Parental Round-Up, November 2014: Stepping Aside, Stepping Up, & Stepping Back

Three Signs In Fists Saying No, No and NoNovember’s most widely-circulated posts were about setting limits, both at the office and with our children. With holiday mayhem ahead, the school year well underway, and parent-teacher conferences behind us, facing our obligations can be daunting for us, as well as for our children. It’s easy to overcommit this time of year, leaving us parents unsure of how and where to push harder, and at times lacking the bandwidth to do so. The three most shared posts this month address how to set better and more appropriate limits with children, and how to push harder without pushing too far. This balance is tricky for all of us, and it can be challenging to strike the right chord in our own lives, and with our kids.

Stepping Aside: Setting Limits and Saying “No”

In general, setting limits with children can be hard for many of us, and in this widely circulated piece, 5 Ways to Say No, author Ruth Soukup offers 5 useful tips for how to give a firm but polite “no,” that allow us to make the necessary space in our lives for our best selves to emerge. Her list is straightforward and simple, and she wisely recommends that, when in doubt, to wait to respond to a request.

Overextending ourselves can be a killer, sending us in the fast lane to excess stress, inefficiency, and overwhelm. Adding to the demands of increased obligations, is the anxiety generated from the conflict of having to endure something we agreed to that we don’t want to do. And that anxiety is there for a reason – alerting us to an opportunity to do something different next time. If this is a challenge for you, as it is for so many of us, next time you are stressed and grumpy about having agreed to something you wished you had not, use that energy to envision alternatives for next time. Ask yourself what saying no would have sounded like, felt like, and accomplished. Say out loud what you could have said, or might say next time. By rehearsing a different approach for next time, you will be putting your anxiety into action, using it for growth, and boosting your confidence to make a change next time. This feels relieving and hopeful, and helps channel your anxiety productively. No doubt, such opportunities for setting limits with children, and saying “no,” will continue to emerge.

Stepping Up: How to Push Our Kids, and Ourselves, to Stretch and Engage 

angry mother of teen playing computer gamesResisting saying “no” might be the hardest when we face our parenting duties – even harder than in our adult social situations or in our professional capacities. The most widely-shared article of the month was this fantastic piece from AffectiveLiving 2014, What Students Really Need to Hear, where author Chase Mielke deftly pens what we as parents and educators need to say to our kids, and what they need to hear. He describes the epidemic of quitting, or taking the easy way out, and how this common strategy denies our kids the learning of resilience, what he asserts is the “main event” of education.

What you need to see is that every time you take the easy way out, you are building a habit of quitting. And it will destroy your future and it will annihilate your happiness if you let it.   Our society cares nothing for quitters.  Life will let you die alone, depressed, and poor if you can’t man or woman up enough to deal with hardship.  You are either the muscle or the dirt.  You either take resistance and grow stronger or blow in the wind and erode.

Mielke goes on to assert that as parents and educators, we have to resist making “quitting” easy for our kids, and do the difficult job of challenging, pushing, and confronting the kids we love, with love, patience, and persistence. Our kids deserve this kind of life preparation. Making things too easy doesn’t prepare our kids for the life they will lead. They deserve to be challenged, allowed to feel hardship, and encouraged to step up. For it is only in facing their fears and taking action that kids – and we all – learn they can do it, and build the self esteem and resilience that will prepare them for life. To my mind, Mielke’s last paragraph sums it up best:

So, do yourself a favor: Step up.  No more excuses.  No more justifications.  No blaming.  No quitting.  Just pick your head up.  Rip the cords out of your ears.  Grab the frickin’ pencil and let’s do this.

With responsibility and payoff squarely placed on the student, we must step up, and bravely tell our kids how it is. Life after all won’t do it for them. We shouldn’t either. We have to let our kids face their challenges themselves. Our job is to support them, and be there for them when they need us.

Stepping Back: How to Define and Avoid Pushing Too Far

Unhappy mother with teenage girlSo in thinking about pushing our kids harder, it’s easy to wonder how far to push our kids without pushing them too far. It can be hard to know and respect the line beyond which our pushing and tough love becomes too tough, or even abusive. A new study finds that abusive words from parents can be more damaging to children than abusive actions. Like with bullying, emotional coercion lingers and often erodes self confidence and resilience. This article about the harmful effects of verbal abuse was widely read this month as well. As we all know, our words matter and can be the difference between limit-setting and abuse. Dr. Rick Nauert in his article, For Kids, Mental Abuse Can Be Worse than Sexual, Physical Abuse for PsychCentral describes recent research led by Joseph Spinazzola, Ph.D. that reveals psychological abuse can be just as traumatizing as physical or sexual abuse, and in some cases can be worse. The researchers define psychological abuse as:

care-giver inflicted bullying, terrorizing, coercive control, severe insults, debasement, threats, overwhelming demands, shunning, and/or isolation.

Bullying, terrorizing, coercive control, insults, overwhelming demands, shunning. These are over the line. When parenting anger strikes, aim to remember your child’s growing brain and vulnerability. Seek to express yourself with “I” statements, and speak about a child’s decisions and behavior rather than them as a person. If you are too angry to do this, remove yourself from the situation until you are able to say what you need to without losing your temper.

For most of us this makes sense, and even in our most angry moments, few parents insult, bully, torment, overwhelm with demands or shun our kids. However, it can happen, especially for parents who themselves were abused in their childhood. If this happens in your parenting, extend compassion to yourself and get help for you, your children, and their future children. While breaking a cycle of abuse can be hard, it is not at all impossible, and there is help.

Anger is a difficult emotion for many of us to control.  Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine an episode of yelling with kids that can cross the line into mental abuse. Earlier this fall I contributed to an article for Fast Company in support of yelling, and was clear to point out that yelling isn’t in itself abusive. Yelling is yelling, and is about frustration and volume. However, yelling can become abusive when it gives way to blame, retaliation, and using power to coerce. As parents we have to use our power to shape behavior, not coerce our children.

Stepping Forward

A mother and her teenage daughter hugging.Our real parental power is in our awareness and insight, not in our wielding of it. Our power as parents is also in our connection to our kids through good times and bad. It takes power and confidence to assert a limit, tolerate a tantrum, and love our kids through the aftermath of setting limits with them. It takes power and confidence to let our kids fail, and be there to encourage them getting back up. It takes power and confidence to feel our feelings, and at the same time understand our child’s feelings, and their developmental needs too. It is with empathy that we love our kids enough to push them to their growth edge, support them as they stretch, and share in their successes and failures, all the while striking the balance of setting limits when necessary. In all of these ways, we stay connected as parents. In fact, staying connected is what parenting is all about, and this is love.


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Alicia H. Clark, PsyD