Tuesday 17 October 2017

Parents need a confidence boost

Parents these days are riddled with self-doubt, which is detrimental to themselves and their children. It's time they gained greater belief in their ability

What's the worst that can happen?: Parents shouldn't be overly worried about making mistakes - children are resilient, robust and forgiving, according to David Coleman. Photo: Getty Images
What's the worst that can happen?: Parents shouldn't be overly worried about making mistakes - children are resilient, robust and forgiving, according to David Coleman. Photo: Getty Images
David Coleman

David Coleman

Many modern parents are crippled by guilt and fear, leading them to doubt their instinctive and intuitive childcare skills. They have lost confidence in themselves and their ability to rear their children.

This crisis in confidence is bad for parents, as feelings of stress and anxiety about family life take a toll on their mental and physical health. It is also bad for children who need strong, decisive guidance in order to grow and develop healthily.

There are, for me, three key symptoms that become visible when this crisis in parental confidence takes hold. The first is an inability to say no to your child. The second is an inability to make decisions on behalf of your child. The third is over-parenting.

Think, for example, of the parent who arrives home from work, having collected their tired toddler from crèche. With perhaps only an hour-and-a-half to spend with their child before bedtime that parent is reluctant to create conflict or disturb the brief 'quality' time they have.

However, to avoid conflict, either their child has to accede to the parent's desires or that parent needs to accede to their child's desires. There is no doubt that putting limits in place means disappointing or frustrating your child; disappointed and frustrated children usually show their upset in almighty tantrums or some other display of distress. Nobody likes to see their child distressed.

It becomes easier, therefore, for that parent to avoid saying no and to acquiesce to their toddler's demands. A mother or father who gives in all the time to their child will know that while they gain a brief respite from their child's distress it is often short lived and, subsequently, the scale of the demands seems to rise inexorably.

It doesn't matter whether we are too afraid or too guilty to say no because the outcome for that child is the same.

Children who never (or rarely) have boundaries to guide their behaviour become anxious and over-bearing. They end up with a feeling of omnipotence but this kind of feeling is too strong for children. They become manipulative, demanding and deeply unhappy.

Parents who feel unsure about their own power to set limits may believe that they are avoiding conflict and rows with their child. But they soon discover that they set up a repeating pattern of behaviour in which they feel like they are forever arguing.

Parents need to curb their child's omnipotence. They need to realise that it is right and proper for parents to be making decisions for young children even when their children don't like the decisions that get made. In my role as a clinical psychologist I am witness to some very serious family difficulties. But I am also witness to chronic indecision about many more straightforward parenting dilemmas. My advice is sought about issues such as "should I let my 10-year-old have a mobile phone?", "is it a good idea to fund my son for a post-Leaving Cert holiday?" or "should I let my three-year-old go on a sleepover?"

Understanding

To my mind, the answer to these questions should be determined by the parent's own values and understanding of their child. But the fact that these questions get asked of me or others shows the tremendous self-doubt that lots of parents have.

There has been a huge growth of parenting advice -- online forums, magazines, TV shows and such like. Perhaps this is just due to a fascination about parenting or perhaps, as I believe, it arises from this core lack of confidence that they possess.

I don't have a sense that this indecision was as prevalent in generations past. Maybe these outlets have arisen to fill a void that was always there. Perhaps, however, the many conflicting expert voices that now have a forum have been, in part, responsible for creating the confusion and indecision.

When people seek my 'expert' opinion I can only assume that it is because they don't have an opinion themselves, or because they doubt their own opinion, or because they want confirmation that their opinion is 'right' (although there are few absolute rights and wrongs in parenting).

But do parents need this level of reassurance? I have no desire to argue myself out of a job, but I do think that parents are usually fully capable of deciding how to look after their children on their own.

I recognise the irony in my view that there needs to be less reliance on people like me but to become more confident, parents need to get out there and make some decisions

The worst that can happen is that the decision turns out to be the wrong one and we have made a mistake. As long as we are always prepared to take responsibility for the outcome of our choices then mistakes are not bad things.

Children are resilient, robust and forgiving as long as we are prepared to say sorry, make amends and do better the next time. They also need to see us making decisions, making mistakes and coping with the distress that might follow from the mistakes. This kind of role-modelling will stand to them later when they must learn to make their own decisions.

Another symptom of a crisis in confidence is over-parenting. Over-parenting comes from the same source as the belief that our children are too precious to make mistakes with. It seems, at times, like an expression of a fear of failure.

I understand over-parenting to be the way in which parents pre-empt or take control of children's needs and developmental tasks. It refers to the kind of obsessive, overbearing parents who live their whole lives through the prism of their parenting.

These parents don't choose a buggy for their child, they choose a lifestyle vehicle. They don't plan birthday parties, they organise a themed celebration event.

Achiever

The minutiae of their children's development is scrutinised and agonised over. Typical comments might be: "My child can speak in three-word sentences at age two but he shows no sign of gaining bladder control," "My daughter is a really high achiever, but she seems to struggle in a social environment."

In over-parenting we also run the risk of trying to attain perfection. There is no such thing as perfection in parenting; all we can ever hope to achieve is to be good enough parents.

It is as if some parents believe that by being constantly vigilant, attentive to every detail of their child's life and actively monitoring their every activity that they will produce the perfect child. In effect, however, such children are molly-coddled, protected from every risk and ultimately stunted in their ability to function independently.

Our desire to protect our children from danger sometimes extends to trying to protect them from all experiences of hurt or upset. In reality, it is constructive for children to discover that things go wrong. In this way, they can learn how to deal with disappointment and frustration.

In my experience, children with overprotective parents don't have great problem-solving skills. They can feel smothered and resentful.

It's important to be invested and present in your child's life but you must also allow them the freedom of age-appropriate exploration and independence. We need to be responsive to them but we don't need to micro-manage them.

Balance is what parents need. Balance between making decisions on behalf of their children, yet not stripping them of opportunities to make decisions themselves.

Balance between protecting them from danger yet not shielding them from learning from the knocks and tumbles.

Balance between being strong adults who know what they believe and yet not becoming harsh disciplinarians.

We parents are human -- fallible and well-intentioned. We don't have to be scared and we don't have to be perfect. We just have to be good enough at our job.

That is enough.

Irish Independent

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