Updated: Sep 11, 2021
There’s no doubt about it, parenting is one of the hardest jobs ever. The physiological demands of giving round the clock care and attention combined with disturbed sleep is enough to make anyone feel out of sorts. On top of that, our cultural set-up of nuclear family and separated family means that there is less support available for parents, who are often isolated and overwhelmed with the tasks of childcare, housework, earning an income and trying to stay healthy themselves. So from the beginning we are running on a lower than normal functioning capacity.
More importantly though, what we think and how we manage our feelings can directly impact our parenting behaviour. We all have lots of unexamined beliefs and assumptions about what is ‘right’ and appropriate. When we see our children behaving in ways we don’t agree with these beliefs are activated, often below the surface of our awareness. As a result, we may have strong feelings about what they are doing and without knowing exactly why, we can react in ways that surprise us. Let’s look at what’s going on here.
When we ourselves were growing up, we learned from the reactions of our parents, teachers and other authority figures what was acceptable behaviour. We figured out ‘rules’ based on what we saw and over time that became internalised as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Emotions such as guilt or shame helped us to keep to the rules, which meant we could use our thinking mind for learning other things. Now as a parent, we see our children’s behaviours and when they bump us against the ‘rules’ we get the same emotional shock. The opportunity as an adult - as the person who gets to make the decisions about what is best - is to bring those ‘rules’ to light and examine them. What is it that causes panic, fear, shame? Using these emotions as a guide can help you to unearth the conclusions you came to when you were a child and decide once and for all whether you want to keep them.
Another layer is the way we manage our emotions, especially ones we consider socially unacceptable. Anger or sadness are good examples, as they are often not tolerated easily by others including possibly our own parents. Many of us learnt as a child that being angry or sad was unacceptable. We may have internalised the belief that anger or sadness in ourselves or others was bad. What we may have missed however, is that the feelings are actually normal and healthy and are simply there to help us get a need met.
Now, children automatically externalise their emotions. A baby cries when they are uncomfortable to both express their needs and get them met. A toddler will get angry when they don’t get what they want and will stomp and shout. We see this and understand that is how they communicate, even if we also recognise that stomping and shouting can negatively affect others. As we mature, most of us learn that we can get our needs met in other more socially acceptable ways, but often we internalise the belief that the feelings are as bad as the behaviours. We might believe that feeling angry or sad are just as bad as stomping or shouting, whining or moaning and so the feeling itself becomes a point of shame. And so we deny the emotions, both in ourselves and in others. When we see our children acting out their feelings by shouting or moaning, it can activate the shame and we may try to stop them because we cannot bear the way it makes us feel.
If you recognise yourself in this, you may even be feeling even more shame as a result of getting it ‘wrong’, but just know that these are unconscious beliefs, which means we don’t even know they are there until we have a reason to notice them. Having a child is one of the best reasons for starting to notice these assumptions, and it is in doing the work of noticing and re-defining your belief system from an adult perspective that you give your child the best gift of all. However you won’t get it right all of the time and that is absolutely okay!
Be gentle with yourself, because in many ways you are on as steep a learning curve as your child. Your kids will appreciate seeing you make an effort and growing in your role and in yourself, even if you react from that old place some of the time. Relationships are full of upheaval and the parent child relationship is the template for all other relationships, so it’s okay to show them that it’s confusing! What is essential is that you take the time to repair the relationship. Repair is absolutely key and as the adult that task is on you, so do your best to learn and implement repair strategies. In the meantime, do what you can to look after yourself and build your resilience so you can respond how you’d like to in future. Learn more about your child’s developmental abilities, about what they are trying to show you through their behaviour. And gently explore what your own childhood lessons were, the rules that were enforced and which you may be trying to enact with your kids. Do you agree with those rules? Then make a conscious choice to follow them through. Otherwise put them aside and notice when you’re likely to react from that place.
We know how hard it is to parent, and the unexpected challenges that can arise. For specific tips and ideas on how to manage yourself and build your emotional resilience, check out our go-to guide for keeping your parenting cool. Ultimately though, we trust you to know what is right for you and your family. If you need help sorting through your thoughts and beliefs we also offer counselling and parent listening groups, so get in touch for more information.