by: Chase Kerrey, MA LAC
1. Be Relational
By the time parents usually come in for counseling with concerns about their son or daughter the relationship is strained, with the parent oftentimes in a mindset that is attempting to “fix” the child and the child rebelling against this attempt at control. One of the best things parents can do, even during times of stress or strain, is look at their son or daughters behavior as a window into what it’s like to be them. In my experience the healthier families I work with all have something in common: at the end of the day, there is always an undercurrent of interest in relating to and empathizing with other family member’s experiences. In a phrase, they are listening with curiosity.
2. Be Mindful
Being mindful is the capacity to take a step back from an experience rather than simply reacting to it. In families the message intended is not always the message received, so the importance is for families to be able to communicate their thoughts and feelings in a way that limits misunderstanding. Children, adolescents, and teenagers are more prone to feelings of shame, worthlessness, incompetence, and failure as they develop physically, psychologically, and neurologically, which means emphasis needs to be placed on behavior when correction is warranted, rather than making generalized statements in the heat of the moment that could be interpreted as a reflection of their worth and value.
3. Be Purposeful
After seminars and in family sessions, parents oftentimes come up to me and ask what I believe to be the goal of parenting. The single greatest response that I’ve picked up and subsequently pass on to others is that a parent’s job is to train their child into becoming a functional adult. The profession of parenting in this regard is similar to that of a therapist or long lasting gum manufacturer; the goal is to work oneself out of a job. In every circumstance that you or your spouse come to on the parenting front, ask yourself, “am I preparing my son or daughter to be a contributing member of society, either physically, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, or spiritually? And if not, what can I do in this situation to point them in that direction, even if it means exposing my child to the natural consequences of his/her behavior? The goal is for your child to graduate from your direct care ready for what the world has to offer and the newfound responsibilities that will undoubtedly come.
4. Be Teachable
As a father of a four year old boy and two year old girl, I seem to be reminded daily of the fact that I am a perfectly imperfect parent. Stated bluntly, I believe that we as human beings are destined to mess up, it just depends when and to what extent. With that in mind, the goal for parents is not to spare your child from seeing you make a mistake, but rather in allowing them to see you accept responsibility, pursue reconciliation when warranted, and pick yourself back up without blaming, shaming, or judging yourself or others in the process.
5. Be Moderate
This topic centers on the topic of control. Oftentimes we as parents or as individuals handle stress by swinging to one of two extremes: we attempt to control our environment and the people in it, or we do something in the moment that brings pleasure but fails to address the origins of the stress. Both are what therapists call avoidant behaviors, and both ironically cause increases of stress and/or anxiety over time. The goal here is balance or moderation, understanding that to be an adult means to deal with higher and higher levels of ambiguity and to release those things we cannot control, but also to make strides in making positive change in those things we do have some say in.
6. Be Balanced
To be a parent means learning to do more with less: less time, less money, more responsibility, more crises that demand our attention. But finding yourself burning the candle at both ends is not the solution, and in fact over time this “white knuckling it” approach will drill you into the ground physically and emotionally. Parents usually tell me in our introductory session, “but Chase, we don’t have time / can’t afford to have balance”, but the reality is that your family cannot afford to have you experience a complete physical or mental breakdown either. The single most important relationship within a family systems perspective is the parent/spousal relationship, and this is due I believe largely to the fact that parents set the emotional tone of the family by how well they are taking care of themselves and each other. Plan regular and predictable quiet times, reading hours, date nights, exercise groups or any other form of self care needed to keep yourself physically and emotionally afloat. It’s not being selfish; it’s being responsible to yourself and your family.
7. Be Content
Chances are incredibly good that not every child will grow to have an IQ comparable to Steven Hawking (over 200) or become the next Michael Jordan, but that does not mean that your child will live a life lacking significance or worth if he/she does not attain these goals. Each child has unique giftedness, abilities, and insight to make a mark in this life and in the lives of others. The goal is to identify these gifts and abilities in our kids and cultivate them when they arise, not attempt to manufacture skills and abilities where parents might want them to be. Talking to those who have worked with individuals experiencing end of life scenarios frequently report the most significant variable in those who’ve experienced fulfillment facing death verses despair is the quality of relationships one had and the vulnerability experienced in those relationships, rather than past achievements.
8. Be Aware
One of the most difficult things for a parent to do with a child or adolescent struggling psychologically is to pick up the phone and admit that there is a problem outside of their capacity to fix. Many parents do not seek outside advice or support when their child’s symptoms first arise, either due to not seeing the symptoms as significant as they actually are or simply not seeing the symptoms at all. If your child is displaying behavior outside what you would consider to be “normal”, you notice a sudden change or mood swings, your adolescent becomes increasingly isolative or angry, or you simply have that motherly or fatherly “gut” feeling that tells you something’s up, chances are good outside help is warranted.