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October 03rd, 2016

Ditch the Guilt

If you had a child start school or nursery for the first time this term I hope they trotted off happily without a backwards glance. But if they didn’t you may have felt helpless and even guilty as they grappled with uncomfortable emotions. Many parents feel it is their job to keep their children happy all the time. But we can’t do this. In fact it is our job to help our children manage these uncomfortable feelings, realise they are part of being human, we all have them, they pass, and in fact they’re not all bad because we can learn from them. Becoming aware of our own feelings is the first step in developing empathy for others.

If you’ve been feeling guilty that you can’t assuage your child’s upset there are two things that may reassure you:

  1. Your child will get used to their new environment, especially if you talk to them about how they feel and brainstorm with them on strategies for being happy
  2. You are not alone.

Parents are good at guilt. It may be the most common emotion we experience around parenting. I have the feeling that mums experience it more than dads but maybe that’s because I’m a mum. What do you think, dads?

What do we feel guilty about?

When I asked a group of parents they said they felt their role was to provide the best for their kids and a lot of their guilt was when they didn’t live up to this standard. What does that mean?

My test group said what it meant to them was providing:

  • the best schooling – this may mean deciding whether to send them to state or independent school, or getting into the best nursery or school open to you, enrolling in and taking children to the most enriching Extra Curricular Activities
  • the best food - nutritionally sound, does this also mean organic?
  • the best nurturing environment in their childhood - a stable home life, 2 parents? A calm, non-shouty atmosphere! Parents worried about not spending enough time with their kids/their partner/their own parents, taking ‘me time’, working/not working, taking exercise, not doing anything culturally enriching but vegging in front of a screen, the house being messy….etc, etc. 

What does it mean to you? 

Expectations of ourselves as parents are very high. It starts early and can be fuelled by information available on the internet. We may plague ourselves with questions like: Did I do the wrong thing in allowing my baby to cry/not wearing him in a sling/not co-sleeping? 

Access to information is now unprecedented and we don’t have to look far for evidence that we are screwing up our kids! Ericka Christakis, Early Childhood Educator and Harvard College Administrator speaking at the Aspen Festival of Ideas in 2012 said “we live in what we call the ‘epidemiological age’, where we have a lot of information about what is unhealthy and healthy”. She referred to the fact that the British Medical Journal not too long ago prohibited the word ‘accident’ in their reporting, because they argued that really are almost no accidents, ie incidents are avoidable. The logical conclusion is that it is the job of parents to avoid them. 

Christakis continued, this view is that if you look at the antecedents for almost all bad things that happen to us in life, including famines and droughts, and children getting hit by cars, and suicide, that these are really preventable injuries. She said this leads to a huge shift in how we view childhood, because if we're starting to think that all these bad things are preventable then every time you decide not to put a helmet on your child when they're riding a scooter on the pavement you start feeling like a neglectful person. It creates a lot of anxiety to live in a world where we feel so responsible as parents. 

At the same event Lawrence J. Cohen, Psychologist and author of Playful Parenting added “There's a taboo against putting a price on the safety of your child. And I think we have the same taboo on [aiming] at anything less than the absolute pinnacle of success, and if we don't then we're short-changing our children.” 

This sense of responsibility and attendant guilt is fuelled by a propensity to criticise parents. 

Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs noted that “We're so culturally prone to beat up parents”. If you go onto any online platform for parents you will see a lot of blame and judgment for parents, from other parents! 

It’s worth noting here that there is a difference between shame and guilt and how those emotions make us behave. Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person, a judgement about myself as a person, whereas guilt is the feeling I get when I’ve done a bad thing, a judgment about my actions. When we feel shame we can feel worthless and then may lash out or try to avoid the situation. Feelings of shame are very linked to our sense of self-worth –what we believe about ourselves and our value. “Man often becomes what he believes himself to be” - Gandhi.  Your thoughts about yourself shape your reality.

When we feel guilty about our actions we tend to experience regret and want to make amends. We think “I am a good person who made a mistake”. Guilt could actually be a good thing if it is a catalyst for change

Sherry Bevan, author or The Confident Mother, said “When we feel guilt, there is always a reason.  The purpose of guilt is to tell us that we are hurting someone or doing something wrong.” She quotes Audre Lorde’s from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches,  “Guilt is … a response to one’s own actions or lack of action.  If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.”  

Shame is not useful if my feelings about myself stop action.

It may be helpful to reflect on the reason for feeling guilt and decide what you can do to stop feeling guilty. Sherry mused “Assuming of course you want to stop feeling guilty. I sometimes wonder whether some people don’t enjoy feeling guilty. As if they enjoy being punished or feel like they deserve to be punished. Perhaps for some former ‘crime’ they committed”.

If you are feeling guilty about something, first get clear on what exactly you are feeling guilty about. Then ask yourself whether your guilt makes sense? If somebody else was in the same situation and said "I feel really guilty about xyz", would you think their guilt was justified?

If the answer is yes, what can you do to stop the guilty feelings? Are you expecting too much of yourself or of others? Are you trying to do too many things at the same time? And if the answer is no, if the guilt isn't justified, stop wasting time feeling guilty. 

When you think of guilt as a catalyst, it stops being negative and you can use it to make a change for the positive.

My friend Caroline Ferguson who is a wonderful mindset trainer, suggests doing the following when we feel guilty: 

  • Treat yourself like an intelligent child that you want to nurture and inspire
  • Visualise the person you want to be and behave like her
  • When you have negative thoughts about yourself –ask is there a kinder/more constructive way to say that?
  • Keep a journal in which you write daily affirmations for yourself
  • Celebrate your achievements
  • When others compliment you say thank you and accept it

My last practical tips:

  • Stop making comparisons with other parents and children
  • It may help to find out what is normal behaviour for your child’s age group and temperament and adjust your expectations. Read Chapter one, Knowing Your Child in Real Parenting for Real Kids.
  • Don’t read parent websites where there is a lot of judgmental chat but do read books like Real Parenting that celebrate the efforts of parents just like you.
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February 04th, 2016

What are we bragging about?

I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend about something her insightful son asked her. Her son is a terrific kid: athletic, wise, fun, friendly and incredibly hard-working and disciplined.  

There had been a dance at his school where the girls invite the boys to dance.  My friend’s son had not been invited.  He probably wouldn’t have said anything at all if he hadn’t seen pre-dance photos on his Mum’s Facebook page that her friends had posted.  There were the shots of girls dressed up, boys in tuxedos, corsages, poses … you know the photos.  He asked his Mum: “What are they bragging about?”  Then he offered this as his own answer: “Mum, they are bragging about their children being popular and social. They’re not bragging about the things that matter!” … the things that matter to him.  And, you know, he’s right! 

So, here’s the question again: what are we bragging about?  Do we want OUR Facebook pages to be showing that we value our daughter’s prettiness, or the length of her legs, or the way her hair looks?  Do we want our sons to be valued for their good looks and that they were deemed worthy of being invited to dance?  I decided to scroll through my own Facebook feed from the last few months … and while I consciously post very few individual photos of my child, there are clear themes that jump out! 

- A photo of my child and my husband both dressed up at a Halloween party.  I guess I want everyone to see that they are good sports and like to get dressed up!

- An outdoorsy picture.  I want everyone to see that my daughter loves to be outdoors.

- She did her first triathalon.  She’s athletic.

- The obligatory first-day-of-school-look-how-grown-up-and-pretty she is photos of her alone and with neighborhood friends.  She is cute, she has friends … and a dog!

- Jumping off a dock into the ocean at sunset.  She’s a kid that loves the water and is always up for fun with new friends.

- A photo with neighborhood friends as they run a lemonade stand and golf ball sale for local golfers to raise funds for the Nepal earthquake relief efforts.  I want people to see that she cares about making a difference in the world and that she has a responsibility to contribute. 

I could go on … but I guess what I want my friends to know about my child is essentially that she is sporty, has a global understanding and wants to make a difference; she is friendly, fun and pretty … and that she has a dog!  Here’s the follow up question though, how might my friends perceive what I’m posting?  How does that leave other children feeling if/when they see my posts.  And I know exactly what can happen! 

While writing this, a 1-year ago memory photo appeared on my feed.  It was a photo posted by a friend of the children from 4 out of 5 neighborhood families out on a hike.  The children from the 5th family hadn’t been invited … a complete oversight … not a malicious exclusion by any stretch of the imagination.  But, the son of said 5th family saw the photo on his Mum’s Facebook page and was left feeling excluded, hurt and angry.  

As parents, we are absolutely allowed to feel proud of our children and we do want to share our joyful experiences with family and friends.  I am not writing this at all as a judgement of what we should or shouldn’t post on our pages.  We should, however, post with a greater understanding of two things: 

  1. That our children may not want us posting anything about them anyway.
  2. And if they are ok with us posting, we need to be careful about the messages we are inadvertently sending out about We all know that our children are special and wonderful in so many ways.  What one child has in terms of sociability, another may have strengths in sports, or the arts … or community service. 

If your children are ok with you sharing their life experiences, check in from time to time to see how you are presenting your children to your world.  Is it a true reflection of the important qualities you value in your children?

Ann Magalhaes, The Parent Practice NY

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January 07th, 2016

New Year resolution-free-zone

Over the New Year weekend I was getting seriously irritated with article after article in print and online media exhorting me to shed weight, give up the booze, stop smoking, become more positive, stop procrastinating, get more organised, clear out my clutter and get fit, all of which just made me feel deficient. When I asked around I found that many others were seriously fed up with these New Year resolutions finding them smug, self-righteous and self-serving.

When I dug down to see what particularly irritated me about them I found that most of them suggested I had a problem that needed to be fixed. Of course. That is a well-tested marketing method and as I am also in business and need to pay bills I don’t mean to criticise people peddling their services by highlighting the need that their service or product addresses.

However when it comes to parenting we already experience much guilt about the way we bring up our children. You only have to go online to find out what a rubbish parent you are. It’s not just your mother-in law insinuating that your children are particularly problematic or that your child-rearing methods are particularly suspect. Parent-bashing is a favourite theme of the media. Even where you might expect a more empathetic approach, such as among other parents, there is criticism. Any parenting chat thread will have some quite judgmental voices suggesting you’re getting it all wrong. In our classes we often meet parents who worry about ‘getting it wrong’ and screwing up their kids. 

At the Aspen festival of ideas in 2012 when discussing the purpose of parenting Ericka Christakis, early childhood educator and Harvard College administrator, said that “we live in what we call the ‘epidemiological age,’ where we have a lot of information about what is unhealthy and healthy” and this creates a “crisis of information” which causes a lot of anxiety. We feel so responsible for ‘creating’ a future generation of not just happy and well-adjusted adults but successful high-achievers too. This anxiety can be made so much worse when we hear about critical ‘windows of opportunity’ in our children’s development that we think we may have missed and we feel terribly responsible in a way that our parents’ generation didn’t. (Lucky carefree things). 

Yet in the work we do at The Parent Practice we have a unique opportunity to observe masters at work. In our face to face work with parents we hear about the issues they have faced and the solutions they have devised. We have learnt much from our clients and have incorporated into our trainings many of the ideas generated by these ‘masters of parenting’. In our book, Real Parenting for Real Kids, we celebrate these masters and we bring their success stories to you. They would hasten to deny that they are masters but I am not talking about attaining any kind of perfection, just continuing to improve all the time, getting to know their children better and devising practical solutions that work in their own families.

In your quest for mastery (or just a bit of calm) if you’re setting goals for yourself it’s never effective to focus on what is wrong. Your brain will visualise your fat, unfit, smoking, disorganised, shouty self if you do that. You need to imagine your desired outcome instead. So rather than creating New Year’s resolutions which focus on what needs fixing think about what you can celebrate in your parenting. What small successes from 2015 can you acknowledge yourself for? Is it around playfulness or being connected with your child? Is it about being a good role model? Do you think you managed to pass on some values? Were you encouraging? Notice those good parenting moments, acknowledge yourself and make sure you do more of that in 2016. 

Here is one example from Chapter one, Knowing your Child: 

William was always reluctant to go to school at the start of each term, even after the half-term break. It didn’t make any sense to me, and I would end up pushing him through the door with tears in his eyes. Until we talked. And he told me that he didn’t like the newness of the fresh classroom. He didn’t know where he would be sitting, he didn’t know what lessons were coming up, he didn’t know what the new lunch menu would be like. And when I saw it from his point of view, and took into account his temperament of finding change difficult, and being a very regular child, I was able to make the shift from him ‘being a problem’ to ‘having a problem’.

We brainstormed how he could walk in, even when he wouldn’t be able to know what he wanted. We practised things for him to say, something to take in to show someone, just to get him through the door. That, in conjunction with accepting how he felt about the start of each term was enough. He went in with a little smile and a big breath, and hasn’t looked back.

Juliet, mum of two 

Have a great 2016 and keep developing your parenting practice.

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