Parenting advice is usually focused on what parents can do to improve or moderate their children’s behavior. But sometimes it is the parent who needs to change. You might need to learn how to stay calm in difficult situations, or create better habits about spending quality time with your child. This can be a painful process, to evaluate your parenting and realize there are some places you are lacking. It takes insight to see the areas for improvement, and humility to admit that you need to work on something. But once you are able to focus on these areas and make changes, you will be happier as a parent and a person. If anger is controlling your responses to your children, you can find more peace when you learn to control that anger. If you’re being reactive as a parent and blowing things out of proportion, you probably regret it later and resolve to do better.
If you have seen a need for change and are ready to work on some aspect of your parenting, I want to applaud your efforts. It takes maturity and strength to improve yourself.
Parenting is overwhelming – for everyone! So if you’re ready to make some changes, start small. Realize that changing thoughts, feelings and responses takes time. Go easy on yourself as you make progress. Here is my formula for how to change. It sounds easy and straight-forward as I type it, but we all know it is not. You will have to repeat this process over and over to see progress.
First, assess what needs to be changed. Just like when you are writing those New Year’s resolutions, try to be specific and reasonable. There may be many areas you want to work on, but just start with one. Even a goal such as “I’ve got to be more patient” is too broad and overwhelming. Focus in on one time frame, for example, “I want to be more patient at bedtime.”
Next, figure out the better way. What will the new and improved behavior look like and sound like? Make a list of specific ways you are going to respond or specific things you are going to do to improve. Write notes to yourself and place them in the bathroom, kitchen, anywhere you will see them often. Continuing with the ‘patient at bedtime’ example, try to identify what moments or interactions cause your frustration and what your usual response is. If you know those moments are coming, you can make a plan for how to respond more positively.
Finally, implement the better way. Each time that situation comes up, try to remember what you practiced and planned. Over time these purposeful, proactive responses will become your normal, replacing the negative automatic reactions that come so quickly in the heat of the moment.
Sometimes the change you need to make has to do with your own issues. Here are a few emotional issues that get in the way of effective parenting.
Your parents. Most people respond to their children in the same way their parents did. You may have never thought about it before, but it’s a good idea to reflect on this. Ask yourself if you’re doing the same things your parents did, and if that is how you want to parent or not. This is part of intentional parenting, instead of doing whatever comes naturally. Your answer may be that yes, you want to be like your parents and follow their example. On the other hand, you may realize there are some things they did that you want to do differently.
The first step is to identify exactly what habits and family patterns work for you and your family and those that don’t. It can be hard to do something different from your parents because they might be hurt that you chose a different path, or be disapproving of your choices. It’s also hard to do something different because your automatic habits will be to follow their example. Sometimes these reactions are so ingrained we don’t realize what we’re doing or it seems impossible to change. But following the formula above is a good place to start.
You must also be aware of the risk of overreacting. If you didn’t like something your parents did, like forbidding sleep overs, you might do the extreme opposite without really thinking it through. You might be very lax in your rules about sleep overs and not realize the possible detriments to your children. Allowing sleep overs or not is not the point, of course. The point is you should make purposeful decisions based on you and your spouse’s examination of your feelings and the information about the situation. If parenting differently than your parents did is one of your emotional “issues,” than work through that and be aware of its effect on you.
Your pride. I wrote about this in the Parenting without Irritation post. In a situation where you feel watched, where people might be observing (and maybe even judging) how your children look and act, you can’t help but feel a little more anxious, a little more easily annoyed. And this feeling affects your parenting – you are short with your children, less patient and more on edge. The “observers” might be your parents or in-laws, co-workers or friends. Special occasions or places with certain expectations of behavior can be potential traps for pride flare-ups. This is a natural reaction. If you realize it and even anticipate it, you can modulate your own feelings and be ready for the situation.
You might do a little self talk, like this, “I know you want the kids to look and act their best today, and you will feel like people are watching what they do, but they are just kids and won’t be perfect. I can talk to them beforehand and explain my expectations of them, but if and when they misbehave I can still be patient and calm, and speak kindly to them as I try to get them to obey. Most people there have kids and know what they are like, and most people won’t be paying as much attention as I imagine that they are. My overreaction is worse/more embarrassing than their misbehavior.”
If you find that your pride is creeping up regularly, take a look at it and see what you can do to keep it in check.
Your marriage. I think we are all aware that the quality of your marriage can greatly affect your children. The most obvious way this affects your parenting is if you and your spouse are not on the same page regarding parenting principles. When spouses have differing parenting styles it can be confusing for children, and they sometimes play off of each parent to get what they want. You might have to put extra effort into communicating about how to raise your children and find a way to compromise and work together. There are many arbitrary decisions and rules in parenting, and therefore many areas of compromise that won’t have lasting effects on the children. There are some important basic principles, though, that you will hopefully agree on.
Even if you and your spouse agree on parenting principles, if there are other trouble spots in the marriage it can affect your children. It takes emotional energy to deal with marital difficulties, and that takes away from the emotional energy you have available for your children. If this is a problem for you, do whatever you can to address those issues and strengthen your marriage. Talk to your spouse, read a marriage-improvement book, or get counseling together. Any effort you put into your marriage will directly benefit your children and make you a better parent.
Your self-image. In your child’s world, the boundary between self and parent is very blurred, maybe even nonexistent. Children see themselves as one with you. Separating from you is part of the growing up process. Therefore everything you say about yourself, you might as well be saying about them. Hopefully you already have a positive self-image, but if not you should try to find out why and work on it. Even if you don’t say negative comments out loud, your child can pick up on subtle cues exposing your dislike of yourself (and he internalizes them to dislike of himself).
But one thing you can absolutely control (though it may be difficult) is those comments – what you say out loud about yourself. You should never put yourself down in front of your children. In fact, do the opposite. Make a point of saying comments like, “I’m having a good hair day today!” or “Wow! I made a really good dinner tonight.” It feels silly at first, but you’ll get used to it. And it is as beneficial to your child as giving him or her a compliment. Don’t you want your child to feel and say those same things about herself? Then you must model it.
When you get home from work say, “I really helped someone at work today; let me tell you about it . . .” Another example: “I’ve always thought I have a really nice smile.” It sounds crazy because who would really say that out loud? But again, it’s powerful modeling. Keep these comments coming, both about superficial things (looks, hair, clothes) and deeper things like solving difficult problems or working on relationships. Give your children an insight into your (positive) world.
This goes for eating issues, also. Daughters especially pick up on their mother’s eating habits and body issues. I try not to ever mention I’m on a diet or talk in depth about the calories or fat grams of any food. Don’t demonize food or fat; just have a neutral attitude toward all food. I try to have the attitude of ‘I eat in moderation and I enjoy whatever food I’m eating.’ This may not be what is really going on inside, but having this attitude for your children’s sake can change your internal dialogue permanently and give you healthier self-talk. It will be better for your own health and self-image to speak positively about your body and not negatively. Making a point to say positive things in front of your children will force you to focus on the positive!
All these difficulties and issues are a part of everyone’s life; no one is immune. But we need to be aware of how they are affecting our parenting. Once the effects are identified we can be proactive, making choices that are purposeful and best for our families.