Chuck and Priscilla were at their wits’ end. They are the parents of two teen-aged girls, and two younger boys. The eldest, Charlotte, is out-of-control. As each child approaches adolescence, they seem to become impossible. “We don’t know what to do anymore!” Priscilla wails. “I do everything for them. Charlotte and Chuck fight constantly. He expects her to respect him, but she swears at him when he makes the slightest demand. Then he gets mad and starts yelling, and it’s all over! She’s a top student and athlete. Why won’t she be more compliant at home? And now Gertie, my 13-year-old, is starting to act out. She talks back something fierce! The boys never do anything around the house. Their grandparents think they are all out of control. I don’t know how much more of this I can take!”
Many parents feel confident in their skills while their children are little, only to wonder how it all got away from them as their kids reach the pre-teen years. And who are these strangers inhabiting their adolescents’ bodies, and what did they do with the off-spring we knew, anyway?
Parenting is not the same as it used to be. Fewer families include a stay-at-home parent. Economically, most families need both parents to be in the workforce. More women are single parents. The kids who are teens now were in daycare or otherwise looked after by people other than their parents. They don’t see us as the arbiters of their lives or as the holders of all the keys, because we no longer are. As well, TV and computers have made information easily accessible by children – information that, just a few years ago, was the domain of adults. The way we protected children in the past from overwhelming material such as sexual images, disasters, and pictures of war-torn bodies, was to keep it unavailable. Now that is almost impossible. Children are traumatized by the news.
They are also feeling immense pressure to be involved in activities and interests that their peers and the media tell them they are ready for. Advertising, loosened standards in TV programs and movies, and the availability of adult content are all making our children (and many parents, actually) believe that ten-year-olds should be concerned about deodorant, and engage in sexual behaviors.
We are all racing – kids and parents alike. Society runs at a much faster pace. Music, TV shows, sentence structure and pacing in books, magazines, even symphonies, have sped up drastically. There is an overwhelming amount of information bombarding us and demanding that we respond to it instantly. There is more information in one Sunday issue of the New York Times than in all the books that existed in the 16th century. We work longer, vacation less (in the USA), and are expected to be available by phone, hand-held, and computer 24/7. On top of all this, neighborhoods are not as safe as before. Gangs, drugs, and violence are not restricted to inner cities.
When parents come to me, often they want to reduce some unacceptable behavior in their child. Old parenting styles that many of us were raised with, were based on behavior control. They worked moderately well then because children were more dependent on their parents. Today, the same methods often have wildly unsuccessful results, in that they spark dramatic reactions in our children that are often the exact opposite of what we hoped for. When parents now use a domineering tone, lay down the law, and are unaware of their child’s point of view, while expecting instant and unquestioning obedience, pre-teens and teens often react with aggression or rejection in terms that we’d never have dared to use. We cannot focus simply on behavior cessation or our own comfort levels. There is nothing more silly and helpless than the feeling you get when you bellow, “You’re not going anywhere until you clean your room!” and have the kid shoot you that who-are-you-kidding sneer and stalk out of the house. Parents feel shell-shocked and confused, and the children feel disrespected, misunderstood, and alone.
What we need now are the skills that will help our kids see us as their major support. We need to help them learn to navigate the world as it is today. They need to take risks within a reasonable range, learn from their mistakes within the safety of a family that knows the value of trial and error. We need to make sure that our families help young people think about situations, options, and consequences.
It is difficult to give up old patterns and to try new ones. The benefits are legion. As painful as the tumult often is in today’s families, we can see it as an opportunity, if we view the chaos from within a positive psychology framework. We have the chance to lay a foundation for continued connection and understanding with our young children, to build real and lasting closeness with our adolescents, and in so doing, to work beyond some of the hurts we may still be carrying from our own childhoods, by learning to have more meaningful and warm relationships with our kids. It is so easy, in the face of kids’ changing behavior and moodiness, to lose sight of the fact that we have wonderful skills. While they treat us as if we are clueless, ridiculous, and offensive, it is imperative that we maintain our own reality. The more we can maintain our own equanimity and center, the more they will acquire these same strengths, to help with the pressures that face them in years to come.
Priscilla and Chuck started by uncovering their assumptions about families, as well as the patterns they inherited from their own upbringings. We looked at the effects of these patterns on the present. Then we discussed what is causing their children to act the way they are. This information included normal developmental phases as well as how modern culture and environmental factors have accelerated kids’ behavior. (It is not only a relief for parents to have more insight into their child’s reality, it helps immeasurably in staying calm and in being understanding during conflicts, rather than reacting only to the surface behavior.)
Once the elements feeding into the tumult were uncovered, Priscilla and Chuck paused to remember why they wanted to have a family in the first place – the spiritual, loving, giving, connected, creative, nourishing reasons for generating and supporting life. Then they identified their signature strengths, as identified by the research in positive psychology spear-headed by Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman. We brainstormed parenting applications. Parents feel empowered to acknowledge and utilize their Values In Action (VIAs, as they are called) such as curiosity, loving, perseverance, genuineness, open-mindedness, kindness, leadership. For example, Priscilla has perseverance/diligence as a strength. We talked about how she could redirect it from doing all the chores and running herself ragged, to setting up job plans and following through with consistency. She could apply her strength to learning more about child development, new approaches to discipline, as well as putting more emphasis her own well-being within the family.
But the VIA signature strengths are not the only characteristics that parents have or need!
After working to upgrade my own parenting skills and helping many families, I have identified a list of Positive Parenting Strengths (you could call them Values in Parenting – VIP’s) that are explicitly helpful in family life. We have many of the Positive Parenting Strengths in abundance but don’t always recognize them as valuable. As parents recognize these attributes and attend mindfully to expanding their use in situations, we feel more assured in our parenting. Increasing our reliance on these strengths also tends to give us more confidence in our communities and in work lives, as we see them help in all relationships.
The VIPs list is meant as an adjunct to the VIA list, so I have not replicated the many valuable parenting skills, such as authenticity, curiosity, love of learning in the original. The two can be used together to focus and enhance parents’ efforts.
Here, then, is the list I propose as Positive Parenting Strengths (PPS’s). These are skills that help parents of any aged child improve communication, feel more calm and confident, and maintain loving connections. Read through the Strengths and identify those which you recognize as your top five. Following the list are some exercises you may use to apply your strengths to sticky events in your family.
1) Staying Grounded
You are able to stop, breathe, and connect in with the lower half of your body, especially when you find yourself getting worked up. You settle, turn inward, and feel the energy moving in your abdomen, pelvis, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, and feet. You feel your energy joining with the energy of the earth so that you feel connected, rather than like a helium balloon that someone forgot to knot after blowing up. You stay internally present in difficult and emotional situations.
You have a strong sense of your true self, and you feel it as a place in which you reside in yourself. You have a clear experience of the distinction between your personality and your Being. You are good at gathering yourself, not being distracted, or pulled into self-judgment. When the going gets tough, rather than reacting by scattering or closing down, you make a point of staying open and self-aware. You know that being centered connects you to spirit and to well-being.
You are able to see the world through your children’s eyes. You see their feelings and reactions as valid, given their experience and level of development. When they have a hard time, you make an effort to reflect back to them an understanding of what it must be like for them. You look beyond rude behavior to try to see what is going on inside. If there is a situation that repeatedly drives you crazy, you make sure you take the time to imagine, not only what this situation must be like for them, but what it must mean, given their history. You are able to imagine the scenario as if you are in their body and mind, see what it means to them, and what gets stirred up. You gain insight that helps you modify future situations. Doing so frees you from feeling upset by their behavior and often leads to their being calmer and more open.
You recognize that good communication is a skill and is not automatic. You think carefully, and in advance, what you want to accomplish in communicating with your children. You plan and practice communication patterns that elicit thoughtful and relatively calm interactions. You are good at orchestrating conversations that enable children to learn life skills. You know that it is much more important to ask questions than it is to provide answers. You help them, by asking questions, learn to think through situations, anticipate consequences, and consider alternatives.
You want them to learn how to work things out for themselves, so you work to control your emotional reactions to things that they might say, in order to reach the larger goals of open interaction, problem-solving, decision-making, self-confidence, and social skills.
Your strong points are paraphrasing what they’ve said, so as to make sure you heard correctly, asking questions about the topic and about their thoughts, feelings, responses and actions. “How did you feel then?”, “What possibilities are there?” “What happened next?” “What do you want to do about it?” “Who could you talk to about that?” are your stock in trade. You love it when your kids surprise you by coming up with solutions that hadn’t occurred to you.
You place a high value on staying emotionally connected with your children, even when they act badly or when the two of you are having an argument. You stay present, authentic, and aware of your own feelings, as well as those of your child. You work at finding ways to maintain energetic and emotional ties with your child and stay with it to work things out, rather than giving up. If you need to take a break, you call a time-out, so that everyone has a chance to cool off, without anyone feeling rejected or shut out. If they come home in a bad mood, you let them have their chance to cool off, yet you maintain the sense inside yourself that you are together and that you love each other.
You remember that the goal of parenthood is to educate over time. You are able to keep in mind that growing up is a process, and that you are engaged in raising wonderful, normal, fallible humans, not robots. You can remember, even in the heat of the moment, that the present behavior is not as important as the lessons you want your children to learn, such as thoughtfulness, self-reflection, and problem-solving. You tailor your parenting to further the long-term goal and remember that education takes years and many steps, and that your children do not have to master adult skills instantly, just work toward them gradually.
7) Process expert
You know that the goal is not what is important. The journey is. It is in the process of everyday routines that life is lived and savored. You are comfortable with the messiness and incompleteness of the mundane. You keep your eye on what furthers the processes of family life – communicating, being, allowing, working through, tolerating, and the like. You are able to pull back from a situation and notice what is going on in the way that it is unfolding, which you often find more important than the topic. What is important to you is the way things are engaged in, more than the thing itself. You also relax and take time to be with your children while they are going through their processes, thereby helping them to be comfortable in the moment.
You really see who your children are – their strengths, weaknesses, the direction they are going – rather than being locked in a view of who you want them to be, or who you can tolerate them being. Much as you would like to raise a concert pianist, you appreciate and nurture your child’s talent as a wrestler. You raise the child you have, in the way that they need, even if it is not your first choice. If your child needs firm, clear boundaries delivered in imperative sentences, even if you tend toward the gentle and talkative and like to ask for acquiescence, you rally yourself to provide structure in the way he or she needs.
9) Holder of Optimism
You hold in your heart, and therefore hold for your child, conviction of their potential, who they truly are, and who they can become. You remember that, if they are adolescent, their brains are changing and they are hormonally challenged. Even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary, you know that they really are the kind, caring, loving, skillful, intelligent people you remember from before. You keep reminding yourself of this, so that you don’t think for too long that monsters have taken over their morphing bodies. You present a picture to them of their best selves. You know that, inside all their posturing, teens are very brittle, sensitive, unsure, confused about what is happening, of the new pressures, and of their own actions. You know that it matters to them, a lot, to see in your eyes the people they hope they are becoming.
10) Structure expert
You know that structure makes growth, opportunity, relationships, and achievement possible, that boundaries do not cut people off from each other, so much as they clarify, define, and protect. You are clear about your own boundaries and the areas of life that are impacted by boundary issues. You are clear who you are, and what your bottom line is in different areas. You take care of yourself, have clear limits, balance various areas in the way that works best for you and your family. You are able to be flexible, not rigidly adhering to dogma when unforeseen factors indicate the need to take a different approach. You communicate your expectations clearly in a way that each child can hear.
You remain contented and peaceful, even when those around you are having a hard time. You take a deep breath and maintain the feeling of calm that helps storm-tossed children and teens to orient themselves. You do not cut yourself off from them in order to feel happy. You are present and available, without being pulled into their angst. You remember that things mostly work out for the best, even if they don’t look as if they are going so well at the moment.
You see yourself as a unique individual, and you see your children and partner as individuals as well. You know you can stand on your own, and you stand up for yourself. You treat yourself compassionately regarding your shortcomings. You honor your history for the experience and wisdom you have gleaned from it. You have come to terms with pain in your past, so that when it is triggered in the present, you are not thrown into reactive behavior without catching yourself. You know you are responsible for your experience and your behavior. It is fine with you that other people are humans with strengths and weaknesses. You accept them as they are.
You know that, ultimately, each person must depend upon themselves. You know that the best way to train children to be self-reliant is to treat them as individuals with rights to be treated respectfully and with honor, even when they make mistakes and are still learning, even when they screw up royally. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton said in 1892, in front of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Congress, “Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility. Nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one’s self-sovereignty; the right to an equal place, everywhere conceded; a place earned by personal merit.” You know that teens feel badly enough about themselves, and that their shame escalates very quickly, if they feel reacted to as if they are despicable. You are committed to treating them considerately, honoring their boundaries, and responding to their difficulties in ways that teach deep respect through example.
You love the many possibilities there are in life. You love to learn and are interested in many things. Through your enthusiasm, you turn your children on to the arts, the sciences, bugs, stars, microscopes, cooking, crafts, tap dancing, old movies, badminton, the colors in leaves. You sit on the porch and watch thunderstorms together. You ride your bikes down new roads. You keep having adventures even when they roll their eyes and are too cool to go with you, because you know that later it will be important for them to have seen their parents involved in activities. And anyway, it’s your life that you’re enjoying!
You enjoy your children. Just hanging out with them gives you deep satisfaction. You play with them when they are young, introduce them to activities that you value, and join them in play that they find entertaining. As they get older, you are willing to be silly and to offer activities, and also to wait until they are ready to engage with you. You make watching their endless sports events fun for yourself and for parents around you.
16) Inspires creativity
You find great satisfaction in expressing yourself creatively. Even if your efforts won’t win awards, you paint, dance, draw, play an instrument, try beading, or scrapbooking. You gather leaves and make collages to decorate the table. You enjoy making your home comfortable and aesthetically pleasing. You approach your work creatively, and your kids see you enjoying work because of it. When funds are low, you look for imaginative ways to meet your need. Your children expand their experience and their skills by engaging in creative activities with you and on their own.
17) Financially responsible
You live within your means. You do not go into debt unless it is absolutely necessary. If you do, you use credit wisely, and you have a plan to pay it off as soon as possible. You don’t shop as a way of relieving feelings. You educate yourself about financial matters. You find creative ways to keep to your budget, and you save regularly. You help your children develop good saving, spending, and giving habits. You plan for a rainy day.
18) Emotional Savvy
You are really good at being with your emotions, when they are aroused. You don’t hide from pain or discomfort, or self-medicate with food, cigarettes or other substances. (You do, however recognize that chocolate is one of the necessary food groups.) You take time to let feelings run their course, when they need attention. You are emotionally responsible. You are able to see when your reactions are about past events, and you make every effort not to project them onto present situations. If you find that you have reacted inappropriately, you explain to others that your mood is not about them, thereby showing your caring and empathic nature. You apologize when you have hurt someone. You know that, if you allow your feelings time to process themselves, and if you reflect on your old ways of looking at things, painful emotions will abate. You process your feelings, rather than trying to push them away.
You are comfortable with your child’s feelings and see their outbursts as opportunities to empathize, educate, and be close. You are comfortable with your child’s expressions of feelings and respond respectfully. You understand that children do not have all the social skills yet, and it is okay with you that they still have things to learn when it comes to tolerating and expressing emotion.
You work hard to have a warm, loving, respectful relationship with your co-parent, because that is the tone you want in your life. You know that working on your relationship models social skills for your children, as well as providing them with a loving parental team. You continue developing relational skills, because, as you get older, you see that new issues come up that give you opportunities to continue maturing and expanding. You know that growing does not stop at 20, and that people learn and grow in relationship, not in isolation.
You know that no one can control anyone other than themselves. You know that trying to control your children only leads to disconnection and bad feeling. You know that controlling kids means controlling their behavior only, and that no one can dictate another’s feelings or outlook. You remind yourself that, as long as you stay connected with your children, you have more influence with them than anyone, even their peers. You deal with your own feelings about their behavior and what they go through, as well as any helplessness or worry that you feel in consequence. You recognize that it is a wise person who tolerates her/his feelings. You help your children learn to center in themselves and tolerate their feelings, and to learn to give up on trying to control other people, events, and their surroundings.
You know that you cannot parent effectively if you do not take care of yourself. You model self-respect and self-confidence by paying attention to your own needs and limits. Rather than fly off the handle, you take times-out. You give yourself mini-vacations. You make sure you see friends and engage in activities that replenish you, because all of these activities improve your parenting and make parenthood enjoyable. You value your own boundaries and calmly set limits in order to ensure that others respect them also. You know the value of having the support of other parents, and even of laughing with them and letting off steam by telling benign stories of teen and toddler pranks, behind your kids’ backs, of course.
You stay relaxed inside yourself, while life is messy around you. The little annoyances do not throw you. You are able to step back and take a larger view of events. You agree with Randy Pausch, the computer science professor dying of pancreatic cancer who gave a “Last Lecture” which has inspired thousands of people, who said that, if people disappoint you, just wait. If you give them enough time, they will bring forth their best selves. If you appreciate them and thank them for the good job you know they will do, they tend to rise to your expectations. As Nelson Mandela said, “It never hurts to think too highly of a person. Often they behave better because of it.” You can wait while they learn social skills. You maintain your cool when things don’t go according to plan.
23) Positive Outlook
And, most of all, you know that being a perfect parent would not be good for your children anyway. One of your jobs is to teach them to accept and value themselves as they are. You want them to feel positive about themselves, even though they mess up sometimes and are not great at everything. You want them to love life, even though life is difficult. You want them to feel confident in and about the world, even though the world is both awe-inspiring and terrible at times. You know that there are millions of ways to be a good parent, and so you celebrate your strengths and gather your children to you, to share your blessings and to help each other through the tough times. You remind yourself that trials build character. You breathe and laugh and center in yourself, for that is where the joy is – in your connection with yourself, with those you love, and with the natural world.
Okay, now that you have identified your top five VIP’s, your PPSs, here are some exercises to help you apply them as you navigate the rocky waters of family life.
Try this #1: Spend some time thinking about your strengths. Notice how you use them and how they help you with your family. Keep them in mind and have confidence in them! See how you can use your strengths to enhance your patience, your empathy, and your optimism. Muse about them and come up with ways for them to help you be more effective, more relaxed, and to enjoy your parenthood more fully.
Try this #2: Remember a challenging occurrence in your home. (That wasn’t hard, was it?) Now, pick one of your PPS’s that you think might help in that situation. How could you use that strength to facilitate a different outcome? (When my preteen daughter started talking back at the drop of a hat, I found some time to myself and used my strength of empathy to imagine what our interchanges must be like from her perspective, given her experiences in life. A light bulb went on as I suddenly saw how easily deep feelings of loss seemed to be triggered for her. After that, I worked to remember how important our closeness was to her and to see her apparent outrage, not as insolence, but as a sign that she felt too shut out by the way I may have said something. I became more able to remain calm and loving in tone (not a skill under stress that I’d experienced with my parents!) which often led to her softening and continuing to interact with me.
Try this #3: You could also pick one PPS with which you would like to become more proficient and grow it into a strength. To do so, focus on the strengths you already have. Research into positive psychology has shown definitively that the more you expand your use of your positive strengths, the more the ones you could use some work on improving – much more so than if you just wrestle to try to counter your “failings.”
The more you bring your awareness to focus on your strengths, the more they will grow. Notice how you feel as you play with these exercises. Notice what great ideas you come up with, use them with your children and see how they respond.
Stanton quote is from Solitude of Self
Address delivered by Mrs. Stanton before the Committee of the Judiciary of the United States Congress Monday, January 18, 1892
Sarah Gillen, MA, LMFT, PCC, has been a Marriage and Family Therapist for 30 years. She is also a certified Family, Life, and Business Coach. She writes and lectures on many cutting-edge topics affecting families, including adoption issues, pre-teens and teens, and behavioral difficulties with very young children. Ms. Gillen has two chapters in the upcoming book Women and the Pursuit of Happiness: Create Your Own Path through Positive Psychology, due out in August, 2008. Her next upcoming book is Uncover Joy: Beyond a Hurtful History to the Life You Were
You may reach her at Sarah@sarahgillen.com
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