Connected Parenting: Thoughts From a Therapist Mom
The other day I stood in my driveway crying, with my 2.5-year-old daughter screaming and sobbing. All I could gather was that she didn’t like my shirt (yes mine, not hers… what?) and no longer liked her car seat. We had just had a 30-minute meltdown inside the house too, and I was frustrated because I really needed to get to work. I was tired, with a mix of mom brain and new pregnancy hormones. I bribed her with a sucker and threatened to take away something that I don’t even remember. It didn’t work. I gave her hugs and gave her space and had no feedback of which was better. Finally, it became clear: my options were to connect or disconnect. I thought about which one I would want when I feel emotional and sad. Connection. I repeated quietly to her, “I’m right here with you. I love you.” When she hit me, I stepped back a little and said, “I can’t let you hurt me. I’m still right here with you. I’m ready to help you whenever you’re ready.” After a little while, I thought, “Crap, that didn’t work, now what?” And right then, she lifted her little arms up to me and said, “I need you, mommy, I’m ready.” I hugged her and she hugged me and I cried some more. I felt a real connection at that moment, and I felt like I really showed her that I would be with her through everything, and I also wouldn’t let her hit me. I honestly felt like we’d just gotten through a hurricane and come out into the sunshine. She smiled and got in her car seat and we were on our way. On the car ride, we talked about feeling sad and that it’s okay to feel sad and mad, but it’s not okay to hurt people.
That sounds like a great ending, right? It was. But I wish that meant it always happens like that. I have no idea why sometimes that works, and sometimes the only thing that works is a sucker, or distraction, or someone else taking over.
I’m not a perfect mom, or even a really amazing mom, just a regular mom who is still new and learning every day. But I do have one added bonus that has given me a different perspective: I’ve been a mental health therapist for almost five times longer than I’ve been a mom. I don’t know if it’s been helpful, or just makes me more obsessively worried about my effect on my daughter, but it has taught me a lot. I would say there are four main things I’ve learned about parenting:
1. What we say and do matters more than we know right now.
Everything we say and does has an impact, especially on our children. Children’s brains operate as if they’re looking into a mirror; whatever the world shows them about themselves is what they believe to be true. If babies are not fed when they’re hungry, they can actually make themselves believe they don’t need to eat, which is why they eventually stop crying. I know you already know to feed your baby when he or she is hungry, but the takeaway is that our actions actually have an effect on their brains long term.
As a therapist, I mainly work with depression and trauma. I do a particular type of therapy that focuses on identifying negative cognitions (thoughts and beliefs) and exploring/healing the root of those beliefs, whether they are from a big trauma or ”little” trauma. We work on cognitions such as, “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not safe,” “I don’t deserve love,” etc. Clients often come to therapy identifying that these beliefs stemmed from a big event, usually in high school or college, like a break up, abusive relationship, loss of a job, assault, etc. But when we really process it, they are sometimes able to identify that the very first time they felt that way was an interaction with a parent. It could be a parent saying something like:
“I liked it better when you were little and didn’t talk.”
“You’re never going to make it in life.”
“I can’t believe you did that, I’m embarrassed that you’re my child.”
And even, “I love you, but I don’t like you right now” (I always recommend, “I don’t like your choice right now, but I always love you.”) If you’re a new mom gazing in to your sweet baby’s eyes, you’re thinking, “I would never say those things to my child!” Let me tell you, good parents sometimes say things they don’t mean when they’re pushed to their limits. But even if you don’t mean it, it hurts your child and sticks with them.
2. It’s never too late to make things better.
That first one is kind of scary, right? So much pressure! But there’s good news! Teaching your children that you can make mistakes, take responsibility, apologize, and demonstrate change is extremely important! And what better way to do that than by example? Starting when they’re little, it’s important to go back and say something like, “I yelled when I felt mad, and I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled and I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” Then show by example that you’re trying. Next time you feel like yelling, it’s okay to take a parent time out, and say to your child, “I feel frustrated by _____, I’m going to take a break, and then we’ll come back and talk about this.” Imagine how great it would be if, when they’re teens, they’re able to recognize they’re in the midst of making a bad choice, stop themselves, and reach out for help from you? The goal isn’t for people to never make bad choices, it’s to be able to recognize that and make a U-turn.
3. Connection is our greatest tool
Imagine you’re having a really tough day. Maybe you made a mistake at work, someone was really mean to you, you didn’t get something you wanted, or you’re just dealing with something really awful. Maybe it’s huge or maybe you’re even overreacting; it doesn’t matter. You sit on the couch and cry. You can’t even help it, the tears just come out and you can hardly speak. Imagine your partner comes in, your main support person, and they tell you that you need to calm down or they’re going to leave you alone until you can calm down. They walk out of the room and leave you there alone, maybe even yell at you on the way out. Ouch!! I know for me personally, some of that sadness would turn to major hurt, resentment, and anger. “How can you leave me when I really need you? I can’t just calm down, I need a hug!” That’s how our developed adult brains react, so imagine how a toddler’s brain reacts? It’s scary for them to feel out of control and then all alone in that feeling. Even if it’s just because they didn’t get the blue cup, it’s real sadness and hurt at that moment for them. Of course, they don’t know that not having the blue cup is nothing compared to the real problems in the world, but at two years old, that is a real problem. This has been said by others, and I really believe it to be true; if we send toddlers to be by themselves and calm themselves down when they’re upset, how can we expect them to come to us as teens when they really need advice and support? It’s no wonder teenagers keep it to themselves and hide in their rooms. It’s what they’ve often been taught to do. So, what can you do to connect and teach your children they can talk to you? Well, that’s a magic answer that really needs a whole book, but #4 is a good start.
4. Being able to express feelings, instead of suppressing them, is a great lifelong skill.
They all seem well-meaning, right? But are they helpful in the long run? My opinion is: No. Is it helpful for you when someone says it to you? It’s not helpful to me. Even at two years old, if my husband or I say to our daughter, “You’re okay”, she quickly says between tears, “No, I’m not!” And she’s right. If she were okay she wouldn’t be crying! If she could just calm down and stop crying, she probably would have done that, because she certainly isn’t enjoying feeling like that. Pointing out to children, “It looks like you’re mad because _____. That’s okay to feel mad. What can we do that will help?” teaches them to recognize emotions, label them, and create a plan. This is most helpful when they’re not in full-on meltdown mode because once they get to that point they can’t come up with a solution. In meltdown mode, establishing expectations and connections are key. “I can’t let you hit me, but I’m right here with you when you’re ready.” “I see you feel sad, that’s ok.” “It’s okay to be sad and mad; it’s not okay to be mean to other people when you’re sad or mad.” “Tell me where you want me to stay while I wait for you to be ready for help; I can sit next to you or right over here.” These all show that you’re there with your child through everything, you see how they’re feeling, you hear them, it’s okay to feel any of those feelings, and there are still expectations for not hurting others. When we inadvertently teach our children that “it’s ok” when they actually don’t feel ok, or that they just need to quickly calm down, we are teaching them not to recognize their own feelings and actually deal with them. When those kids become adults, they often freeze or flee in tough situations because they don’t know how to be in it, feel it, and move forward with a plan.
I know, this feels like a lot of pressure, and it’s so much easier said than done! Refer back to number two; it’s never too late to make things better. And remember, even people who are supposed to be experts in emotions and connections sometimes just bribe their kids with a sucker or an episode of Doc McStuffins to get through the day. Take a deep breath and hang in there; I’m right there with you.
About the Author
Alyson Pearson is a mom, half of a lovely marriage, and a clinical social worker/therapist. She has a two-year-old daughter and another girl on the way. Alyson believes in a positive parenting style, and has read the first 40 pages of several books on the topic, but believes that trusting her gut, defaulting to connection, and learning from every moment are the best teachers. Alyson also enjoys blogging about her journey of having a child with Food Protein-Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome, in order to help others who are on the same journey.