Originally Published October 16, 2009
I don’t know what to do anymore. Maybe I just need an outlet right at this moment, so here goes. My daughters fight constantly. I don’t know how to deal with them even after taking tons of parenting courses. I just want to cry. I don’t believe in spanking...and I hate to resort to yelling. What does one do.
First of all, thank you.
Thank you for entrusting me and others with these intensely private confessions. As a therapist, I am honored to get invited into some very private places, and I am learning to tread lightly on those holy grounds. As you recognized about “needing an outlet,” there is power in the telling. There is power in eliminating the secrecy, about opening up and telling about all the negative feelings you wish would just go away.
And these feelings you have told us here—sadness, frustration, despair--are all too common. For whatever reasons (I have some ideas), more and more parents are feeling overwhelmed and underprepared. The standards laid out for perfect parenting are in such contrast from the examples most of us grew up with, or the failures we constantly read about, that we simply feel lost. Or stuck. Or both.
The most telling part of your question may have actually been a statement, though. As you extolled your strong desire to not spank or scream, you then lamented, "What does one do." I know you probably meant to punctuate that sentence with a question mark, but the way it reads with a period speaks powerfully of the despair you mentioned earlier. Ending that question with a period reads as if, in your pain, you have no expectation of there even being an answer.
Unlike lawyers, most of us don't ask questions to which we think we already know the answer. We also don't ask questions that open us up to further disappointment. We may want to ask, because something inside us is dying for an answer, but we may neglect asking because well, we've been down that road before. But there is also power in the asking. Every time I speak to a group of parents and take questions, I always get a number of brave souls who stand up and ask "What do I do about (fill in the blank)?" And my answer is always the same: You ask yourself that very question, but with a twist.
As you anticipate another interaction with your kids, you ask yourself, "What do I want to do about this?" In the heat of the moment, you ask yourself "How do I want to handle this?" In the aftermath of yet another screaming match with your kids, you ask yourself "What do I want to do next time?"
There is power in the asking, because just asking gets us to focus on ourselves. Just asking takes our gaze off our kids and places it on the only factor we can control—our own responses. The reason we feel like failures is because we start by judging ourselves on our kids' behavior. We have read the books, attended the classes, and started to apply all the proper techniques. But then our kids become the immature individuals, with minds and lives of their own, which cannot be governed by technique. So we try harder, and, of course, so do they. Maybe one of our children "gets with the program," but others constantly "rebel." Or maybe they all just fight, with us, with each other, with teachers... And then we don't see the results we thought we would, the results we hoped we would. So we start getting reactive in ways we promised we never would, and then we judge ourselves as failures. Our kids' aren't behaving, and now we're not behaving, and we turn questions into statements, What does one do indeed.
What we do is this: We go back to the very spirit that's leading us to complain, or question, or judge in the first place. The fact that you're writing or asking or stating the question is the very fact that tells me you are already growing as a parent, and as a person, even though you don't feel like it. That desire to be better, that desire to have better, that desire to question is our greatest tool, factor, spirit, you name it, because that desire is always the great motivator for change. That desire can inspire us to make changes, to hold firm to principles, to do whatever it takes. That desire can lead us to, in your case, let go of our kids and take care of ourselves for their benefit. That's why the question to ask is always, "What do I want to do here?"
That want is the path to creating the relationships we really crave. Asking how I want to behave stops me from asking (or demanding) how I want my kids to behave. Asking what I want to do focuses me on me, and gives me the best chance of influencing the situation, leading me with my calm principles, instead of my anxious fear of failure. You are not a failure, because you're still asking (or telling) the question. Don't worry about your kids. Don’t worry about their fighting. And most of all, don't worry about you.
Just keep asking the question.