Mothers Have Needs Too!

Allison Gilbert, LMFT, Santa Cruz Counselor Lic: MFC 24087

Know Your Parenting Style

    Parenting is one area where my husband and I have had our major disagreements.  I've learned over the years that I actually have something to teach him.  But he has stuff to teach me too.  It's a good thing that our children have two parents and not just one.  We both have strengths that complement each other.  It's the areas where we are weak that we run into difficulties with our parenting.
    Parenting can be simplified by understanding that there are only two basic styles.  One is "firm edge" and the other is "soft touch".  It's useful to know which style comes naturally to you because it's the style where you're weak that you'll have the most trouble with your kids. free hit counter javascript

The Firm Edge Style

    When you're strong in the firm edge style of parenting, you know how to set limits with your children.  It's easy for you to develop consequences for bad behavior, teach responsibility and discipline.  You like helping your children learn to reign in their messy, loud, "uncivilized" ways and teach them to be polite, moral and kind.  This style helps children feel safe knowing there are rules they can count on.  They know there is a parent who is solid and won't waver or be manipulated.  Children can feel protected when they know what's expected of them and are aware of the boundaries keeping them safe.

The Soft Touch Style

    The soft touch style of parenting tends to be strong in parents who are comfortable with feelings, messiness and flexible boundaries.  If you're good at listening and creating a safe place for self-expression, then you're probably strong in soft touch.  You'll easily follow your children's lead and allow for mistakes and creativity.  You might also be someone who can go with the flow and not have to have your own agenda all the time.  This style of parenting gives children lots of room and lets them know that whoever they are is lovable and acceptable.  Children can feel comfortable in their own skin when they are given ample soft touch parenting.

Which Style Works Best?

    Some parents have an ease with both styles of parenting.  It helps to be able to use whatever style's necessary in the moment.  If you find yourself favoring one style over the other though, you might run into difficulties.  On the other hand, if you find that you can move from one style to the other as the situation warrants, your kids will benefit.

    Sometimes one parent will be stronger in one style while the other parent will be more comfortable with the other style.  This can work really well in a family where parents share responsibility, pick up where the other left off, and back each other up.  Unfortunately in some families, parenting styles can be a source of friction and parents end up sabotaging each other's efforts at parenting.  It can be especially difficult when parents aren't able to admit when their own style of parenting isn't working.  As the old saying goes, "insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over and expecting different results."  It's a wonderful thing when one parent realizes he/she has hit a wall and asks for help from the other parent or an outside resource like a teacher or counselor.

    Some children do better with one style of parenting over the other style.  Other children do better when there is a blend of both styles.  The most important thing about styles is to know when one is better suited to a particular situation than the other.  Each style has its benefits and children will be served best when a parent can master the very style that's being called for.  Different personalities, different stages of childhood and different situations will need to be handled by parents in very different ways.

Your Growing Edge in Parenting

    Where are you strong in your parenting style?  What are the difficulties that you run into with your kids?  Do they know just how to push your buttons?  Then look at your parenting style.  If your kids are having a hard time interacting with you and vice versa, it could be that you need to flex your growing edge around parenting styles.  Grow into the style that is least comfortable for you and maybe you'll see a difference in your relationship to your child.

Your Important Work

Parenting can be the toughest, most rewarding part of your job as a mother.  You have the opportunity to shape a life.  How will you shape it?  You also have the opportunity to grow from this work.  Will you grow and change as a result?  Will you become softer, more patient, more understanding, accepting and loving?  Or maybe you will enhance your ability to set boundaries, limits and rules that serve you and protect others.  Parenting is truly a time to learn as well as a time to teach.  It can be the most rewarding part of this job or the most frustrating.  How is it going for you today?

Below is something I wrote when my first child was 2 years old.  Can you tell which parenting style I was most comfortable with?

Important Battles

by Allison Gilbert, MA, LMFT 1996

At two years and four months the battle over dressing and diaper changing can be monumental.  I know he'd be happier going out than staying in, but to get him out, we have to go through the battle.  He doesn't want his nice warm, soft, wet diaper off!  And how dare we do something to his body that he doesn't want done!  It's his body!

In the midst of the battle, he starts crying, runs away from Daddy and comes to me.  This time, since I'm not directly involved in the battle, I can feel the intensity of his pain:  the outrage, utter dejection, ultimate giving up and incredible sorrow in having to relinquish control over an area of life so important to his sense of self-determination.

There's something essential to this battle though, that I can't quite put my finger on.  Through tears and hand signals I realize that he aches for me to understand.  Trying very hard to tell me what it is that bothers him so, he seems to need me to give it the words he can't quite form just yet.  He throws down his shorts, crying, gasping, choking.  He picks up the wet diaper, looks at me, shows me, wailing.  I say, (with the kind of pain in my voice I hear in his) "You don't want your diaper off!"  He tries to open the discarded, soiled, wet diaper, holds it up to himself against the clean, dry diaper Daddy hurried to get on, seeming to be pleading with me through the tears.  I say, (mirroring the sound of his sorrow), "You want to put your diaper back on!"  And with that said, he crumples, takes a huge gulp of air between sobs, seems to cry less and leans into me just wanting to be held, just wanting to integrate what has happened, his sadness comforted by my embrace.

This out burst, to the best of my knowledge--knowledge intuitively received, educationally developed, and sensitively acquired through my intense and loving relationship to this child--is about his very self, his ownership of himself.  And lately, every time we cross that line without gaining his permission, we are invading and ripping into his very soul.  How broken he then feels!  How utterly broken and dejected, as if his very claim to selfhood has been violated to the core!

This little being who is so close to his feelings and so able to express them fully without fear of what the other person might say or do makes my life quite challenging.  It breaks my heart to violate his boundaries for something as small as getting dressed!  And yet this is the battleground he chooses.  A minor thing to me symbolizes for him his very self.  And this is where we do our most important work--the outcome of which is worth all the effort I have to give it.

The work for me is in learning about patience, negotiation, and the relative importance of competing agendas.  I'm learning that establishing his selfhood is more important than getting somewhere on time or dressed properly.  I'm realizing how crucial it is for me to be home, to have time with no other agenda than him and his life, his learning to be himself, know himself, understand his feelings, be able to live through his feelings, assert himself and not compromise himself just to please others.  My belief and hope is that when he's treated with respect, he will naturally learn to respect others.  My basic underlying principle revolves around the belief that if my child is treated with respect by his caregivers, he will naturally learn to respect himself.  Respect for others then simply evolves organically from a strong inner core.  What he does not have for himself, he will not be able to give to others.  How he is treated by the ones he loves will be an example to him for how he is to treat others.

Another task for me is teaching and learning consequences and tradeoffs--though I'm not sure he is really developmentally ready to comprehend these things just yet.  Often though, I'll say, "If you leave your diaper on, you'll get a diaper rash that hurts!"  Today I say, "If you want to go to the volleyball games with Daddy, you need to put your shorts on."  At that point, what little ground we've covered in being able to calm him down is now quashed under a resurgence of hurt, anger and tears--how dare I not stay with the essential issue!  Changing clothes and having me understand what he is feeling about that is so important to him he will forgo volleyball! Volleyball means nothing in the face of establishing selfhood.

When I have the time it takes to face this battle respectfully, I warn him, way ahead of time, about what we are going to do--change his clothes or diaper--and why.  He generally says, "No!" but seems to warm up to the idea if given some time.  Then I give him a choice: which clothes or shoes, which place to change the diaper--standing up while playing or sitting down on the rug or on the bed.  Choices seem to help him feel more in control and then, it becomes a shared experience.  His behavior is a reminder that this is an appropriate stage in our relationship:  he's no longer a baby who has everything done to and for him without his input.  He wants to do some of these things by himself--taking his own clothes off or unfastening his diaper.  He's learning some mastery over his universe.  When I offer him the option of doing these things, he's more than delighted to be "cooperative."  But these things take time...

So I am left with the realization that #1. Daddy won't take the time right now to negotiate--the tournament is starting!  And Daddy is larger, older and wields a different kind of power in the family system.  #2. Jason loves going to watch volleyball with Daddy and if he wasn't two years old and focused on learning about the boundaries of his separate self, he'd probably be out there in a minute.  And #3. If we get Jason dressed and do it quickly and get the sunscreen on, we'll have five to ten minutes of hysterical anger, dejection, and the kind of wailing that crushes your heart.

When the "Real World" of artificial timetables and schedules collides with the "Toddler World" of inner readiness and organic timing, we have the opportunity to see if they can coincide without sacrificing too much of the self.  This is an important "battle" that continues on into adulthood.  This time Mommy and Daddy opt for the sacrifice and once that 10 minutes of "battle" is over, Jason's focused on and excited by the next proposition: putting raisins in some plastic wrap to take to the tournament!  "Helmet Daddy!" and they're off on the bike to watch volleyball!  What have we learned?  I takes time, understanding, validating, and sometimes just bracing our way through the battle to get to the good.