What Your Child Really Needs

20/20 hindsight from a therapist mom: What I wish I had known.

Posted Dec 31, 2020

Just as I was thinking about what to share in my final blog of 2020, I had a consult with a couple that provided the spark. Mid-session, the mom burst into tears as she shared how ashamed and saddened she was at the relief she experienced upon finding that her son had fallen asleep while waiting for her to come to say goodnight. The prospect of having some alone-time instead of the seemingly endless ordeal of trying to get him to go to sleep was a dream come true.

But instead of enjoying her much-deserved respite, she was self-flagellating, wondering what kind of mom she was if she was happy to have time away from her child. This was decidedly not the mother she had dreamed of being.

This broke my heart. This is a thoughtful, sensitive, loving mom who is trying to balance caring for a feisty toddler and a 4-month-old while getting ready to return to work after the new year. She is exhausted and depleted, which is further exacerbated by feeling ashamed at wanting relief from her child, who is very demanding. She just wants him to be happy. She gives and gives but feels like it’s never enough.

This conversation became the impetus for this newsletter, as I know from my consults with hundreds of parents during the last nine months that this mom is not alone and that many of you are probably experiencing these kinds of feelings to some degree. It is a list of some of the most important lessons I have learned about what children really need—things I wish my younger self had understood that would have reduced stress and enabled more joy.

Being a present, loving parent and desperately needing a break are not mutually exclusive.

Wanting some distance from your children just means you're human. In fact, breaks are necessary. If you don’t get the respite you need, you are less likely to be the engaged, responsive, playful parent you want to be and that your child needs you to be.

Don’t do what I did and confuse being a loving parent with having to respond to your child’s every need. He won’t be missing critical neural connections if you put a limit on his endless questions when it’s time for you to get back to work. You are not weakening his attachment to you by setting a reasonable time limit on your snuggle-fest before lights out at bedtime. There is a robust body of research that shows that it is the quality of your overall relationship with your child that matters. It is much better to be present and responsive for less time than distracted and on a short fuse for longer periods.

Something to consider, especially during this incredibly stressful time, is to create time(s) in your day for independent play or quiet time. Many families I am currently working with are finding this life-changing. It is something I wish I had done but dropped the ball on because I made the fatal mistake of letting my children’s reaction to this plan derail me. The first cries of “I miss you, Mommy” or “This isn’t fair!” triggered my mom-guilt (was I harming my children by creating a forced separation?), and just like that, quiet time was a distant dream.

In my (often painful) 20/20 hindsight, it is so clear that establishing this break period would have been much more loving to my kids. Creating this space has so many benefits: You get some respite and thus bring your much better self to the table during your time with your kids; you provide an invaluable opportunity for them to see that they can make their own fun (indeed, boredom is one of the greatest catalysts of creativity); and you are teaching them that having a close, loving connection does not mean having to spend every minute together—a key component of any healthy relationship.

Just because your child doesn’t like a limit doesn’t mean it’s not good for her.

Looking back, I wonder why in the world I was expecting or depending on my children to like or agree with all my parenting decisions. Was I waiting to hear: “Thanks so much for creating this opportunity for me to decompress and learn to entertain myself” when I presented the plan for quiet time? Or, “I am so glad you are limiting me to three books at bedtime instead of the 50 I really want, so I can get the sleep my body needs to grow healthy and strong?” Trust me, functioning from this faulty mindset will quickly land you in the passenger seat while your child takes you for a ride—a recipe for protracted power struggles and constant frustration for all involved.

Kids have parents for a reason—they are counting on and need you to make decisions for their greater good. Even in the face of their protests, there is a way to set limits lovingly. (I have many blogs that address how to do this.)

Happy children are not always happy.

When I had my first child, Sam, I was singularly focused on ensuring that he had high self-esteem. (That was the big parenting goal back in the early ’90s. Now it’s all grit and resilience—pretty much the same thing at its core.)

I (very) mistakenly confused self-esteem with happiness. This meant that anytime Sam was distressed, it was mom-to-the-rescue. If he was upset about not making a goal in soccer, I regaled him with all the ways he was awesome! If he was struggling with a puzzle, I rushed in to put the pieces in their rightful places to reduce his frustration. I feared these experiences would make him feel bad about himself—eroding his self-esteem. So, I was quick to cheerlead him out of his difficult feelings or solve whatever problem he was struggling with.

While my brain may have known that this was all wrong, my heart was so distressed at witnessing his distress that it overrode my ability to see that what Sam actually needed from me was to show him that I had total faith in his ability to cope with life’s frustrations and disappointments; that I could tolerate his difficult feelings (this one really pains me given that I am, in fact, a therapist!); and that I had confidence in his ability to master the challenges he faced by giving him the space to work through a difficult task.

Fixing all his problems didn’t build his self-esteem. In fact, I was inadvertently sending him the message that I didn’t believe in him and that he needed me to find all the solutions. (The good news is that Sam is now a thriving, successful adult despite my stint as a helicopter/lawnmower/snowplow parent. I ultimately saw the error of my ways and made some important changes in my approach. The take-home message—it’s never too late!)

So remember, all stress is not harmful to kids. Stress is a part of life. Learning to effectively deal with it is what makes people happy.

The temporary distress children experience when they can’t have exactly what they want when they want it—be it your attention, the desired toy or treat, or when they can’t solve a problem right away—has major long-term benefits. It teaches them to be flexible—a critical attribute for functioning well in relationships, at school, and later in work—and that they have what it takes to muscle through a challenge (otherwise known as self-esteem.)

I hope these insights help you avoid falling prey to pitfalls that are preventable, reduce your stress, and increase your ability to enjoy parenting your little ones throughout 2021 and beyond. Mostly I hope that it helps you see that you are, indeed, enough.