Being a parent can be a remarkable, inspirational and rewarding experience, but it is one also fraught with uncertainty. How do we nurture and protect our children without smothering them? How can we stop our own hangups from getting in the way of our parenting? How do we help shape these little humans we are responsible for into caring, well-balanced adults?
We asked Dr. Jillian Roberts, a renowned child psychologist, author, professor and mother, to share her thoughts on how we impede our children’s growth and well-being, and what to do instead.
Being a “lawnmower” or “snowplow” parent. Slowly disappearing are the “helicopter parents,” who hover around their children, micromanaging their lives every step of the way. Instead, there is now an alarming increase in “lawnmower” or “snowplow” parents, who clear their children’s paths. They are always one step ahead of their kids, clearing any potential challenges their children may come across. This presents itself as trying to get their child extra time for exams, schmoozing the College Admissions Counsellor with fancy dinners or even applying for jobs on their behalf. When we clear the paths for our children, we rob them of the opportunity to build and foster resilience. You’re teaching them that they’re incapable and need you to get through life. Children need to learn how to problem-solve and regulate their emotions, both positive and negative; otherwise, they will give up every time they encounter a problem because they will not know how to cope. This both denies them ownership over any possible successes and causes them emotional pain, potentially leading to depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. So, how do we avoid this? If you aren’t already, start by encouraging your children to help out around the house. If your child seems overwhelmed by, for example, your request to unload the whole dishwasher, ask them to do the cutlery. It is never too late to start fostering your child’s resilience and incrementally prepare them for life’s inevitable challenges.
Not incorporating your child’s temperament into your parenting style. While the vast majority of parenting techniques work for most children, as parents, we must be cognizant of the fact that our children are “little humans” first and foremost. They have various personalities, gut reactions, and overall temperaments just like we do. Sometimes parents can make the mistake of thinking that there is “one right way” to do something. This isn’t the case. In fact, when we give our children the chance, we are often shocked and amused at how creative, enthusiastic, and unconventional their thinking can be. As we age, our environment and culture slowly push our out-of-the-box thinking into the more constrictive box of modern society and social norms. People that continue to resist these pressures are often the ones who succeed – maintaining their individuality and strengths by continuing to think outside the box. We want our children to embrace what makes them unique, both because this will help to foster their overall mental wellness, but also because it will help them succeed in whatever they do. Be mindful of their typical reactions to conflict. Do they retreat to their room to be alone? Do they meet their frustration with anger and physical violence? By getting to know your child’s reactions, you can start to try to understand their subjective world and come up with the most beneficial solutions to their distress. For example, rather than forcing your child to return to the play area when they want to retreat, reinforce to them that having alone time is good for us, and sometimes we need some time to collect our thoughts before we problem-solve. Honour their personalities, embrace their unique qualities, and encourage them to handle life’s problems in the best ways for them.
Thinking your child is “giving you a hard time.” If you feel your children are giving you a hard time, you need to remember that they really are having a hard time. Reframe your thinking to recognize this. Children need to develop their emotional regulation skills, and it is our job to guide them in learning how to do so. Empathize with and validate their feelings first, reinforcing to them that having emotions is normal, before addressing the problem itself. Constantly reminding ourselves of this can help us foster understanding in our children and model how to be kind, empathetic beings. They are often already highly skilled at this. If we don’t validate their feelings, they may proceed through life thinking something is wrong with them for feeling certain emotions. This can lead to feelings of isolation, helplessness, and low-self esteem, to name a few.
Not talking to your kids about the “hard stuff.” Again, children learn by example. If we ignore the tough topics such as sex, death, or violence, we are teaching our children that these things are not okay to talk about. Not bringing these topics up regularly and cultivating a healthy conversation about them communicates that if and when your children have questions about or are struggling with something serious, they can’t talk about it with you. Most parents would say that they want their children to feel comfortable bringing anything to them, and we need to ensure that our actions support our words. No matter how awkward or uncomfortable it may feel for us (we may, in fact, harbour some traumatic memories from our own conversations with our parents as children), we must remember that by talking about these issues, we are giving our kids permission to bring up tough topics in the future. The same goes for our own emotional expression: talking to our children about how we are feeling sad or stressed tells them both that emotions are a natural part of life and deserve to be honoured and understood. Giving them permission to talk about the “hard stuff” with us helps to prevent any shame and guilt that may otherwise arise.
Not admitting our own imperfections. Whether we like it or not, our behaviour acts as a model for what our children believe is the right way to act. The outdated, self-deprecating saying, “Do as I say, not as I do,” describes this perfectly. Saying this after knowingly setting a bad example does not absolve you of responsibility. This does not mean we must be perfect – no one is. Rather than telling our children to blindly listen to us, and trying to sweep our mistakes under the rug, we need to teach them that everyone makes mistakes, and that is okay. What matters most is that we learn from them and try not to make the same one in the future. Admitting to our children that adults make mistakes too is essential for fostering their resilience by teaching them to bounce back and that you can always start again.
Dr. Jillian Roberts is a renowned child psychologist, author, professor and mother. She is the co-founder of FamilySparks, an award-winning company that offers families a supportive, resource-rich community to help them navigate our increasingly complicated world. Dr. Roberts has recently launched her new book, Kids, Sex & Screens: Raising Strong, Resilient Children in the Sexualized Digital Age, a book for parents seeking to help their preteens navigate our hypersexualized world.