By Dr. Claudia Black, Meadows Senior Fellow, adapted from her book Straight Talk
There is no such thing as perfect parenting, but there is good enough parenting. As we mark another Parents Day at the end of July, may the following words support you in being that good enough parent on that day and throughout the year.
Affection, Support, and Affirmation
Children of all ages need parents to sing their praises. Children of all ages need their parents to applaud them for just being and to give them feedback about what they like about them. Parents need to be specific with children about the characteristics they value in them, such as their humor, their creativity, and their thoughtfulness. Unfortunately for some children, the only validation they may receive is in taking care of another family member, staying out of sight, or being part of image management for the family to look good and bring validation to the parents.
Try this exercise…
Identify five traits or qualities you respect and admire about each of your children. Try to focus more on who they are rather than on what they have done. For example, you may say, “I am proud of my son for being a good ball player.” What is it about him that makes him a good ball player? Is it his sense of dedication, his willingness to be a team player, his self-discipline? Or you may say, “I am so happy my daughter is a good actress.” What is it about her that makes her such a good actress? Is it her creativity? Is it her ability to listen to others and be empathetic to them?
The challenge of demonstrating love is in not just showing it when your kids get good grades, when their rooms are clean, or when they bring the car back on time, but in being able to experience unconditional love when none of the above is true. Do not confuse the idea of loving your children with loving how your children behave. Now is the opportunity to distinguish between their worth and their behavior. While the behavior may not be lovable, the child is.
Try this exercise…
Name each of your children and answer the following questions:
- In the past week, have you told each of your children what it is you appreciate or love about them?
- If your answer is no, is this something you are willing to do now?
- If not, what is getting in the way?
If you have a problem expressing love and appreciation, talk to a trusted friend, a counselor, or a sponsor. When you begin this practice and it seems to flow, you can do this on a daily basis.
Now list six ways you demonstrate love toward your children.
- Which of these behaviors have you demonstrated in the past 24 hours?
- Which of these behaviors have you demonstrated in the past week?
(If you have not demonstrated such behavior within a week, this should be a wake-up call.)
Saying “I Love You”
Parents need to say, “I love you,” and they need to say it often. Children need to hear you say, “I love you.” You are trying to say that in your behavior, but they need to hear the words as well. If saying “I love you” is difficult at first, it should get easier with practice.
When people have difficulty sharing intimately, they often create excuses such as “Oh, I am sure I’ve told her I love her. Why do I need to say it again?”Saying “I love you” validates your children for their very presence and creates intimacy between you and them. It is not the same as having loving feelings or doing loving things for your children. Children need to experience love in many ways, including being told.Tell them because you want to, because it is what you are feeling, period. Avoid connecting it to something your child has done.
“I love you” is a complete sentence. If it is difficult to say, write it down and leave it under your child’s pillow, under a magnet on the refrigerator door, or in a book he or she is reading. Be creative and enjoy the process. There are also other ways to impart this endearing message. As you say goodbye in a telephone conversation, include “I love you.” When you drop your child off at school or work, say, “Love you.” Or when your child goes to bed, it can be a part of saying good night.
You must also be empathetic to the child who has heard these words so many times and wasn’t able to trust your sincerity. In a treatment program, a father sitting across from his 15-year-old son said, “I love you, Derrick.” Derrick looked at his father and simply said, “Don’t tell me that anymore; show me.” That is hard for a parent to hear, but this young boy had heard “I love you” before. He heard these words when his father was loaded and after his father had been absent for days and now in treatment. He interpreted these words as a way of saying, “Don’t be angry with me.” He felt his father was not being sincere and not really thinking about Derrick.
Words have little meaning compared to behavior, so if “I love you” was freely expressed but associated with being under the influence or unhealthy behavior then this is an area where your child may need more time so that he or she can trust those words.
Sometimes, particularly in early recovery, you may feel like you don’t know your children. Or as they enter their teen years and begin to assert their independence, they seem like someone you don’t recognize.
Try this exercise…
Name each of your children and then answer the following questions for each child.
- What facts do you know about your children?
- What are their likes or dislikes? What do they like to eat? What music do they like? Do they like to be outdoors or indoors? What do they like in people?
- Who are their closest friends?
- What do they like and/or what are their challenges in school/work?
- What have they been challenged with in life? Be aware that you may be one of their greater challenges, but others could be school, friends, or possibly a health issue.
Parents communicate with their children to teach, guide, console, achieve closeness, and plan and accomplish the practical necessities of life. Capable parents regulate what they say and how they speak to their children. Conversations are clear, flexible, open, and responsive. In the past, it is possible that your children experienced your communication as curt and withholding or you spoke with no regard for being understood or for understanding anyone else. You may have given out too much information. Communication was more likely to have been lecturing, blaming, dismissing, and often shaming.
As a consequence, your children may not have learned to ask for their needs to be met or they just took what they could or went without. An adult son of an addict said, “My father would come home from work, eat alone, go to his computer, where he would spend the evening, and then go to bed. Another young person said “I would hear people describe my father as a quiet man, but really, he was a rejecting man. My brothers, sisters, and I were all subject to his punishing silence, his silent rage.”
James doesn’t remember being genuinely interested in listening to his kids from the time they were very young, and he knows there were times he belittled them and was extremely critical of them. Dillon says he was a lecturer to his children with no regard for what any one of them said. Dina said she basically pleaded and whined with her kids just to get them to do things.
Listen to find out who the other person is and what he or she has to say, not to formulate your defense. Maintain healthy boundaries and protect yourself as you listen by determining if what is being said is true, not true, or questionable. If what you hear is true, take in the information without interpreting it as a statement of your worth. Experience your feelings about what you hear. If what you hear is not true, acknowledge your feelings about it, then strive to work through your feelings, reminding yourself, “This is not about me.” If what you hear is questionable, ask for the information you need in order to decide if it is true or not true.
When blaming, preaching, or lecturing, sentences invariably begin with “You . . .” Simple, yet not-so-easy steps to better communication are “I” statements. “I saw …,” “I felt …,” “I thought …,” “I heard ….” Remind yourself you are speaking to be known. It is interesting to note that when speaking from a position of “I,” it automatically shortens your verbal discourse, which is usually helpful in being heard as well. If you find you can’t speak from the “I” perspective, you may want to say nothing until you can.
Maintaining a Positive Family IdentityThe foundation of a healthy family identity is a shared feeling of pride and kinship. Parents and children share the following beliefs:
- Home is a safe, welcoming place.
- We have a past that is a source of strength.
- We like each other.
- We trust each other.
- We enrich each other’s joys and support one another in times of sorrow.
- We can communicate with each other.
Children raised with addiction and mental health issues in the family often see themselves as alone and physically separate from the adults in the family. These children may feel isolated and crushed when their parents mishandle celebrations. For some, family gatherings merely intensify each other’s misery. Family traditions and rituals are not about feelings of pride. Celebrations are often cold and meaningless, angry or chaotic, or overlooked and ignored.
Healthy, functioning families take deliberate steps to cultivate and pass on a positive identity to the children. Healthy families keep traditions and form family rituals. Children in such families see themselves as part of a unit larger than themselves and take pleasure in belonging.
Try this exercise…
- What are the traditions or rituals in your family?
- What is the focus of these rituals?
- What do they say to your children?
- What feelings do they evoke?
Review what you and your family do for birthdays. Is each child acknowledged on his or her birthday? In what manner? Are special birthdays singled out for added celebration, such as becoming a teenager or an adult? Is this something to which you would like to give greater consideration? Do you have daily family rituals, such as in the morning? After school?
At dinnertime? At bedtime? With the busyness of our culture as well as families in trouble, children growing up often describe family members just heading out in different directions in the morning, after school, and maybe even at dinner. As one young girl said, “We took our food from the stove and each went quickly to our own rooms. At bedtime, we each just disappeared.”
When healthy rituals are lacking, they need to be created slowly with input from the kids. You could use the idea of creating rituals, particularly around a holiday or birthday celebration, as a topic for a family meeting. In the case of individual birthdays, you could ask each child what he or she would like that would create feelings of being special. It will take time for certain rituals to evolve as you try different things. Don’t try to change everything immediately. Be open to gradually building from year to year.
Having a healthy ritual around meals, even if once a day, in and of itself is critical. A mother told me that her 21-year-old and 24-year-old sons told her one of the best things she and her husband did when they were growing up was to insist that they eat breakfast together each morning. In this case, breakfast was simple. Everyone put together their own meal, but they all sat at the table at the same time to begin the day.
Research has told us that eating dinner with your children six or seven nights a week and turning off the television during dinner substantially reduces the risk of children smoking, drinking, and using drugs. Given the change in our culture with the use of technology, I would suggest that mealtimes be an all-media-free zone.
It is very likely you have some healthy rituals in your family. So, embrace what the family appreciates and be open to creating new rituals both between individuals and the whole family unit. Be creative and get input from others. Take it slowly and keep it simple.
To have a relationship with your children, they need your love and your time. Make both a priority.
Are you looking for ways to parent with more intention? Check out our Purposeful Parenting Workshop at Rio Retreat Center. This weekend workshop is for any parent who wants to take a more intentional approach to parenting, looking at who they are and the experiences that continue to shape how they parent and what they’re passing down to their kids.