Raising children is a lot of things. It’s exhilarating, exhausting, loving, caring, difficult, rewarding, and can be really scary. The vulnerability of a parent can be overwhelming and truly a kind of vulnerability strictly reserved for parenting. As is the nature of vulnerability in parenting, there is the constant anticipation of the potential for a parent’s substantial emotional harm. Truthfully, vulnerability exists in all meaningful relationships, but it is certainly challenged to the limit in parent-child relationships.
So what does this mean in day-to-day life for parents who want to set children up for successful living? How do parents fill their children’s tool-belt with the tools that promote success in love and life? In the most basic form, it means that parents have to work hard to protect children from absorbing the vulnerability that parents feel.
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Practically speaking, parents can do their children a huge disservice by focusing on those things that are scary as heck, to the detriment of those things that aren’t.
Let’s look at a typical young adolescent. A once jovial, forthcoming child can become withdrawn, impudent and otherwise disinterested in sharing information about the details of his or her life as they grow up. As a result, those children tend to admonish their parents for putting into place restrictions that challenge a child’s autonomy and “embarrass” him or her. Basically, children may attempt to remove parents from the responsibility of 24/7 parenting and may shackle them with the vulnerability that replaces it. No matter the presentation, the role of a parent can feel subordinated to the child’s role as an emerging adult.
The tendency (and risk) when children present behavior that concerns, scares or downright upends a parent, is to focus on that behavior. A child who experiments with drugs or alcohol can be labeled as a high-risk child who is then constantly scrutinized about drug and alcohol use. A child who does not perform to their potential in school can be reduced to solely an unmotivated and underachieving student in the parent’s eyes. A child that begins to show hostility or confrontational behavior may be considered aggressive and angry.
Basically, children may attempt to remove parents from the responsibility of 24/7 parenting and may shackle them with the vulnerability that replaces it.
These challenging behaviors are certainly part of the picture, but definitely not the entire landscape of a child’s existence. The risk to children, when parents feel vulnerable in response to risky choices, is that parents tend to define the child by the behavior that scares parents most. This can cause parents to ignore the rest of the qualities that also define the child. The pride, care, or optimism that parents used to possess for children is then relinquished to the fear that parents feel when absorbing some of their children’s choices.
Imagine all of this from the children’s perspective: Regardless of their age, behavior, reason for or duration of some questionable choices, children and young adults who act out are usually struggling with something you can’t see. Some struggles are more obvious, like addiction, anxiety, or lack of peer connection. Others are temporary, like transitioning to a new school, workload, or intimate relationship and peer group adjustments. Regardless of the context, behavioral changes are uncomfortable for all involved.
When people are struggling, what they generally need is love, support, acceptance and reasonable boundaries. What do children typically get when they act out repeatedly? They often are subjected to judgment, criticism and excessive boundaries. This is usually a result of parental fear, vulnerability, and need to manage unwanted and seemingly destructive behavior. But does this help our children?
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Children are multi-layered, complicated, evolving people. Some layers emerge with more force than others at times, but they all exist. As they develop, parents tend to focus on the layers that are most visible, but we also have to be very aware of the layers beneath.
Constant conflict with a child can feel like a necessary evil to protect them and reinforce expectations. It can also make a child feel unloved and unheard. After all, sometimes parents are pushed to the brink. Showing love while listening to adolescent demands can be exhausting. But children need clear boundaries and structure, wrapped in patience and love, with a very thick cushion of compassion, and a pretty big dash of curiosity about what is actually happening in their lives. All of this needs to occur in a nonjudgmental cocoon, balanced with appropriate consequences if parents want to set children up for success in their adult lives down the road.
There is a lot of talk about the whole child. It has become a talking point as school systems try to present a new paradigm in education. The same need for a whole child approach in school translates to home. As we demand more and more that children’s external environments provide a depth of curriculum that supports multi-faceted learning, so too must parents be multi-faceted at home.
The same need for a whole child approach in school translates to home.
In the darkest moments of parenting, our children still need to be celebrated. To parent the whole child for successful living which will resonate throughout their lives, remember that they still need to feel love in the way that they can receive it in the moment. They still need a voice and respect, regardless of the content. They need to be whole children, seen and heard beyond and beneath the parts of them that make our vulnerability peak. No one deserves to be defined by his or her worst behavior. Particularly not our children.
Carrie Rosenbloom is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and attorney mediator in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She specializes in helping individuals and families navigate the complexities of divorce. Carrie also works with family businesses, helping them manage transitions, create succession plans, resolve conflict, and integrate a cohesive culture throughout family owned businesses. More information can…
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