In my quest to convey ideas and advice that make raising children both easier and more enjoyable, I rely on feedback. The questions, comments, and personal experiences parents and professionals share help me learn how to communicate respectful care practices more clearly and effectively. I’m guided by hearing what resonates, shifts perspective, and what helps people get unstuck or turn a corner.
I recently had the pleasure of engaging in a teleconference with a dynamic group of parents, educators, and university students from South Carolina. One of the participants, Cat, wrote to me afterwards with a list of the points she found “especially freeing” in caring for her intensely emotional, strong-willed daughter.
Thank you so much for your conference call with the parents and students yesterday. I am Cat, the mother of the five-year-old who asked the question about her strong moods and the need for empathy. I have often felt when reading parenting advice that the ideal Zen parent described is so far from who I am. But your humorous, compassionate, and clear approach in the conference call was very empowering for me. Today, when my daughter had her inevitable meltdowns on the way home from school, I was able to give her space to express that (without taking on the emotions myself). The result was a really happy kid once we got home; she seemed reassured that I wasn’t rattled by all her dramatics.
I was so pleased by my own level of calm, loving acceptance because I find it difficult sometimes not to get too involved in those emotions. Thanks for the suggestions and the encouragement in the phone call. I enjoyed the whole conversation, but I found a few points especially freeing:
1) I don’t need to empathize, but merely acknowledge/accept.
This is a difficult shift of perspective for a parent, but wonderfully freeing when it clicks. Children, particularly those with a strong will, tend to have overblown reactions to seemingly minor events, especially when they’re tired or experiencing any kind of stress. What’s important to keep in mind is that often their intense feelings aren’t actually about the event itself. Rather, the event serves as a catalyst that helps children release other stored feelings. Their reactions might not make a bit of sense to us, so it’s difficult to authentically empathize. That’s why I encourage parents to focus on simply accepting. Acceptance relieves us of the responsibility to do something about the feelings. Instead, we passively trust them and allow them to be cleared, normalizing this healthy process for ourselves and our children.
2) My daughter’s feelings are likely strong rather than deep (and usually connected to fatigue, hunger, stress, rather than to whatever topic she’s shouting about).
When she mentioned her daughter’s “deep feelings” on our call, it sounded like Cat might be misreading these feelings as cause for major concern or action on her part — that her daughter had a serious problem she needed help with rather than normal, healthy venting that Cat could trust, allow, and accept.
3) I can and should set boundaries based on my needs/wants, which I articulate calmly and firmly to her.
Yes! Parenting is a relationship between two people with equally important needs, though only one is the leader. With a healthier perception of her daughter’s emotional reactions as something to be welcomed rather than feared, there is no reason for Cat not to fully own her space in the relationship and stand up for herself. When setting boundaries with a strong-willed child, we can expect a lot of venting and backlash. It’s all good.
4) Consequences should ideally be logical ones, emerging from the situation.
In a respectful parent-child relationship, consequences are not used as tactics or punishments. (“If you don’t clean up, no dessert tonight.”) Instead, they are honest expressions of our own limits and boundaries and, therefore, they build rather than erode trust. (“If you can help me clear up these toys, I should have enough time to make the apple crumble for after our dinner. Maybe you’d like to help with that, too!”)
After agreeing to my request to share her note, Cat added:
It’s amazing how freeing it is to not feel responsible for a child’s emotions and also to view her meltdowns as a positive sign about the security of her relationship with you. Yesterday, when she was melting down on the whole drive home, I was thinking, “She needs me to be her safe space,” instead of, “Oh, my God, what’s wrong with her?!” That cognitive shift makes it so much easier to be serene, even when it’s taxing.
Thank you so much, Cat!
I share more about parent-child relationship dynamics in No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
(Photo by Sara Prince)