Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How One Parent Learned to Walk

by Dana Frederick, M.A., LPC, LMFT

I recently consulted the newest version of the Dr Dobson classic, The New Strong-Willed Child. The first edition, The Strong-Willed Child, was published just in time for my parents to use it with me when I was a pre-schooler trying to take over the house. Now that my toddler is trying to do the same, I decided it was time to bone up on some parenting basics with lots of reading and consulting with more experienced parents. As a counselor, I help people regularly with child discipline, but there is a whole new point of view when it’s your own child, and I needed some outside advice.

The first thing I realized in my journey is that I have a problem with authority. Don’t get me wrong, I am generally respectful of my employers, husband, and others in authority in my life. However, in my relationship with my child, I was not properly administering my authority over him. I would say to myself, “He is still a baby. I will deal with that when he is older.” I thought I was being kind and avoiding harshness by overlooking areas where he needed training, but while I was talking myself out of parenting, my baby had become a toddler pitching tents in areas I didn’t want to camp out, like biting me with very sharp baby teeth!

As I considered the advice of others, I saw that in trying to protect my child from teaching I didn’t think he was ready for, I was actually leaving him to figure out the complex world of feeling frustration all by himself. He needed help learning to manage frustration, as evidenced by biting me when not getting his way! I realized my true job as a parent is to use my authority lovingly, to shape his heart and mind, and not doing this was, frankly, me neglecting a big part of my job.

When I examined why I have been tentative to exercise my authority over my own child, it dawned on me that being in authority can be scary. I don’t always know the right or best thing to do in situations with my child. By not dealing with certain situations, I was avoiding that vulnerable feeling. But, I realized there is a further problem with my inaction: if I feel insecure as a parent, how will my child grow up with a sense of confidence? I realized that by not leading, I am really leading my child right down the same road of insecurity and self-doubt.

So, with true resolve, I decided to take a stand. Facing my fears of the unknown, I refused to let defiant behaviors continue. Not for everything right away, but for the top truly defiant behaviors (like biting me or refusing to sit in his car seat or high chair). For a couple days, I think my child was surprised at my newly-found backbone. But, in just two days, I noticed a drastic change in his attitude and a wonderful surge in my confidence as a parent.

I know what you are thinking, “What did you do? Time-outs, spankings, take away things?” Well, I am not telling you what I did on purpose. I tried discipline techniques with my child before, but they did not work until I wrapped my arms around my parental authority and refused to let go. If you are truly in a stance of embracing parental authority, I believe you will figure out what consequences work for your individual child through trial and error. In other words, your child will sense your “I-mean-business-attitude” and respond to whatever you think is the right thing to do.

While my child may respond on a different timeframe than others (I am not sure he is truly a “strong-willed” child as defined by Dobson, or just a human being in need of basic training), I believe more strongly than ever that all children need parental leadership and authority. And, my fear of being inadequate was proven unfounded. My exercise of authority resulted in me feeling more confident as a parent, yet humbled in knowing how hard the job is and how much I need the input of others to do a good job.  Where my son’s needs met my insecurities I found a place where we were BOTH stretched to growth.

So, I encourage you to walk with your child, or any child in your life, into whatever place he or she may need you to go. You don’t have to have all the answers, just be willing to venture into the unknown with them and trust your resources to help lead the way. If you, like me, find yourself getting stuck, that’s just a sign it’s time to consult with others, or read, and then face the challenges. You will both be better for the journey.

And, as an end note, I feel compelled to add that parental authority is an attitude administered with loving self-control, never as an angry reaction.  If you find yourself struggling with anger toward your children, it may be a sign that you have lost the tender connection you want with your child through the trials of life. This, too, can heal. Do not hesitate to seek outside help.  There are several therapists at Fountain Gate who specialize in helping with these and other parenting, child, and adolescent issues.