It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.
— FREDERICK DOUGLASS
Years ago I was driving my son to school when another parent, headed for the same destination, had a diabetic seizure. Realizing that his unconscious mother would not be able to prevent the car from careening out of control, her eleven-year-old son unhooked his seat belt and attempted to steer the car to safety. When he realized that he couldn’t figure out what to do, he frantically belted himself back in just seconds before their Suburban hit four cars — including ours. His mother woke up when she crashed into a guardrail. Thankfully, none of the eleven people involved in the accident was badly hurt.
Children are meant to be passengers. They aren’t equipped to drive a car or sail a ship through storms — and they know it. But when no one is in the driver’s seat, they instinctively try to take over. They don’t want to be in charge; it’s just that they know somebody has to be, because they understand that life is not safe unless someone competent is behind the wheel.
Children don’t want to be in charge; it’s just that they know somebody has to be, because they understand that life is not safe unless someone competent is behind the wheel.
Captain, Lawyer, Dictator
In my book Parenting Without Power Struggles, I described three ways that parents can engage with their children: being confidently and calmly in charge, negotiating for power, or fighting their child for control.
Parents who are calmly and confidently in charge as the Captain of the ship come across as clear, loving, and capable of making good decisions on behalf of their children — even if those decisions upset their kids because they can’t have what they want. When we are captaining the ship, we are responsively flexible, choosing how we engage with our child during one of his storms rather than reflexively reacting based on triggered behaviors we inherited from our own upbringing.
Parents who are calmly and confidently in charge, being Captain of the ship, come across as clear, loving, and capable of making good decisions on behalf of their children, even if those decisions upset their kids because they can’t do or have what they want.
Here is a brief example. Your thirteen-year-old asks if she can go to a party where the only supervision will be an older sister who is not known for her good judgment.
MOM: “Honey, I know you want to go, but unfortunately, I don’t feel it’s a good idea.”
DAUGHTER: “Please, Mom? I promise nothing bad will happen.”
MOM: “Oh, sweetheart. I know it doesn’t seem fair, and I know how much you want to go, but I’m afraid not.”
Mom is being the Captain, demonstrating empathy and kindness while remaining decisive and clear. Depending on how accustomed your child is to you changing your mind or waffling, she may attempt to draw you into the next way of interacting.
When parents engage in quarrels, power struggles, and negotiations with their kids, no one is in charge. I call this mode the Two Lawyers. Kids push against their parents, parents push against their kids, and the relationship is fraught with tension and resentment. Here’s an example:
When parents engage in quarrels, power struggles, and negotiations with their kids, no one is in charge.
DAUGHTER: “Mom, you treat me like I’m a two-year-old. You never trust me!”
MOM: “You’re never happy unless you get what you want! Carey’s sister is immature, and I don’t trust her to keep an eye on you guys. She’ll probably just have a party of her own! In fact, last year I heard that she …” Mom argues for her position, and her child argues right back.
DAUGHTER: “That’s so not true! She was blamed for smoking pot in the school bathroom, but she wasn’t even smoking! She just happened to be there when those other girls were doing it!”
These kinds of parent-child interactions are characterized by fighting, arguing, and bargaining.
Finally, when the child is the one calling the shots, the parents feel out of control and even panicked, especially if they imagine that others are judging them for not managing their kids well. They try to restore order and control by overpowering their children with threats, bribes, or ultimatums, similar to how a tyrant or despot — having no authentic authority — asserts control through fear and intimidation. I call this mode the Dictator. Here’s an example:
DAUGHTER: “You just can’t accept that I’m not your little baby anymore. Why don’t you get a life, so you can stop trying to control mine?”
MOM: “That’s it, young lady. You never appreciate all the things we do for you. I work hard just to put food on the table, and you never even say thank you. You’re grounded!”
Staying in Captain mode requires that we become comfortable setting limits so that we can parent with kindness, clarity, and confidence.
As you can see, this situation rapidly deteriorates, with mom quickly losing her footing and shifting from Captain to Lawyer and, finally, entering Dictator mode.
Staying in Captain mode requires that we become comfortable setting limits so that we can parent with kindness, clarity, and confidence.
In my counseling practice, I often see well-meaning couples who are committed to avoiding the mistakes their own parents made, yet who confess to having a tremendous lack of confidence when it comes to handling challenging situations. “Is it okay if I let my fourteen-year-old experiment with smoking pot? His friends are all trying it.” “I tried to cancel my son’s World of Warcraft subscription, but he got so furious he punched a hole in the wall!” “My kids become little terrors when we go out to eat unless I turn my cell phone over to them. Should I give in to keep the peace?” Unsure of themselves and afraid to set limits, they convey to their children that they don’t know where they stand, or perhaps more accurately, that they are simply afraid to take a stand, lest they upset their children.
What I find interesting is that the very kids who have outbursts when they don’t get their way almost always long for their parents to create some real connection and structure. Sometimes, when I meet privately with youngsters like these, they tell me that they wish their parents weren’t so wishy-washy. And other times, they make this known simply by responding positively when someone combines limit setting with deep and secure attachment. Henry was one such child.
The very kids who have outbursts when they don’t get their way almost always long for their parents to create some real connection and structure.
Forging a Real Connection
Henry was eleven when Bradley and Melissa brought him to see me. He sauntered into my office playing his portable game player (this was a few years ago) and dripping with attitude. When his parents meekly suggested that he put the device down and greet me, he glared at them and continued to play. When I met with them alone, they admitted to being clueless about how to handle their son’s severe meltdowns. Raised by an older father who believed boys should be tough, Henry had learned to stifle his more tender feelings from a young age and had lost his ability to feel emotions such as fear, sadness, and hurt; his repertoire was limited to frustration and anger. Henry was a big child and could turn violent when provoked. His parents were terrified of him.
When I met alone with Henry, however, I found him to be a gentle but very ungrounded child. He seemed to be floating above himself, unaccustomed to full contact with a caring grown-up who didn’t want anything from him. The majority of his adult interactions consisted of people trying to coerce him to do things he didn’t want to do.
I began by showing an interest in discovering who Henry was. As we talked, he tentatively opened up, telling me how much he loved drawing and about his dream of designing video games. When I noticed that he kept splitting his attention between our conversation and his gaming device, I asked him — in a friendly way — to hand it to me, explaining that it seemed as though it had a particularly strong hold on him. I put the device on a shelf in my office, where it remained for many months, with a surprising degree of acceptance.
Henry and I began to forge a real connection. I was steady in my kindness and interest, and he slowly began to trust that I was his ally. I found the coaching sessions with his parents more challenging. Melissa and Bradley were resistant to doing the work of applying what we spoke about in our sessions — coming alongside rather than at Henry. Again and again they used logic, bribes, or threats to compel him to do what they wanted. It seemed as if they were more invested in having me change their son so he would just do what they asked rather than in improving the quality of their relationship with him.
Early one evening, my phone rang. It was Bradley, calling me from the parking lot of a restaurant, distraught. Apparently, Henry had had a major tantrum in the restaurant and had fled to the parking lot, where he was dodging his parents. Bradley and Melissa were desperately trying to corral their son into the car so they could head home. “Will you talk to Henry? Will you convince him to get into the car?” Bradley pleaded.
It was an unusual request, but I agreed, not knowing quite what I was going to be up against. But this is how it went down: Bradley got close enough to Henry to tell him that Susan was on the phone and that she wanted to talk to him. Henry took the phone right away. I simply said, “Sweetheart, it’s time to get into the car.”
That was it. He handed the phone back to his father and got in the car.
What did I do that his parents couldn’t have done? What power did I have over Henry that made him say yes? None. But I did have two things: an authentic connection with him — he knew that I liked, enjoyed, and respected him — and legitimate standing as the Captain of the ship in our relationship. I wasn’t afraid of him, I didn’t need him to bolster my sense of self-worth, and I had proved that I genuinely cared about him. He knew that I was on his side.
How had I accomplished this? By listening to Henry with full presence, accepting him as he was. He knew that I found him funny and interesting. He knew that I had no ulterior motive; I didn’t need anything from him. So he responded positively to my request, as we are inclined to do when a person we like asks something of us.
Sadly, the only time Henry was given his parent’s complete attention was either when they were trying to convince him to do something he did not want to do — finishing homework, taking a shower, coming to dinner — or when they wanted him to stop doing something that he did want to do, such as playing video games or enjoying the coziness of his warm bed in the morning. Rarely did they invest time in getting to know their son as a person — not because they were lacking in love, but because like many parents, they were driven and distracted by the demands and stressors of their busy lives. As a result, Henry felt no allegiance to his parents, making him minimally invested in pleasing them. In the absence of any reservoir of goodwill with Henry, they felt forced to bribe or threaten him to elicit his cooperation.
Healing Your Unfinished Business
You may recall Angie and Eric from the introduction, where I described how the realities of raising their temperamental child had collided with the blissful picture they had envisioned of their conscious parenting lives. My work with them began when their son, Charlie, was four and a half. They came to see me because Charlie had been threatened with suspension from preschool for his aggressive behavior. They had also reached their limit at home, where their son’s outbursts had established a climate of constant chaos and tension.
I began by exploring Angie and Eric’s internal conflicts around setting limits. Both parents were uncertain about how, when, or where they should draw the line with little Charlie. In Eric’s case, his lack of clarity was a result of having been raised by overly restrictive parents who controlled his every move. He was determined to provide his children with the freedom to make their own choices. As a result, he admitted to often erring on the side of setting unclear guidelines for his son.
We spoke about the idea of dampening a child’s spirit. “Eric, it sounds as though you are passionate about wanting your children to have their voice and to be free to express their wishes.” He nodded, affirming that this was something he felt strongly about. I asked him to talk about what it had been like for him growing up, and he spoke about how overpowered he felt by his parents, who dictated his every move. “If they wanted me to take piano lessons, I had to take them — and practice every day. I didn’t like the piano, but that didn’t matter. It was their way or the highway. Same with what clothes I wore, what TV shows I watched, which sports activities I took part in — I had no way of asserting my will in my family. I felt weak and powerless, and I’m determined not to raise my kids that way.” Wisely, Eric understood that his children were separate and unique individuals, not meant to be the agents of his own unfulfilled dreams.
But Eric’s unfinished business was having a negative impact on how he was raising his son. “Unfortunately, because this was such a significant hurt for you growing up, you run the risk of overcompensating for the strictness of your parents by being so unstructured with Charlie that it is actually hurting him.”
I told them that I encounter this predicament a lot, particularly with parents who take their personal growth or spiritual practices very seriously. I have great admiration for those who are committed to conscious parenting — empowering their children to speak their minds and hearts and to trust their feelings and intuitions. But we have to provide them with structure and not be afraid of establishing limits. Given how badly things had deteriorated with Charlie, Eric was open to considering that there might be a way to be more assertive with Charlie without crushing his spirit.
I have great admiration for those who are committed to conscious parenting — empowering their children to speak their minds and hearts and to trust their feelings and intuitions. But we have to provide them with structure and not be afraid of establishing limits.
Angie, triggered when her son’s tantrums reminded her of her mother’s unpredictable and explosive rages, found it easier to cave in to Charlie’s demands than to set boundaries. And the constant tension he created meant that she found herself less eager to spend time with him, plopping him down in front of an iPad or TV screen, where he wouldn’t make any trouble. But little Charlie pushed for contact with his mother, even if it required misbehaving. He had discovered that acting out was a way to ensure receiving 100 percent of her attention. In some respects, he was a little Henry in the making.
Essentially, Charlie needed to find out if his parents were capable of creating a container within which he could safely explore the world. His behavior was in effect an announcement that he didn’t feel safe sailing the seas of his life in the absence of a competent Captain. As a result, whenever Charlie experienced frustration, he felt the need to fling himself on the floor, throw things, or kick and hit his parents.
I explained the three modes of parenting and the importance of stepping into the role of Captain of the ship. They both agreed that they mostly lived in Dictator mode — letting Charlie call the shots and have his way until things got so awful that they would threaten severe punishment to snap him back to his senses.
But resorting to anger was unaligned with their more spiritual values, leaving them feeling guilty and remorseful. And thus the cycle was perpetuated — enduring their son’s tirades until they reached their tipping point, exploding at him, then feeling shame about their inability to stay calm and centered.
I shared with Angie and Eric what Eckhart Tolle refers to as the “pain-body” — residual emotional pain that feeds off negativity. He writes, “While the child is having a pain-body attack, there isn’t much you can do except to stay present so that you are not drawn into an emotional reaction. The child’s pain-body would only feed on it. Pain-bodies can be extremely dramatic. Don’t buy into the drama. Don’t take it too seriously. If the pain-body was triggered by thwarted wanting, don’t give in now to its demands. Otherwise, the child will learn: ‘The more unhappy I become, the more likely I am to get what I want.’ ” Tolle suggests that when a child is having a meltdown, it is an unconscious attempt on the part of their pain-body to strengthen itself by pulling others into drama and misery.
“While the child is having a pain-body attack, there isn’t much you can do except to stay present so that you are not drawn into an emotional reaction….Don’t take it too seriously. If the pain-body was triggered by thwarted wanting, don’t give in now to its demands. Otherwise, the child will learn: ‘The more unhappy I become, the more likely I am to get what I want.’ ”
Whether or not this language is familiar to you, the idea probably make sense. When we take our child’s misbehavior personally, our ego gets involved, generating desperation or a need for control, pulling out all the stops to assert itself. Once this dynamic is in play, we are inevitably going to move into Lawyer or Dictator mode because, in a sense, the ego has committed mutiny, hijacking the Captain and the calm leadership that would otherwise ensure smooth sailing through a child’s storm.
Being Clear, Connected, and Present
The one person Charlie seemed to behave well with was his babysitter. Alison was in her midtwenties and had no children but had been raised in a large, close-knit family. She exuded a kind of no-nonsense attitude that made it clear that she was comfortable being in charge. She and Charlie had a very playful and loving relationship, but when she told him to brush his teeth or stop teasing his sister, he almost always cooperated. I suspected that there were a number of reasons Charlie was able to manage his behavior with Alison. First, she didn’t take his behavior personally; she was not invested in his being a “good boy” the way Angie and Eric were and was therefore less desperate or needy when she interacted with him. In other words, Charlie was not the means by which she proved that she was a good or competent person.
But there was more to it than that. As Angie talked about Alison’s relationship with her son, it was obvious that Alison enjoyed Charlie. They laughed a lot when they were together, and Alison invested plenty of time meeting him exactly where he was — playing with robots, building forts, or just chasing each other around the yard. Whereas most of Angie’s interactions with her son were focused on getting things checked off a list — breakfast, dressing for school, taking a bath — Alison slowed down and was genuinely present with Charlie. She listened attentively when he made up a story about his dinosaurs, asking questions and taking obvious pleasure in his vivid imagination. She kept her cell phone muted when they were having special playtime so Charlie didn’t feel he was constantly competing with outside people intruding on their time, as he did with his parents. Alison had fun with Charlie at least a little bit each day, making it clear that she liked him, an essential ingredient in catalyzing a child’s willingness to cooperate.
Alison was consistently making deposits in her emotional bank account with Charlie, giving him heartfelt doses of pure presence, focus, and attention. Every friendly interaction was like depositing a coin in the “account” of their relationship, making it easy for her to make what might feel to Charlie like “withdrawals” when she wanted him to comply with a request. Charlie was more inclined to cooperate with Alison, not because he was afraid of being punished by her but because he wanted to please her, knowing she genuinely cared for him.
It felt good for Charlie to be cooperative with Alison, not because he was afraid of being punished by her but because he wanted to please her.
As Angie and Eric described Alison’s communication style, it also became clear that when she made requests of Charlie, she meant business, and he knew it. While he sensed his parent’s lack of decisiveness when they told him it was time to come to dinner or put on his shoes, he perceived Alison’s delivery as clear, loving, and firm, prompting consent. Her requests didn’t end with “…okay?” Rather, she announced what had to be done as the Captain of the ship, remaining compassionate when he voiced his reluctance but unwavering in her clarity.
Angie and Eric admitted to feeling a little jealous of Alison’s ability to expect and receive cooperative behavior from Charlie. They tried mimicking her words, but Charlie still resisted. I explained that it wasn’t Alison’s words that were convincing Charlie to behave well. When children feel a connection with the person making a request, their instinct to cooperate is awakened, naturally inclining them to comply. Charlie knew that his babysitter enjoyed him, making him want to behave well when he was with her.
When children feel a connection with the person making a request, their instinct to cooperate is awakened, naturally inclining them to comply.
Letting Your Child Feel Sad
There was another element I wanted to explore in my work with Angie and Eric: I needed to know how they felt about allowing their son to be sad or disappointed, something I always look at when a child is chronically angry or aggressive. I often observe parents having great difficulty tolerating their child’s unhappiness. In fact, there is a quote, “A mother/father is only as happy as their saddest child.” While this is a sweet sentiment, it highlights one of the greatest challenges we face: recognizing that our children are separate people on their own life’s journey.
I remember a conversation I had with Sally, one of my closest friends, when I realized that my marriage was not likely to survive. I was heartbroken that I couldn’t protect my son from what was coming. How could I, a therapist who had seen so many children struggle through their parents’ divorces, put my son through that? I said to Sally, “Ari isn’t supposed to go through this — the coming apart of his family in this way. He’s not supposed to have to deal with this.” I will never forget her response. She looked me in the eye and said, “How do you know what he’s supposed to go through?”
I got it. I understood that although wild horses couldn’t stop me from doing my best to provide my son with a good life, he was indeed going to have experiences — difficult ones — that I could not prevent, no matter how hard I tried. The best I could do at those times was to stay lovingly present to him as he traveled through pain and disappointment. Now that he is twenty-four, I can see the ways that he was strengthened and made more compassionate by working through the losses I wanted to protect him from.
This is not to say that I would suggest putting kids through hardships to build character; nothing could be further from the truth. But when we cannot shield our children from painful experiences, the next best thing is to be fully present to them, helping them through the process by letting them feel their sadness and disappointment.
When we cannot shield our children from painful experiences, the next best thing is to be fully present to them, helping them through the process by letting them feel their sadness and disappointment.
There is a poignant scene in the show Parenthood that illustrates this beautifully. Max, the fifteen-year-old son of Christina and Adam, struggles to fit in at his high school because his Asperger’s has made him an outcast. Blessedly, he has discovered that he has a great talent for taking photographs, resulting in his being assigned the job as yearbook photographer. Unfortunately, he starts snapping pictures of a girl as she is sobbing while surrounded by friends. The girls tell Max to go away, but he insensitively insists that he’s supposed to take B-roll shots for the yearbook, and he carries on. Max’s parents are called to school for a meeting at which they are informed that Max cannot continue to take yearbook photos; the teacher has reassigned him to layout. They beg the teacher and principal to reconsider, pulling out all the stops in an effort to ensure that their son will have this one satisfying school experience, but the girl’s complaints make it impossible for Max to continue.
Christina bears the burden of informing Max that he has lost his position as yearbook photographer. She walks into his room, sits down, and with great anguish, tells her son that he has been moved from photography to layout. “What? I don’t want to do layout! I want to be the photographer! I’m the best one for the job!” Christina says, “I know, Max, but the teacher has decided and won’t change his mind.” Max is furious. None of this makes sense to him; in his mind, he did nothing wrong, and logically, should be taking photos for the yearbook. He says, “What are you going to do about it?” With an aching heart, Christina looks at her son and says simply, “I’m just going to sit here with you and be sad.”
I was enormously touched by this scene. Because Christina had moved through her grief around being unable to prevent her son from losing something that mattered so much to him, she was able to be with him as he dealt with letting go of something he wanted so badly. She didn’t explain, justify, or even attempt to make him feel better. Instead, she was simply present with him, trusting that the waves of his disappointment would wash over him and then recede and that he would find his way through loss to acceptance.
Helping Children Move through Loss
I knew that because Eric and Angie wanted Charlie to be happy, they routinely gave in to his demands or tried to talk him out of his upset. Not surprisingly, they confessed that their son seldom cried. This little boy would pop with rage if he didn’t get his way, but his anger rarely moved on to actual sadness or tears. I asked Angie and Eric to consider what it would be like to not fix Charlie’s problems when he was frustrated, instead helping him feel his unhappiness. Imagining this caused them both to feel unsettled. “If I love my son,” asked Eric, “how can I not want to make him happy?”
I asked them what they ultimately wanted for Charlie as he headed into adulthood — what skills and resources they hoped he would have internalized that would let them know he was likely to have a good life. “We want him to know how to get along with people and to have a positive attitude that helps him attract good things. And we want him to be able to handle the tough times as well.”
I explained that for children to develop the internal resources to accept life on its terms, they must be allowed to move through the stages of denial, anger, and bargaining when they can’t have what they want so that they can then move through their disappointment to acceptance — an idea I borrowed from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s work with the dying and that I explain more fully in Parenting Without Power Struggles. The acronym for these stages is DABDA.
Angie and Eric’s desire to insulate their son from the full weight of his disappointments was keeping Charlie in what I refer to as the DAB — the first three stages of grieving: denial, anger, and bargaining. Because they usually caved in when Charlie’s frustration began to escalate, he started out in a state of denial when he asked for something. Understandably, he didn’t believe that no really meant no, based on past experiences, so he stayed in denial, unable to accept that this time his parents were not going to give in to his demands.
Pushing back at Charlie with matching fury kept him in the stage of anger. Parent and child lobbed reactive, hurtful missiles back and forth at each other, with ever-increasing rage on both sides. When his parents engaged in heated debates about why Charlie couldn’t have what he wanted, they were fueling the bargaining stage, in effect encouraging their son to argue for whatever he was demanding.
Stepping into the Captain role with Charlie meant they would need to be anchored firmly enough within themselves to endure his sorrow or disappointment (Kübler-Ross calls this stage “depression”). This was an essential step toward helping Charlie reduce the reservoir of frustration that so easily exploded whenever he encountered something he couldn’t change or control. Unless a child can feel sad when he cannot have what he wants, he will never make it to the stage of acceptance.
“What message does Charlie get about your belief in his capacity to handle disappointment when you jump through hoops to prevent him from feeling sad?” I asked. Thinking about it this way made an impact. They began to see that when they fixed Charlie’s problems or tried to explain away his upsets, they were in effect telling him they didn’t have faith that he had the internal resources to deal with life when it didn’t go his way — not a good message to communicate to a child if you’re hoping he will become a resilient adult.
Still, Angie was afraid to stand firm with Charlie. Just thinking about it made her tremble inside. “I hate to admit it, but I’m a pushover. I can’t imagine standing up to Charlie when he starts heading into one of his tirades. It’s like trying to stay upright in the middle of a hurricane!”
They began to see that when they fixed Charlie’s problems or tried to explain away his upsets, they were in effect telling him they didn’t have faith that he had the internal resources to deal with life when it didn’t go his way — not a good message to communicate to a child if you’re hoping he will become a resilient adult.
I asked her to stand in front of me and picture herself with Charlie when he started revving up to have a meltdown. “Tune in to what is going on in your body.” She closed her eyes, got quiet, and then described herself as feeling very young and very shaky. “I feel like a little girl — not strong enough to cope. I want to crawl under a rock and hide.” She acknowledged that these were familiar feelings, reminiscent of all the times when she had felt too weak to deal with her mother’s intensity and chaos. While she was in this state, I told her that I was going to push gently against her. When I did, she instantly lost her balance, catching herself just before she toppled over.
“Now I want you to imagine a steel cable running from the top of your head, down through your body, into the soles of your feet, continuing straight down into the center of the earth. Picture that steel cable as rigid and unwavering. Nothing can make it move or sway. Feel your strength; feel yourself as sturdy as an ancient redwood tree whose roots go deeply down into the ground.” As she imagined this, I pushed exactly as hard as I had before. This time, instead of easily losing her balance, she was immovable.
“How did that feel, Angie?”
“It felt great! I felt my strength; I felt solid and steady. Powerful, without having to force myself to resist or be strong. I felt like a grown-up!”
I invited both Angie and Eric to try this exercise a few times, imagining themselves in Charlie’s presence when he started skidding into one of his storms, while picturing the steel cable giving them a strong backbone. “Remember, you do him no favors when you modify things to his liking. If you want your son to grow into an adult who can handle things when they don’t go his way, you will have to help him develop that muscle of resilience now by staying present with him as he experiences the full weight of his disappointments.
“Go ahead and feel your heavy-heartedness as you accept that you cannot shield Charlie from every frustration or loss, and then picture yourself standing steady, with that cable anchoring you to the earth. Inhabit a gentle but unyielding strength as you acknowledge your son’s feelings with love, but allow him to move through his denial, anger, and bargaining so that he simply feels sad.”
I worked with this family for about three months. We focused on reducing their discomfort with Charlie’s frustrations without feeling the constant need to manipulate things to his liking. We explored their fears about dampening his spirit, and looked at ways they could more confidently deal with his fiery temperament. I helped them learn how to communicate with Charlie in ways that left him feeling understood, even if he couldn’t have what he wanted. Instead of “No, you can’t have cookies for dinner” (no being a very triggering word for most children), I showed them how to respond in a less confrontational way to at least some his requests. “Cookies for dinner! Wouldn’t that be fun! Should we try that for your next birthday?” And both Angie and Eric made more time to simply be present with their son so that he experienced the kind of closeness and connection he craved, and that would help him want to behave better and please his parents.
The Pitfalls of Parental Guilt
Things settled down with Angie and Eric. However, one issue still needed to be addressed: parental guilt and shame. As I shared suggestions with them about how to work with Charlie, they responded with comments like, “I should have known that” or “We’ve probably ruined our son forever.” This didn’t surprise me; I’ve worked with parents for decades and am well familiar with the tendency we have to beat up on ourselves when we fail to live up to our idealized standards. But I also know how harmful it is to allow that critical voice in our heads to govern our actions and feelings. Doing so not only hurts us, but in a roundabout way, it also puts pressure on our children to behave well so that we can feel good about ourselves and keep guilt and shame at bay.
Allowing that critical voice in our heads to govern our actions and feelings not only hurts us but also puts pressure on our children to behave well so that we can feel good about ourselves and keep guilt and shame at bay.
This was something we had to work hard on. I shared with Eric and Angie my experience of taking on that judging voice in my own head — the one that ran a constant narrative about how I was doing in any given moment or interaction. One of the greatest investments I have ever made has been in learning to stand up to that voice — through therapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), meditation, and prayer. But it is a process, not something accomplished overnight or by simply setting an intention to be more positive.
One day I was in my closet and something slipped out of my hands. Right away, a voice in my head — an old voice — said, “Oh, brother! You’re so clumsy!” Instantly, another voice chimed in with, “You don’t get to talk to Susan that way!” I was thrilled to see that I had so internalized the work I’d been doing about being “good enough” that it had finally become part of me. While there are plenty of areas in which I still have much work to do, I have come to accept that I will make mistakes and lose my cool or my patience. As long as I can own those moments without letting my ego blame others or build justifications, I can allow my imperfections to be part of what makes me human.
Eric and Angie had their work cut out for them, but they were committed to learning how to stop allowing their harsh and critical inner voices to sabotage the healthier approaches they were taking with their son, giving themselves permission to have stumbles and setbacks. This part of the work was lovely — watching them relax and make peace with just doing their best. It was also inspiring to see them step more fully into a place of trusting that if they owned up to their shortcomings with Charlie, legitimized his feelings, and apologized as needed, they could stop turning every challenging parenting moment into a test of their spiritual mettle.
Our Own Growing Pains
Sometimes we hesitate to set limits with our kids because we’re afraid of them; their tantrums are so scary or exhausting that we tiptoe around them to avoid triggering their upset. Other times we fear “killing their spirit” by depriving them of something they long for, perhaps remembering all too well how our parents dampened our own longings. And then there are times when we neglect to fully own the role of Captain because we are ambivalent about becoming a card-carrying grown-up.
Raising children catapults us into adulthood — or at least it offers us the opportunity to grow up, if we are ready and willing. But it can be something of a shock to realize just how responsible we need to be once we become parents.
One day, when my son was a baby and had just started eating regular meals, I fed him breakfast. I soon found myself thinking about what he would be having for lunch a few hours later. My first thought was to look around the room for the adult who would be taking care of things like this — the legitimately grown-up person who would be arranging regular breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Before kids, my husband and I had been casual about mealtimes, throwing something together for ourselves at the last minute without a lot of thought or planning. As it dawned on me that I was going to be responsible for feeding this child three meals a day for the next eighteen years, I was gobsmacked!
Frankly, I didn’t see myself as being that mature or together. But the truth was, when I had a baby, the decision to step all the way into adulthood had more or less been made for me. I had to catch up to the reality that I was the grown-up in the room and that I might as well step fully into that role. If we are actors on the stage of life, we might as well dress the part! Lo and behold, the greatest transformation of my life came about when I stepped further onto the stage of being a parent, discovering how great it is to grow up. And I didn’t have to lose my playful or spontaneous side, as I had feared.
Children are born helpless and dependent. Mother Nature has instilled within parents a fierce urge to ensure their children’s survival so that they can eventually negotiate life without their parents’ protection. Kids naturally poke and prod against the limits we set to figure out where the end posts are in their world; otherwise they are at risk of venturing further and further off the map. Establishing boundaries helps us raise children who know how to handle disappointment and who are therefore strong, adaptable, and self-reliant.
Establishing boundaries helps us raise children who know how to handle disappointment and who are therefore strong, adaptable, and self-reliant.
This is one of the grand prizes of parenting: seeing our children enter their adult lives capable of navigating life’s inevitable ups and downs with confidence. That is when we know that the effort we made to grow up ourselves, while becoming loving stewards of our children, was worth all those growing pains — our children’s and our own.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
Reflect on your childhood and how the way you were raised influences your ability to be the calm, confident Captain of the ship with your children.
1. Did your parents provide you with a healthy sense of what it is to be lovingly and clearly in charge?
2. How do you intentionally parent the way your parents did? How are you doing it differently?
3. Are there times when you are afraid to set limits with your children? What fuels your discomfort?
4. Describe any ideas or beliefs about growing up that might affect your willingness to be the adult in charge with your children.
5. If you often experience parenting guilt or shame, whose critical voice are you hearing in your head — that of a parent, teacher, coach, or someone else important to you as a child?
6. You may wish to do the exercise I did with Angie when I had her imagine the steel cable running all the way through her body, down into the earth. Holding this image clearly in your mind’s eye, see if you can connect to a deeper strength within you that you can draw on in your interactions with your children, allowing you to be loving and kind and also steady and decisive.
MAKING IT PRACTICAL
Parenting with Presence in Real Life
Aren’t children our equals?
QUESTION: As a spiritually minded person, I believe my children are very much my equals. I don’t feel good about telling them what to do or crushing their spirits by setting limits that prevent them from following their hearts. How does that fit in with taking that authoritarian role you are suggesting?
SUGGESTION: For my birthday last year, my son’s gift to me was a letter he had written about his childhood, thanking me for helping him grow into the man he is and is becoming. Throughout the letter, he recalled times when he was upset that I had said no to something he wanted to have or do. From his now-adult vantage point, he appreciated that I had been willing to hold my ground about what he now understood had not been in his best interests.
I can’t describe how touched I was by this letter. I remember so well the times when I had to make an unpopular decision about something he wanted. If I was on the fence, I would invite him to respectfully make a case for why my no should be a yes. Sometimes he convinced me.
But when I was certain that no was going to have to be no, regardless of my son’s anger or disappointment, I had to trust my instincts and keep my eye on the bigger picture, even when it meant letting go of those delicious smiles that I knew would be mine if I would just cave in.
I also recognized that my son — even when he was very small — was in every way my equal, on a soul level. (In fact, I frequently felt that he was the wiser one!) But I came to understand that children need someone to be a guiding, steady presence in their lives, even if it means not letting them do things they long to do — such as watching a movie that you know will give them nightmares or heading off to a party where there may be no parental supervision.
It is not easy to establish boundaries or to disappoint our kids, but perhaps like me you will come to see that it isn’t about whether or not we are spiritual equals with our children; that goes without saying. It’s about the fact that we have a duty and obligation to fully inhabit the grown-up role to the best of our ability. This might require being present with our uneasiness or discomfort about our children’s anger toward us. But we shouldn’t avoid those unpleasant feelings by abdicating the bigger need they have — for us to lovingly Captain the ship, steering them through storms as well as calm waters.
How do I not take it personally?
QUESTION: I find it extremely hard not to take it personally when my son misbehaves. This causes me to lose my footing and to react to him as if we were kids the same age, fighting it out on the playground after school. How do I remain the grown-up when he pushes my buttons?
SUGGESTION: Imagine yourself drifting along in a boat on a small lake, so relaxed that you begin to doze off. Suddenly another vessel slams into yours. Immediately you look for the person at its helm: How dare they ram their boat so carelessly into yours! What were they thinking? Your blood pressure begins to rise. How could they be so irresponsible!
As you rouse yourself and look for the offending skipper, you discover… there isn’t one! The other boat must have come loose from the dock; it merely hit your boat because the currents caused it to drift there. With no one to blame, you immediately settle down, perhaps even looking for ways to secure the boat to yours so you can return it safely to shore.
What changed? Only your thoughts about the event. You realized that the boat ramming into yours was not piloted by someone intending you harm. It wasn’t personal after all.
Choose to see your son’s misbehavior as something other than a desire to offend or upset you. He may be tired or hungry or feeling shortchanged on attention. Or perhaps he is worried about something at school, or just out of sorts. Even if your son is deliberately yanking your chain, you can look beneath that motivation to see his behavior as a clumsy way of getting one of his needs met rather than something done maliciously.
One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is allowing yourself to move through life without taking other people’s behavior personally. A tornado doesn’t deliberately rip apart a house; the house just happened to be in its path.
Go ahead and feel your frustration or disappointment, but spare yourself the suffering that comes when you believe your son means you harm. He is simply a boat adrift on the currents of his particular challenges. Address underlying causes of his misbehavior, but allow yourself the freedom to step back from taking it personally.
Can I be the Captain and still be fun?
QUESTION: Now that I am trying to Captain the ship, I feel I am in danger of becoming too strict. I used to be too loose and see now that it is better for my kids when I am more of a grown-up, but I don’t want to turn into my mother, who was very serious and rigid. How can I be the Captain and still be a fun mom?
SUGGESTION: Kids are programmed to enjoy life. Thank goodness! Otherwise it would be a drab and dreary world, with everyone shuffling through the tasks on their to-do list, dutifully checking things off.
Remember, a pendulum swings from one extreme to the other before it settles in the middle. It is common for it to take a little time to find your sweet spot when it comes to inhabiting the role as Captain of the ship without sacrificing the pleasure of enjoying life with your kids. In time you will become more comfortable setting limits when they are needed and appropriate, for example, when your kids want to play with matches or jump off the roof.
Eckhart Tolle tells a funny story of passing by a school that had just closed for summer vacation and had posted a big sign saying Be Safe! As he thought about this parting advice for students heading into their holidays, he laughed as he imagined the children returning from vacation at the start of the next school year. Eckhart said, “The most successful student will say, ‘I was very, very safe over the holidays!’ ” Clearly, we want our kids to be careful and to explore the world and have fun.
My recommendation is this: When faced with a decision about whether to be flexible or firm with your children, pause and check in with yourself. Tune in to what your instincts tell you is the best course of action. Trust yourself.
Stand in your Captain role with confidence. You don’t have to become your mother or come across like an army sergeant. If it’s a good day to have ice cream for breakfast or announce a Stay in Your Pajamas All Day holiday, by all means, do that! The last thing I want is for parents to read my books and think they have to stop being goofy and lighthearted with their children. Don’t forget: although ship captains exude confidence and know how to navigate stormy seas, they also take passengers for a twirl around the dance floor!
Children remind us to play, explore, and embrace life with great passion. While you have to be the grown-up in the room with your kids, don’t ever let that put an end to filling your days with joy and fun.