Parenting without an Owner’s Manual
By Kathleen Geiger
Have you noticed that almost everything you buy comes with an owner’s manual? I recently bought a pasta maker and the manual was a 35-page detailed booklet describing the ways to use the equipment and what to do if I wanted a certain “noodle” outcome. In contrast, when we have children there is absolutely no manual, paperwork, leaflet, or website given that tells us how to parent in a way that would enable our children to have a particular outcome. So it’s tough, trying to figure out how to parent when there are so many opinions about what is right and wrong. When asked what we hope for our children, what we want the outcome to be, most parents say they want their children to be happy, healthy, and a functional member of society. But how does that happen?
I believe the healthiest parenting model is one which recognizes the critical importance of the parent-child relationship. The way you relate to your child now sets them up for how they will relate to others in the future. And how we relate to others has everything to do with being happy, healthy and a functional member of society. The way we develop and maintain relationships has to come from somewhere. Who do children spend the most time with during their development? Us! The parent or major caregiver. Through your relationship with your child, you teach them how to relate to teachers, family, and friends. Telling your child how to relate appropriately does very little, but YOU relating to your child, being relational, has everything to do with what his/her future relationships will look like.
A relational parenting approach is one which focuses on the critical importance of the parent-child relationship. It means having a deep desire to be closely connected to your child. Your strength as a parent lies in the relationship. Children who are deeply connected have less behavioral difficulties, less academic failures, and are significantly less involved in substance abuse and sexual risk-taking.
The brain is a social organ—that is, it is constructed and built through experience. From the moment we are born, we begin taking in the world around us. What we experience becomes a reference for how the world works together. Humans have a biological NEED for closeness. Being close to your child may be the most important tool you have for ensuring your child’s overall development. So what are the components of relational parenting?
Developing a Bond – A bond is the connection formed between two people. A bond happens, when over time, parents show a desire to listen to their child’s thoughts and feelings. It means listening more than talking. It means being actively involved. It means having uninterrupted time together. Bonding requires focus and intention. When parents and children are actively engaged the potential for strong connection is powerful. Together parents and children create intimacy – literally, as my grandmother would say, “in-to-me-you-see.” Bonding is something we cultivate. Preoccupation with electronics is the opposite of close connection. There are times when your relationship in person is much more important than the on-line ones. Setting the limit so you can get close in the now means no cell phone, no computer, no Netflix, no Pinterest, no Facebook, no Instagram, no snapchat…at times when being together is more important. When parents desire to know their child’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, wishes, and worries, that child will feel valued and grow to have a strong sense of self-esteem. Together, this creates their ability to form strong relationships with others throughout life. Your child comes into the world wanting a relationship with you….literally needing and hungering for it. You as the parents are the ones that make the decision whether to foster a nurturing relationship.
Being a parent who “gets it” — “Getting it,” means being more concerned with how your child feels than how you feel. A desire to understand your child’s feelings through words, body language, and facial expressions helps you understand your child from the inside out. Being the mirror and reflecting back to your child what you are hearing is powerful. Showing empathy is also important. You can do this by thinking of a time when you felt the same feelings and sharing that experience with your child. You may not understand fully, but you can get close to understanding by seeing the world through their eyes. That doesn’t mean you are in agreement with everything your child thinks, it means that you better understand where your child is coming from – all important for good communication. That’s what being relational is all about!
Having their back – This includes being available, responsive, and reliable. Your child needs to know they can come to you for comfort and support under stress. Feeling safe within the family relationship allows children to take risks to become independent. There is no time when a child should be completely independent and manage things entirely on their own. They need you all along the way. Growing up happens incrementally. It takes many years of trial, error, and practice for children to develop the multitude of skills needed to live independently. An important skill that is sometimes overlooked in parenting is helping a child learn to manage their emotions – soothing sadness, calming down anger, slowing impulsivity, and managing fears and anxieties. Difficult emotions such as fear, anger, shame, and grief become less overwhelming when a child knows they have a secure person at home who will help them feel safe and “regulated” again.
Giving up the need to be “right” – You can win the battle and lose the war this way. Being right is about showing power, demanding your child have your viewpoint, and agreeing with everything you think. This leaves little room for your child to share their own feelings without being judged. Seeing your child’s view as valid does not again mean you are permissive; it means that you allow differences without feeling threatened as a parent. When a parent stops needing to be right, they are able to see the child’s behavior in a broader context. For example, misbehavior is oftentimes about something much bigger – something your child does not know how to communicate appropriately. Holding a respectful limit with your child (the discipline part) while desiring to understand the emotions behind the behavior (the relational part) is a top priority.
A relational parenting approach is your choice. It is hard. It takes time and thought. It takes a lot of energy- especially at the end of the day. But the payoff is huge. It is more fun. Your child wants to spend time with you throughout life. But, most importantly, it is this relationship that gives a child a sense of his/her self-worth, competence, lovability, value, and the ability to continue to have relationships with others and to be a happy adult. And, isn’t that what it’s all about?
- Affirm rather than criticize
- Nurture rather than neglect or abandon
- Set limits rather than indulge
Kathleen Geiger has been licensed by the Texas Board of Licensed Professional Counselors since 1990 and has been in private practice in the Central Texas Area for close to 25 years. Kathleen has many areas of expertise and provides psychological services for individuals, children, adolescents, couples, and families. She works with children is play therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and enjoys working with teenagers, adults, and families in various methods of counseling practice. She is trained in Developmental Trauma work by Pia Mellody and has earned her certification as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. To learn more about Kathleen, her practice, or to contact her, please visit: www.kgeiger.com.