All of the time I am uttering, to anyone that will listen, about my desire to be a better parent.
I want to yell less.
I want to be more present.
I want to think before I react.
I want to be more empathetic.
I want to make so many changes to how I mother, but find it so tricky to actually implement any real change each day. Instead of improving the kind of parent I am, I see myself either complaining about my children or blaming them for the daily challenges we encounter and the stress I feel that inevitably follows.
Johnny just doesn’t listen.
Sally has an attitude problem.
Mary is just a bad kid.
Well, actually — NO.
Johnny doesn’t listen because he sees me not listening. I don’t listen to him, so why should he listen to me.
Sally doesn’t have an attitude problem, she is just feeling age-appropriate emotions, and I am not helping her define, explain, and sort through those.
Mary is not a bad kid. There is no such thing as a bad kid. Mary is merely making bad decisions either to get my attention or because she lacks guidance and direction, which you guessed it, should be coming from me.
What am I doing wrong?
Stephanie Owen, LMFT seems to have the answer, and it’s most definitely one I am on board with.
In her book, the PARENTING shift: a practical guide to creating lasting change, Stephanie speaks to all of us well-meaning parents who feel like we are working so hard, but not doing enough. Her book is a quick, engaging read and does a fabulous job of supporting parents on their journey to be happy individuals and better, more effective guardians and models for their children.
I had the pleasure of connecting with Stephanie about her book, and I took that time to ask her a few questions. As a mother of three, who very often feels like I am not a ‘good enough’ mom, my questions below are embarrassingly honest, and her responses are so genuine and helpful.
Here is our Q&A:
Q: You quote Bevan Lee, an Australian writer and producer, in the first chapter of your book. You note his contention that ” ‘I am’ [are] two of the most powerful words; for what you put after them shapes your reality.” I could not help but immediately translate this into how us parents speak to our children. We are constantly telling them:
“You are being bad.”
“You are not listening.”
“You are driving me crazy.”
In your book, you do a fantastic job of explaining to us, parents, what is wrong with “I am” statements, but could you please elaborate on what is wrong with my aforementioned “You are” statements. How can I combat those? Sadly, they seem to spew out of my mouth pretty regularly.
A: Great question! “You are” statements are just as limiting and confining. While “I am” statements are core beliefs about yourself, and by living with those core beliefs every day, you’re giving them power every time you find “evidence” to confirm them. When you think, “I’m a bad mother,” and find yourself forgetting their lunch at home or mixing up their after-school schedules, you’re choosing to connect those dots and strengthen your “I’m a bad mother” self-belief. The same is definitely true for “You are” statements. When you say to your child, “You’re bad,” you’re actually creating a double-belief, as I would like to call it — you not only believe that statement to be true about your child, and now, you’ve created your child to believe the same about themselves.
Children are ALWAYS being shaped by how their parents and caregivers perceive them and they are always making inferences about how they belong in the world. In Positive Discipline, which are the principles from which I practice, children are making sense of who they are through feeling a sense of belonging and significance. So, when you’re labeling your child a certain way, you’re teaching them that they don’t fit in. You’re teaching them that something is wrong with them to their core. They don’t have the self-awareness or emotional intelligence to decipher that you’re most likely saying “You are” statements because you’re angry or frustrated with their behaviors at that moment. They take those statements to heart if they’re not taught that they are SEPARATE from their BEHAVIOR, which is what is “bad” or “driving you crazy” to begin with. So, this is where if you find yourself making those blanket statements, it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge any generalized statements, which usually involve the words “always” or “never.” Once you’re self-aware, set your ego aside and make a choice to let your child know that you made a mistake and, the key part to remember is to separate themselves from their behavior. Try to use as many descriptors to describe their negative behavior, because, how else will they know what they did wasn’t appropriate? It could sound like, “Honey, I’m sorry I said you are being bad. What I meant to say was I was angry when you threw your plate on the floor. It’s disrespectful to throw things when you don’t get your way, even if you’re angry. Let’s figure out a different way you can handle it next time.” This example was tailored for children in elementary school and would be adjusted as age-appropriate. For younger kids use shorter phrases and for older kids allow room for more discussion. You’ll notice the example gave an opportunity for both you and your child to view them as separate from their behavior, as well as a chance to repair your relationship.
Q: About parents managing our expectations with regard to ourselves, and those we have for our children and situations, you note that “trial and error” is a good thing because it means we are taking action–action, even if incorrect, that we can learn from. Often, this daily cycle of trial and error is exhausting and emotionally depleting. How can we realistically combat the inevitable state we often reside in of feeling simply “worn out”?
A: It’s so true. As a parent, there’s an overwhelming feeling that you’re not doing “enough” because, well, having so much to do paired with often feeling underappreciated results in a constant state of exhaustion. So, what actionable steps can you take to combat this? It might seem counterintuitive and yet, accepting that this is EXACTLY where you are is an important first step. Having self-compassion with what is, versus expectations of what you think it “should” be (or “shoulding on yourself,” as I mention in my ebook). You can’t be anywhere else than where you are right now. Say yes to what is. Once you’re here, you can relax into the moment just enough to observe the situation for what it is. Now, THIS is the space from which you can LEARN from all your trial and errors. Because it IS exhausting when you keep trying so many different ways of approaching a situation with seemingly few results. After all, those trail and errors are meant to teach you something about yourself and what your child may be needing. Listen to that feeling of “worn out,” it’s telling you to slow down. When you cultivate a habit of stepping back to learn about what is and isn’t working, it is only then that you can make a more informed decision the next time you “try” something else to change their behavior and your response.
Q: You seem to state that having “micro-gratitudes” are important. For someone like myself, that struggles with the whole positive self-talk and affirmations thing because it makes me feel a bit silly to be so “mindful” at times, how can I make sure that I incorporate micro-gratitudes into my day and remain comfortable?
A: You’re right, most habits we begin seem “silly” and awkward, after all, you’re new to practicing them in your life. Same often feels safer than anything that’s different, which mostly gets linked with discomfort. Even more so, it’s challenging to see HOW actions like micro-gratitudes make an impact if we’re not aware of their effect. If we were working together, I’d ask, “If feeling happy/fulfilled as a parent is important to you, what’s one small step you can take now towards that goal?” Now, you might come up with many other ways than gratitude that will bring you closer to a place of feeling more positive, and that’s wonderful, because, at the end of the day, it’s what works best for you. If you’re open to new ideas, which you mentioned you are, incorporating micro-gratitudes is a powerful way to increase your happiness set-point. It shifts your mindset to release endorphins that lower stress, depression, and anxiety.
While positive self-talk (ex. Today is going to be a great day) and affirmations (ex. I accept others as they are) are just as influential, they do come with a weighted sense of responsibility to uphold each thought. Hence, why I advocate using micro-gratitudes as an approachable way to positively gain a different perspective on your current situation. Using the thought process of finding the “at least,” as I mentioned in my ebook, changes your brain chemistry to search for what is happening even a LITTLE better than what it could/should be. For instance, your daughter tantrummed AGAIN at dinner at the restaurant when she didn’t get her way. Shifting to a micro-gratitude of “At least she tantrummed less than she did last time we were out.” Or if your son didn’t want to do his homework when he got home from school. “At least he brought home his homework this time instead of ‘forgetting it’ again.” When you’re even ONE step closer towards how you envision your parenting, your family, your relationship, your _(fill in the blank desire)_, you can see that progress is happening, and yet it’s a matter of noticing it.
As for other ways you can incorporate micro-gratitudes into your day, it can be helpful to create the habit in sync with something you already do (ex. wash the dishes, take the dog for a walk, morning coffee). When you condition yourself to pair a thought process with an action you already do, you can set yourself up for success. Even if it’s one small micro-gratitude a day, you can feel that much lighter knowing that things are getting that much better. Start with the leading question, “What is my one micro-gratitude today?” I would love to know what shows up!
Q: I love how you talk about the need to “replenish” ourselves with self-care. I also feel it is imperative to replenish our children. As their parents and life-guides, we spend so much time on educating them, teaching them, instructing them and of course, telling them “no,” but I also desire to replenish my children’s hearts. I want to do things that make them smile and that fill their souls. It’s hard to do this when you yourself need replenishing. Could you offer up some ideas for ways or activities that could serve to replenish both simultaneously? Is that even possible?
Stephanie Owen has been practicing as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Positive Discipline Educator and parenting coach for over ten years. She’s the founder of Motivational Parenting and author of the PARENTING shift. Stephanie integrates her clinical knowledge of child development and research-based strategies to improve family relationships in a positive way and earlier on through guided one-on-one coaching. Book a FREE 20-minute phone consultation here.
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