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See a Habit to Break a Habit

Noticing your own parenting patterns without judgment allows for change.

STUFF HAPPENS, not all of it great. We want to guarantee our own well-being, and our child’s, but we cannot. Stress itself has been honed down to a one-line description: getting what we don’t want or not getting what we do want. We’d tell anyone else to expect the unexpected and then get caught off guard anyway.

You’re at a restaurant with your preschooler and a waitress puts down a milkshake on a nearby tray. As you turn to look at the menu, your lovely preschooler grabs the glass, falls out of his seat, and gracefully lands in the lap of the stern-looking woman in the next booth — with the milkshake in slow motion tumbling onto them both. In that moment, hooked and on edge, what’s the first, gut-level reaction that comes to mind? One person might reflexively lash out at their child. Another person might blame the waitress. Another might want to hide under the table. For someone else, that first feeling might be self-criticism — I should have known better.

We all have habitual paths that we’ve developed in life. Many have value, or once did, or do in one situation but not another. The way we address our sales team may not go over at a family picnic. We settle into routines that keep the day moving and take care of our children. We have some routines that are perfectly useful and save energy, but often they become mindless and rote.

Limit setting is a perfect example of how these mental tendencies influence families. We fall back on old habits when off-balance or distracted. As we grasp for perfection and recoil from imperfection, our habits drive us to be too strict or too lenient, particularly when exhausted or stressed. For our best friend, we’d recite a step-by-step rationale for why limits matter, then at home we become lost in the chaos of everyday life.

The capacity to choose exists only in the moment between some-thing that triggers us and what we decide on next. Simply paying attention, without judgment or expecting perfection, creates new options. Without judging ourselves for having them, we can explore our own tendencies and therefore create an opportunity for change. Common patterns that undermine behavioral planning or almost any other part of life include:

Grasping. We exhaust ourselves with efforts to make everything fit our visions and pre-programmed expectations. We often hold onto stories about how things “should” be (I’ll be happy when life is exactly as I pictured ), or a desperate desire to control, plan, and fix everything. You might avoid rewards or setting limits due to a belief that they shouldn’t be needed because your child should know better. Or you might grasp onto that transient moment of happiness when your child gets a gift or a treat, and you fall into a trap of indulgence; it’s a limited, false belief that getting stuff makes anyone happy for long. Gifts are great and surprises even better, but they don’t relate much to long-term well-being.

Aversion. It’s natural to avoid what we don’t like and push away anything unpleasant, so maybe we collapse when facing an angry, upset child. Perhaps we have a picture of ideal parenting in which children rarely cry, arising either from our own sense of compassion or because a parenting book suggested it was possible. So when our kid melts down because he wants that toy in aisle three, we give in. Maybe we struggle enforcing limits and avoid seeking help out of worry that we’ll be judged for not doing it on our own. Accepting things as they are, even when they’re unpleasant, allows for consistency, flexible problem-solving, and more resilience.

Feeling overwhelmed or burned-out. Sometimes being a parent, or life in general, may feel like too much to manage. We may have a metaphorical — or literal — urge to go back to bed and pull the covers over our head. A mental fog prevents us from handling a situation. At times like these, it may feel easier to let our kid do whatever he wants: going to bed late, making questionable food choices, having poor manners, or skipping chores. When we are exhausted, it’s far easier to let things slide, despite our best intentions.

Restlessness. Sometimes we feel impatient and want to force changes to happen right away. When anger, anxiety, or uncertainty take over, they may cause us to leap into compulsive action rather than sticking with a well-considered strategy. For example, we might impulsively toss out our entire behavioral plan, though we know with patience that it may work out fine as it is. Or we might create yet another plan out of worry that we need to be doing something more active to guarantee success instead of patiently sticking to what we’ve decided is best.

Self-doubt. And then there is parenting doubt, in drips or deluges, arising and receding like the tides: I should know better; I don’t have the strength to change this; if only I were more like my sister; and on and on. Once again, by noticing and labeling our inner heckler, we more easily let go.

Begin to notice your personal style around parenting. When difficult moments arise, pay attention to thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Then notice tendencies toward grasping, aversion, feeling overwhelmed, restlessness, or self-doubt. When you catch yourself, name what you see, and steer yourself elsewhere if needed. In each instance where something isn’t working well, investigate with compassion and awareness. Maybe new limits are called for as your child grows up. Maybe you made a choice that hasn’t worked out and you need to adjust. Or maybe, when you pause to reflect, you’ll see that despite your fears, everything is fine as is.


Adapted from How Children Thrive: The Practical Science of Raising Independent, Resilient, and Happy Kids (Sounds True). Copyright © 2018 by Mark Bertin, MD. Published by Sounds True in June 2018.