By Pulkit Sharma
When parents operate out of their own blinkered perspective, and fail to respect the child’s unique needs and views, they not only damage the child but also fray bonds, says Pulkit Sharma
Recently, a 75-year-old father and his 53-year-old son came to me to help resolve their strained relationship. The father stated that his son had an imaginary problem as he had fulfilled all his desires without his even having to ask for anything. The son became enraged and retorted that this was the problem. According to him, the father was dominating, and carried such a grand image of himself that he never gave the son an opportunity to express discontent over what was missing. In my interactions with troubled children and parents as a psychologist, I have often come across this issue. While parents feel that their parenting is flawless, children feel that they have been parented in a very destructive, cold and deprived manner. So, what could be the reason for this big gap in understanding?
As parents we feel that our intentions are good, for we want the best for our children. We slog to fulfil our children’s needs. We rear them in the best way we can. However, if we reflect, we may realise that we are seeing things only from our perspective. Our ego is the greatest guiding force. It tells us what is good and bad for the child. It lays down standards that we wish our children to measure up to. We think that the process is as simple as identifying a goal and pushing the child towards it. Parents often miss out on an important understanding. The ego is a composite of our personality, wishes, desires, values and life experiences. It has no room for the wishes, desires and values of others.What we perceive as good may not be valued by our children. The child also has his or her own ego, and may have a different set of thoughts, feelings, behaviours, aspirations and values. Problems in parenting occur because generally there is a clash of ego between the child and the parent.
The essence of positive parenting lies in moving beyond the confines of our ego, and expanding ourselves. We need to create a space for the child’s developing ego in our own mind, and remind ourselves that the child is a different being. We need to understand the difference between a child and a clone. The more we do it the better will be our chances of helping our children to discover their true selves. The essence of positive parenting lies in the capacity to renounce one’s ego, and accept the child’s ego through various methods.
1. Develop empathy for the child
Once, a couple consulted a counselling psychologist as they were having a very tough time with their child. The child had been sexually abused on one occasion by a close family member. As a result, she felt traumatised and had given up on everything. The parents had valiantly overcome many severe traumas in their own life, and felt the child was being a coward. They expected her to get over the trauma quickly and carry on with her life. However, unlike them, the child was very sensitive, and could not deal with her feelings of pain and rage. Her parents’ inability to accept her pain caused conflict between them.
Understanding the child from his or her own perspective is the bedrock of a positive parent-child bond. Generally, parents are either too obsessed with their own viewpoint or consider the child’s perspective inferior. In order to develop empathy for the child, the parents need to suspend their assumptions, give up the perceived superiority of their perspective, and put themselves in the child’s shoes. The goal is to only understand the child, and not influence the way he or she feels. If a child feels that the parent is faking understanding, or using it to further hidden agendas, the exercise is counterproductive. When a child feels understood by the parents, he or she also develops a reciprocal empathy. This helps the child in developing good relationships with peers, siblings and adults.
2. Boost your child’s self-esteem
It is the great tragedy of our times that children are showered with appreciation only when they do something, rather than for who they are. This gives the child the message that they need to be in a certain way to be loved, and that no one likes them as they are. Every child is born with unique talents and deep human qualities. When others reflect back and appreciate this uniqueness the child feels good about them, and these traits get strengthened.
Parents should also express joy when the child feels that he or she has achieved something, whether it is trivial or important. You may be a top class computer engineer developing complex software but do not deprive your child of his or her share of joy when he or she downloads a video from YouTube for the first time. It may be something very mundane for you but effortful for the child. When children experience that their effort and desire to be self-reliant is valued by parents, they blossom into conscientious and creative beings. Otherwise, they lose track and become demotivated.
3. Don’t see the child as your extention
Once I had an opportunity of interviewing four generations of a family for a research project on transgenerational trauma. The fourth generation which comprised of a young girl and boy were always battling crippling anxiety. Whether it was a simple class test or a game organised in their locality, they were petrified of failure. This gave them sleepless nights, gastric problems and panic attacks. After carefully studying their family history, it became apparent that they were an affluent family once, but now struggling to make their ends meet due to forced migration. The entire family wanted the fourth generation to resurrect their past glory through their achievements. This huge task made the children panic.
The moment we become parents, we start treating the child as our extention. The entire burden of what we have achieved and what we could not is automatically passed on to the little one. The tender creature has to carry the albatross of family glory on his shoulder, and become a saviour. This generates intense anxiety and identity crisis in children. For a child to be happy and content, he or she must feel free to discover their inner calling and pursue it. Therefore, the parents need to constantly remind themselves that the child is not their extention. They need to let go of the accumulated pain and pleasure of family history.
4. Encourage self-discipline
A majority of parents often approach psychologists, counsellors, healers and parenting experts to learn how to discipline their child. It is worthwhile remembering that no one likes to be controlled. It is human to find ways to rebel against any control. Children are no different. They hate being bossed around, controlled and confined. In response to control, they either become actively aggressive, or display passive hostility. Therefore, one should give up the idea of disciplining a child. Instead, attempts should be made right from early childhood to inculcate self-discipline in the child. Children like the idea of self-discipline as it makes them feel powerful and in control.
The first prerequisite for cultivating self-discipline in children is that parents need to follow a disciplined lifestyle themselves. Children pick up behaviour patterns by observing their parents, and react sharply to double standards. If parents follow an erratic lifestyle, indulge excessively and value a pleasure-oriented existence, their children are likely to become hedonistic and unruly. Secondly, children need to be explained the immense potential of self-discipline in promoting growth. Pros and cons of various habits and behaviours should be discussed openly with them, and then they should be encouraged to set their own limits. If a child is unable to follow a limit that has been set by mutual agreement, the child should be made to reflect upon that. This will enable the child to come up with a better plan.
5. Ensure a balance between dependence and independence
Right from day one infants have both the needs for dependence and independence. There are times when they cry helplessly to be picked up, comforted and soothed. In contrast, there are occasions when they wish to be left alone to practice tiny hand, leg and facial movements. This is a bewildering experience for parents as they struggle to understand and adjust to the varying needs of the infant.
As the children continue to grow, a rich interplay of both the needs continues. However, in many cases parents have a strong unconscious wish to see their child either as independent or overly dependent. There are parents who reject and intimidate their children forcefully whenever they seek nurturance. In contrast there are parents who behave very possessively and stop their child from being on his or her own. For healthy development of their children, parents need to be open about their children having and shuttling between both the needs.
6. Provide constructive feedback
Children often make several mistakes. It is the responsibility of parents to make the children reflect on these mistakes so that they improve. A commonly practised child rearing pattern in Indian culture is to criticise the young one so that he or she feels driven to improve. However, this generates low self-esteem. Children feel worthless and helpless. These feelings often continue into adulthood. In my practice of psychotherapy, I have seen that several adults continue to feel like dirt despite truckloads of achievements. The source of this shattered self-esteem can be traced back to sharp parental criticism during childhood. As children are fragile and vulnerable, it is important to safeguard their self-esteem while giving feedback. Each time before highlighting their mistake, they need to be told that they are good and everyone is happy to have them. Then where and how they went wrong should be explained to them. Thereafter, a brainstorming exercise to figure out the reasons for the mistake needs to be carried out. Finally, the child and the parent should collaborate to come up with a better plan to improve.
The essence of positive parenting lies in the fact that parents firstly need to look within. They need to openly acknowledge their biases, mistakes, expectations, vulnerabilities, and work through them. Only when they are free from this burden can they be emotionally available and responsive to their children.