’re still going to mess up. It’s inevitable. And that’s okay.
The Canary in the Coalmine
This is particularly true for children who are highly sensitive. Highly sensitive children will recognize when your tone is different, they will sense when you are upset. They may respond with bigger meltdowns and more tears, and they may become needier. Children who are spirited may react defiantly to punishment. They may become more explosive when they are faced with rigid boundaries or no boundaries at all. The problem doesn’t lie with the child, and the solution doesn't either.
If your child is struggling, I urge you to reflect on your environment with a critical eye. Have you been under increased stress? Is there conflict with your partner? Has the dynamic of the family changed recently with the addition of a baby or a new pet? Does your family culture allow for adequate downtime and free play, or is it rushed and busy? Are your expectations of your child age and developmentally appropriate? How do you know this to be true?
It can be hard to come to terms with the fact that we might not be the parents our children need us to be right now, but since our children are always changing, so must our approach. Here are some warning signs that you might need some support:
- You feel like your child is out of control
- You describe your child as defiant or manipulative
- You feel uncomfortable with your child’s meltdowns and use punishments to stop them
- You’ve been using punishments or star charts, but they aren’t working anymore
- You and your child engage in power struggles regularly
- You feel completely overwhelmed
While you consider a paradigm shift from one of attempting to "fix" your child to one of creating a new environment, it can help to keep in mind some universal truths about children:
- Children are inherently good, and when our attachment is strong they naturally want to please us.
- We can’t speed up the process of development and maturation, and we do our children a great disservice when we try.
- Kids do well when they can.
- Kids need us to provide safe boundaries rooted in empathy.
I’m not trying to imply therapy with children is never warranted. Naturally, when a child has experienced trauma, a loss, or has an organic disorder, treatment should be considered. Yet even in these cases, maybe especially in these cases, parents also need support. They need tools to parent the child they have. They might need education about a particular disorder. They certainly need a safe place to grieve and vent. They need to know they aren’t alone in their struggles.
We all struggle, and that's okay.
When we accept that change starts with us, we can begin to walk a new path with our children; one where we stop trying to force what we think should be and instead embrace what is.