“I can’t control my child!”
I hear this often from parents who are frustrated with their child’s behaviors and the difficulty of making their child accede to their demands. But is parenting really a phase in your and your child’s life that’s about control—a power struggle?
From birth to age 18 is a time during which you are supporting and growing your child; it's not a tug of war of wills. When it becomes one, I ask parents to think about whose needs are being frustrated—are they yours or your child’s?
Any relationship that becomes a constant struggle is no longer enjoyable, but when it’s with your child, you don’t have the option of ending the relationship. Your relationship with your child shouldn’t be so difficult all the time. If it is, it’s time to take a look at what your relationship with your child is and is not.
Your relationship with your child is not about who is in control.
It's about a true emotional connection. A genuine desire to be with each other, to share in the joy and to comfort. It is not about what you were able to make your child do because you shouted or made threats.
Parenting is about setting expectations and standards for your child and then holding him to them. That is, setting guidelines for daily routines, for how you to speak with each other, how to express sadness, anger, or disappointment. It’s also about the emotional space you provide in your home and your tolerance for anger, sadness, fear, and disappointment. It’s also about raising those standards over time as your child grows.
This doesn’t mean that your child has rule over your house or family. It doesn’t mean that they have permission to destroy toys, furniture, or walls. It means that you have an expectation and a standard for how your child will express frustration, with the understanding that you will hear your child and respond to the need she is sharing with you via her behavior or words.
Parenting is not about making your child fit your expectations.
As parents, it is our job to understand our child’s temperament and emotional needs, and to meet those needs. I have one child whom I understand very well and one child whose emotional needs I’ve had to work very hard to learn because her expression of those needs is very different from my own. In essence, we speak a different emotional language. That doesn’t mean she’s in the wrong or that her needs are not valid; it just means that I have to listen, translate, and respond in a way that is different from that which comes naturally to me.
When we became parents, we had certain expectations in mind about who our children would be and become. I know I envisioned children who were flexible, who would work with me.
My parents ruled with a heavy hand. I was a compliant child. I did as my parents told me even when it didn’t make sense or scared me. You can imagine my level of shock and even anger when my children didn’t comply with my requests or follow my direction. I felt out of control, scared. I became louder and angrier, thinking this would scare them into submission. The result was a crying child and an overwhelmed and tearful mother. I didn’t like the way I felt, emotionally or physically. I didn’t want to be a loud, angry parent.
It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve had to revisit my own childhood to gain an understanding of how my parents disciplined, what worked and what didn’t. I’ve had to adjust my expectations of myself as a parent and of my children. I am still visiting and working through my own childhood wounds in order to develop my sense of myself as a parent and of my children.
Parenting is a wave that comes in with power and leaves with a quietness. It’s a dance of knowing when to intervene, when to let your child struggle, when to coach, and when to watch from the distance as your child figures it out. It’s not easy. You may be a fixer, like me. The hardest thing I’ve had to learn how to do is to let my children fall while I hold my breath and pray that they will get back up.
There is no one way of parenting for all of your children and for every day. As parents, our jobs are to listen, translate, and respond to our children the way they need to be responded to each moment of each day. This doesn’t mean that your children “rule your house,” but rather that you are listening for your child’s needs and meeting them in the moment, as the moment comes and goes. The ebb and flow of parenting makes it unpredictable, which can be scary and difficult to plan for.
Parenting is not about control, but rather setting expectations and standards, listening, understanding how your child is different from you, and making sure that you are not bringing your past into the present.
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