The exhausted parent
Parents’ confidence can be fragile. Terrance demands macaroni and cheese every night, so Beth prepares two separate meals for the family. At bedtime Terrance commands Ronald to read five bedtime stories and then instructs him to say goodnight to each of his stuffed animals. The ritual takes 90 minutes and Terrance screams if Ronald doesn’t comply. Ronald and Beth haven’t enjoyed uninterrupted sleep for years because Terrance insists on sleeping with them when he awakens in the middle of every night.
The overwhelmed parent
Kenny orders Maritza to do laundry daily so that he can wear the same pair of clean black pants to school. He orders her to buy a chocolate croissant on the way to school every morning; otherwise he declares he’ll stay home. Maritza moans that she feels like a weekend prisoner in her home because Kenny refuses to get dressed all day.
The suffering parent
Aaron lies down on the playground and releases blood-curdling screams when Sharon says it’s time to go home. Sometimes Aaron kicks her in the shins when Sharon announces his play date is over.
How did your cute toddler become a demanding, picky, and unruly child? This behavior is affecting your confidence as a parent.
Confusing parents’ authority with being a mean parent
Your parenting style is influenced by your family experience and by culture. Research suggests that children’s behavior is related to permissive, authoritative, authoritarian, and uninvolved parenting styles. While there’s no best style, parents’ reluctance to assert their authority may ironically bring out a child’s insecurities.
Understandably, you don’t want your child to experience your authority as mean, strict, punitive, and unloving. You have a negative image of an over-controlling, parent and you’re determined not to become that kind of parent. Your fears have led you to avoid asserting
your parental authority. You just want your child to feel loved and it hurts you terribly to see him angry.
A child’s needs
You are the foundation of love and security for your child. As he encounters new learning and social experiences, he needs to know that the world won’t overwhelm him. As you teach your child how to tolerate disappointments, you also teach him how to soothe himself when something doesn’t go his way. Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut described this parental responsibility as providing “optimal frustration”. When you allow your child to experience a little disappointment, you’re helping him build essential life skills. The world doesn’t always go his way but he’s not defeated. You don’t want to protect him from all disappointments.
Your child needs you to offer him opportunities to make decisions. He also needs you to set limits. When he’s testing his new powers, he will be comforted by the limits you set even though he may protest them in the moment. He will feel safe when he knows that you’re strong enough to withstand his protests.
Your child needs you to help him learn that decisions have consequences. He needs you to offer him age-appropriate opportunities to make decisions with clear consequences for his poor choices. In all, he needs you to provide structure so that he will feel secure in his expanding new world of school, friends, and neighborhood. You are his firm anchor.
Children who have difficulty tolerating the normal stresses of development act out those feelings with toddler-like tantrums by kicking, screaming, and hitting. They’re expressing fear and anger because they feel vulnerable and they want you to feel what they’re feeling.
When your child has public meltdowns and is rigidly demanding at home, your child is communicating that he hasn’t been getting something he needs from you.
Restoring parents’ authority
Restore your authority as the parent by focusing on interactions that are repeatedly difficult, for example: getting ready for school in the morning, dinnertime, bedtime, transitions between activities, and ending playdates. What is your ideal vision for your child during these times and activities? Hold onto that vision. Develop a plan with achievable steps that will allow your child to feel your firm and loving presence.
Consistent structures around homework, dinner, and bedtime will reduce your child’s anxiety because the expectations become predictable. Establishing reasonable routines will help your child organize thoughts and manage his feelings. This will decrease his stress and eventually eliminate the tantruming behavior and disturbed sleep patterns. The following are some basic pointers:
- Be clear about your expectations; you don’t need to offer long explanations
- Be transparent; explain to your child how the routine will benefit him
- Be consistent; don’t allow your child to negotiate his own terms
- Establish routines that are reasonable based on your child’s need for rest and capacity to pay attention
- Establish appropriate and immediate consequences for behavior transgressions that are based on a child’s capacity to master ethical behavior; view this as another learning experience and not as a punishment.
- Give positive feedback; when your child has successfully managed his frustration, tell him you’re proud of his new behavior
Restoring Parents’ Confidence
Parenting is both an art and a science. Be creative at each stage of your child’s development. Sometimes, consultation with a professional can clarify a challenging situation and help you map out a plan for change. Your child will learn self-control when he feels that you are a confident parent.
Don’t become overwhelmed by parenting responsibilities. Devote attention to caring for yourself as well as caring for your child. This means you need adult time and a good night’s sleep as well as play time with your child. By taking care of yourself, you’ll model for your child that love, responsibility and security go hand in hand.