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Raising Healthy Kids in A Painful World: The Two Most Helpful Tips About Parenting I Learned in Therapy

The hardest and the most rewarding job I’ve undertaken in my whole life has been my role as a parent. It’s frequently difficult, even when life is good. But when we as parents experience our own struggles, how do we keep it together in order to maintain a stable foundation for our kids? Along my parenting journey, my own therapists have shared two tips about parenting that I’ve never forgotten.

In my part-time job as a family therapist working at a non-profit agency, I am mandated to see parents on almost any matter that they are struggling with. The list is wide open. Our aim is to strengthen parents to be the best parents they can be. After all, they are the ones who spend the most time with their kids, not the child therapists who the child might see for one hour every week or two. Roughly 75% of the time, the main problem is not the kids. Rather, I see parents who are struggling with family separation, historical trauma, grief and loss, chronic pain or other health conditions, addictions, their own mental health struggles, and all the associated shame and stigma. You get the idea.

It’s a lot of pain, amidst all the love. My own family (immediate and extended) has been impacted by suicide, eating disorders, clinical depression and generalized anxiety, neuro-developmental differences, transphobic discrimination, and a lot more.

The Problem

How in the H-E-double hockey sticks are we all supposed to raise healthy children, in such a painful world? This is a question that matters a lot to me. It matters because I love my kids more than anything in the world. It is precisely because I love them so much, that parenting feels so freaking difficult. As a parent, I’ve looked for as many tips about parenting as I could. In fact, try googling “parenting doesn’t make you happy” and you’ll see article after article talking about the “parenting paradox”: our level of happiness goes down after we have kids. (Interestingly, I learned recently this is mainly true in North America. Hmmm…)

Ten years ago I lost both my own parents suddenly and very publicly, and our world was rocked. Our kids were preteens, and we all needed counselling. We tried several counsellors before finding one that we felt we could trust and make some headway. Along the way, we picked up a couple of tips about parenting our own kids that I’ve never forgotten.

Tips About Parenting: The First One

“If you are okay, your kids will be okay.” In other words, if you are in pain, prioritize yourself (not them), because your kids need you to be well. Too often, we put ourselves last. A psychologist told my husband and I this. It was at a session when our loss was still pretty recent. We were feeling really scared about the long-term impact of our loss on our kids. It was the kind of fear you get after trauma – hyperalert, hypervigilant, looking for danger everywhere and determined to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. It’s no way to live. Not only that, it’s hard on the nervous system.

Hearing this from our therapist was a big relief. We forgot that our kids had lost their grandparents traumatically, but they still had us. We were still all together; our little bubble of a family was still intact. I had lost my parents; they didn’t lose theirs. We were adults. If my husband and I could somehow make our way through this and heal, our kids would be okay.

Connecting the Dots (and a Bonus Tip)

Thinking back, this reminds me of research on resilience that I read years ago. At the time, I was curious how some children can go through very similar experiences of childhood abuse and trauma, and yet some grow up dysfunctional while others grow up relatively functional and healthy. I learned that one of the key childhood factors in being able to bounce back after abuse, poverty, instability or trauma is the presence of at least one consistent, loving and trusting adult. For readers who don’t have an intact family unit, it doesn’t have to be both parents. It can be one parent, a grandparent, or aunty, or even a neighbour or teacher that is reliable and stays in touch.

Sidenote: That psychologist was otherwise a terrible therapist for us! He sat there expressionless and had otherwise very little to say. We moved on. I learned another lesson that is borne out by other research: expertise and qualifications matter much less than the quality of the relationship that can be built between the therapist and counsellor. It’s otherwise known as rapport, or fit. I’ve written more about that here (and how it can even be found in email counselling). So … don’t go see a psychologist JUST because they are a psychologist.

Tips About Parenting: The Second One

“Yes but, your daughter can see that you are upset. She’s smart. You aren’t fooling her so you need to talk to her.” When you are in pain, talk to your kids (appropriately). Don’t keep secrets, as they only serve to strengthen shame and stigma. This one came from another therapist about a year later. My youngest daughter and I attended the session together, and the purpose was as a sort of “checkup” for her. It wasn’t to deal with my issues.

The “yes but” part from the quote above came as a response to this protest of mine. It was my job to look after her, not hers to look after me. I had read Gordon Neufeld’s book “Hold On To Your Kids”. Through his work, he’s found that in order to develop a healthy attachment, children need to see the adult in their lives as the provider of care and love and all good things. And my daughter had has a fiercely independent streak, resistant to help or instruction. It’s almost like she is worried that if she can’t do things herself, it will diminish her in some way. So (ironically, like her in a way) I was terrified of seeming vulnerable or weak, only because I thought she needed me to be strong. (This was before I watched Brene Brown’s ground breaking TED Talk on Vulnerability!)

Of course, there is a caveat to this tip. When the shit is hitting the fan, information parents share with kids needs to be child friendly, age appropriate, and instill hope. It’s just that if we pretend or ignore the bad stuff, there is risk they will imagine things to be worse than they are.

Connecting More Dots (and an Apology)

In hindsight this protest of mine was pretty silly, because my kids know that I’m a crier. I cry when I’m angry or upset; these days I cry much more often when I’m moved. One Christmas they even had a bet to see whose present was going to move me so much I would cry. (Those heartless bastards I birthed!) Sometimes, my clients tell stories of breakthroughs that make me feel those tears coming. I usually don’t actually cry, but in the name of authenticity I always confess it. “Your story makes me want to cry!”

Like that therapist reminded me, our kids ARE smart! Even as infants, they see and understand more than we know. I remember when my oldest was a baby, holding her on my hip, while I paced the kitchen and got into an argument with my husband. She took my chin and pulled my face to her. Even though she was in my arms, she knew my attention wasn’t on her at all. And she knew I wasn’t okay.

And (final note) I don’t want to blame Gordon Neufeld, a respected name in our local therapeutic community. I don’t actually remember what he had to say about being the provider of all good things, and building attachment, when we are feeling so weak and vulnerable ourselves. I just know that what I absorbed about his message of attachment didn’t work for me at the time. For a while, I was way too worried about how she wouldn’t let us do her hair, or help her with homework, or even teach her to ride a bike or tie her shoes. I missed those times she needed us just for our attention and approval. It was only several years later that I connected the dots.

Conclusion

Today, my kids are 21 and 23. They are often gone for months at a time, and life is sometimes a lot quieter than it used to be. But they are just learning to adult; sometimes they come home, and pretty frequently they still need our help. I don’t know what the future will bring for them; heck, I don’t even know what the next six to twelve months will bring. Life these days, for their generation, is pretty uncertain. But I know that, with our help, they will figure it out. Even their missteps and losses will serve them well in the end. Because trauma, pain and loss steals time, love, laughter and much more from us, but if we keep our eyes open, they can leave other gifts in their place.

Look for the gifts, and model them to your kids. Personally, I was left with increased confidence, wisdom, experience, perspective, insight and unexpected opportunities. In fact, there’s a name for that. It’s called “post-traumatic strength”. I figured that one out myself! So maybe that’s my third tip.

Let’s review our two three (!) most helpful tips about parenting in a painful world.

  1. First, like one therapist told me, prioritize your own health, and make sure you are going to be okay. Because that’s one of the most loving and giving things you can do for your child.
  2. Then, in order to assess for post-traumatic strength, (and only when you are ready) there’s some questions you can ask yourself. What do I know now that I didn’t know five, ten or fifteen years ago? What am I better at? How have my experiences made me smarter?
  3. Finally, like the other therapist reminded me, talk to your kids, be open with them using child friendly language, … and don’t forget to include hope.

Still struggling? Reach out to Rainstorm Counselling to book a session!

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