Tools to help you consider your child's future in your parenting choices By: Dr. Erica Wollerman
Often when I am working with parents we think and talk a lot about what is going on RIGHT NOW. Usually that is because many of the parents are coming to me for help because they are struggling to know what to do with their child, for a multitude of reasons. We then work on different strategies that can prevent the issues the family is having and ways to react when those issues do come up to be most effective as parents.
My interventions usually incorporate these steps 1.Increase structure and boundaries in the family 2.Provide appropriate consequences and rewards 3.Build communication between parents and child 4.Increase understanding of the child’s needs and particular areas of skill deficit.
The approach that I take is firm yet compassionate towards the child and conceptualizing many of the challenges they experience as a skills deficit, rather than a character deficit. Often, the kids are just as unhappy at the way things are going as the parents are! I repeat as this is often missed, the kids do not like the way things are going either but just don’t know how to be more effective in the way they interact and cope with the world.
This particular component of my approach is key. I think it is very important for all of us to recognize the fact that we will most certainly fail sometimes and make lots of mistakes. That includes the kids and teens in our lives. They are human and will totally screw things up sometimes. As the adults in the situation, our job is to help them recognize the mistake, understand that mistakes are normal and not the end of the world, and walk them through the steps to do better next time. I think often we get caught up in the idea of always doing our best and that this must mean that we are perfect in that moment. People can be 100% doing their best but still totally mess up or not do what they know they SHOULD be doing and this does not mean they are not trying. It just means they are human and there is a lot of space between knowing how to do something and actually doing it. Typically, I see this space as ambivalence and work with people in a particular way so as to help them resolve their ambivalence and take steps towards change.
So, back to the topic at hand today. Do you know where you are going? I like to help parents think about what their choices will mean for their child’s future. For example, if you decide to give in when your child complains about a consequence, consider what this teaches them and if it is teaching them the skills you would like them to learn. Consider, what lesson are you teaching by giving in? What will happen the next time you give a consequence if you go this route in parenting? Are these the parenting decisions that will lead to your children being effective, productive, and compassionate members of society when they are adults?
These questions are so important as they help put things in context. I think it can be extraordinarily helpful to always try to consider the future and take the emotions out of some of the parenting choices you might make. Perhaps you can sit down with your partner or just with yourself and really think about what you want for your child in 5, 10, 15 years and how your choices can help them get there. The following steps and examples might help you identify some areas you would like to make changes in or just help you start thinking in this way and brainstorming your own ideas!
1. Set goals for your child (not specific goals but general life goals are usually best to focus on). Some examples include:
Being able to be successful in a job/career
Having happy and healthy relationships with a significant other
2. Think about what skills your child needs in order to accomplish their goals.Some examples include:
Understanding cause and effect (breaking rules will have consequences at work too!)
Ability to be responsible
Being patient with other people and understanding their needs too
Showing up (emotionally and physically)
Engaging in the world we live in (not just the one on our screens!)
Persistence, hard work, or "grit"
3. Consider what you can do as a parent to help your child accomplish these goals… this might include the following:
Model patience in the way you interact with people in front of them as well as manage your frustrations effectively around them
Apologize when you are wrong and not showing them this is the end of the world. We all need to own our stuff and our mistakes!
Give consequences – we need consequences to understand boundaries as well as cause and effect principles
Be really present for your child – ask them how their day was and really listen and try to engage them in a conversation about it, put down your phone, turn off the TV, etc. Just be there with them and hang out with them doing whatever it is they want to do sometimes. This way they understand how to connect without all of the technology and hopefully will talk to you about the important stuff after you’ve spent time investing in all the things that are seen as less important to adults (but not to kids!).
Give them responsibilities – chores, jobs around the house, jobs in your business
Model helpful ways to cope with failure - continuing to try to attain goal, working on strategies to change outcome, etc.
These are just some examples to get you started on thinking about how you parent and what you are modeling and teaching your child through your actions. So often, we can change a lot in our families and our child’s behavior simply by changing our own actions!
I’d love to hear how you are implementing these ideas or your thoughts about them! Feel free to comment on the website or follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest!
By: Dr. Erica Wollerman I was reading through a wedding planning book this past weekend and came across this quote: you’re not broken, you’re human. It was in the context of discussing the disappointment we experience when our expectations do not match the reality of our situation, particularly with weddings. This quote really resonated with me, because I think so many of us have piles of unrealistic expectations and ideas of what life “should” be like that make us feel that our lives do not match up to some preset ideal. So often we feel broken or wrong in some way because we do not match society, our friends, the ideals in movies or TV, or our families view of what life should be like.
Expectations are a common topic in my office with my clients because often our unrealistic expectations lead to unpleasant emotions and relationship conflict. Big events and topics such as marriage, relationships in general, having children, careers, etc. seem to be areas where we judge ourselves the most harshly by others’ expectations and standards. I believe that this has a lot to do with how much we are told by others what things need to be like in order to be successful, happy, the best, etc. While some of these messages certainly come from our families, friends, and messages we heard throughout our childhood, they also come from what we witness in the media. The media seems to infiltrate everything about our lives and is just so easily accessible for people to use it as a point of comparison. There is an entire industry around getting people to believe that they need more things, beauty, money, etc. in order to be truly happy, beautiful, and worthy. While I appreciate our culture, I think that the consumerism that we are all exposed to has a dramatically negative impact on our mental health and overall well-being.
Another huge area that I find people experience a lot of feelings of unworthiness, judgment, and self-criticism is when our expectation of how we think we “should” feel in certain situations does not match how we actually do feel. For example, one of the most confusing times for people is when they have conflicting or uncertain feelings about big life events such as graduation, a promotion at work, having a child, a relationship, retirement, etc. Many people seem to think that these events only will come with positive or happy feelings. Then when they begin feeling other feelings, uncertainty, anxiety, fear, upset, sadness – the conclusion is that they are somehow defective and wrong in the way they feel. The reality is that there is nothing wrong with feeling however you feel in a given situation. Our feelings are what they are and they often can be surprising and different than expected. Once we stop shaming ourselves about them, we can use them more effectively as cues to our environment and lives.
I still remember one of the most difficult transitions in my life, graduating from graduate school. I remember that most of the people around me assumed that I was excited and happy but the reality was that I was totally freaked out about the next steps in my life. Even as a psychologist, it felt uncomfortable to have others assume what my feelings were and then to either go along with it or correct them. It’s hard to tell people we are not feeling what we are “supposed” to feel! I think it is important for all of us to take stock of the fact that there are no right or wrong feelings in a given situation, there are just feelings. Some may be unexpected but they are all there to help us learn something, even if they are uncomfortable or unwelcome to us.
Often I find that our expectations serve as ways we attempt to make a complicated world simpler. Unfortunately, this only alienates us further from ourselves and can shame us for experiencing the world in the way that we do. Learning to untangle our internal values, feelings, expectations, and preferences from what we have internalized from others is an important skill to begin developing. Re-defining our expectations is something that I work with my therapy clients towards and can benefit all of us dramatically. A fantastic step is simply to acknowledge what you are experiencing and that it is a disappointment related to unrealistic expectations.
Tips in working through unexpected emotions and managing expectations:
Acknowledge your emotion or your experience as it is as well as identify how it is not living up to your expectations.
Try to evaluate what the expectation could be related to in your life. This is typically a fear or doubt that relates to our self-worth. For example, when I was feeling like I “should” have been excited about graduating rather than nervous and downright terrified, this related to a lot of doubt about my ability to sustain my career and be financially successful. This could also be something about what others have done that we assumed was the “right” way (Ex: I’m having kids because my parents did and other people do).
Once you understand where your expectation comes from you can evaluate if it is an expectation you want to hold for yourself and if it fits with your value system.
Once you understand and can identify the feeling you are having, invite it in and try to understand what it is there to show or teach you.
Remember: Fear, anxiety, uncertainty, discomfort, sadness are necessary parts of change, even positive change. Lean into these feelings! You will be amazed at what will happen when you stop allowing discomfort to guide your choices and decisions. It can be so empowering!
The most important point of this blog is to remember that there are no hard and fast rules in life. As much as we want to make rules to organize ourselves (this is what we are programmed to do!), life can really be anything we want it to be and it does not need to match up to preconceived ideas. If we can surrender to this and let go of some of our expectations, I think many of us would experience less disappointment and more overall life satisfaction. Just remember that when your life, experience, or feelings is not measuring up to your expectations that you are not broken, you are simply human.
So it’s Monday evening and I realized that I had not done my blog for the week. I even began this blog (in an initial draft) by saying that my post is a little late! Then I reflected on the reasons why I feel this way and mostly it is my own expectations that I have set for myself. In beginning a new business, I have lots of weekly goals and expectations for myself and overall, they help keep things structured and keep me motivated. (One of which includes doing a blog on Mondays). However, I also can end up feeling as if I am never doing enough if I do not meet or exceed my own expectations each week. This strong work ethic is the reason why I tend to be successful in school and work but sometimes it certainly does get in my way when the expectations become more unrealistic. Sometimes I find myself adding a lot of pressure to always do more and more and more. Owning my own business has really exacerbated this tendency. So much so that I find myself working as much as possible, even when it might not be needed or productive and I might need a break.
Interestingly enough, as a psychologist, I also fundamentally believe in the need for balance. One of the biggest lessons of graduate school was the benefit of leading a balanced life. I know this sounds a bit odd because graduate school is certainly a stressful time for most people. For me though, it was a time to really dig in and reflect on what works in my life to maintain balance and my own emotional health. This is so important and often referred to as “self-care” in our field. I believe that it is crucial for anyone, but particularly those in a helping profession, to figure out what they need to operate as their best selves. If we do not do this, we truly can’t be as effective in how we help others. For me, my self-care usually involves some time for pleasure reading, walks by the beach, time with my loved ones, and cooking.
While I was reflecting on my week last week, I recognized my need to slow things down and regain the balance that I usually have in my life. I have certain warning signs that tell me that my life is a bit out of balance. Sometimes I notice that I am working more. Sometimes I notice that I am neglecting to see my friends and loved ones. I usually start feeling more fatigued and just worn out. And recently one of my signs has been that I am always either doing something for my business or towards planning my wedding! And yes, while my recent engagement is beyond thrilling, it has certainly disrupted the balance I have been seeking and sometimes even found in the past few months as a new business owner! All my constant researching, looking things up, and planning (for business and the wedding) left me feeling more worn out and less motivated to work on my smaller goals with marketing, networking, and administrative tasks. Luckily, I do not feel worn out from my work with my clients as I truly love what I do!
When I noticed that I was running on empty, I set a whole new goal for myself. Don’t worry, it’s not another unrealistic perfectionist goal though. My goal for the weekend was to take the weekend off from work (apart from client contact when needed of course). When I found myself and my energy wandering back to my work, I simply redirected it in another direction and added whatever I was thinking I “should” do to my to do list for this week while keeping realistic expectations.
I found this to be extremely helpful to recharge my batteries and reclaim some balance. One of the most rewarding experiences for me is when I allow myself to take a step back, re-evaluate my needs and current situation, and take action on it! Today, I woke up feeling refreshed and more energized than I was last week, which was so worth putting my perfectionistic side of myself on the shelf for the weekend.
I have a few take away pointers from this experience that might help you work on achieving balance.
It’s okay to take a break, even when you have a lot going on in your life. Recharging your batteries is more important than almost anything else!
Allow yourself the time to reflect on how things are going in your life. This is where it is really important to let yourself have some quiet and solitude to really reflect and get in touch with how you are doing.
Reflect on how you are spending your time and if it is reflecting your needs and values.
Having a self-care plan that you can use consistently and work into your daily routine can be really helpful.
Even really happy and exciting things can be draining so you might need to step away from it from time to time.
When you are a person who is hard on himself/herself (like me!), sometimes enough will never be enough in your head. This means you have to gauge “enough” by more than just completing a to-do list because your expectations and to-do list items will be impossible and unrealistic.
Contrary to what I seem to illogically and irrationally think - the world did not fall apart, my business did not end, and nothing on my to-do list was tragically dropped because I took a break. All in all, things improved because of it!
Thanks for reading! I hope this post can inspire others to work on how they define "enough" in work and life and increase their self-care!
A large part of the work that I do with families and parents is working with people to improve their co-parenting. This is a topic that comes up frequently with almost all parents, not just those going through divorce or separation. For married couples, the issues center around the parents struggling to agree on what is best for their child/children. Typically, both parents are trying to do the best that they can to help their child, have very different ideas of what the “right” decisions are, and struggle to compromise in these areas because they are so committed to their child’s well-being. These issues become even more complicated during times of transition, separation, and divorce. Parents who present for co-parenting support following or during a divorce are generally much more emotionally raw and vulnerable due to the relationship issues they have been facing. This can make it very hard to receive and integrate feedback about almost anything, but particularly parenting because it is an area that brings up insecurities for a lot of people.
Most of the parents I work with feel that they are failing as a parent. This makes it challenging to hear feedback about their parenting because they are already primed in their heads to think that they are just a terrible parent! Therefore, anyone who is asking for support and help deserves respect just for taking such a difficult leap. I believe that it is very brave to talk to a professional about any areas you feel you are having challenges in, particularly parenting. Though parent consultation can be a very vulnerable process, it can also be very rewarding when you work with a therapist who helps you change your parenting style to improve your family situation.
The following tips are strategies and suggestions to help parents who are entering into parent consultation gain as much as possible from the experience.
Listen and Reflect: Try to just hear what the other person is trying to communicate to you, without defensiveness or instant judgment (of yourself or anyone else). Be curious about what they are saying by asking yourself some key questions: Could what they are saying be true? Could it be helpful to try doing something different? Is what you are doing working? Do they truly seem to understand your situation and have experience or expertise that makes it likely they can help?
Express Yourself: In parenting work with individuals and couples, it is SO important that you share your opinions and beliefs. I always tell my clients, if you do not agree, say so and let’s figure out another way to do things! There are usually a lot of solutions to help families/parents and the process of working on parenting can be very collaborative and rewarding if you are able to express your thoughts and feelings.
Be Patient: The issues that led to you seeking parenting help did not come up overnight (typically) and they will take some time to resolve. Unfortunately, there are not many quick fixes for parenting and discipline issues and it takes time to set up new patterns in a family.
Focus on What You Can Change: Basically, there are some things that are impossible (or really difficult) to change such as basic personality traits and the mismatch of personalities that sometimes happens within a family. However, there are a whole host of things that you can try to work on such as communication style, coping skills, structure of the family life, etc. This is good news because it means that there are changes you can make that will likely benefit your family! Focus on the outcome of the changes (that it might make things better) rather than on the fact that you feel you were doing everything “wrong” before. Kids do not come with instruction manuals so it is impossible to know what the “right” things are all the time.
Go Easy on Yourself: Parents are extraordinarily hard on themselves about parenting. Again, kids do not come with a manual and NO ONE always knows that they are doing the “right” things as a parent. This is an area that automatically brings up insecurities so try your best to focus on the fact that you are trying. Some days that’s all you can do!
The above tips will hopefully help you to engage in the parent consultation process and can make it a little less challenging.
Now let’s move onto some co-parenting tips. Remember these apply to any people raising children together (married, divorced, remarried, etc.) though some apply more to high conflict marriages or divorce.
Talk to your child positively about the other people involved in your family. Try to avoid negativity about the other people involved with your child – this can even include professionals such as teachers, schools, tutors, and coaches. This will help provide a unified front to your child which is really important to reduce their ability to play different parents (or parents and teachers, schools, coaches) against each other (which by the way almost all children try to do!).
Try to be consistent. Please notice I said try. No one is able to be consistent 100% of the time because that is not really human, that is more like robots! Just try to be consistent in that if you make a promise, try to keep it. Your child needs to know you keep your word and that they can rely on what you say. Also, try to be consistent with the other parents involved – the more you can have unified expectations, values, and consequences the easier everything will be particularly if the child transitions between homes.
Be mindful of what your current struggles are and your motives in sharing information with your child. For example, if you are struggling with divorce or even just arguments with your significant other, please try not to bring your child into the middle, ask them to choose parents, speak to them about the other negatively, or over share about the situation. This one is really hard in high conflict divorce situations where you may feel misrepresented by the other parent. However you view the situation, please shelter your child from the ugliness that sometimes happens between adults. I often hear from parents that they want to be “honest” about everything that happened and while I understand that, remember that honesty about affairs and other marital issues does not benefit the children. The motive for most people when sharing this type of information is selfish in nature.
Do not assign fault to the divorce or the arguments. Venting should not happen with your child but with your friends or other supports in your life. It helps to assist your child in seeing that arguments and difficulties in relationships are the responsibility of both people involved rather than making the other parent(s) out to be the bad guys. This will help your child to take accountability for their part in relationship challenges also. Never divulge information the child does not need to know and that will damage their relationship with the other people involved in their lives.
Avoid arguments in front of your child. Again, this goes for couples who are still married or those who are divorced. Research shows that conflict predicts negative outcomes for children, regardless of marital status. Additionally, many of the children I work with express concerns that if their parents argue, they will get divorced. If you are having a hard time delaying arguments until the child is not around, please seek out professional help to help you with your communication patterns and relationship.
Listen to your child. This is so important in any family. Particularly if your family is going through a transition, separation, or divorce you need to give your child time and space to share with you what they think and how they feel about the situation. While this does not mean you have to “fix” everything they are concerned about, you can still be there for them to validate their feelings and let them know you are there for them. For example, it is okay as a parent to hear your child’s disappointment that you and their father are fighting often and say, “I know that must be hard for you. It sounds like you feel scared when we fight and we can both try our best to work on not fighting as much.” But it’s also okay to tell them, “I know that you want mom and dad to get back together, that makes sense that you want that but I just don’t think that is going to happen right now. I know it’s hard, it’s hard on us too but eventually we will get used to this. No matter what though, I will always love you and be here for you.”
Those are some of my basic co-parenting suggestions for situations that come up most often in my practice. Please feel free to add your own to my list! Just remember, no one has parenting all figured out but the most important thing is that you are trying your best with the information you have!