There is an old assumption that whatever you tell a therapist, he or she will always “blame the parents”. Most self-help and psychology works that center on conditioning and change point primarily to the time when our caregivers had the most influence over us. This is not often seen as positive and is usually cited as the cause of all our ills. While it might not be the sole reason for adult dysfunction, it is certainly an extremely important time in all our lives. A time when we are truly looking for a blueprint and our parents are usually where we look.
Parents do not need to be perfect but they do need to provide an environment that forms a bedrock for a child to grow into a functional adult. Many children growing up in “good enough” situations can move through vital developmental stages to adulthood with relative ease. By “good enough”, I mean they have been shown how to set and respect boundaries, subjected to positive discipline and “coached” through childhood. All this with a sense of stewardship and a sense of responsibility that comes from setting manageable goals and the reasonable expectation of success, but not fearing failure.
However, this is the exception rather than the rule and the effects on children when parents “get it wrong” can be far-reaching and devastating to the adult they become. We are not even talking here about the obvious consequences of sexual, emotional and physical abuse. We are not talking here about children being used as pawns in a divorce and neglected. It is clear that such abuse and neglect will certainly not produce a well-rounded, balanced individual. While it is always possible to turn things around, it is much harder when abuse has been a constant feature. We are talking here about the less obvious, more subtle issues that children pick up on very quickly and ultimately blame themselves for. Most of the conditions that therapists deal with in couples therapy, for example, are generational and can be attributed to childhood factors. Codependency and narcissism are just two notable examples.
So where do parents get it wrong? Most parents fail to learn from their own childhood and carry forward dysfunction allowing their own children to carry their baggage. I refuse to believe that anyone who is faced with being a parent cannot learn good parenting skills with positive discipline and connection at the core of parenting. These factors for me are the most important in child rearing and of course, take the most effort. This is, for me why it doesn’t happen as much as it should. Lets look at these factors individually:
- What is a good parent? There would be many interpretations of this question and every parent would have a different opinion. Some would see providing financially and for education as important, others instilling values and principles. Some adopt a disciplinarian approach and some are permissive. In my opinion, a good parent is one who understands their child and their needs, who understands that children go through specific phases and their needs change. Hence, a parenting style has to adapt. It is safe to say that when a baby or toddler cries, there is usually only a handful of reasons. They are tired, hungry, need changing or they need attention from their parents ( a dirty word for some). Children at that age are very receptive to the connection to their parents. If the connection is there, their world is ok. However, you only have to take a trip to a local restaurant or shopping mall to see how this can go wrong. Parents staring into smartphones while their children go unsupervised, dragging them by the arm and smacking when they disturb them, loud voices and terrorizing them. So a good parent is one that connects with their child, supervises and observes, sets healthy, safe boundaries and is always tuned to their child`s needs. Hard work? Yes…but this is parenting!
- Connection. Your child’s welfare very much depends on the connection with you as a parent. Children look for it, crave it and often don’t receive it. Some parents even use it as a form of punishment by withdrawing it when they feel the child has misbehaved. Most “bad behavior” exhibited by young children is due to dysfunctional connection with parents. Children at a young age are extremely sensitive to this aspect of childhood and it can feel devastating for them when the connection is not there. It is, in my opinion, one of the key aspects in the development of codependency. Many children carry an insecure attachment style into adulthood and the parents are to blame, pure and simple. When your child cries, pick them up, hug them, get down to their level. When your child is “misbehaving”, understand why and comfort them. This is what they need. If you smack, you are an abuser, period! There is no justification for lack of connection, physical violence or raising your voice toward a young child. If you cannot do it, learn!
- Positive Discipline. Seen by many as too permissive and “new age”, positive discipline is the key to good parenting. Not shouting, smacking, restricting, helicopter parenting but effective, realistic dealing with your child. We are looking here at autonomy or actually, a sense of autonomy. When a child has a healthy sense of autonomy, he respects the boundaries set by the parents. He knows he is free to explore the safe world set up for him and will develop the sense of making healthy choices. We as parents, can promote this by providing a framework through our attitudes and actions. This means: Be kind but firm. Always follow through by doing what you say you will do. Another factor here is respect. Even young children should be given the opportunity to finish an activity before moving onto another. Teach your child by doing. This means less talk, fewer lectures and more action. For example, most toddlers like to hit either the parents, other children or pets. We often make the mistake of telling them not to hit or hitting them back. This behavior is often just exploration. Modeling appropriate behavior would mean taking the child’s hand and saying and doing repeatedly “touch nicely”. Show your children what to do and model appropriate behavior. Avoid telling them what they cant do. Encourage your child to think. Involve him by asking “how” and what” questions. Offer limited choices (all of which are acceptable) and avoid open-ended choices that promote “no” such as “do you want to go to bed?” Ask instead “what do we do before we go to bed?” Use ample distraction and redirection. This is one of the key tools of positive discipline. Teaching a child what they can do instead of telling them what they can’t. Children will explore and many are taken away from the desired inappropriate object and given no alternative apart from confinement, leading to frustration, doubt and shame. Effective distraction means giving the child an appropriate alternative activity which is best done with the parent involved. This will need to be repeated and this is where time and patience come in. Avoid spanking, slapping or harsh words. Avoid power struggles. A hug and a little time-out mean more than shouting matches involving “yes” and “no”. Recognise the difference between wants and needs. Needs should be responded to, wants give an opportunity to teach. Provide a safe environment for exploration and remove heavy and dangerous objects. Provide careful and loving supervision that teaches skills. Above all..Focus on connection, love and relationship.