The Gift of A Parent

My mentor in psychology, Dr. Will Kouw, frequently talked about a parenting chute, the idea being that we put the infant in one end and s/he exits a responsible adult.

The job of the parent is to provide the outer limits (of the chute) to keep the child safe while he has room within the chute to explore and develop his own identity. It definitely is NOT our job to mold the helpless infant into a more nearly perfect version of ourselves.

As mothers, when we carry the child within the womb, we are totally responsible for her well-being. When she is born, she gradually becomes responsible for herself, first by breathing on her own. Otherwise, she remains helpless. Her only real power lies in the ability to let us know when she has a need of any kind. We must figure out what the need is. And if we fail, or refuse, she dies.

Gradually, she develops other abilities: locomotion, verbal expression, etc. The giving of the roots involves supplying the needs until she is able to take care of herself. The giving of the wings involves stepping back and letting go as she becomes more and more proficient in caring for herself.

The child is learning where she begins and the parent leaves off. This individuation

process occurs smoothly throughout childhood. It becomes more pronounced, even jarring, during certain periods such as 18 months or so, when she discovers her “no;” around 6 years, when she heads off to school; and the ever-dreaded teenage years, when hormones, individuation and a terrifying (to us as parents) sense of invulnerability merge to bring about an emotional roller-coaster ride of dependence versus independence.

Hal Runkin, a licensed marriage and family therapist, wrote the book ScreamFree Parenting: Raising your kids by keeping your cool. He defines Scream as getting emotionally reactive with your kids and says it can take a number of forms, including raising your voice, orbiting your life around theirs, cutting yourself off to avoid watching their mistakes (and then telling them “I told you so”), trying to control their behavior and feelings, or sacrificing yourself for your family and then resenting them when they don’t appreciate your efforts. On the other hand, ScreamFree is learning to relate with your kids in a calm, cool, and connected way, taking hold of your own emotional responses no matter how your children choose to behave and learning to focus on yourself and take care of yourself for your family’s benefit, thus giving your children the best chance to grow into self-directed adults.

He cites some of those incidents we all are shamed by in which a parent totally loses it and gets involved in a power struggle with an all-powerful toddler (or teenager). He eschews a war-time metaphor (choose your battles, etc.) for a dueling one: He suggests that when the child throws down the gauntlet (“you are mean and I hate you”) that we simply not pick it up and thereby engage in a battle. The secret is to stay focused on your own emotions and needs rather than letting the child be in charge.

In assertiveness training, I teach people to “center” mentally, physically, and emotionally. Mentally, you center by becoming aware of what you think, how you are feeling and what you want. (I think I’m being invited into a power struggle here. I feel anxious and angry. I want to remain calm and connected to my child.)

Physically, Akido teaches us that you center yourself by sending your energy to that spot just below the navel. It is amazing how difficult it is for someone to knock you off balance physically when you are centered in this way. And if you are physically centered, it is difficult to knock you off balance emotionally, as well. Emotionally, you can center yourself by sitting calmly and focusing on your breathing. Take a long deep breath and exhale slowly, letting the tension drain from your body as you do so.

In dialectical behavioral therapy the concept of the Wise Mind is used. It focuses on the left brain as analytical and logical and the right brain as emotional and creative. When one is being knocked off balance emotionally (by the gauntlet being thrown by her/his offspring or whatever), the right brain is front and center. By itself the right brain does not make good decisions or pronouncements. Doing what is needed to calm yourself allows the left brain to merge, so to speak, so that the Wise Mind (combination of leftand right brain) can take over for efficient problem-solving.

In therapy, I frequently remind my patients of the wise advice given by flight attendants during a commercial flight. If the oxygen mask drops down during flight, it means there is low cabin pressure, i.e.,less available oxygen. If you are traveling with people who are unable to care for themselves, you are advised to put the mask on yourself first. Otherwise you won’t be caring for them because you’ll be gasping for breath.

Runkel uses the same analogy and goes one better, talking about the effect inadequate oxygen has on people. I am reminded of an incident: I was attending a family baby shower, and the host had a congenital heart condition that required him to be connected to a tank of oxygen at all times. During the festivities,

I noticed he became more and more quiet and just drifted away, nodding his head as if in sleep. His wife arose quietly, went to the other room, returned with a full tank and hooked him up. He gradually came back to life before my eyes. He was not aware at all that he was losing consciousness.

Seeing to your own emotional and physical needs is essential in order for you to be able to take care of your family. You may not even realize when you are running out of resources. So what about limit setting? I recommend behavioral contracting. Target behaviors are identified, and carefully chosen rewards are offered for performance. In keeping with behavioral modification theory, the key is that the child gets the reward if she does the behavior. She has the choice.

Typical items include grooming and hygiene, homework, pet care (someone needs to be the backup here; pets do need to eat and drink!), making the bed, putting away toys, going to bed or getting up on time, etc. Screaming over undone chores is not OK. The point is to reward behaviors, not obedience. Blind obedience to authority is not always good. Being able to stand up to unreasoning authority is a characteristic worth developing.

Runkel has a chapter titled Let the Consequences Do the Screaming. By that, he means consequences from school authorities, etc. Mom does not write an excuse when the child fails to get up on time because she stayed up too late the night before. He writes, “The more our children are exposed to small consequences of their small infractions, the less they will have to commit large infractions and receive large consequences.”

There is no way I can do his book justice in the space allowed for this article. I encourage you to read it for yourself!

Author: Rosemary J. Stauber

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