Every caregiver can appreciate the desire to be a better parent for their kids. We can also appreciate how this goal seems unachievable when we are snapping at our little ones after the third tantrum of the morning. The desire to be a better parent comes from good intentions; we want these tiny humans to develop into healthy adults. For those parents who are overwhelmed, fearful of screwing things up, close to burn out, or just feeling generally lost, I hope this post offers you some guidance and comfort.
Accept that perfection is impossible:
The perfectionist part of me hates this title. But this is a message that I tell myself as often as I tell my clients. In order to be a better parent, we have to get rid of this notion for perfection. We are not going to be perfect, and truthfully, we don’t have to be perfect.
There was incredible research done by child development expert, Dr. Ed Tronick, in the 1980s. He and his team showed the impact of attuning to our children. Meaning, when your child reaches out, is distressed, or needs attention, how do you respond? When it comes to secure attachment, we want to ensure our children are safe, soothed, and seen.
However, Dr. Tronick emphasizes that it is impossible to be attuned all the time. We are going to be busy, and have other responsibilities that pull our attention away. We cannot always respond when our toddler wants us to play or when our teen wants to talk. In fact, in his research, Dr. Tronick found that even the “best parents” were only attuned to their kids 30% of the time. Furthermore, this 30% is enough to raise secure and healthy children.
This number always floors me. While our perfectionist parts may want us to excel, it’s important to recognize that, our relationship to our kids can remain healthy and strong irrespective of making mistakes. This doesn’t mean that we’re being jerks the remaining 70% of the time. However, when our kid asks to play, and we’re busy putting away laundry or making supper, we cannot meet our child’s current needs. This is considered misattunement. I hope the guilt reduces when you hear that these moments of misconnection are not harmful. Your kids will be just fine, and will continue to have a secure relationship with you, despite these moments of being unavailable.
Own your mistakes.
This 30% guideline can also be helpful when we have moments of anger, frustration, irritation, or any other difficult emotion towards our child. This is normal! You are going to screw up. I am going to screw up. It sucks. Anger is a normal emotion for humans. However, anger can either stay in our heads as unpleasant thoughts or come out in some form of regretful behaviour. If the latter occurs, it’s essential we address it.
One of my favourite skills to address these regretful moments is a therapeutic apology. This term comes from Emotion-Focused Family Therapy. A therapeutic apology is a deeper acknowledgement when we have made a mistake. It involves validation, and taking the time to voice what these events must have been like for our kids. Therapeutic apologies also offers the commitment for change, and a promise for a better relationship.
You may dread bringing up the past once the conflict is over. It may feel messy to stir up a wound that is starting to recover. However, we don’t know the impact that these moments have had on our kids. Following divorce, domestic violence, substance use, and any other mental health stressors, our kids are affected. Despite their denials, dismissals, or refusal to talk about things, kids are influenced by these events. While we may not want to bring up the past, a therapeutic apology supports kids in letting go of any burden or weight they carry because of these events. Being a better parent involves taking the time to acknowledge our past mistakes. These meaningful acts help us repair relationship ruptures, and creates safety in the home to admit our mistakes.
Our children look to us for guidance. The manners in which we handle difficult situations shapes the ways our children manage their world. Gone are the days when we proclaim, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Role modeling can seem daunting, but truthfully, it’s an opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, you are going to screw up (again, read the sections above!) However, you can strategically plan how you will role model. What can you take the time to show your children? If your child experiences anxiety, how can you role model staying calm? If your child struggles with negative self-talk, how can you role model self-compassion? I like to ask parents to think of what behaviours they would to see increased in their child. Then we create an action plan of how these parents can showcase this specific behaviour to their children.
Talk about the good and the bad
I find that it’s helpful to talk to our kids about when we are having good days and bad days. We want to explain things to them in child-friendly ways versus rehashing all the nitty-gritty details. However, it’s important for kids to know that stressors happen to everyone. We can share that we had a difficult encounter with our boss, and explain how we intend to carry forward. We can also normalize that some problems are not easily solvable, and that it can take time to consider options.
Many of us are raised in an emotional-avoidant culture. We don’t talk about difficult topics, and instead focus on happiness, sunshine, and rainbows. This doesn’t help our youth. They will face hardships as they grow up. Learning that hardships happen for others can help our kids realize they are not alone. It can give them a framework to compare and assess their own troubles. It will also provide our children with more coping strategies and problem solving if they encounter similar situations.
Plan for Melt Downs
The hardest part of being a parent to a young kid is the meltdowns. They happen, and it’s awful… especially when it’s in public. It’s important to take a moment and reflect what is being triggered in you during these moments. Are you frustrated that they’re not listening? Are you stressed because others are watching you? Maybe there’s a sense of helplessness in not knowing what to do. In taking the time to consider what parts get activated for you, you are better able to support your system. You are able to spend time with this triggered part, understand it’s fears, it’s protective intents, and build trust within your system (these are skills from internal family systems therapy).
Once you are feeling less triggered, you have more space to be a better parent. You’re able to stay present and attuned. This can mean holding your child and supporting them co-regulate. It may involve sitting down with them and asking for clarity in why they are feeling so intensely. And, in some cases, it may mean setting some limits about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
Setting limits can be tough, and the best way to lose this game is through inconsistency. Take some time to consider what typically sets off your child. Or, just as importantly, what behaviours drive you bonkers?
I encourage having a conversation with kids about rules and expectations. While this may or may not stop the behaviour, it also gives the chance for kids to share feedback and problem solve how they want to handle these moments. It’s important that you and your kids are aware of what is inappropriate behaviours, and what will be the consequence (e.g. removal of privilege). Once these ground rules are established, it’s essential that we follow through.
Because it is important to carry out the established consequences, it helps to only pick a handful of behaviours you’d like to reduce. If you try and change too many things, it’s easy to lose track. So, pick your battles. What behaviours are most important for you to reduce? For example, in our household, we have set consequences when it comes to being physically aggressive.
I would highly recommend setting a consequence for a short period of time (e.g. for young kids, no longer than an hour; for school age kids, a maximum of a day; and for teens, no longer than a few days). When your child has broken curfew, or taken the car without permission, I get that you want to ground them for a month. However, this gives our children zero chance to redeem themselves. It also means you have to carry out the set punishment. Can you imagine following through on a consequence of no TV for two weeks? You will lose it as much as your kid. With older teens, rather than learning from the consequence, they are just focused on being angry at their stubborn parents.
Shaping behaviours through praise and attention
When you think of all the behaviours and skills you’d like to see in your kid, what’s most important? Let’s say that you’re noticing your daughter has a pattern of getting angry and slamming doors after arguments about curfew. You can remove a privilege whenever the door is slammed, but how do you reinforce what she is meant to do instead?
We’ve already discussed role modelling appropriate behaviours. Beyond this, it’s important to recognize whenever your child is doing well. This means paying attention to times when your daughter speaks calmly, walks away to take some space, and when she does home before curfew. When these occurrences happen, how do you reinforce them? While we can use rewards to help increase behaviours we want to see (e.g. extra dessert for every time you tidy up your room), praise and positive attention are equally effective.
As a forewarning, your teen will still scoff and roll her eyes when you praise her for talking calmly. However, on a daily basis, your child is bombarded with negative attention. Whether it is due to these arguments, social pressures, poor grades, or feedback from teachers, she is aware of her flaws. Positive attention is pivotal. We seek approval. When you can express this approval in a genuine manner, your child will slowly respond.
Make play a priority
We all have busy lives, and we cannot invest 10 hours to minecraft, even though our kid may beg. However, being intentional about setting aside some times for being with our kids is important. Spending time that doing activities that your child enjoys (and that you can tolerate) will allow some space for this relationship to heal. We can seek out quality time in various ways. This can involve chatting during a car ride home, watching a favourite show with them, playing video games, or inciting them with a promise of Starbucks if they would be willing to hang out.
Your kids will not always be enthusiastic about this type of attention. But we do not grow close to people who we barely talk to or see. It’s important that we carve out these opportunities, even though it may feel like pulling teeth with your teenager.
As always, the consistency matters. You can be clear to your kid about your intentions. It’s okay to say, “I miss you, and wish we were closer. Can we go for ice cream?” It’s helpful to let them know, after supper is when we get to hang out as a family and play cards. Having this consistency helps them recognize you mean it when you say you want to spend time. Especially for older kids, if there have been a lot of conflict, they’ll feel cautious in trusting you. As with any other relationship, rebuilding this trust takes time and patience.
Know that you are doing your best
Depression, anxiety, trauma, or any other form of mental health can affect the way you would like to parent. Daily life stressors, like a busy work schedule, demands from other children, or financial constraints, can affect the way you’d like to parent. We cannot always control these variables. However, the security and positive bond you have with your child is incredibly healing.
This post offers general strategies, and every person comes with their own history and unique set of needs. For support related to your own family and parenting, please contact me for a free consult. Stay tuned for further parenting supports via an Emotion-Focused Family Therapy workshop for advanced caregiving.
All the best,