The Imperfect Parent

How many of the parents, reading this column, are perfect parents? None? Well, how many of the imperfect parents, reading this column, have perfect children? Still none? While it may be that perfect parents don’t need to read this column, I think the real truth is that there are no perfect parents or perfect children. If that is true, then why do so many parents act as if there is such a being as the “perfect parent” or “perfect child?”

To illustrate my point, try completing the following sentences. Just say the first thing that comes to mind:

A good parent always…

Good children should…

As a parent, I must…

My children ought to be more…

If I were more like my own parents, I would be more…

If a parent falls short of these standards, and so, is not a “good” parent, what does that leave the parent to be? Parents are left with the belief that he or she is a “bad” parent. These beliefs are responsible for why parents feel so out of control and powerless in their parenting roles. Parents need more realistic beliefs about parenting. Realistic Beliefs about Parenting Beliefs are expressions of parent’s values about themselves, other people, and the world. Unrealistic beliefs create a feeling of demand that pushes and drives parents unnecessarily where realistic beliefs create a feeling of inner stability, even when circumstances aren’t always stable.

One way to create more realistic beliefs is to evaluate the evidence for your unrealistic thoughts about parenting. Ask yourself these questions: What law states that a child will always listen and be respectful? What evidence really suggests that all parents must be available to their children at all times? What edict states that I must be perfect?

For one day, make a list of all the negative thoughts that come to mind as you go about your parenting duties. At the end of the day, look over the list and write out alternative, positive counter-thoughts. Whenever the negative thoughts come up, immediate state the alternative thought to break its power over you. If it is too hard to remember them all, pick one or two of the negative thoughts that create the most interference in your parenting and counter those only. Do that for about a week and then move down the list to the others. Changing what you say about your parenting will change how your feel about your parenting.

Try this experiment: complete the following incomplete sentences and notice the emotional difference between these and the first list.

A responsible parent always…

Good children sometimes…

As a parent, I can be…

I desire my children to be more…

If I were like my own parents, the positive qualities I would like to have…

Only one word was changed in each of these sentences and yet it dramatically changes how you think and feel. If you are going to accept the fact that you are imperfect then you will have to eliminate “perfection” language from your thoughts and words. You will need to accept the fact that you are acting “good-enough.” This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive for more out of yourselves or your child. Self-improvement is not the same as expecting perfection It takes courage to be a “good-enough” parent.

This is what the child psychiatrist, Rudolph Driekurs, calls “the courage to be imperfect.” While there are plenty of perfect parenting standards to fail short of, there are no rules for how to be an imperfect parent. Here are ten un-commandments for developing the “courage to be imperfect”:

1. Children should be encouraged, not expected, to seek perfection.

2. Accept who you are rather than try to be more than or as good as other parents.

3. Mistakes are aids to learning. Mistakes are not signs of failure. Anticipating or fearing mistakes will make us more vulnerable to failure.

4. Mistakes are unavoidable and are less important than what the parent does after he or she makes a mistake.

5. Set realistic standards for yourself and your child. Don’t try correcting or changing too many things at one time.

6. Develop a sense of your strengths and your weaknesses.

7. Mutual respect, between parent and child, starts by valuing yourself. Recognize your own dignity and worth before you try and show your child their dignity and worth.

8. Unhappy parents are frequently discouraged, competitive, unrealistic in their standard for themselves and their children, over ambitious, and unbalanced in their love and limits.

9. High standards and expectations are frequently related to parent’s feelings of inferiority and lack of adequate parenting resources.

10. Parents need to develop the courage to cope with the challenges of living, which means, they must develop the “courage to be imperfect.”  

10 Principles of an Aware Parent

I just learned about Dr. Aletha Solter’s book and principles of Aware Parenting. I don’t know why it took so long to become acquainted with her work but her ideas are extremely close to my own thoughts on parenting. Her ideas are timely in this day of discovery about the healing aspects of mindfulness. Read through her 10 Principles and see where they resonate with your own parenting thoughts. Source: http://www.awareparenting.com/english.htm “1. Aware parents fill their children’s needs for physical contact (holding, cuddling, etc.). They do not worry about "spoiling” their children.

2. Aware parents accept the entire range of emotions and listen non-judgmentally to children’s expressions of feelings. They realize that they cannot prevent all sadness, anger, or frustration, and they do not attempt to stop children from releasing painful feelings through crying or raging.

3. Aware parents offer age-appropriate stimulation, and trust children to learn at their own rate and in their own way. They do not try to hurry children on to new stages of development.

4. Aware parents offer encouragement for learning new skills, but do not judge children’s performance with either criticism or evaluative praise.

5. Aware parents spend time each day giving full attention to their children. During this special, quality time, they observe, listen, respond, and join in their children’s play (if invited to do so), but they do not direct the children’s activities.

6. Aware parents protect children from danger, but they do not attempt to prevent all of their children’s mistakes, problems, or conflicts.

7. Aware parents encourage children to be autonomous problem-solvers and help only when needed. They do not solve their children’s problems for them.

8. Aware parents set reasonable boundaries and limits, gently guide children towards acceptable behavior, and consider everyone’s needs when solving conflicts. They do not control children with bribes, rewards, threats, or punishments of any kind.

9. Aware parents take care of themselves and are honest about their own needs and feelings. They do not sacrifice themselves to the point of becoming resentful.

10. Aware parents strive to be aware of the ways in which their own childhood pain interferes with their ability to be good parents, and they make conscious efforts to avoid passing on their own hurts to their children.

Aware Parenting is based on the work of Dr. Aletha Solter. For more information, please see Dr. Aletha Solter’s books, The Aware BabyHelping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, and Raising Drug-Free Kids

 

Changing Children’s Behavior: Take Some Measurements!

Does your child have so many problems that you don’t know where to start? Are you so frustrated that you can’t see or think straight? Do you feel helpless about how to make changes in your relationship with your child? Perhaps the first place to start is with a few measurements.

When behaviorists study people’s behavior, they start with a baseline. A baseline is a tool that is used to measure the frequency and duration of someone’s specific behavior. A baseline can be used to measure the frequency and duration of both desirable and undesirable behavior. This dual measurement can tell parents what they want to increase and what they want to decrease, all without a lot of screaming, hair pulling, or medication!

The first step in determining a baseline is to measure a child’s behavior when no intervention or tool is being used with the child. This way parents can get an accurate estimation of the child’s behavior. Baselines will allow a parent to measure the effectiveness of a particular parenting tool they are using. If a parent discovers that a tool is not getting the desirable results (i.e., the misbehavior continues at the same level as before or is much worse), then the parent knows to abandon this approach and try another. Parents then find a different tool to use that gets them better results. Sounds easy, huh! Actually it isn’t. But with a little practice parents can use baselines to objectively and rationally approach a behavior problem and change it.

The next step is to gather a few basic materials: a piece of graph paper, pencil, and daily calendar. Write across the top of the graph paper the behavior you wish to increase or decrease. For example, you might write: “I want to increase the number of times that Tommy takes his bath on time” or “I want to decrease the number of times that Mary hits her little brother.” Picking the behavior may not be as easy at it sounds. You must pick one behavior to focus on and not get confused with other problems at home. Be very specific about what you want to increase or decrease. Don’t write: “I want Tommy to behave.” That is too general and vague. You will never achieve that anyway, so why frustrate you and Tommy. Pick a behavior that is particularly troublesome and/or dangerous to start.

To get a baseline, simply count how many times a day that particular behavior is occurring for one week. Average it on a per day basis by taking your weekly total and divide it by seven (days of the week). That will be your baseline. Let’s say that you want Tommy to take his bath, on time, every day. At this time, Tommy only takes his bath, one time, once per week. One is your baseline. Anything you use to increase this frequency will be considered effective. Anything that does not or reduces it to zero, is not effective.

After you have picked the behavior, use the bottom of the paper to list the days of the week from the calendar (Sunday, Monday… Saturday). Along the left side of the paper you will write a range of numbers, starting from the bottom and going up. The range could be from zero to ten, if the behavior you are targeting is a low frequency problem or zero to hundred, if it is a high frequency problem. I would suggest sticking with a low frequency problem. It will make the process simpler and easier to monitor.

Now comes the fun part: picking the tool. What will you use to increase or decrease your child’s behavior? You could do what you have always done, like Time-Out or Removing Privileges. Or you could read up on a couple of books, ask a wise friend or teacher, or search the Internet, looking for various interventions to try. Regardless of where you go for your tools, choose only one. Use the tool of choice for a period of one week and faithfully measure how many times a day that behavior occurs with the application of the tool. Be sure that all caregivers (moms, dads, relatives, day care staff, etc.) use the same tool or you will not get a good measurement. In fact, if dad is doing one thing and mom another, you could be sabotaging each other’s efforts. Get everyone on the bandwagon and cooperating.

Chart the number of times the behavior occurs (its frequency per day) and the time that it occurred. In order to see if change has occurred, parents must check to see if there is any difference between the baseline number, before any intervention was made, and the number of occurrences after an intervention is made. This final number should come close to your target number. Let’s take another look at Tommy and his bath time. Mom and dad decided to take away Tommy’s television privileges if he did not get in the bath on time each day. They did this by simply stating the consequence ten minutes before bath time to give him time to prepare. If Tommy did not get in the bath on time (they gave him a five minute window of opportunity either way) they stated that there would be no television privileges the next morning and stuck to their decision. After a couple of days, Tommy realized that mom and dad were serious about this bath time business and decided to cooperate. He was able to get in the bath, on time, three times in one week, as a result of mom and dad’s new interventions. This was a definite increase from the baseline and considered successful by everyone.

Don’t worry if the change doesn’t occur immediately. Children test their parents to see if they will be consistent with these new interventions or if parents are going to fall back to old, inconsistent ways of disciplining. One to two weeks may be needed to witness any real results. If the behavior is still not changing after that period of time, find a new tool. It is also important that you be consistent. Inconsistency will reward the behavior in the wrong direction.

What if one parent is willing to cooperate but the other is not? This makes our task harder but not impossible. Simple measure during a time that you are able to control, say, during the daytime when dad is at work. Obviously, you must pick a target behavior that occurs during that time period and find a tool that you can administer alone. Children will adapt to the different parenting styles of their parents, even if they are exact opposites.

Reward all positive, behavioral changes. This will help to maintain the behavior over a long period of time. Don’t resort to bribes, such as sweets, money, or toys. This will backfire on you. Use social praise, like: “Great job” or “I really appreciated how you did that.” This is usually sufficient for children. Any negative behavior should be ignored, as much as possible.

How long should you use the baseline tool? Use the tool for as long as you need. Once you are getting positive results from your new tool, you can go on to targeting a new behavior or put the chart away until it is needed again. Behavior tools, like the baseline, have some limitations. Very smart children see your strategy and try to go around it or do as they are asked, during the specific time it is asked, and then immediately misbehave right after. For example, Tommy may get into the bath on time so that he can watch his favorite television programs, but right after the bath, he may become rude and obnoxious to his little sister. This is a weakness in the tool, not you. Ignore the weakness for now. All you are concerned with is increasing getting into the bath on time. Later you will address, with the baseline tool, the rude behavior.

The value of this parenting tool is in its ability to get a baseline measure of a child’s behavior and to test the validity of the parenting tools your are using. It allows you to cope with feelings of frustration and target behavior objectively and without negative attention to the child. This allows the parent and the child to concentrate on more enjoyable activities together.

Parenting Guilt is a Waste of Time

It was one of those lazy Sunday afternoons and the sky was beautiful blue. White, billowy clouds were floating by as I sat and watched them on my front porch. The only problem with this day was I felt guilty about not being more productive. I felt like I “should” be doing something. Pulling weeds, reading some important journal paper or updating my blog. I remember this feeling as a parent too. There always seem like there is so much to do and I was always so far behind on something. Shouldn’t I be doing laundry instead of playing catch in the backyard with my kids or working on some craft? There were many times my guilt drove me to try and do household chores and play with the kids at the same time. Let’s just say, it wasn’t very effective in either area.

Many of us NEED to listen to that inner voice. That bathroom really does need some more attention but for the majority of parents, guilt is a constant critic. It is driven by the need for perfection. It fears what others will think of us. It causes us to forget that our children are more important than a clean dish put away into the dishwasher.

As a grandparent, you realize that the moments slip away into days into years into decades and then there are gone. When you realize all the magical moments missed with your child because you just had to prune the rose bush or scrub the shower (or for you working parents, work an extra hour or two in your home office), that is when the real guilt settles in. It is for what you could have done with your child if I wasn’t just so tightly wound up over the little things.

Here’s my parenting expert, grandfatherly advice:  Spend an entire weekend just interacting with your children and let guilt go for two entire days! Just two days mind you. That means the beds don’t get made, the dishes may stay in the sink (OK, you can put them away after they go to bed) and the home office door stays shut. Oh yeah, and the electronic devices are off. Yes, off!

Tell me how the experience goes by posting a comment here or sharing on twitter or facebook.

Attachment Disordered Children – Radio Show Interview with Ron Huxley

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If you didn’t catch my radio show interview this morning you can listen to the archived mp3 at http://toginet.com/shows/theparentsplate/articles/1314 Brenda Nixon, host of the Parents Plate radio show, invited me to chat about the controversial diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and the current state of mental health treatment of traumatized children today. I shared some great ideas in our hour long discussion that you will want to listen in on…everything from how children are diagnosed to attachment neuroscience to practical parenting tools. I even shared on why children with attachment impairments “Monster Up!” – a phrase I coined. Take a moment to download or stream the show at http://toginet.com/shows/theparentsplate/articles/1314

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Why can’t your child pay attention?

In my last post I talked about how parents can change a child’s brain. Hopefully you can begin to believe that this is possible. I think it suggest a very different approach to parenting. Instead of trying to “manage” a child’s behavior, we can begin to explore how to “train” a child from the inside out. One of the areas parents might really benefit from this approach is to help them pay attention. I am not talking about dealing with diagnosable Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorders but that might be applicable as well. I am simply thinking about ways to get your child to look up from the cell phone or hear your request to come in for dinner, the first time, when they are engaged in play outside. Would you like to say something the first time and be heard without repeating (yelling) it again? How about on a more personal level: Wouldn’t you like to be able to focus on your families needs without feeling overwhelmed and stressed? How many things try to capture our attention in a day? How many times do our children have to ask a question before we turn to focus on them? This is what Amishi Jha, the brain scientist,  is talking about in the short video clip (see below).
People in today’s society have so much demand on their attention that they are constantly battling what to pay attention to. This is true for our children as well as ourselves! Unfortunately, what occurs is that we live our life in “instant replay” mode. We are constantly having to go back and review what someone said or someone did.
We hear our children fighting from the other room and have to go back and rewind our mental tapes to understand what is going on and how we are going to intervene. We don’t have the luxury to live in the moment and deal with only one thing at a time. Consequently, we engage in shortcut strategies to survive. Our children do the same. The brain has an Executive System to deploy attention and memory resources to problems as they occur around us. This is probably why so many of us parents work on crisis mode with our children. We may miss good things our children do as our emotional resources are concentrating on putting out fires. We feel we don’t have the capacity to focus on what is working due to so much focus on what is going wrong. As you can imagine this creates a vicious cycle for parent and child.
How do we keep the play button of the brain on the present moment instead of being focused on the past moment or future moment (on what we need to do next)? Mindfulness researchers would ask this question by saying “how do we pay attention to our present moment without judgement and stay calm in the midst of stressful demands of life?” There are a lot of books that look at mindfulness out that can inform parents on this. My favorite is the book “Parenting from the inside out” by Daniel Siegel. We also have the knowledge of our spiritual practices that can inform a more mindful, present-focused parenting. It may be useful to start meditating on how to pay more attention to our children, in the moment, and model better attentional skills in our children simultaneously. Click link here to watch Amishi Jha talk about how to train brains to pay better attention: Amishi Jha: Building Attention Learn more on this topic and other real life parenting tools in our ParentingToolbox Newsletter. Click here now!

Parents can change a child’s brain

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Some of the research listed below suggests that parents (and teachers) are in the brain changing business. Although parents might struggle with changing a child’s “mind” they inevitably have a role in the child’s developing brain. A child’s experiences in life can alter the structures of the brain for good or ill. The most important experiences are those they share with their caretakers. This might put a lot of weight on parents already weighty lives and cause them to feel that can’t do anything right. The only result, they might joke, is pay for the therapy latter! Fortunately, those therapists have long known that optimal is better than perfect. The idea of the “Good Enough” parent is a comforting one, to myself at least. We don’t have to do everything perfect. It is more important that we try, even in the event of failures (blow our top, pick the child up late from preschool, can’t help with a math assignment or get a divorce) a child can come out OK. It is our overall efforts and results that children judge us by and it is our consistent effort to provide structure and nurturing that create the healthiest brains/people. I will share more parenting tools that allow parents to manage this balancing act in the Parenting Toolbox’s newsletter: The Family Work Bench. Get a subscription now! image Source: http://committedparent.wordpress.com/2007/10/27/if-youre-in-the-parenting-business-youre-in-the-brain-change-business/ “No matter what business you’re involved in, first and foremost you’re in the brain change business.” So asserts Houston neuro-psychiatrist, Bruce Perry. In line with that premise, it makes great sense to know at least a few of the basics about how your own and other people’s brains grow and change in ways that could possibly help make them work like Einstein’s, Michelangelo’s and Mother Teresa’s all rolled into one! imageThe brain is perhaps best thought of as a collection of interconnected endocrine glands – roughly 52 indiv- idual parts controlling different actions. They all must work together to “process energy and infor- mation.” Thinking about the brain in such terms – as a network of organs that must optimally process the energy and information of our daily lives – turns out to be a very useful template to help us understand our own and others’ reactions to the world, and to make good decisions in response to them. Ideally, we only want ourselves and our family and friends involved in activities that their brains are developmentally suited to handle, and perhaps a little bit more. It’s the “little bit more” that can become tricky, which is how we build resilience in ourselves and our kids. I’ll be discussing resilience often in these columns. Associations Make it Happen Another important way to think about our brain is as an associating organ. By that, I simply mean that it learns a lot by putting things together. Things like words and pictures, upand down, hot and cold, thoughts and feelings. By pairing things that make the brain feel good with things that we want ourselves or our children to learn, the neurons in the brain become richly connected. A variation of this is sometimes known as “Grandmother’s Rule: You may do what you want to do – when you’ve done what you need to do.” By pairing preferred actions with less exciting necessary duties, like brushing teeth and going to bed at a set, regular time, reinforced learning takes place Plastic is as Plastic Does Finally, one last thing to realize and remember about the brain and the business of trying to change it, is that the brain is exquisitely “plastic.

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