We parent our kids to help them grow into the people we hope they can be. We parent them to be their best selves, to be the most resilient, to be successful (however we define it), to be loved and we make most of our decisions based on the future we want for them. That’s the point of parenting, right? To prepare our children for the future.
Well, kind of.
Even as we work to prepare our kids for their somedays, we also need to parent for today, right this very minute.
Many of the kids who come to see me have said things like, “In first grade they told me I needed this math for second grade and in second grade they told me I’d need this math for third grade and so on all the way up to high school, which they tell me is going to prepare me for college. But what about now? Can’t I just be in the now?”
In truth, now is all we have. We don’t know what will happen ten weeks, eight months or six years from now. We don’t know what the economy will look like or what the most in demand job skills will be or who our children will settle down with (if they settle down) or anything else. We are making our best guesses and we need to do that but we also need to remember that this moment is just as important. This moment, this interaction, it matters for its own sake and not for what it might owe to a future we can’t even see clearly.
Some of us are so future-focused that we start parenting from an urgency that makes our children’s simple mistakes or struggles seem overwhelmingly scary.
Sometimes when I’m working with a parent trying to help them understand why an issue feels so consuming — a child who sleeps through her alarm or who is struggling in his friendships — we follow the path all the way to a very specific fear. What if her inability to get up on her own will ruin her career because her boss won’t put up with her being late all of the time? What if his problems on the playground mean he’ll end up in an apartment with 43 stray cats and no one to call when he’s lonely?
Those often unspoken outsized fears can make it hard for us to allow room for developmentally appropriate bumps and bruises. If everything — future partners, future careers, future success and happiness — seems to depend on the SAT scores we may forget that there are other things to learn here, too. Things like preparing for big tests, dealing with pressure, confronting uncertainty, etc.
When parents allow their imaginations to run away with them — when they let themselves do it out loud instead of ignoring the fear so it sets up camp in their deep dark worries — then we can talk about it more realistically. Sometimes a slept-through alarm is just a slept-through alarm. Sometimes it is its own problem to be solved instead of a symptom of a greater issue.
And if there are greater issues at play, it makes more sense to focus on the moment as we contemplate our options than to let our fears take us down the road to hopelessness. Because this child, sleeping through her alarm, is just as important as the adult she will someday be.
There is not one way to be happy or successful. There isn’t one path to a really good life. We may get only one shot at a specific opportunity (winning the 5th grade spelling team or qualifying for the Olympics) but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other opportunities waiting for us.
It can be a tricky balance to both grow kids for the future and be here with the present child in front of us at the exact same time. But the dual perspective is necessary both for our child and for ourselves, so we don’t miss what’s happening right in front of us while we are looking out so far ahead.
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!)
There’s a lot I don’t know and knowing what I don’t know is a big piece of being a good counselor. One of the most important things I do know is that I can’t make sense of anything without context.
Because I work with kids and parents, people sometimes assume I must have hard and fast rules about what makes for good parenting but hard and fast rules only work on paper. In real life, we make decisions in the context of our histories and our current experiences. We are making big, well thought out decisions and we are making quick, on-the-fly decisions. Those decisions never happen in a vacuum so when people say, “Is this a problem? Is that a problem?” I have to say, “I don’t know. Tell me more.”
Before I meet with a child for the first time, I meet with her parents. We talk about what’s going on and we talk about what the parents have tried already. We talk about what works and what doesn’t work. Parents are sometimes apologetic or defensive when they share one parenting choice or another because parents (unfortunately) are used to being judged. But I don’t judge parents. My job is to understand them and understand their goals and to understand their children so that I can help them live out those goals and to support their children.
Let’s take spanking for a very heated, very emotional example. I know great parents who spank and I know terrible parents who don’t. I can’t really tell anything about a parent or about their child or about their struggle when I hear, “I spank my kids.” It’s just a single choice in a sea of choices so when I hear a parent say, “I spank my kids” I want to know more about that. Why? Is it a knee-jerk reaction? A considered decision? Under what circumstances? What is the child’s reaction? What is the parent’s reaction?
This is how I approach all of those hot button issues: co-sleeping or crying it out, homeschooling or not, time outs or non-coercive parenting. I want to know what these decisions mean in the context of that family. How did those decisions happen? How do those decisions support or undermine the family’s goals? Do the parents feel their choices are working for their children? For themselves? Is it time to consider new options?
When I make recommendations, I make them in front of a background of what the research says, what I know from personal experience and from talking to lots (and lots) of families and — most importantly — I do with respect for the child and family in front of me. I may push parents to reconsider some of their previous choices but I will do it with respect for the values that drive those choices.
A long, long time ago in my parenting (not professional) life, I got in a friendly argument with another mom about whether or not kids should be “made” to do something they didn’t want to do. My friend said, yes, of course, because we all have to learn to do things that we don’t want to do. I said, no, of course not, because none of us does anything we don’t want to do so what we need to do is help kids figure out how to motivate themselves do the yucky stuff.
OK, it was kind of a game of semantics but kind of not. I really don’t think anyone — kid or adult — does anything that they don’t want to do so the key is helping them want to do it.
All of us do things because:
- We enjoy doing them;
- We enjoy the results; or
- We want to avoid what will happen if we don’t do them.
We clean our houses not necessarily because we like cleaning; we clean them because we like clean houses.
We go to the dentist not because we love going to the dentist; we go because we fear what will happen if we are lax in our dental care or because we love the feeling of having shiny, clean teeth.
We pay our electrical bill not because we like writing checks to the utility companies; we pay because we don’t want to lose our access to electricity.
When it comes to our kids, figuring out what motivates them — and helping them figure out what motivates them — is better than “making” them do whatever it is that we want them to do.
Many parents use incentives to help motivate kids, which may be a good short-term strategy. But it’s important to understand that extrinsic rewards — such as a new toy or a shiny quarter — wear off. Outside payment, otherwise unconnected to the behavior you want to encourage, operates under the law of diminishing returns. Eventually, if the child doesn’t figure out how to motivate herself, she’s going to demand more of a pay-off.
I encourage parents to see the extrinsic pay-off as a bridge to an intrinsic reward. In other words, instead of putting stickers on a chart so the child can buy a bigger event (a new Lego kit or a pizza party) or to count the number of dollars they’ll get at the end of the week, use the chart to keep track of their accomplishments. Some children will find a (mostly) full chart reward enough and that pay off — the satisfaction of seeing all of those stars lined up, proof of their hard work — can help them start to internalize the good feeling of a difficult job well done.
Parents also use natural (or unnatural) consequence. You know, clean your room or lose your Xbox. Get up on time or miss the bus. Natural consequences make sense; buses are actually missed when people oversleep. Unnatural consequences can make kids dig in their heels. A child who isn’t convinced that room cleaning is really necessary may just see the punishing parent as the bad guy instead of understanding that it’s their behavior driving the problem. So if you do take away the Xbox, make sure there’s a way for the child to earn it back. Instead of an arbitrary number of days, return the console when the room is clean.
Kids — like the rest of us — don’t get good at stuff over night. It can take years (seriously) to grow a child who can keep her room clean without nagging. You may have to harangue your son or daughter about homework for most of their school years. But don’t lose heart! Remember that you’re building a long-term habit here; the habit of helping them find what motivates them.