Updated: Sep 11, 2021
The hopes and dreams we have for our children are both awe-inspiring and terrifying. We see who they are now, and overlay our experience of the world to project an image into the future, in an effort to see who our child will become. One of our hopes is often that they grow to be well-adjusted, happy and productive individuals and many of our efforts throughout their childhood are made to help bring this about. Such a vision is important in many ways as it helps us stay motivated to provide guidance and clear about our expectations.
Of course the day-to-day can bring its own joys, and just cuddling for the sake of it or laughing at something silly together brings in-the-moment pleasure and appreciation of the experience of having children, but even then, we might have a wandering thought in the back of our minds about what a nice person our child is growing up to be. If you observe your thoughts, you may notice there is often some reference to the future and their personality. The daily grind can also bring frustrations though, and when we encounter behaviours or emotions in our children we don’t agree with, the challenge is to look at the moment as it is, rather than what it might mean about them.
One significant challenge for a parent in conflict with their child is the level of emotion that can be activated. We may be concerned about the impact of our child's feelings on their development, wanting to protect them from excess frustration or discomfort. From our own perspective, we may feel responsible for their behaviour or feelings, and yet helpless to make them choose differently. When other people are involved, we have to deal with the added layer of being observed in our struggle, and many of us feel (and are) judged unfairly. There is a cultural tendency to hold parents to account when their children do not behave in socially acceptable ways. These reactions and emotions – both our children’s and our own – can feel unbearable, and tolerating them is a struggle we’d rather not have to do.
As mentioned in the last blog post, a child is often expressing their immediate emotions through their behaviour. They have not yet reached the level of maturity to be able to experience an emotion without acting it out in behaviour. When our children show us acceptable emotions, we can usually meet them more easily. For example, an over-excited child is often indulged and gently soothed, and the surrounding adults can share a knowing smile. This luxury is often not available when a child is screaming and kicking in frustration or sadness, and our own parental emotions can prevent us from clearly seeing what our child is struggling with.
If we look at the formula or interpretation, it might look like this: “If my child is doing this, it means they are that sort of person, and that means I am no good”. However none of these conclusions is true! Rather than making a moral judgement about a child’s personality, it can be more helpful for a parent to build their own emotional resilience so they can more easily start to question what is really going on. What is my child struggling to express right now? If their actions and emotions were words, what would they be trying to say right now? The parent who can respond to the immediate underlying message usually feels pretty good about themselves as a parent, separate from and responsive to their child’s actions. With adequate support, children do eventually learn they don’t have to act out their emotions and impulses. Likewise, with adequate support parents can learn to build their own emotional resilience, tolerate both their own and their child’s frustrations, and meet their child where they are right now. Looking at the future from the perspective of someone who brings calm curiosity to the present moment, we can probably agree that it will all turn out all right after all.
For some quick and easy to implement ideas about how to build your emotional resilience in your relationship with your children, as well as ideas to diffuse the tension in the moment, check out our free go-to guide. We offer peer listening groups for parents to share and off-load their frustrations in a mutually supportive space, and also offer tailored one-to-one counselling to help you sort through your emotions and beliefs, helping you to parent at your best.