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The Self - Aware Parent
Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with your Child
By Fran Walfish
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2010 Fran Walfish
All rights reserved.
THE IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING YOURSELF AS A PARENT
Often, in the heat of the moment, parents say or do things they do not mean. I'm sure this is true with you, because it is true of all parents for the simple reason that parents are not perfect. In my practice, I have found that when emotions heat up, we all tend to repeat behaviors that were done to us when we were children. So, if we had a dad who tended to hit, that's what we also do. If we had a mom who screamed, that's our tendency. We don't mean to, but because it was programmed into us as very small children, that reaction has become our automatic response.
That is why understanding who you are, as a person and as a parent, is so important. Understanding yourself gives you choices, and when you choose to respond in a specific way, rather than respond automatically, situations more often than not resolve themselves favorably.
Understanding yourself and learning new responses to the buttons your child pushes can stop generations of learned behavior. For example, if you feel unsure, chances are that your parent, grandparent, great-grandparent, and the mother or father who came before them also felt unsure. What a gift it will be to your children for you to wrestle with that feeling and replace it with confidence and strength.
THE PROOF IS IN THE RESEARCH
Research supports the fact that a child who was parented negatively has a high likelihood of parenting her own child in the same manner. It doesn't matter if the adverse parenting was physical, verbal, sexual, neglectful, or just plain inconsistent, generation after generation passes down these damaging behaviors.
A 2009 study looked at data from three generations of Oregon families. It shows that "positive parenting" (which includes factors such as showing warmth, monitoring children's activities, being involved, and practicing consistent discipline) not only has a positive impact on adolescents, but it also has a positive impact on the way they will eventually choose to parent their own children.
In the first study of its kind, David Kerr, assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University, project director Deborah Capaldi, and co-authors Katherine Pears and Lee Owen of the Eugene-based Oregon Social Learning Center examined surveys from 206 boys who were considered at risk for juvenile delinquency. The boys, then in elementary school, were interviewed and observed, as were their parents.
Starting in 1984, researchers met with the boys every year from the time they were nine years old until they were thirty-three. That is twentyfour years of observation! Additionally, as the boys grew up and started their own families, their partners and children began participating in the study as well.
Kerr writes, "what we find is that negative parenting, such as hostility and lack of follow-through, leads to negative parenting in the next generation not through observation, but by allowing problem behavior to take hold in adolescence. For instance, if you try to control your child with anger and threats, he learns to deal in this way with peers, teachers, and eventually his own children. If you do not track where your child is, others will take over your job of teaching him about the world. But those lessons may involve delinquency and a lifestyle that is not compatible with becoming a positive parent."
While this study followed children from adolescence, in my practice I see these same behavioral trends long before children hit puberty. Children as young as four model behavior; for example, if a parent uses anger and threats when dealing with their child, then their child will use anger and threats when dealing with others.
The study shows that children who experienced high levels of negative parenting were more likely to be antisocial and delinquent as adolescents. Boys who had these characteristics in adolescence were more likely to grow up to be inconsistent and ineffective parents, and to have children with challenging behaviors.
"We knew that these negative pathways can be very strong," Kerr writes. "What surprised us is how strong positive parenting pathways are as well."
Researchers found that children who had parents who monitored behavior, employed consistent rules, and showed warmth and affection were more likely to have close relationships with their peers, be more engaged in school, and have better self-esteem.
"So part of what good parenting does is not only protect you against negative behaviors but instill positive connections with others during adolescence that then impact how you relate with your partner and your own child as an adult," Kerr writes. "This research shows that when we think about the value of prevention, we should consider an even wider lens than is typical. We see now that changes in parenting can have an effect not just on children but even on grandchildren."
THE CULTURAL DIVIDE
In addition to the many parents I see who were born here in America, I see a diverse group of parents who have immigrated to the United States from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America—virtually every continent on Earth. In treating these families, it is clear that some are not aware that parenting is cultural. For example, in some countries it is normal for parents to slap their children. In other countries it is normal for a woman to stay in the home and not go out in public unless she is chaperoned. When these parents come to the United States they have a choice to make: Do we want to keep this cultural parenting style, or should we adopt a style that is closer to what is normal here in America? It is a difficult, life-changing decision that must involve both parents if it is to be successful.
Cultural Divide: A Case Study
When Susan, Lily's mom, first showed up in my office, it was evident that she hailed from a strictly traditional European family. Her father was the undeniable head of the household and his decisions were always final. In addition to being strict, he was highly critical. He loved his family, but because his father had been critical with him, this was how he related to his own children.
Susan's mother, on the other hand, was very much the proper lady. She was an elegant and respected member of her community and was quite preoccupied with how she—and her family— looked and dressed. She experienced her husband and children as extensions of herself and reflections on her identity as mother and wife. Susan eventually realized that her mother cared too much about others' opinions, but that realization came long after our first meeting. Years, actually.
Combined, Susan's parents were so concerned with being perfect that they forgot one element that is critical in raising happy children: feelings. In this family there was absolutely no room for feelings. Not surprisingly, Susan married a man who was much like her father. He was strict, with high expectations of Susan and their young daughter, Lily. As a result, Susan felt that she could never live up to what was expected of her. She never felt "good enough."
When Lily was little more than a toddler, she began to pick at her food. Susan, of course, with her expectations of being the perfect mother, would demand that Lily eat, but Lily would refuse. At school Lily showed some real talent in art. One evening, Susan, hoping to validate herself by showing her talented daughter off to others, asked Lily to show one of her drawings to guests in their home. Lily, of course, clammed up and refused.
Like many children of parents who make demands, Lily was shy. In addition to being a picky eater, Lily developed separation anxiety. She didn't want to leave her mother to go to school or toa friend's house. From Lily's perspective, she was overloaded with the same high expectations that her grandfather had put on her mother. Susan and her husband were passing the parenting style along to the next generation.
Susan and her husband reacted to Lily's shyness by pushing her even harder. Unfortunately, pushing is exactly the way to get a child "stuck." And that's where Lily and her parents were when she and Susan landed in my office, stuck in a vicious cycle of rigid expectations and resulting shyness and constriction.
Susan and I worked first on the feelings she had when Lily would not perform. "I'm embarrassed," Susan cried. "I am a failure as a mother. What is wrong with me?" Over time, I helped Susan see Lily for who she is, gifts, flaws, and all. Then I helped them both flourish by giving Susan verbal scripts she could use to help Lily. For example, when Lily refused to show her artwork to her teacher, Susan said, "I see you're not ready to show your artwork to your teacher, but I'm so happy you could show it to Mommy. I am sure that one day soon, you'll be ready to show it to your teacher. I know she will like it as much as I do."
Sure enough, a few days later, Lily showed her artwork to her teacher. Susan and her husband incorporated similar scripts into other areas of Lily's life and Lily is now eating well and enjoying spending time at friends' houses. Once the pressure was off and her feelings were validated, Lily could blossom like the true flower she has always been.
A GOLDEN GIFT
Parents like Susan's, who are so very strict and demanding, do themselves a disservice because they cut themselves off emotionally from their children. A child finds it comforting and reassuring when a parent acknowledges, validates, and talks about feelings. But these parents are not at all in touch with either their feelings or the feelings of their child. They are way too emotionally cut off, and the result is that their kids grow up anxious.
Surprisingly, the reason that rigid and demanding parents do not stop to deal with feelings is because they are scared. These parents did not have an available parent to help them identify and understand their feelings. Therefore, they did not have a mellow place within their families that helped them calm down when overcome with strong feelings. Now, the fear in these parents is that they may be overwhelmed by powerful emotions and left to deal with them alone. They fear drowning in their own feelings without a supportive person to rescue them.
While you may not be overly strict or put demands on your child, you may be scared. Or, you may be overwhelmed, frustrated, tired, anxious, or feeling any number of other emotions. This book is a gentle invitation to explore your feelings and fears. It is a place for learning and understanding, for acceptance and love. The result is the precious gift of a better parent to your child. And, how wonderful it will be when you see your children raising happy and healthy children of their own.
WHEN IT COMES TO BEHAVIOR, THERE IS ALWAYS A REASON
While most of you who are reading this book will not have parents who are rigidly strict or emotionless, you may have thought about how you were parented and what different choices you can make now that you are in the driver's seat with your own kids. For example, your dad might have spent too many hours at work, or your mom might have been self-absorbed and distant. I know that my own parents had unique personalities and parenting styles that affect me to this day.
One Sunday morning when I was a little girl of about seven my dad was working, so my mom was washing the car by herself. In the process of rinsing the car, Mom accidentally and unknowingly got water on the brakes. It's harder to do that now, as cars are built to stricter standards, but when I was a child, it wasn't an uncommon thing to have happen.
After she dried the car, Mom got cleaned up and took my sister (who was nine) and me for a day of fun. But before we could go too far, we needed to get gas. Mom stopped at a busy and popular intersection, filled up, and we headed out only to find that the brakes were so wet, they did not work. Mom began pumping the brakes, to no avail. The car would not slow down. Even worse, the car began accelerating. As you can imagine, we were all terrified. But Mom's reaction was to go into a complete hysterical panic. "We're all going to die," she screamed. "Help us! Somebody help us!" This was seconds before she steered the car into a curb and we came, safely, to a stop.
As a result of this episode and my mother's reactions to it, I felt very vulnerable and for years had a tendency to panic in situations of crisis. I looked to my tall, grown-up mother as my rock. She always took care of me, and when she screamed, "We're all going to die!" I believed her. I really did. All children look to their parents as a barometer to see if they can get through disaster. I truly did, in that moment, believe my mother. And my sister apparently did, too, as we both echoed her cries. All three of us were screaming and crying, but looking back, I think my mom was crying the hardest. The biggest surprise of the whole event was when we bumped up against the curb and I realized that we weren't actually going to die. That's how much I believed my mother, and your child is no different.
You know, the experience did not cause me to doubt my mom until I was much older. Then, I was able to see her reaction as part of a pattern. Every parent is allowed a mistake (or two or three!). But when a parent's actions and reactions become a pattern, it affects their child's personality. A son or daughter will not worry too much about a parent's outburst or failing, but when the same outburst or failure is repeated, it causes the child to feel both doubt and worry.
It is important for you to know that all kids want to give their parents more chances. They love you and want you to succeed. Let's say you tell your eight-year-old son that after he finishes his homework, you'll both go to the park. But the homework takes too long and now you have to make dinner; there is no time for the park. You might feel your son will not trust you because you did not deliver on your word. Please know that this one time, it's okay. Two or three times: no.
It is expected that you will make mistakes in parenting your children. After all, you are only human. And no one has perfect models in their parents. I hope that in reading The Self-Aware Parent you will become aware of patterns in your parenting, as well as in the parenting you received. My goal is to create awareness of your own internal feelings and processes, so that instead of reacting automatically, you can evaluate which of your reactions are best for your child.
This brings me back to my mother. I love her dearly and we all have our plusses and minuses, but her overreaction was part of a pattern. Much later, I was able to separate the incident into two parts: One, my mom was far more frightened than I was, and, two, her panic was a reaction to her fright. Because she passed on her heightened reactions to me, even now, if a child is hurt, I have to check myself to be sure I do not overreact, that I am not smothering. My mom communicated to me in a time of crisis that she was not in control, and because of that I try to be sure I am always communicating that I am in control. I have a choice in my actions and reactions, but I have to remember to stop, think, and choose how I will respond and behave.
While it is reassuring to a child to know that his or her parent is capable, we have to be sure not to go so far that we expect too much from our children. This happens far more often than you might think.
Selective Mutism: A Case Study
Both Cindy and her husband, Jim, had brilliant minds. Both were business advisors who excelled in math and reasoning, but definitely not in feelings and emotions. Cindy and Jim were also very nice people who loved their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Jenna, but didn't have a clue how to tune in to her.
Jenna was sent to me because she refused to be toilet trained. Jenna's frequent urination "accidents" were her way of releasing anxiety that she held throughout the day. Additionally, Jenna refused to speak in public, a condition called "selective mutism." Children diagnosed with selective mutism have normal verbal skills but choose not to talk in social settings such as school. There is some evidence that the disorder starts in preschool, is more common in girls, and is seen in all social strata. Jenna was both female and preschool age; when you factor in the pressure from her emotionally distant parents, she was unfortunately a prime candidate for selective mutism.
Both Jim and Cindy were scared. Jim especially so, and he also was anti-therapy. This couple didn't know what was going on with their daughter and were even less sure what to do about it. Lack of knowledge breeds fear, and my job was to educate them enough so that they were no longer too scared to make changes.
The first time I met Jenna I could see that she was anxious. Her anxiety manifested in selective mutism because she was afraid to let go and show her emotions. Not speaking, which may have grown out of her fear and shyness, had become one way she could stay in control. This little girl was not yet four and already she was relating to others the same way her parents related to her— with control.
Excerpted from The Self - Aware Parent by Fran Walfish. Copyright © 2010 Fran Walfish. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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