We were all children once. As youngsters, we faced the same joys and challenges our own children deal with today, but few of us realise just how much our childhood influences the way we parent our children.
We were all children once. As youngsters, we faced the same joys and challenges our own children deal with today, but few of us realise just how much our childhood influences the way we parent our own children.
KZN-based counselling psychologist Rob Pluke says that by becoming aware of our deep-rooted issues, we can become better parents – and stop repeating the mistakes our own parents may have made when raising us.
Rob says, “I remember being amazed, as a first-time father, by how emotional the whole event was. Subsequent to that bombshell, there have been many times that ‘being a father’ has stirred me deeply. As a parent, I’ve recognised that some of my sharpest blunders occurred because my own emotional reactions were reigning supreme – stuff about my own past was getting in the way.”
As parents, we need to recognise the fact that raising children brings with it a whole set of expectations, values, hopes and dreams. These are mostly unconscious – we don’t realise they’re influencing us – and have a huge impact on day-to-day interactions with our children.
Rob explains, “Even before a child is born, parents carry deeply-held expectations about the type of parents they’re going to be, the type of children they’re going to have and the type of home relationships that are going to exist.”
He says, “It’s quite normal, but we need to recognise it. Otherwise, we’re likely to take our assumptions for truths and be real drags to live with, both for our children and our partners.”
Conscious parenting is the process of learning about ourselves and our limiting beliefs. It’s also about saluting the uniqueness of our children.
Research and clinical studies show that when parents start to reflect on their emotional lives and emotional histories, they are better able to form healthy attachments to their babies and children.
Rob says, “It’s not about how great or how difficult our upbringing was – it’s about whether or not we’ve taken the time to reflect deeply on our pasts, where we’ve come from and who we’ve become.
"Emotional reflexivity, or insight, is critical when you become a parent. This helps us to move from being emotionally reactive (driven by unrecognised emotions) to responsive (containing our emotions and acting with more wisdom).”
He adds, “In essence, once we’ve worked through our pasts, we start dealing with our children as they are and according to their needs. We’re better able to tune into their emotional selves.”
History as helping hand
How do we begin the process of becoming more positive and proactive as parents?
Negative trigger points
The first step is becoming aware of our “trigger points”, which are based on our own unrecognised emotional needs and expectations.
These triggers are set off during emotional encounters with our children, but when we’re able to recognise them, we can “head off” the negative patterns they create. Negative “trigger points” can include:
- The need to be seen as important (our children are there to reflect our status)
- The need to be in control (our children need to be channelled or “taught”)
- The need to win (our children need to be “winners”, except when they play against us!)
- The need to be helpful (our children aren’t able to contribute)
- The need to look good (our children must have the “right” physiques, the “right” clothes, and they must never let us down when we’re with other adults).
Many of us don’t realise that we may overreact to issues such as a child forgetting to say thank you, because we have an unconscious fear of being taken for granted.
Another example is a father feeling short-tempered after his son loses the sack race at sports day. He may be influenced by his personal desire to win at all costs – or a long-held fear of being a “loser”.
Of course, we all have positive needs and these are important to recognise, and develop. These are the need for respect, to love and be loved, the desire for honesty and authenticity and the need to trust and be trusted.
“Any value-based need should be honoured,” explains Rob. “These promote good interpersonal ‘commerce’ in the home, such as the need to be heard, understood or to laugh!”
Love is not enough
What matters most in parenting, says research psychologist, John Gottman, is how we approach, contain and guide our children through common “emotional hotspots”. Rob gives some examples of these moments and shows how we might react, depending on our personal emotional history.
Imagine you’re driving back from nursery school and your daughter is very quiet. You ask her how school was and she bursts into tears, saying that she wasn’t chosen for a particular role in the year-end play.
Or perhaps your toddler barrels into the kitchen, screaming that his older brother has hit him again. You remonstrate with your older child, who screams that you never listen and that you love your toddler more.
Approaching emotional hotspots
How would you, as a parent, react to either of the above scenarios? According to Rob, depending on our histories, we’re likely to react in predictable ways.
Some of us will be disapproving, because we’ve learnt to fear negative emotion, thinking it’s a sign of weakness. If so, we react negatively possibly even shouting at our children to “stop their nonsense”, which only increases their distress.
Other parents repress or dismiss negative emotions by rushing to soothe their children, telling them a million reasons why they shouldn’t be upset. For example, we might say: “The play? What’s so big about the play? I was never in a play, so don’t you worry, love.”
Another set of parents might adopt the laissez-faire approach, which means that they’re happy to acknowledge their child’s emotion, but essentially leave them hanging. For example, they might say: “Sorry angel, that’s awful. What do you want for supper?”
But since most of us aren’t psychologists, how do we go about saying and doing the right thing in the moment?
Rob says that to be a good, conscious parent, “you need to work at becoming an ‘emotional coach’.” This will help you to:
- Become aware of your child’s emotion (“I see you’re feeling sad and upset”).
- Bond and teach. Recognise the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.
- Validate your child’s feelings. Listen with empathy, for instance saying: “I know how sad you are that you weren’t chosen for this role and you feel like crying.”
- Help your child find words to label what she’s feeling.
- Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand.
For example, you could say: “You’re not a fairy in the show, you’re a bunny rabbit. You feel sad about not being a fairy and it’s okay to feel sad. When you want to, we’ll look for some cute ears for your bunny rabbit costume and you can practise being the best bunny rabbit you can.”
When parents regularly adopt the habits of an emotional coach, research shows that children do better at school, have better physical health, are more resilient, get along better with peers and have fewer behavioural problems.
These children also internalise these skills – they become better at soothing themselves and finding their own ways out of emotional problems in the future.
Even if you’re unable – or reluctant – to uncover “hidden triggers” from your own past, simply being aware that they may be there is key. In addition, practising your “emotional coach” skills will have an immediate positive effect on your parenting, no matter your child’s age.
The most effective parent is one who makes the effort to be one. You don’t have to be perfect – simply try to be a little smarter than you were yesterday.
Becoming a conscious parent
Identify triggers from the past
Start exploring any hidden “triggers” by asking yourself questions, such as:
- What was it like growing up in my family?
- How did I get along with my parents when I was very young and how has our relationship evolved?
- Did my relationships with my mother and father differ and how were they similar?
- Are there ways that I try to be like – or unlike – my mother or father?
- Did I ever feel rejected or threatened by my parents?
- Do any of these experiences continue to affect my life?
- How did my parents discipline me as a child and what impact did this have on my childhood and how I parent now?
- Do I recall early separations from my parents? How did it make me feel?
- How did my parents communicate with me when I was happy or excited?
- Once you’ve had a good look at your past, then consider how you’re parenting today.
How are you parenting today?
Ask yourself the following:
- How do I feel when my child is sad? Some adjectives many parents use include angry, numb, manipulated or irritated
- What expectations do I place on myself when my child is unhappy? Some parents feel guilty, others are angry
- What parts of the day are most difficult for me as a parent? Mornings before school or bedtime perhaps?
- What bugs or worries me the most about my child?
According to Rob, by answering these questions, many parents discover hidden concerns or needs that are triggered during emotional situations with their children. This is the first step towards being proactive instead of confrontational – and finding solutions instead of getting stuck in negative patterns.