By Dr. Amanda Stoner
It seriously is for me, the most wonderful time of the year. I love Christmas! And this year, I am feeling especially grateful for the gift of family. I am so excited to travel to Ontario where my family lives, where we will celebrate Christmas together. However, I realize that this can also be a particularly stressful time for many people, and I am not exempt from those feelings of stress. In some of our families, we are busy with work, helping our children with their own schoolwork, driving to extracurricular activities, buying gifts, decorating, planning, and attending get togethers with friends and family. Not to mention that this is our second holiday season during a pandemic, and we are still navigating challenges related to that. But perhaps even more profound than that, is the reality that for some of us, our families are experiencing feelings of grief after the loss of a loved one. Low-lying feelings of anger and frustration due to unresolved conflicts. Or maybe even a sense of pain and hurt after a betrayal of our trust. Maybe this is not a holiday season like ones we have known in the past. And maybe because of that, maybe even more so now than before, the children in our lives need our help. And despite the many uncertainties in life we face as adults, children can help ground us, and offer us a new perspective. I want to share a few thoughts about healthy family relationships, that might help us not just survive busy or difficult seasons in life, but also thrive.
Thought #1 is this: Children need love and limits. Rules and relationship. Many of you are likely familiar with the concept of authoritative parenting. On the one hand, love without limits is indulgent, permissive parenting, and it can lead to insecure attachment. A child without clear direction is like a ship without a rudder. They often experience considerable anxiety as they try to sail uncharted waters and navigate stormy seas, because they have been sheltered from anything potentially painful or upsetting to them. They may not even set sail! The fear of the unknown may keep them tethered to shore. They may receive unbecoming nicknames when they are young like “spoiled” or “rude” and as young adults they may be perceived as “entitled” or “disrespectful.” No doubt, dealing with a toddler or school-aged child or teenager or young adult who fares this way can feel stressful. It can create conflict when parents, teachers, or peers try to set boundaries, and it can make family gatherings feel uncomfortable.
When you provide a child with clear boundaries and enforce natural, reasonable consequences, you teach the child that there is freedom in choosing what’s right. The more your child learns to consider and weigh the outcomes of their decisions in your presence, the more they will internalize that principle and carry it with them where they go. The more you know you can trust them to make wise choices when you are not directly supervising them, the more freedom they are likely to have.
On the other hand, rules without relationship makes for an overbearing situation for the child, and the relationship may feel cold and distant. A lot of times, parents don’t mean to come across this way to their child, and they may not even realize that their child perceives them this way. Open the conversation with your child. Yes, it may feel awkward, and it might not come naturally to you. If that’s the case, you can reach out to a friend who you see connects well with their child, or you can reach out to a professional therapist for support. But your child needs you to reach out to them, even if it seems they are resisting you or pushing you away. Ask yourself if you have any “blind spots” concerning your child. Check in with them about their day, and then let them know you’d like to share a little about your day. Ask about their friends, what they like about them, and what is hard about their relationships. Ask about school, what subject they like, how they enjoy or don’t enjoy their teachers. How are they finding their responsibilities? What are the stressors in their life right now, and what coping strategies do they find helpful? Do they need any more support? The more you show your child you are there for them to listen to them, the more they will learn that you are dependable, someone they can count on no matter what. This provides our children with a secure base, from which they can confidently venture out, and to which they can confidently return.
Thought #2 is this: Empathy goes a long way. Self-regulation will be learned through co-regulation. Many times, as parents, we want to fix our kids’ problems. We are dealing with a lot of stress ourselves, and it can feel overwhelming for us to have to deal with our kids’ stress on top of that. Or we may minimize their stress because it seems insignificant to us. I remember when I went through a particular time of loss and grief when my kids were quite little, and I felt simultaneously grateful for my children as well as annoyed by what they complained about in that season of their lives. Didn’t they get it? I felt I had bigger issues to worry about. We sometimes want our children to have more logical or “grown up” thoughts, because we think that would help them handle their difficult emotions. But they need to learn to think this way, and we can teach them through patient modeling and instruction, and by helping them soothe their difficult emotions. There is, however, a time and place for cognitive strategies. If your kids come to you with questions and depth of thought, meet them there. Ask more questions to help you understand their logic and rationale. If, on the other hand, your kids come with strong emotions and intense displays of affect, meet them there. It might mean saying something like this:
- “I can see you’re upset.”
- “I hear the anger in your voice.”
- “I can understand why you’d feel afraid.”
- “That sounds really sad.”
- “I’m sorry you’re going through that right now.”
- “Can I give you a hug?”
If they’re operating out of the left brain (you’ll know because they will sound logical, linear, and linguistic), they can handle cognitive strategies such as thought challenging. You might say something like:
- “It sounds like you’ve really thought this through. I wonder if you considered this?”
- “Wow, I’m impressed, you have given a lot of careful thought to this decision. I have a few ideas I want you to think about too.”
- “What advice would you give a friend if they were in your shoes?”
If, however, they’re operating out of the right brain (you’ll know because there will be a lot of emotion, intuition, and physical sensations), you will need to address how they feel first. They will likely require strategies that are more physical, that appeal to a feeling of calm and safety they can experience in their bodies through their senses such as seeing a gentle expression on your face, feeling a loving touch from your hand, or hearing a soft tone in your voice. Once you feel you have connected with them where they began, then you can move into helping them consider the other side of their brain. Once emotions have begun to settle, you can ask questions to help them consider the situation more logically. Once they have expressed their argument against your rule or your position, you can ask if they’re ready to consider how this makes them feel or how it might make you feel. Empathy might feel like it takes too much time, but it will save time in the end, and it will help your child have a more integrated brain, that is better at problem solving and showing emotion in healthy ways. You’ll notice that this requires you to be self-regulated to help assist your child in their own regulation. Maybe that will be another blog post!
When you love a child, you naturally want to set limits to protect them, both from actual physical risks, as well as the considerable disappointment and frustration they feel when they make mistakes that are avoidable. If self-regulation is learned through co-regulation (especially when children are young), then self-discipline is learned through external discipline. The discipline you provide involves consequences, but it does not only involve consequences. It can simply be defined as teaching. When kids are little, they need you to set the boundaries clearly, with a simple explanation of why it is right or wrong, including what they can expect when they stay within the circle or when they step over the line. As my kids have grown, I have taught them that “when you use self-discipline, I don’t need to discipline you as much.” “When you limit yourself, I don’t need to put as many limits on you.” For example, a few limits in our family surround the use of screens and the amounts of sweet treats they are allowed to eat, which in my view, are things that can be good and fun in moderation. However, I have seen the meltdowns that occur and the hyperactive behaviors that ensue, when they have too much screens, or too much candy, or too late a bedtime. Because I love them, I set limits. As kids grow, their brains develop, and the frontal region becomes more mature and better at self-regulation. We need to support children when they are young, and we might manage and oversee more of their decisions, but as they grow and mature, they can take on more responsibility to evaluate situations, weigh the possible outcomes, and make their own decisions. Part of their independence and autonomy, too, is being able to decide to what extent they want to be dependent on someone. The more you prove your dependability through trustworthiness, the more they will want to turn to you.
Which brings me to Thought #3: Trust is based on truth, not perfection. This is a concept I am really passionate about. And it works both ways, in the sense that children will let you down, and you will let your children down, which can make it feel like the trust is damaged. But it can begin to be rebuilt through honest and open communication. You don’t have to be a perfect parent, in fact, as I’m sure you’ve figured out (?), you can’t be a perfect parent. But you can say what you mean, and you can mean what you say. You can apologize when you get it wrong. My kids have heard many apologies from me, which tells you something about how often I get it wrong! (And I actually try to frame my apologies according to The Five Languages of Apology, which is a book that I have found to be a helpful resource for relationships.) Similarly, children and teenagers are still growing and developing. They will mature, but they won’t become perfect. Many teenagers I talk to feel there is a lot of pressure to meet their parents’ expectations. Reassure them of your love which is unconditional, but your expectation that they will be truthful with you. When they are truthful, you can trust them. When you can trust them, they will get more freedom. Many teenagers want more freedom and independence. But they still need to know there is someone who deeply and unwaveringly cares for them and their well-being, which sometimes comes in the form of a firm, “no, I love you too much to let you go there” or “no, I don’t want you to drive in their car tonight, but I will take you.” Their friends will come and go. Your child does not need another friend. They also don’t need a parent who says, “I told you so.” But they need a parent who tells them so in advance, then allows them the freedom to make their own choices, and who is going to love and support them no matter what.
So, what does love look like to your child? This is a question I often ask my young clients. What is it about their parents that assures them they are loved? The Five Love Languages of Children is another helpful resource, which will shed new light on understanding your child’s love needs. Some kids respond better to physical affection, others to thoughtful gifts, some to acts of service, some to quality time, and others to words of affirmation. Maybe your child enjoys elements of all these languages. So, study the children in your life while they have a few weeks home from school, and determine how you can best show love to them this Christmas season. What a gift!
Now’s a great time to consider too, what do limits look like in your family? Limits are not in opposition to love. They are a great expression of it. In my family, this has been something that we’ve had to discuss and revisit over the years. Rules we had for our children when they were toddlers and preschoolers (e.g., hand holding while we cross the street, no hitting others) have changed now that they are school-age and entering adolescence. We still value safety and respectful treatment of others, but the rules look different. And they will continue to change. Of course, there will always be family non-negotiables. Establish these, discuss them with your kids, and be consistent with them. It helps to think about what values you have, and what values you want to instill in your children. For example, if you value honesty as a foundation for trust, then you will want a rule around telling the truth even if it means getting in trouble or possibly hurting someone’s feelings. Just tonight, my 8-year-old daughter came to me and confessed she listened to 10 additional minutes of an audio story when she was only supposed to listen to 30 minutes. I thanked her for telling me the truth, and I gave her a big hug. Tomorrow, she will lose 10 minutes (which she may or may not have a reaction about!) but in several days, we’ll be heading to Ontario where her Grandma and Grandpa, and her Nana and Papa, will give her another big hug, and she will put a huge smile on their face. Our celebration won’t be perfect. But it will be joy-filled.
In keeping with our theme at Simply Counselling, I hope these are some practical strategies you can use. If you would like to talk more about parenting or family dynamics, please give us a call. We offer counselling services for individuals of all ages and stages of life, including family sessions. We’ll look forward to meeting you!