Parenting: The Great Balancing Act
As part of Raising Resilience's focus on mindful parenting, we invited committee member, Kristin Cronin Boone MS LMFTA, to contribute a piece on how we communicate with our children. Read below to find out if you are a Tiger, Jellyfish, or Dolphin and how each parenting style affects your child. We also encourage you to participate in our community-wide parenting book read. Get your copy of RAISING GOOD HUMANS: A Mindful Guide to Breaking the Cycle of Reactive Parenting and Raising Kind, Confident Kids and register for the free CONNECTIONS CAFE session happening March 15th @ 7pm via zoom with the book's author, Hunter Clarke-Fields, MSAE. Follow our reading schedule to read along with us - or read at your own pace. You are welcome to attend the session without reading the book.
Somewhere along the way, we as parents seemed to get the message that it was our job to remove all obstacles from our children’s lives. When I heard this concept on the Glennon Doyle podcast, “We Can Do Hard Things,” I connected to it in a resounding way. Like somehow we are expected to make the world a safe and beautiful place for our kids all the time.
This impossible task does not serve our children and actually steals the emotional connection that we get from experiencing these obstacles with them along the way. When we do over-parent, (such as remove obstacles, fight our children’s fights, or micromanage their responsibilities) we are actually sending them the message that they are not capable. They then don’t trust themselves, and don’t trust the world around them.
The truth is that they are capable, and while the world may not always be safe, making it feel unsafe ALL the time can prevent growth. We need to teach them to trust themselves and their body and mind. Their confidence needs to be in their own ability to tell when to move forward and when something just doesn’t feel right.
GET BACK UP AGAIN
Dr. Dan Siegel, author of “The Whole Brain Child,” explains how even in early childhood we experience something called joint referencing. This is when our children look to us to decide how they feel about something. For example, if you’ve ever seen a child fall down, but they aren’t actually hurt, they will look and see what their parent’s reaction is. If the parent has gasped or run toward them anxiously, the child will read these cues and think, “Oh my gosh! Something bad has happened to me!,” and the child will start crying. However, in that same scenario, when a parent smiles and slowly helps the child get back up, they will often run off like nothing has happened. This calm and support gives them resilience.
The same thing is true of an adolescent who brings home a bad grade. Do we gasp or get angry? Or do we calmly support them and explore how they feel about it.
Most likely they don’t like the way it feels to get a bad grade, but when we distract them with our own anger they can’t learn from themselves. If we gasp and yell, they get the message that they are bad and something is wrong with them. If we ask how they feel and help them make a plan that feels good to them, we teach them that failure happens and it’s how you get back up again that defines who you are.
As parents we cannot lock our kids away from pain or sadness. What we can do is be there, use empathy, and encourage them that when they are ready they can get back up again.
BE LIKE FLIPPER
Dolphin parenting is a construct described by Dr. Shimi Kang, a Harvard trained physician and author of, ‘The Dolphin Way.” Dr. Kang describes different styles of parenting on a spectrum, using various animals as benchmarks.
On one end of the spectrum you have the Tiger parent. This parent would be overly strict, quick to react and overprotective. You may have heard this style called helicopter parenting as well. Dr. Kang goes on to explain that these are the kids who have higher risk of anxiety, depression, and inability to have healthy boundaries, because they don’t have the confidence that they are capable.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Jellyfish parent that is too “squishy”. Kids are confused as to what their boundaries are and may not feel supported or clear about what is expected of them. This can lead them to find other people to ‘guide’ them, which may be another child their age who is also struggling to find their way. This type of confusion can lead to unhealthy experimentation and risky behaviors.
Dolphin parents are found toward the middle of this spectrum and integrate boundaries and freedoms. They are collaborative, firm, accepting, and flexible. They have rules, but also want to know and process experiences with their child or adolescent. This parenting style lets the child clearly know that they have a safe place to figure things out, but are also supported and expected to strike out on their own.
So what is the key to being a Dolphin parent? Self-awareness. When you reflect on your own parenting style, you can better understand where you land on the parenting spectrum. Do you have clear boundaries and expectations, and have you communicated them to your children? Do you allow time for your kids to be themselves, be silly, and try things outside their comfort zone (and yours)?
Depending on your child’s stage of development, the issue at hand, or your own fears and insecurities you may find yourself moving along this spectrum throughout your children’s lives. Perhaps you are more protective when your child is young, or more afraid to set boundaries as they reach their late teens. Just remember self-awareness is a continual process. It is good to reflect regularly and involve your children in the conversation when appropriate.
Just like a toddler who runs away to explore, but keeps glancing back to make sure Mom and Dad are still there watching. It is not so different with adolescents and teens. We let them know we will always be here, but we don’t expect them to stay here with us forever.
REINING IN MY TIGER
I use self-awareness to reflect on my own parenting. I know my instinct is to be a Tiger Mama -very protective and quick to react. This tendency is because of my own fears. I am so afraid to see them in pain because it is painful for me. I am so worried that they will not feel accepted because I remember what it felt like as a child when I did not fit in. Those fears are me not wanting to feel those things again. I have to separate myself from my kids so I haven’t written their story before they have lived it.
Even at 5 and 8 years old I’ve found my kids can be quite insightful. When I slow down and stop making it about me I can say, how did that make you feel? Do you need help? Often this will lead to a solid answer from my child, something like, “no, it just made me sad, but the teacher already helped me.”
HOW TO BE A DOLPHIN
So how can we all be Dolphin parents?
Stop trying to fix or make everything ok. Just be in the moment with them. I have found they just wanted me to know that they had a bad day. Let them tell you about the hard thing in their life and be with them while they feel it. Give them a hug if they want one.
The best thing you can do most of the time is to listen and be curious. If we do talk it should all reflect the some version of, “I see you, and I hear you, and we can make it through this tough thing together.”
-Ask Before Fixing
Unless there is something actively harmful, such as them being physically injured by someone. Ask if they want your help. Ask for their ideas on how to handle it. Let them do a little problem solving on their own and validate their thoughts and feelings. Then perhaps guide them by using shared values and what feels right.
OH THE PLACES THEY’LL GO (them, not us)
So, don’t let the world trick you into thinking your job is to control everything. Our job is to be a warm place for our children to grow, launch from, and return in times of need. Ultimately, our job is to teach our children:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...” - Dr. Seuss