ACoA therapist in NYC, Heather Coleman, discusses how to be a confident parent coming out of a dysfunctional household by learning to trust your intuitive parenting part, set boundaries and clearly communicating with our kids.
My lovable, huggable toddler girl, now almost 2 years-old, began tantruming nearly everyday at the age of 20 months. Turning to my favorite parenting Facebook group for advice (thanks Smith parents!), someone suggested the fantastic book No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury. Lansbury describes an easeful and respectful (though long-term) solution to dealing with kids when they start testing boundaries. In it, she quotes the educator Janet Gonzalez-Mena: "Imagine driving over a bridge in the dark. If the bridge has no railings, we will drive across it slowly and tentatively. But if we see railings on either side of us, we can drive over the bridge with ease and confidence. This is how a young child feels in regard to the limits in his environment." Lansbury goes on to explain that children need "railings" to feel secure and they will continue to push until parents are clear and confident in what is expected of them.
Adult Children of Alcoholics (and really most people coming from inconsistent, dysfunctional family backgrounds) can have a hard time setting boundaries--i commonly see this as an ACoA therapist in New York City. Why? Because when parents are actively drinking, or even when they are sober alcoholics, boundaries are not common within these family systems; everyone bleeds into everyone else and we don't usually know where someone starts and the other person begins. Often times, ACoAs felt, and continue to feel, insecure because expectations were not clearly stated. To become a successful parent coming out of these family systems, we may have to learn a new way of being and incorporate some new skills: boundary-setting can be learned. This can be likened to "reparenting of the parent"; where the ACoA can approach and relate to their child in the ways they wished they had experienced in their own childhood.
The following are a blend of parenting suggestions I culled from reading Lansbury's book and also my knowledge as being an ACoA therapist
1. Be a respectful, confident CEO
Lansbury states how important it is to be a clear, consistent and confident parent. She explains that speaking in the tone of a successful CEO to their respected employee can yield great results with babies and toddlers. Did this ever happen in an alcoholic family when parents were sober or not? Doubtful. From what I have come to know, most alcoholic parents fly into a rage when needing to get a point across, are dismissive of any importance of telling a child what to do and how to do it, or often rely on just being the "fun/exciting parent" to get by in connecting with their kids. This usually enables children to feel too powerful (and then insecure and scared from their apparent role reversal) or confused (like, what the heck am I supposed to be doing here?) or conditionally loved (I'm only loved when I obey these barking commands, but when I don't, I'm bad and unlovable). So as an Adult Child, we need to use a different example, because we just didn't have one! This is discussed in my first blog about ACoAs and mindful parenting.
Lansbury describes being simple, to the point, matter-of-fact and unflappable: "I won't let you do that. If you throw that again, I'll need to take it away." "You can have five more minutes in the park here and then you will have to go because we need to eat lunch." "I see that you're upset and frustrated about having to leave now, and yet we really have to go eat or you'll get too hungry." And then carry them off screaming/crying if that's the way it goes without emotionally abandoning anyone. So as my effective, unflappable, confident, consistent and emotionally-stable parental figure example, I think about how the Obamas probably parented Malia and Sasha (we miss your effective leadership, *sigh*).
2. Remember personal needs are also important
As ACoAs, it can sometimes be difficult to feel there is any space for "me" and "my needs" in a parental relationship. And yet, the old saying goes, "You can't take care of others until you've put your own oxygen mask on first." It is perhaps surprising to know and feel that by taking care of our own needs and feeding ourselves fully, we can be more emotionally available for our children. We don't have to meddle with our children as much as we think we do, which according to Lansbury doesn't mean passivity but does mean "getting out of their way." They don't need bright shiny objects to keep them constantly entertained, but they do need facilitators who can be present with them and respond to their needs when they look to us for help/action/guidance. This means we actually have more time and space than we think we do to focus on ourselves and then be present and available as needed.
3. Let children's emotions just be
Growing up in an alcoholic or dysfunctional household, sometimes it felt as though our feelings could be high-jacked by another family member at any moment. Or, perhaps our parents withdrew and would lock themselves in the bathroom when we were having a meltdown or expressing negative emotions. Or, perhaps we got yelled at or shamed for even having a feeling. Any which way, those moments could feel soul-crushing--not being seen, heard, or validated. So it comes without surprise that when our own children are having a tantrum, our options can feel pretty thin. I love how Lansbury says that our children's emotions don't belong to us and it is actually a lot more difficult to try to manage, calm or fix their emotions. She explains that their emotions are OK as is and they simply need us to remain anchored, just observe and reflect our observations in an informational way.
This is why I suggest neurofeedback to all of my clients: it can be so helpful in regulating our nervous system, to be able to be in a calm alert state rather than an activated or withdrawn one so we can remain anchored while weathering a toddler's emotional storms (again they're not our storms.) This is especially true when coming from a dysfunctional system because our own caregivers may have often been in a dysregulated state--because nervous systems functions like tuning forks, *tada*, we may have ended up with a pretty activated or withdrawn system ourselves. When we're calm, they're calm. With a regulated nervous system, we are more likely to access our creativity, sense of humor and appropriate responses.
To learn more about Neurofeedback and what it can do for you, read our Neurofeedback Reviews!
4. Remember what you're already doing RIGHT
Adult Children are usually their own worst critics. It goes without saying that parenting is a fertile ground for self-criticism and self-flagellation-- potentially mommy or daddy guilt on steroids. So it is important to track when you are doing well and authentically connecting with your child, which mainly just takes showing up, being present and responsive (and oddly, not even too responsive all the time which doesn't allow for natural ruptures and then communication about those ruptures--this is what happens in real workable relationships which can sometimes feel quite foreign coming from a dysfunctional background.)
It is also incredibly challenging to balance out all of the feedback and messages blaring from other sources-- in-laws, other parents, our own parents, blogs and forums-- that it can be difficult to locate our own personal intuition and inner-parenting voice. It's surprising to see what you already know, what comes natural in responsiveness and how we can take quick action in times of crisis. The issue then becomes less about "not knowing what we're doing" and becoming the *perfect* parent, but rather more about listening to our intuitive parenting part. Parenting is hard work: there are power struggles, worries and emotional stretching that may occur on a daily basis. In the end, it is our only target is to remain as unruffled as possible, as Lansbury might say, and learning to trust ourselves when we are attending to what is occurring right in front of us.
ABOUT HEATHER COLEMAN
I am a Buddhist-oriented psychotherapist, also offering Neuroptimal Neurofeedback in my work with clients. Most people want to be happy, but unhelpful ways of thinking, feeling and acting become obstacles to our growth. Our job is to uncover and rediscover inner resources that can help you meet your goals and get unstuck from habitual patterns. I am active in my work with clients and use the here-and-now experience as a guide in our work together. My ideal client is one that is motivated for change and engaged in "the work."
Specialties: ACOAs (Adult Children of Alcoholics) Recovery Work, Trauma Recovery, Addiction recovery & those in relationship to people struggling with addiction.
More ACoA blog posts by Heather: