Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

The Best Gift You Can Give Your Child

"It's as if my children are awakening in me repressed hurts and fears that I don't wish to feel. It's far easier to detach, fix, coerce, manage or abandon ship than it is to simply be present. However, if I'm not willing to own my fears and emotions, my children must continue to act them out on my behalf. While at times it's a tough pill to swallow, the more I accept the above to be true, the more harmony and joy fills our family." -- TheFatherGuide

In this season where we focus so much on finding the perfect presents to light up our child's eyes and bring magic to their lives, it's worth remembering that the real magic is something closer to home.

After all, no matter what material gift our child thinks will make them happy, the present they really want is our presence -- an attentive, present, emotionally generous parent, who has a sense of humor, sets limits calmly, stays patient even when the child misses the mark, and encourages the child when they feel blue. A parent who is committed to their own growth, so they're able to calm the storm instead of making it worse when their child pushes their buttons.

Yes, children always seem to know how to drive their parents crazy. But the craziness is still ours. After all, if you didn't already have a button there, your child wouldn't be able to push it -- and you would be able to set limits without losing your temper.

Miraculously, we as parents always seem to be gifted with the perfect child for us, meaning that somehow our children always seem to awaken whatever we need to heal. If we can accept that gift with an open heart and work on ourselves, we transform. If we resist, and blame our child for "misbehaving," it's almost like blaming the mirror for our reflection. And we burden our child with our own unfinished business.

How can we heal our own baggage, to become the parents our children deserve?

1. Pay attention.  Whenever we get "triggered" we've stumbled on something that needs healing. I know that can be hard to accept, but if your buttons are getting pushed, they're YOUR buttons. Not that kids don't act like kids -- they always do! But if you didn't have a hot button there, you would be able to respond more calmly to your child's behavior. 

2. Break the cycle by using your inner Pause button. When your emotions are "triggered," your child looks like the enemy. You can't be the parent your child deserves at those times. So when you notice your anger escalating, even if you're already well down the wrong path, STOP.  Take a deep breath and hit the pause button. Don't be embarrassed; you're modeling good anger management. It's when you have a tantrum that you should be embarrassed. (See Handling Your Own Anger.)

3. Acknowledge the emotions without taking action. You can heal your emotional triggers by noticing the sensations they produce in your body but not taking action based on them. That doesn't mean thinking about what happened and getting all tangled up in the story line, which will just mire you in the muck. We feel emotions in the body. So noticing the feeling simply means noticing the sensations in your body. When you welcome what you're feeling but resist the urge to act on it, while holding yourself with compassion, the emotions begin to dissipate. That dissolves the old emotional trigger.

4. Get support in working through your baggage.  Parenting support groups and courses can be invaluable in supporting you to re-frame your parenting. Therapy and coaching are designed to help you heal old issues and move forward more happily in your life. There is no shame in asking for help. The shame would be in reneging on your responsibility as a parent by visiting your own issues on your child. If you think you need help, please don't wait. Give yourself the support you need.

5. De-Stress. We all have a harder time being the best parents we can be when we’re stressed out.  Just say No to electronics when you're with your kids, given that you're much more likely to yell at your child if you're trying to focus on a screen. Develop a repertoire of habits that help you de-stress: regular exercise, yoga, hot baths, meditation. Can’t find the time?  Involve the whole family. Put on music and dance together, go for a walk in the woods, put everyone to bed with books early on Friday night for a quiet, relaxing evening and catching up on your sleep.

When we aren't carrying a full backpack of our own tangled-up emotions, we become more accepting of our child's emotions. Research shows that when parents are able to accept the full range of their child's feelings, the child becomes better able to manage his emotions and soothe himself. Naturally, he's more able to manage his behavior. So the gift comes full circle, making parenting easier.

No matter how much we work on ourselves, we'll never be perfect. That's okay; we're human. Kids don't need perfect parents. But if we pay attention, use our inner Pause buttons, and keep our stress at manageable levels, we can usually manage ourselves well enough to liberate ourselves -- and our children -- from our own pasts.

And breaking that cycle is the greatest gift we can give a child, any time of the year. 

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