Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University
It is not easy to be a parent these days. We love our children and willingly sacrifice our time, energy and money for their wellbeing. But even with the best intentions many parents feel as though they are walking a tightrope. They feel overwhelmed by the negative influences pressing in on their children and their lack of resources to combat these forces. Here are five challenges you might face and a starting point for combating each of them.
Challenge #1: You feel you are competing for your child’s attention. Focused attention on anything for a sustained period of time seems novel these days. We live in an era where everything is abbreviated, including face-to-face conversations. Many parents feel they are continually competing for their child’s attention and loyalty. Their prime competitor: peers, the computer, cell phones (texting), television, video games and other gadgetry rank near the top. What’s a parent to do?
Pushing back: Pursue your child. Regardless of what your child indicates by their behavior, they do want a connected relationship with you. But you may have to convince them of that over time. Look for opportunities to delve more deeply into the events of your child’s life. Don’t just be content to hear about events and trivia updates. Listen carefully to feelings that your child might convey and pursue those feelings. When you hear what they are trying to say on a deeper level and reflect back that you hear those feelings, they will feel drawn to more conversation with you because they sense that you “get” them. Don’t give up if it doesn’t go well the first few times. Keep practicing.
Challenge #2: Combating fragmentation. Many parents feel pulled in so many directions they are barely holding their families together. They are in perpetual motion moving from work, to errands, to household responsibilities, to financial matters and in between trying to squeeze in quality time with their children. We’ve all felt this way at times. But when you are in this state perpetually, parenting becomes simply another task. You cease asking how you can emotionally connect with your child and instead just ask “what needs to be done.”
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Pushing back: Reassess your values. Many parents live in an ongoing state of guilt because they don’t live according to their stated values. Start by accepting the fact that you only have a limited amount of energy and time. You can’t do it all despite the fact that you try. Decide what aspects of your life are most important to you. Hopefully that includes a significant amount of time with your children. Your children need your attention and guidance. They are looking to you for direction in how to grow up. To shed the guilt, decide what tradeoffs you are willing to make in order to make your main choices reflect your core values. It is not easy, but with persistence the payoff in the long run is well worth the effort.
Challenge #3: Sifting through confusing messages about parenting. The parenting norms that come from the larger culture tell us that older children, especially those in junior high and high school, don’t need as much parental guidance these days. It is not unusual to see children of all ages acting older than they really are. Their dress, behavior and language appear to have a maturity beyond their actual number of years. But this is largely an illusion. Yes, they may have picked up more adult-like mannerisms as a result of increased exposure to adult behavior and themes in culture. But, this doesn’t mean they have developed the emotional maturity necessary to navigate an adult-like world that is beyond their chronological age.
Pushing back: Act as a guide for your children. It is a myth that your children don’t need you as much because they appear self-sufficient. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. There is an immense amount of confusion about the real developmental needs of children and teens these days. Despite what you might hear, your kids need a close, secure relationship with you more than ever. That doesn’t mean you don’t give your children opportunities to make their own age-appropriate decisions or experiment with autonomy. That is a vital part of growing up. The key is to understand what is appropriate both developmentally and for the unique personality of your child. Some children are more emotionally and socially mature than others and can handle more autonomy. But this is where you have to be a student of your own child to know what is appropriate.
Because of these and other forces that are pressing in on us and our kids, it makes parenting especially challenging. It is also a very challenging time to be a child. Our kids need an anchor to ground them and help them understand what is true, healthy and appropriate amid all of the misleading and contradictory information and stories they are exposed to through the media, peers and even sometimes at school. We need to be that anchor for them. And one of the best ways you can be that anchor is to have a strong relationship with them. A strong relationship is like the rudder of a boat; it enables you steer or guide your child toward good things and away from harmful things. This kind of relationship is built upon trust, safety and an emotional connection. It is not developed by rigid rules or demands. It is nurtured. Be deliberate about pushing against these forces to be the parent you want to be.
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