“My daughter and I are so much happier now. I finally learned that it’s ok to say “no” sometimes and to guide and direct her behaviour. We actually get along much better. I can’t believe it!”
These were the words of a mom I ran into this week.
I hadn’t seen her for a few years. When I first met her about three years ago when her daughter was 2, she and her daughter were reeling from an unexpected relationship break up, new single parenthood, a suddenly absent father, economic uncertainty, needing to find a new place to live, etc.
All the stuff that comes along with the end of a relationship.
At the time, her little girl was acting out a lot. Two-year-olds act out at the best of times but when faced with so many changes, the intensity is upped dramatically.
At the same time, the mom was dealing with her own emotional and practical life challenges and felt terribly guilty about her little girl’s life suddenly turning upside down – even though it wasn’t her doing.
Because of her own guilt and distress, combined with the terrible feelings of rejection she experienced from her partner leaving, the Mom found herself emotionally unable to direct her little girl’s behaviour and no matter what the little girl did, even if she was hitting her mom, or demanding completely unreasonable things, she always gave in and let the little girl do or have whatever she wanted.
She hoped that this would bond her child to her, and make her love her more. But instead, the relationship became strained and unhappy. Neither of them was at ease or relaxed with each other.
At the time, the Mom wasn’t asking for or wanting any help. She was more concerned about pleasing her daughter than anything else. She couldn’t see what was happening, except that they were both very unhappy.
It was painful to see.
Fast forward three years and I ran into the mom again. She looked happy, relaxed, full of life, and looked actually younger than when I knew her three years ago.
“How are you?” I asked her. “You look great and so much happier than when I last saw you”
“Well”, she said, “Everything was so bad back then, but as I started to pull myself together, finding a place to live, getting a good job, getting into a healthy relationship, I was able to really look at my relationship with my daughter. I saw how unhealthy it was and how bad it was for both of us.
I realised that I was afraid of her and that more than anything she needed me to be the adult. To give her some boundaries and direction. To teach her how to behave in different circumstances. That some behaviour was acceptable, and some definitely wasn’t.
I was so scared that if I was clear and strong and didn’t always give her what she wanted or let her do what she wanted to do, that she would stop loving me. It was crazy. And now that I feel empowered as a parent, we love each other so much more and we are so much happier.”
Wow. Good for her for having the courage to really look at herself, see what was happening in her parenting relationship and take the steps necessary to make the change. And it worked!
This mom’s situation is something I’ve seen often. It was not unusual, nor was her fear of losing her child’s love if she placed some boundaries on her child’s behaviour and asserted her “adultness”.
Even when parents aren’t experiencing a major life change, I still see many parents who are afraid of claiming their role as the teacher, director, guide, boundary setter.
They think they are being oppressive or they are stifling their children or breaking their spirit. Even if the child is bothering or hurting others, or making a mess in someone’s house, or demanding something unreasonable, they believe they shouldn’t ever intervene or say “no”.
The parents think they are making their children happier and more empowered that way.
But, in reality, they aren’t.
Why do parents feel this way? I think there are many reasons.
For one, many of us have had unhappy childhoods where we were harshly disciplined, shamed, and made to feel bad about ourselves.
We don’t want to impose that on our children so we go to the other extreme… anything goes. Whatever they do is fine.
I also sense that some parents are afraid of their children’s negative feelings. They are afraid of their children being unhappy with them.
Maybe deep down they, like the mom I ran into, are afraid that their children won’t love them if they are ever firm with them.
Indeed, many times when we redirect our children, even when it is done with compassion and understanding, our children do get angry with us. For some of us, that’s very emotionally difficult, even scary. It feels like a withdrawal of love. It could be that we were “disciplined” by a withdrawal of love and it triggers unhappy memories.
But whatever the cause, I think it’s helpful and important to recognize the results of this kind of “hands off” parenting.
There are many conflicting studies on parenting, but there has been a consistency in the research over many many decades about the effects of different parenting techniques on the outcomes for children.
We know that some parents see themselves as “the boss” or ”the supreme leader”.They exercise tight control over their children’s behaviour and use severe discipline (often physical) with no recognition of their children’s emotional needs or their point of view. They often use shaming and “put downs” as a way to keep their children in line.
Children of parents who parent this way often end up with low self-esteem, low self-worth, poor inner controls (they are always looking out for the punisher), low trust of others, out of touch with their own feelings and intuition, have difficulties in relationships, lack compassion and sensitivity to others, often rebel and have trouble at school or work, and can easily be manipulated by others.
Not a pretty picture.
On the other hand, the kind of permissive “hand off” parenting has its own problems.
As we talked about before these parents may show lots of love and affection to their children but they don’t give them direction. They routinely ignore misconduct (e.g., letting kids get away with deliberate rudeness) and give in to a children’s demands when they cause a commotion or throw a tantrum.
Most parents will do this from time to time but truly permissive parents regularly don’t have any standards of behaviour or give their children any sense of how to solve problems, recognize other people’s needs or rights, and how to get along in the world.
Children of parents who parent this way can also end up with low self-esteem because it seems that no one really cares what they do, plus they are often behaving in ways that really bother other people. Then other kids don’t want to play with them and other adults don’t want them in their homes playing with their kids.
Their relationships both with their parents, other adults and other children get more and more negative.
As the mom whom I ran into said, once she claimed her parental role and felt comfortable being the adult and giving her daughter some guidance and direction – always with love and compassion, their relationship improved enormously and they were both way happier.
Which is, I would say, the goal. A close loving relationship, a sense of purpose, and more happiness all around.
Finding your own parenting voice is a challenge. Finding a balance between freedom and direction is a challenge. Dealing with the minute by minute nature of parenting is a challenge.
But remember that your children need you to love them and to teach and guide them. You will all be happier that way.