Parenting is not easy; in theory we all know the parent we want to be. But in reality, when one of your children hits a younger more helpless sibling we jump to despair because they keep doing it, and we fear we are getting it wrong. (Or worse there is something wrong with our child.) Or your child has their 17th meltdown for the day over the way you cut their toast and it’s like some kind of poltergeist takeover happens and next thing you are yelling “GO TO YOUR ROOM.” It’s a bit of a cycle, because we wind up regretting it, and promising to do better but it seems to happen again and again.
It’s like whenever our kids are at their worst - our logic, creativity, and compassion leave the room and we seem to match them.
It’s not a poltergeist of course, it’s our subconscious brain going into fight, flight, or freeze. It’s doing this because the emotions and behaviour being let out by our child are making us feel unsafe. This is because these feelings in us most likely made our own parents feel unsafe, so we learned not to show them. This is called ‘meta feeling’ – or how you feel about feelings - and it is playing more of a role in how you go in these tricky moments than anything your child does.
It’s not that parents need more knowledge or education around what they should be doing. They have that coming at them from every direction, it’s that the ability to catch our automatic programming, or subconscious brain from taking over ‘in the moment’ is a hard one to teach, and practice. This practice though, is the real work of parenting:
Learning to manage our own emotions, while our child does the very natural and essential job of feeling, and and communicating theirs. That is where the real work of parenting lies.
The key to catching the ‘poltergeist takeover’ lies in the ability to pause, to regulate ourselves, and in having the ability to offer empathy to ourselves and our child. But this is easier said than done, and sometimes we need a technique, or a hack – to help us.
One of the best techniques that has helped me in my parenting not to ‘lose it’ with my four kids in these moments is an idea that I got from Brene’ Brown. The idea is to try and think about the most generous interpretation we can make about our child’s behaviour: We see our child hit their sibling, and when our mind goes (very naturally and easily) to the worst possible interpretation of that behaviour aka “this kid has been sent to earth to test me, and is likely headed for a life behind bars”…. We pause and ask ourselves one question:
‘What if my child is doing the best they can?’
This question creates space, and an opportunity to make the most generous assumption possible about our child: “I wonder what happened to make him hit because I know he wants to be a good kid…... and it can be so hard to be a big brother”.
It works for all situations….
Least generous interpretation ➡️ Most generous interpretation
My child is so lazy ➡️ Maybe my child is tired.
My child is selfish ➡️ It’s really hard to share toys, my child is learning.
My child is so disrespectful or defiant ➡️ my child is a GOOD kid having a really hard time.
The beautiful thing about this concept is it allows us the ultimate pathway to self-compassion, because the natural on flow of our child doing the best they can, is that we too as parents, are also doing the absolute, best we can.
The problem with the inverse; of thinking the worst of our child, is that it leaves us thinking the worst of ourselves too – and this strips us of our calm, our confidence, our compassion, and our creativity. It has our child, and us feeling like we are not good enough…. This can lead to blame and shame, and a cycle where we feel stuck.
Parenting is hard, the modern world we are parenting in is more complex than ever, the village has changed, the information overload is real, and we are being harder on ourselves to get parenting right than any previous generation. Generosity towards yourself, and your child may just be the ultimate pathway towards being the parent you want to be.
Next time tensions start to rise in your house and you notice that all too familiar feeling of worry, fear, and doubt popping up, try asking yourself “what if my kid is doing the best they can?” and notice where it takes you.
Gen Muir is Parent educator, maternity social worker and mum to four boys with a passion for helping parents in to understand behaviour and emotion in kids.
With the experience of working with over 40,000 parents though her work at the Mater and privately, Gen has a great understanding of the real challenges facing modern parents.
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