I love kids. Whenever a couple wants to bring their children in -- babies to teens -- I get a little kick.
I try to get the snack jar filled, brush down the rug for the babies, remember to ask the teens which pronoun they prefer.
Sometimes parents bring their child to me, saying, "Here's the problem in the family--fix him/her/them." I then explain it's a system problem. What's actually happening isn't a "bad child" acting out, but a troubled child expressing the family problems that aren't being dealt with in a good way. And, the place to start is to address the parents' issues - their marriage, their communication, their parenting.
When I get these parents talking, I ask about their childhoods. I'll often hear stories of neglect or control, a raging parent, a shaming parent, an absent parent. I hear stories of parents who shut down their kids, sometimes because they were depressed or overwhelmed or in unhappy marriages themselves. Even the best of parents have made mistakes and failed their children.
Parenting isn't simple; actually, it's one of the hardest things you'll do in life. There is tremendous pressure in this society on parents, and rarely enough time or space to be thoughtful and careful about what we do and say. It takes effort and maturity and staying awake to give kids what they need: love, consistency and structure. I believe that most people want to be good parents and don't intentionally set up their children to have unhappy childhoods.
As someone who sees the adult wreckage of unhappy childhoods, here are my three suggestions:
Stop fighting so much. Kids hate it and it's not good for their growing brains. Multiple studies have linked parental conflict with stress and behavior problems in kids. A 2015 study showed that young children whose parents fought with each other frequently and harshly were more likely to grow into emotionally insecure preteens who struggle with depression, anxiety and behavior issues. Another study of children from high-conflict homes found that their brains are "trained" to be hyper-vigilant and wary. This can set them up to be wary and distrusting in future relationships.
Stop controlling so much. We've heard all about the helicopter moms and the smother mothers, but fathers can be just as guilty of controlling and hovering, as well as shaming their kids (e.g., "boys don't cry.") Kids need space to feel their feelings, express their needs, have time alone, take risks, make mistakes. When we watch their every step and try to protect them from anything negative we set our kids up to be fearful and anxious and "failure to launch" young adults who struggle to enter adulthood.
Stop talking so much. I mean stop talking "at" and "to" your kids--and start talking "with" your kids. Listen to what they care about--even if it seems really dumb and trivial to you. Suspend judgment and expectations and find out who your kids really are. Be the parent your kid (and other kids) want to come to with their interests and their problems. Be the parent who says, "tell me more," when you'd rather listen to your podcast or do an errand. Be the parent whose kid never says to a future therapist, "I could never have told my parents who I really was."
Bonus tip: Not all fighting is bad. It's healthy for kids to see some conflict. They learn resilience and valuable relationship tools for the future--but only when they experience their parents fighting fair and then repairing a fight through talking it over, apology and re-connection. I know there's much more to being a parent than following simple rules or tips. However, these three suggestions will go a long way to help create strong kids--kids who might not end up in an my office or another therapist's office with a life in shambles.
I know there's much more to being a parent than following simple rules or tips. I know because I'm a parent with a long list of my own parenting screw-ups. Using my mistakes, and my grown kids' input, I believe these three suggestions will go a long way to help create strong kids--kids who might not end up in my office or another therapist's office with a life or a marriage in shambles.