There’s no other job quite as emotionally taxing as parenthood.
Certainly, there are many professions and roles in life which require a huge emotional investment.
However, there’s a certain level of pressure in parenting, which reaches a level of emotional investment that can be hard to articulate.
Why You Can’t Let Your Child’s Feelings Control Your Decisions
We want to be the perfect parents. We want our children to be successful. We want our children to be happy.
We see every little decision as something which may impact their development, learning or even future success in life.
The stakes are high, we only have one shot to raise each child. We quickly realise that we’re raising unique individuals with big emotions.
We also learn they lack the maturity to cope with these big emotions.
We don’t want to see them upset, making it tempting to help them avoid frustrations, disappointment, anger and sadness in every situation.
But can we help them avoid these big emotions? Is it helpful to make decisions based on avoiding or ending big emotions?
How Can Our Reaction To Our Child’s Feelings Impact Behaviour?
When we first become parents, we’re told to answer every cue, every cry. Everything our baby desires is a need.
A hungry baby needs to be fed. A wet baby needs a new nappy. A tired baby may need to be soothed to sleep.
A new baby needs physical reassurance that they’re safe in this big world by getting lots of cuddles, rocking, babywearing, etc. If your baby cries, you react to meet their need.
As baby becomes toddler, and toddler becomes child, their desires may not always be a need. Their feelings may need to be experienced and worked through.
Infants don’t really need many boundaries. As they grow, become mobile, and as they begin to learn more about the world, children need boundaries to stay safe, learn how to cope with their world, and mature.
What happens when we introduce needed boundaries? Often, we’re met with big emotions. And sometimes, our initial reaction is to do all we can to avoid or end those big emotions.
We avoid those big emotions, problem solved, right? Unfortunately, no. In fact, when we do that we can create more problems.
Certainly, we can avoid unnecessary big emotions as the result of inadequate rest, hunger, discomfort and so on.
But when it comes to emotions related to boundaries, making decisions based on their response is often unhelpful.
Why? When we respond based on their reactions we:
- Give an inconsistent message about boundaries (e.g. they are wavering, and not solid boundaries).
- We teach them a tantrum can change our decisions thus encouraging more tantrums.
- We may make unhealthy choices to keep them happy (e.g. giving into requests for large amounts of candy, staying up later, more screen time, unsafe outings with friends).
- We don’t follow through with consequences, even natural ones, for breaking rules or not being responsible. This does a huge disservice to them once they enter the “real world.”
I Want My Children To Be Happy, How Can I Do That?
Early in parenting we learn that we can’t control our child’s emotions. It’s a hard lesson to learn. What makes children happy in the short term, isn’t always the healthiest option for them nor will it create long term happiness.
This doesn’t mean we can’t make some decisions based on happiness. It’s fun to see your child happy! However, we can’t make all our boundary decisions based on what makes them happy because it won’t be healthy for them, or us.
It’s important we don’t teach our children that someone else is responsible for their happiness, or other emotions.
Another important thing, and perhaps the most important thing, if a child’s environment is set up only to bring happiness, and they never experience frustration or disappointment, they’ll be unable to truly mature.
If their world truly revolves around their feelings, once they experience something that doesn’t feel good, they’ll be unable to cope and problem solve. Frustration is a true ingredient for growth.
Why Is Frustration Important For Growth?
Dr. Henry Cloud, a psychologist and expert in leadership, shared his encounter with the mother of a thirteen year old boy. This mother was struggling to get her child to complete his homework, and general behaviour issues.
We can’t necessarily force an individual, especially a teen, to physically do something. However, we can create boundaries with consequences which help our children to complete necessary tasks.
With the help of Dr. Cloud, this mother set aside time where her son was to do nothing but study for one hour. Prior to completing his study time, he was invited to an outing with friends. When the mother said he was unable to go, he got upset. Not wanting to see him upset, she then allowed him to go.
Dr Could’s response to why this doesn’t work was straightforward.
“Just because your child is in pain does not mean that something bad is happening. Something good may be occurring, such as his coming to grips with reality for the first time. And this encounter with reality is never a happy experience. But if you can empathize with the pain and hold on to the limit, your child will internalize the limit and ultimately get over the protest.”
Frustration stretches us. It forces us to live in reality. It makes us work harder, it makes us problem solve and it makes us responsible for how we react to situations.
Protecting our children from all frustration stunts their maturity. It limits their ability to learn to problem solve. It doesn’t allow them to experience, work through and learn to cope with big emotions. These are important life skills!
In the case of this mother and teen, consistency can show the teen that if he finishes his task he can go about his day and do fun things. If he doesn’t complete his task, the answer to doing something else will remain no.
Even if this makes him sad or angry, the answer is no. With the consistency, he’s likely to learn it’s beneficial to do the necessary task in order to then have fun.
I Don’t Want To Be An Authoritarian, How Can I Help My Child Learn Boundaries?
One thing many parents are trying to avoid is having an authoritarian parenting style. We want to develop a healthy relationship with our children. We want them to feel comfortable talking to us. We want a healthy and balanced relationship.
One mistake many of us make is in avoiding being an authoritarian, we misunderstand the role of being authoritative. No matter how gently we parent, our children still need someone guiding them.
Being an authoritarian, controlling their entire environment, not being open to discussing things, etc. might ensure your child completes tasks, but it may not ensure they learn how to do so on their own.
It can have a similar downfall as making decisions based on their reactions. Neither scenario necessarily teaches them how to cope with big emotions and make healthy choices.
So, how can you maintain having authority to keep your children safe and guide them but not be an authoritarian?
One is realising the two words, though they sound similar, are very different. While we’ve seen authoritative and authoritarian used interchangeably, they’re actually quite different.
An authoritarian parent typically:
- Sees a child’s will as something which needs to be broken.
- Exerts control through power and coercion.
- Has many rules, but may not always be consistent in how and when they’re enforced. They may ebb and flow based on how a child displays their will.
An authoritative parent typically:
- Sets and enforces rules with consistency.
- Believes parents are the authority because they are wiser and thus guides for their children.
- They seek to guide their child and instill values but not necessarily break a child’s will.
When Dr. Cloud was helping the teen’s mother to change her approach to parenting he made three key points:
- Values were being set based on an emotionally immature child’s reaction.
- Not valuing frustration as a key to growth and development meant missing out on key opportunities to develop frustration tolerance. This is necessary for emotional maturity and resilience.
- The child was being taught he was entitled to always being happy and that people could be coerced with crying.
Are these beneficial values to teach a child? Will they lead to healthy decision making and long term happiness as the child grows?
What Does It Look Like To Have Healthy Boundaries?
Every home is unique. Every family has unique values. The specific values you have aren’t as important as how you teach them to your child.
While young infants don’t typically require boundaries, the setting for a healthy child-parent relationship begins early on. A healthy infant attachment leads to trust, a foundation for setting boundaries.
As your child grows, setting boundaries and teaching them to cope with frustration may look like:
- Having a few necessary rules and being consistent with them. Don’t make unnecessary rules, don’t make rules you can’t be consistent with.
- Be consistent with the rules even if your child responds with sadness, anger, etc.
- Let your child make age appropriate decisions which allow them to learn how to make healthy choices. Guide them as needed, but when possible, let children make choices (e.g. “do you want the blue or the red cup?” or letting your teen explore appropriate fashion options).
- Be aware of a young child’s needs so you can limit unnecessary frustrations (fatigue, hunger, etc.) and teach older children to be aware of this for themselves.
- Let them experience consequences and use them as teaching moments.
- Don’t jump in to rescue them from their feelings.
Cloud finishes by reminding parents that, “Frustration and painful moments of discipline help a child learn to delay gratification, one of the most important character traits a person can have. If you are able to hold the limit and empathize with the pain, then character will develop. But if you don’t, you will have the same battle tomorrow. If you rescue your children from their anger at your boundary, you can plan on more anger at later limits.”
As parents, it’s never pleasant to watch a child be frustrated, but it can be key to their growth and development. In the same way we provide healthy foods for their body, we can provide boundaries with a healthy relationship to help them develop character.
Children grow and change quite a bit, meaning their boundaries will change. Be sure to read Don’t Worry, It’s Normal! – A Quick Guide To Normal Behaviour For Babies, Kids And Teens for more understanding of how we can help our children in each stage.