This is the problem with parenting advice even really good parenting advice. Sure you can give pretty safe general advice if you look at a child’s developmental stage and you can give even better general advice if you also take the child’s temperament into account and then if you have some time to sit down and discuss the family culture and the school culture (if the child is in school) and the broader world in which the child exists, then you can give pretty good advice because it’s not general anymore.
Let’s take discussions about Ferguson. In one of my professional groups we’ve been talking about how Ferguson has been coming up in our counseling sessions. Sometimes it’s coming up because parents are wondering what to tell their kids. I don’t have a One Size Fits All piece of advice about talking to your child about Ferguson because there is no way I could do this appropriately. Instead I would need to know a whole bunch of stuff including but not limited to:
How old is your child? What race is your child? What race are you? How does (or doesn’t) your family talk about race? Has your child brought it up? If so, where did he learn about it? How are they discussing it at school or at the babysitter’s or around the family table at Thanksgiving? What is your child’s temperament? What are his questions? What are his concerns? And finally what do you think about Ferguson?
There is simply not one right way to talk about Ferguson.
There is not one right way to handle bedtime.
There is not one right way to deal with tantrums.
I do give advice here on my blog because there is some general advice that I think is generally good. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for you and your child and trust me, if you get in my office and talk to me I will know that.
Like bedtime routines. Generally speaking a predictable bedtime routine contributes to what sleep experts call “sleep hygiene.” Good sleep hygiene is important. However some kids need less predictable bedtime routines. Some kids with anxiety may become too dependent on predictable routines (such as kids who struggle with OCD) and so that general good advice doesn’t work for those families. Those families need something more personalized.
Or tantrums. Some kids tantrum because their parents are too lax. Some kids tantrum because their parents are too strict. Some kids just tantrum because that’s where they are developmentally and it has nothing to do with their parents.
If you come in and see me we’re going to spend at least the first session just talking about you and your child. I’ll have a lot of questions to try to get a picture of what your child is bringing to the problematic situation and I’ll want to know what you tried, what didn’t work, what sometimes worked and what was an unmitigated disaster. And we will revisit that as we go because we are always learning and working towards greater understanding.
We’re not just trying to solve this problem; we’re also trying to give you and your child insight for you both to take into the future. Part of this is building concrete understanding of our selves (parent and child, together and alone) and part of this is learning how to problem solve in a way that works for everyone in the family. That way when you’re looking at One Size Fits All Parenting (or other) advice you’ll know what’s worth considering and what’s not worth the bother.
And I’ll tell you what, the parents who come to see me often feel lost but they know so much more than they may realize when they’re peering into the murky crisis that brought them to my door. Sometimes the very first part of our work is throwing out all that unsolicited One Size Fits All Parenting advice (from friends, family and strangers) because that’s making the crisis even murkier.
“Shouldn’t she be past this by now?” they ask me.
“Why?” I ask back.
“Well, I read it somewhere/my mother told me/all her friends have stopped doing it.”
And yes, sometimes she should be past this by now and we’ll work on it but sometimes she shouldn’t be and that’s fine and once the parents know that they feel a whole lot better about it.
So. No one knows your child better than you do. I know that and if you’re doubting it, I will help you know that, too.
At the anxiety workshop we talked a lot about what’s normal and what isn’t normal and needs intervention. Sometimes it’s clear — your child absolutely refuses to go to school or your teen tells you she’s depressed and is thinking about hurting herself. But other times it’s more ambivalent. Are these tantrums normal? Is your reaction to them making things worse? Can counseling help your 7-year old’s struggles in school?
Here’s how to figure it out.
Are you or your child missing out?
Is the issue — sadness, anxiety, anger — getting in the way of your everyday lives? Do you find yourself spending more and more time trying to move from one place to another? Is she expressing frustration or sadness with how things are going? Are you?
This is the number one way to know that it’s time to get help. If you or your child are avoiding things, if the problem is disrupting the normal events in your lives, that’s the very definition of troubled. It’s one thing to be scared of dogs; it’s another thing to be so scared of dogs that your child won’t leave the house. It’s one thing to want to stay home from second grade; it’s another thing to scream and hold onto the door frame when your dad tries to move you out the door to the bus stop. It’s one thing to have a lousy day where your child falls apart at the zoo; it’s another thing when you can’t go to the grocery store because of your child’s tantrums in the cereal aisle.
If you find yourself living around your child’s challenges, it’s time to get help.
Are you at your wit’s end?
Do you dread confronting your child or dealing with transitions? Do you find yourself unhappy with your child more often than not? Are you losing sleep because you’re worried about her? Do you find yourself asking friends, relatives, strangers for advice?
Parenting is no endless ball of fun but most of the time it’s pretty good. We can all have bad days and even bad weeks but if you aren’t enjoying your child and your child isn’t enjoying you, you both deserve help. Parenting is hard but it shouldn’t be so hard that you find yourself crying or yelling at the end of the day. Counseling can help you have fun being a parent again.
Are other people expressing concern?
Is your child’s teacher sending lots of notes home? Are there people you trust who are worried? Do you find yourself constantly defending your child?
Sometimes other people can see what we can’t. I’m not saying that every kid who’s not clicking with her teacher needs help but if the teacher’s concerns ring true or she’s the last in a line of concerned people, it might be time to get a new perspective. If you’re not sure — is your mother-in-law’s criticism valid or not? — a counselor can help you figure it out.
It’s hard to know when we can handle what’s happening for our kids and when we need professional help. Fortunately you can call a therapist and ask her. Does this sound like a concern? How will I know when it is? What might it look like if we come in right now? Further, you can get help simply because you want it. If you use your insurance to pay for counseling you (or your child) will need a diagnosis but if you don’t use your insurance then you don’t need a diagnosis. (I do not take insurance and so I do not give a diagnosis unless it’s warranted and will serve the client. I’d say most of my caseload is made up of people who don’t necessarily qualify for a mental health diagnosis but do deserve and benefit from professional help. You can speak to the therapist you’re working with to learn more about diagnosis and treatment.)
You don’t have to figure this all out on your own.
(I’ll be writing more about kids and therapy this week. Stay tuned!)
(This is an edited repost from my defunct personal blog, which is why it references other posts from four years ago and Lost, for goodness sakes, like the olden days or something.)
Malinda posted about this parenting advice from Brian Stuy:
We have never brought up, unprompted, our daughters’ birth parents. We have discussed adoption, conception and pregnancy, and other corollary issues from time to time, but I have never, without having the subject introduced by a daughter, initiated a conversation by saying, “Do you wish you knew your birth mother?” Or, “Do you want to know more about your abandonment?” I have always indicated a willingness to answer any and all questions (not just about adoption but about anything), so I am confident my kids know that if they ask any question we will try to provide them with a good answer. But the point is, I wait for them to ask. Those that force-feed their children the deep issues of abandonment, birth parents and adoption, risk, I believe, getting the kinds of responses displayed above. In fact, by presenting the reality of birth parents before they are mature enough to handle it, for example, I think we risk diminishing our own position as parents to our children.
I was watching Lost on Tuesday, which is chock full of obvious and less obvious adoption issues and adoption cliches and stereotypes and I was thinking about how deeply ingrained our presumptions are about “real” parents and changelings and lost orphans and false parents. I was thinking about fairy tales and mythology and thinking that our collective unconsciousness already feeds us these ideas. (I am typing this to avoid spoilers.) It doesn’t matter if they are “true” or not — they are part of our belief system.
So unlike Brian, I think that even if we never ever ever breathe an unasked for word about our kids’ birth parents that our collective unconsciousness is already, in some ways, defining our own position as parents to our children. And our kids need to figure that out for themselves, which I think means we should be more explicit in welcoming that discussion. Not because we need to sway them but because we need to hear them out (or at least say to them, “I am bringing this up because I will hear you out”) so that they know whatever direction they choose, whatever belief feels like home to them, we will love them and accept them and never ever leave them. Even if they feel more attached to their birth countries, families and origins than they do to us. They may reject the “blood is thicker than water” belief system or they may not. But they will wonder about it.
Brian also says:
They might ask at that point if they were born of their adoptive parents, and that would be a good time to answer, “No, you were born to a woman in China.” That is the type of answer I would give. But many use this opportunity to go ahead and answer questions not asked and not even thought of: “No, you were born to a woman in China. She is your birth mother, and she wasn’t able to keep you, so she left you at the gate of the orphanage.” This is the type of over-feeding that overwhelms most kids, and creates, I believe, unnecessarily emotional issues.
There’s a third response, “No, you were born to a woman in China. What do you think about that?” or “How do you feel about that?” or “I know that might be confusing. Do you have some questions about that?”
I mean, culturally? We romanticize birth ties. I’m not willing to say that this romance is more true or less true. I’m not willing to say that it’s a cultural bias we need to question or reject or welcome with open arms. I think it’s one that’s interesting to explore and for any adopted child, it is an absolutely vital exploration because it is a conflict she is living and she will need to make sense of it in whatever way she needs to.
This is why we need to bring it up. We don’t say, “Hey, my lovely child, do you feel so much more tied to your birth mom than you do to me? Since she’s your real mother and all?” Instead we can say, “How did you feel when so-and-so was talking about this thing that might relate to adoption?” If I was Brian Stuy in a closed adoption from China, I’d surely say, “Sometimes I wonder about your birth mom. Do you wonder?” Because I would wonder. And if I’m wondering, it’s not such a far stretch to think that the child herself wonders.
I do not think that birth ties are any more magical and true than love ties but I do believe that birth ties are rich with meaning. I do think that in a culture that romanticizes our genetic origins that those genetic origins have an important weight.
For example, gender has tremendous cultural weight, agreed? We can say that gender is a social construct but it does not negate the weight of it. We can say it is a figment of our collective imagination and we can choose NOT to believe that gender matters. Individually, we can do that. But culturally, gender still has weight and our questions and struggle with the cultural construct of gender is practiced against the beliefs that we are questioning. Which is to say, no matter how much we choose to believe that gender does not matter for ourselves, it does matter. Our personal practice of gender exists in contrast to the larger cultural construct. In other words, Lady Gaga owes as big a debt to Phyllis Schlafly as she does to Madonna.
The good news is one of the best things you can do as a parent is really simple: Listen.
The bad news is that it’s also really hard because listening doesn’t mean:
- Giving unasked for advice
- Sharing unasked for parental wisdom
- “At leasting“
Parenting is pretty goal oriented. We spend a lot of time trying to help these kids grow up by teaching them, directing them and moving them forward. But sometimes when we do that, we’re stepping on their own trajectory. Sometimes we need to leave them alone to figure things out themselves.
That doesn’t mean we have to sit there doing nothing; it means sometimes we have to sit there and listen.
No advice. No fixing. No rushing to judgment. Instead say, “Uh-huh.” Or, “Really?” Or, “Tell me more.”
Use your words to join with them. Say, “That sounds hard.” Or, “How frustrating!” Or, “No wonder you came home so excited!”
If they try to get you to fix it for them, try handing it back. “I don’t know, what do you think?” Or, “It reminds me of that time you had that other thing happen. What did you do then?”
You may have to sit on your hands or do your Yoga breathing to keep yourself from jumping in. You may need to run a mantra through your head, “Don’t Talk Don’t Talk Don’t Talk Don’t Talk.” If you’re used to being a more active participant in the conversations, it’ll take some getting used to (for both of you).
I’m not saying that you should never ever ever give your child advice or help them more directly, but if you feel like you’re in the habit of leaping in during conversations, try hanging back and see what happens. It’s a simple (if hard) way to say, “I love you” without saying a word.
There’s this advice in all those lady mags, the ones that tell you how to get Thin Thighs in 30 Days and promise to tell you What He’s Really Thinking. The recommendation is to post a picture of yourself back in your thinnest days or pictures of women you wished you looked like up on your refrigerator so every time you go get something to eat you’ll be shamed away from the kitchen.
We act out versions of this all of the time. We berate ourselves for missing deadlines or for not getting chores done. We look at other people “for inspiration” but then play back their success to remind ourselves that we are failures.
But what if we decided to feel good about ourselves anyway? Even though it’s been more than 30 days and our thighs are not thin? Even though our carpets are not vacuumed and we turn in projects late? What do we have to lose if we liked ourselves anyway? What might we gain?
When I talk to clients about being kind to themselves they sometimes worry that if they take the heat off they will run roughshod over their own lives. They will eat M&Ms for every meal! They will stay in bed watching Jersey Shore reruns instead of going to work! They will leave the dishes in the sink FOREVER! Then sometimes they point to people who have done just that.
Well, I say, we’re not talking about those other people — we’re talking about you.
Most of us will get sick of M&Ms on our own. Most of us will also get sick of watching Jersey Shore episodes. And most of us will eventually do the dishes, even if we do them reluctantly. We will find our own best balance, which doesn’t necessarily need to look like anyone elses.
It’s easier to be good to ourselves when we feel good about who we are already. It’s easier to meet goals when we trust ourselves to meet them. Jettison the shame for the new year and you might be surprised at how far you can go.